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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Frontier Justice: State, Law, and Society in Patagonia, 1880-1940

  • Author(s): Cikota, Javier
  • Advisor(s): Chowning, Margaret
  • Healey, Mark
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the establishment of state institutions, the role of state agents, and the emergence of a self-conscious, municipally-based civil society in northern Patagonia in the six decades after it was conquered and incorporated into Argentina.

In Patagonia, the Argentine government embarked on an ambitious project of forging a society from above, by creating new state institutions and encouraging new settlement. But these ambitions soon ran aground thanks to limited funding and political gridlock. What emerged instead was a ramshackle combination of authoritarian central administration with significant local autonomy that I call the “skeletal state.” Underfunded police officers, an overworked judiciary, and aloof governors made up the state presence in the frontier, with courts playing a central role as guarantors of social order. The “skeletal state” arrangement became remarkably resilient, as state agents proved flexible in overcoming scarce resources and institutional fragility, establishing legitimacy through legal action and ad-hoc extralegal responses to settler demands. The effectiveness of the “skeletal state” was intrinsically linked to the settler’s need for it, as both developed simultaneously.

Chapter One details the establishment, interaction, and trajectory of state institutions, looking closely at how state agents learned to operate within and beyond the system’s constraints. Chapter Two looks at how local and regional authorities attempted to discipline and acculturate the surviving indigenous population of the region. Prejudices, suspicion, and exigency shaped how state agents treated individuals perceived as indigenous, even as they tolerated the survival of indigenous communities in remote rural areas. Chapter Three follows the arrival of immigrants from Chile, Europe, and the Middle East to northern Patagonia, tracing their settlement patterns and the uncertain process by which they resisted, subverted, and sometimes allied themselves with the state. Chapter Four centers on family conflicts to explore how private affairs affected public perception of individuals, and the consequences of these conflicts on reputation-based social networks, which were critical to accessing justice in the frontier. Chapter Five examines the emergence of a municipal political identity (“vecino”) which was tirelessly cultivated by prominent and plebeian settlers alike. Vecinos, and the social networks they built, were a restraint on state power—blocking investigations, filing complaints against “bad police,” and agitating in the national press, providing resources and infrastructure for police to operate, acting as justices of the peace, housing runaways, and collaborating in investigations. Chapter Six surveys cases of the illegal practice of medicine to argue that these social networks were ultimately used to challenge the legitimacy of state-appointed authorities on the frontier, as communities banded together to defend healers and uncertified doctors against state prosecution.

The establishment of a functioning state apparatus on the frontier ultimately depended on the ability of state agents to creatively navigate the limited resources of the “skeletal state” and settler’s active desire for state presence. This reciprocity was not only unusual, it was also an ironic turn for a nation-building project that had imagined a strong state as the prerequisite for a vibrant civil society and proven suspicious of settlers’ ability to safeguard democratic principles.

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