Benjamin Lessing

Logics of Violence in Criminal War

What kind of war is Mexico’s drug war?

Many view drug cartels as “criminal insurgents” who succeed by weakening the state. But this definition ignores critical differences in the goals and strategies of cartels and rebel groups. Whereas rebels often seek such state concessions as territory and prized resources, cartels seek only to constrain the behavior of states and influence policy outcomes that advance their criminal interests. Based on this distinction, Lessing draws on qualitative and quantitative evidence from Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil to create a typology of behavior and influence that carries theoretical consequences. Whereas decisive victory plays an important role in most models of civil war involving rebel groups, it is impossible or undesirable in wars of constraint involving criminal cartels. Theories of criminal war must therefore explain why these groups often prefer coercive violence to peaceful strategies. This study first distinguishes the “logics” of violent corruption and violent lobbying, as well as dynamics deriving from turf war among cartels, then identifies the conditions that make each logic operative.

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The University of Chicago