Guest post by Annette Idler, Director of Studies of The Changing Character of War Programme, University of Oxford. Annette is on Twitter @AnnetteIdler.

The Spanish newspaper El Pais recently listed the Colombia-Venezuela border as one of the seven hells on earth that one should never visit―next to places such as the Islamic State, northern Nigeria, and Somalia. Insight Crime, a research foundation analysing organised crime in Latin America, counts the border among the five most dangerous borders of the region, next to the violence-ridden US-Mexico border.

Border police post (Photo: A. Idler)
There are plenty of reasons for this infamous reputation. The Colombia-Venezuela border region is affected by the half-century old Colombian civil war. Notorious for contraband dating back to the sixteenth century, smuggling today includes products ranging from household goods and food, to gasoline, arms, ammunitions, humans, and drugs. The border area comprises some of the most important starting points of the international trafficking routes towards Europe and the US. The lines between legal and illegal cross-border activities are blurred, not least because for the indigenous Wayúu, resident in the Guajira Peninsula in the northern part of the border, this Western-imposed line doesn’t exist.

As I witnessed when carrying out research on my own along the Colombia-Venezuela border, the presence of multiple violent non-state elements, including guerrillas, right-wing groups, and drug cartels, makes the region a difficult place to visit. Conflict actors exert territorial and social control on both sides of the border; cocaine is smuggled in any thinkable way; women are kidnapped for human trafficking; and border officials supplement poor salaries with bribes. Still, when it comes to crossing the border, the risks aren’t clearly visible. There is no fortified wall as at the US-Mexico border. There isn’t a deep ocean to cross on a life-risking journey as across the Mediterranean Sea. And there are no robot border guards pointing their guns at people who attempt to cross the borderline as at the Korean North-South divide. And yet, there is a constant unease and pre-sentiment that something might happen. There is the feeling of being a potential victim, the normalised perpetual fear that arises from moving from one place to another―inconceivable to me before having experienced it myself.

Studying these borderlands is even more dangerous as academic research might be interpreted incorrectly by onlookers. This is an environment where mistrust and suspicion reign. By definition, illegal business deals are not legally binding; betrayal and cheating are omnipresent. Not only is this reflected in the relationships among different violent non-state groups, but among local community members as well. Coming into communities at the Colombia-Venezuela border as a stranger to do fieldwork doesn’t make things easier. Certainly, being an outsider can help: devoid of previous allegiances with any of the sides and of any institutional affiliation that may be judged in certain ways, especially in the highly politicised Colombian and Venezuelan societies, one can be perceived to be impartial. Yet, at the same time, personalising the ‘unknown’ to any local interlocutor can also represent a challenge.

The danger of being victimised when researching such uncanny borderlands makes constantly negotiating new trust relationships essential. Planning multi-sited fieldwork across borders involves establishing contacts, finding accommodation, booking flights, working out back-up plans, and locating bus timetables for each new site. During my fieldwork, local contact persons offered their support, accompanied me to the research sites, and/or invited me to stay in their homes, but I typically had little time to get to know them very well. In most villages I only stayed between one and seven days. Given the time constraints, I often had to rely on recommendations from trusted previous interviewees as my only reference.

Citing Lewis and Weigert, Norman differentiates between cognitive and personal, or emotional, trust; cognitive trust ‘is based on a cognitive process which discriminates amongst persons and institutions that are trustworthy, distrusted and unknown.’ Guided by interests, this ‘thin’ trust is in line with a rational choice approach to decision-making. Emotional trust is rooted in personal relationships. These two forms help foster understanding of trust relationships in a relatively stable context after having spent some time at a specific research site. I found a third form crucial to quickly adapting to the multiple new research contexts and to travelling between them: intuitive trust. The Oxford Dictionaries define intuition as ‘the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.’ Where lacking information on people and in the absence of time to slowly establish rapport and build ‘thick’ trust, the gut feeling in combination with interpersonal skills tell you whether to trust people or not. In ‘normal’ circumstances, intuiting wrongly may lead to a lost opportunity; in conflict zones and other violent contexts, this may cost one’s life.

