Benjamin Lessing, Graham Denyer Willis

Legitimacy in Criminal Governance: Managing a Drug Empire from Behind Bars

States, rebels, and mafias all provide governance beyond their core membership; increasingly, so do prison gangs. US gangs leverage control over prison life to govern street-level drug markets. Brazil’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) gang goes further, orchestrating paralyzing attacks on urban targets, while imposing a social order throughout slums that sharply reduces homicides. We analyze hundreds of seized PCC documents detailing its drug business and internal disciplinary system. Descriptively, we find vast, consignment-based trafficking operations whose profits fund collective benefits for members’ families; elaborate bureaucratic procedures and recordkeeping; and overwhelmingly nonviolent punishments for debt-nonpayment and misconduct. These features, we argue, reflect a deliberate strategy of creating rational-bureaucratic legitimacy in criminal governance. The PCC’s collectivist norms, fair procedures, and meticulous “criminal criminal records” facilitate community stigmatization of infractors, giving mild sanctions punitive heft and inducing widespread voluntary compliance without excessive coercion. This has aided the PCC’s rapid expansion across Brazil.

American Political Science Review

The University of Chicago