Understanding Justice in Chile and Colombia: Valentina Salas's HRI Grant Work

Valentina Salas joined Professor Lisa Hilbink to assist in research for her Human Rights Initiative Grant Project
A picture of Valentina Salas.
Valentina Salas. Photo credit: Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency

Do perceptions about the judicial system affect how individuals interact with that system?  This is the question that Prof. Lisa Hilbink and her Ph.D. Research Assistants, Valentina Salas and Bridget Marchesi, set out to answer in their research project titled “Equal Rights & Unequal Remedies: Understanding Citizen Perceptions of and Engagement with the Judicial System.”  The project focuses on how citizens’ perceptions of and experiences with judicial institutions impact their decision to seek remedies within judicial systems for past rights violations.

In December 2016, Prof. Hilbink received the Human Rights Initiative Grant and chose Valentina and Bridget, Ph.D. candidates in Political Science, to be involved in the research project. (Go here to learn more about this project).  At the inception of the project, the team deliberated over which research method would be most beneficial in Chile and Colombia to uncover citizens’ perceptions of their respective judicial systems. The two research methods the team explored were interviews and focus groups. The team concluded that interviews are useful for addressing a hypothesis with a clear end goal, but focus groups are more beneficial for developing a hypothesis in the first place.  While focus groups were a new method for the team, the research design ultimately enabled them to explore the topic of judicial perceptions in greater depth.

The team conducted a total of 16 focus groups: 8 in Santiago, Chile and 8 in Medellín, Colombia.   Valentina, a native of Chile, was excited to go back to her home country to research this topic. Each of these focus groups were composed of individuals of different genders and socioeconomic backgrounds. Additionally, participants in Chile were chosen from different age groups and participants in Colombia from different races. Age was an important variable in Chile due to the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s-’90s. During this time, Chileans had little faith in the rule of law due to the tens of thousands of people disappeared and murdered by the military junta. This mistrust of the legal system persists today. In Colombia, race was a critical variable due to the large Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations who are typically marginalized by and barred from the justice system.      

There were two questions asked in each focus group:  “What would the participants do if their neighbor was playing loud music into the night?” And, “what would participants do if a young person was falsely accused of a crime and subsequently beaten by the police?” The objective behind the two questions was to gain greater insight into perceptions on the judiciary systems. The focus groups unveiled a shared pessimism about the effectiveness of the judiciary.  Once the team was aware of the common sentiment, they then turned their focus to finding the reason for the prevalence of this perspective.

“Each step in research has its own obstacle,” Valentina says.  One of the most difficult tasks was designing the questions for the focus groups. This was a long and detailed process because the questions had to match the language and dialect of each country, in addition to being appropriately situated in the context of the two countries.  Although Colombia and Chile are both South American states, each retains its own dialect and colloquialisms.  The team wanted to ensure that these geographic differences were taken into consideration to enable a fluid and open discussion. Another difficulty was reviewing the transcripts from the focus groups, which the team is still working on. This is a multidimensional step in the project because the team has to analyze not only what is said by the participants, but also their gestures and the idiosyncrasies of language used in each country.

Valentina feels privileged to have had this opportunity to work with such a renowned scholar like Prof. Hilbink.  By working with “an extraordinary and diverse team,” she was able to learn about developing a research project from the beginning and partake in each of the subsequent step in its process. From application processes, literature review, and research design to field work, cleaning data, and now analyzing data, Valentina gained insight that will prove crucial as she writes her dissertation and completes her studies.  She recognizes the rarity of being able to engage in such a unique research experience and training with a team of such a high caliber and is grateful for this opportunity.

Valentina worked for the United Nations Development Program for five years before coming to the University of Minnesota as a doctoral candidate.  When she graduates, Valentina wants to work in both academia and public policy.  She believes it is important to write for journals in a language that is understandable for citizens outside of academia. Valentina hopes to leave a positive impact through her own research and policy oriented work; this research project in Colombia and Chile helped her develop the skills for both.     

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