The following anecdote on how I attempted to cross the border between the Venezuelan state of Zulia and the Colombian department of La Guajira illustrates the dilemma of intuition. The dilemma results from the necessity to trust strangers while travelling between research sites on the one hand, and the anxiety arising from doubting one’s gut feeling, on the other.

Road on the Guajira Peninsula shortly before a thunderstorm. (Photo: A. Idler)
In Zulia, Venezuela, I stayed for a week at the place of a Wayúu school teacher who recommended me to cross the border with her brother. I trusted her recommendation and my gut feeling told me that it was also okay to travel with his friend in his friend’s car, when he suggested to do so. We started the trip and after several military checkpoints in which my luggage was searched, we reached the Colombian side of the border. The teacher’s brother decided to hitchhike back to his village and told me to continue with his friend to a town in Colombian La Guajira. This friend would take me to another friend’s place where I could stay some nights. But shortly after crossing the border, a thunderstorm started, the car broke down, and the supposed friend in the Colombian town didn’t pick up her mobile phone and apparently no-one knew where she lived. I became scared. Being an important cocaine trafficking and gasoline smuggling corridor, the route we were taking was supposedly controlled by various actors benefitting from the illegal business: right-wing armed groups, FARC, local gangs, and members of the Venezuelan military. As long as people adhere to their rules, things are fine. Any deviation causes mistrust which can have security implications. What if the friend was involved with any of these armed groups? What if his intention wasn’t to bring me to the friend in Colombia, but to kidnap me? I had relied on my Wayúu friend who had told me her brother would care for me. I relied on her brother’s judgement according to which his friend would support me. But could I trust him? After a while in the broken car in the middle of nowhere under the pouring rain, we stopped a taxi. I was taken to a Wayúu leader’s rancheríathe Wayúu’s basic housingin a violent neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Colombian town. It was dark as we discussed what to do. Finally my companions took me to the place of another friend I didn’t know, in a more central and safer area. I stayed a couple of nights there.

I succeeded in crossing the border. I intuited correctly; the people I interacted with were supportive. Nevertheless, the risks linked to following intuition and the uncertainty of not being able to build cognitive or emotional trust fuelled my anxiety. This anxiety taught me a lesson: anxiety, intertwined with a desire to reach one’s destination in the midst of potential dangers on the way, is important to understanding the borderlanders’ security concerns. That is, while in many countries people are concerned with arriving on time, borderlanders are concerned with arriving at all, and therefore limit travelling to the necessary and prefer to stay in a familiar location with trusted people.

Such time-limited, multi-sited fieldwork, especially across and around borders, demonstrates the importance of intuitive trust. Rather than studying textbooks, building intuitive trust requires sharpening interpersonal skills and paying attention to the local environment. On this basis, intuitive trust has a double effect: it’s conducive to successful fieldwork with reduced security risks while also enhancing understanding of the local communities who live in fragile contexts such as the Colombia-Venezuela border where crime and conflict dynamics converge. Understanding these communities is the first step to working towards improving their situations.

Graffiti next to the border police station Castilletes, La Guajira, Colombia. (Photo: A. Idler)
Additionally, this fieldwork helped me realise that the border between ‘hell’ and ‘paradise’ can be a fine one. The Colombia-Venezuela border region indeed suffers conflict, crime, marginalisation, and stigmatisation, which can produce an image of hell. Many members of the Colombian state forces also consider being based in that region a punishment. Yet, the hospitality, warmth, and positive outlook of people like the Wayúu teacher and her brother unhinge this one-sided picture. Perhaps it’s for this reason that someone wrote graffiti next to the border police station Castilletes, the most northern point of the Colombia-Venezuela border, that reads: ‘Never compare this paradise with a punishment. Enjoy it!’

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Idler, A. (2015) From The Field: Intuitive Trust Matters:  Researching Conflict and Crime across Borders. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/intuitive-trust-matters/ (Accessed [date]).