An Unnatural Disaster

Social Sciences5 MIN READ

Samantha Kane Jiménez’s research linking apolitical crises to violence turns heads at prestigious Walsh Exchange

By Linzy Rosen ’22
June 17, 2021

Droughts. Disease. Economic depressions.

If these events weren’t catastrophic enough on local populations, Samantha Kane Jiménez ’21J, a budding international relations scholar, has identified a trend that’s adding misery on top of misery: a rise in violence from rebel groups following such calamities.

Kane Jiménez’s research pieces together a global puzzle few have explored: the ways in which armed groups in the global South leverage apolitical crises, such as natural disasters, to gain power and territory.

Because of her scholarship’s originality and elegance, Kane Jiménez was one of just six students invited to present her research at the 2021 Walsh Exchange—a highly competitive international relations conference and mentorship opportunity for exceptional undergraduates around the globe sponsored by Georgetown University. Her selection was a first for Colby.

Now, her work has caught the attention of scholars in the field for potential high-level publication.

It makes sense that political crises, such as a coup or an insurgency, could lead to a rise in the proliferation of armed non-state actors (ANSAs), like rebel groups, seeking to secede or gain better living conditions and rights. But what about apolitical crises? Such events can actually invigorate violence and power-seeking behavior among ANSAs too, Kane Jiménez found.

Using data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, the government major authored a 103-page honors thesis analyzing cases of ANSA violence spanning from 1989 to the present day. For ANSAs to gain power, Kane Jiménez argues that “territory and a monopoly on violence are prerequisites.” Thus, the lethality of ANSA violence, measured by the number of civilian deaths, is one of the components of ANSA strength.

Lethality is an important variable that distinguishes her work from other scholars’. This is because ANSAs are not always violent when social conditions worsen, said Kane Jiménez. Sometimes, armed groups fill a void that governments neglect, a method of gaining power and winning civilian support through service provisions. This explains why, in April 2020, a Mexican drug cartel set up food pantries amid the Covid-19 pandemic, she offered as an example.

Samantha Kane Jiménez ’21J
Born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, Samantha Kane Jiménez ’21J witnessed firsthand the effects of a cartel drug war that colored her upbringing and now drives her research efforts to create safer futures for communities around the world.

Kane Jiménez’s research, however, found support for violent power-seeking behavior. She observed that, no matter the region of the world, and even during crises where food and water are scarce, ANSAs leverage poor conditions and societal dysfunction by perpetuating violence. Following apolitical crises, ANSAs will, on average, “rely on those projections of violence to increase their power as opposed to providing services,” said Kane Jiménez. This was surprising, she said, since she originally predicted that ANSAs would provide services to meet civilian needs arising from the crises.

But it’s strategic. Current literature has found that violence allows ANSAs to not only build their recruitment and take land, but to obtain more financial and long-term networks when they force civilians to work for them, she said. And the effects of emboldened ANSA violence remain long after the initial crisis fades.

“The mere presence of a crisis now is likely to increase the levels of lethality in the following year,” said Kane Jiménez. Using statistical and spatial analysis in R, a statistical software, and GIS, she found that even three years after a crisis, the rates of violence in a given area were still significantly greater than before. And this heightened violence, she said, lasts within one thousand kilometers of the crisis area, such as a drought zone.

Kane Jiménez’s thesis was lauded by her advisors, Professor of Government Guilain Denoeux and Assistant Professor of Government Laura Seay, an expert in U.S. policies in Central Africa. “[Seay] was great in advising me and mentoring me throughout the whole project,” said Kane Jiménez. “I had a team of professors who had faith in me, cheered me on, and gave me guidance necessary to succeed.”

This feedback motivated Kane Jiménez to apply for the Walsh Exchange. After being selected, Kane Jiménez was paired with faculty mentor Jacob Zenn, assistant adjunct professor at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, which sponsors the conference.

Along with its intellectual rigor, Zenn said Kane Jiménez’s work stood out for its original theme and its sophisticated methods. Zenn met with Kane Jiménez a few times before the conference to strengthen her presentation and supplement her “already high-level performance, and her motivation and initiative,” he said.

The two-day conference, held virtually in April, gave Kane Jiménez the opportunity to explain her research more deeply than during her thesis defense, field questions from students and esteemed scholars, and learn from other presenters. The experience was validating, she said, and helped to reaffirm her capacity for high-level scholarship.

Her mentor was impressed, too. Though most Walsh Exchange scholars publish their work in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Zenn has been helping Kane Jiménez refine her thesis for publication in a more rigorous academic journal, such as the Journal of Peace Research.

But a publication is only the beginning. Long term, Kane Jiménez, currently a website translator and content editor for Marble Law Firm, plans to further her career as a researcher, attend graduate school, and, ultimately, produce “actionable intelligence” for policymakers or government agencies. This means uncovering more patterns in the behavior of ANSAs and discovering how safety can be achieved through strategic international policy. These measures can include entering peace negotiations with the ANSA or rallying other countries to provide humanitarian aid to civilians.

And that pursuit of safety hits close to home. Born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, Kane Jiménez witnessed firsthand the effects of a cartel drug war that started in 2006. “It was definitely something that … colored my upbringing and my coming of age,” she said. “And it planted these seeds in my head.”

These memories continue to fuel Kane Jiménez’s relentless quest for answers and her ultimate goal of creating a safer future for communities around the world. 

“I want to make sure,” she said, “that the research I produce has a positive effect on civilians more than anything.”