"Plata o plomo?"

Today I took a break from my Peru research and proposal writing to attend an interesting lecture sponsored by the University Of California Institute On Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) and the University Of California Washington Center (UCDC) where Benjamin Lessing (who will soon join the University of Chicago faculty as Assistant Professor of Political Science) presented his doctoral dissertation, The Logic of Violence in Drug Wars: Cartel-State Conflict in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia.

I distributed the following summary to the Center’s International office staff:

Lessing first draws on the distinction between civil wars fought by insurgents, and criminal ‘drug wars’ fought by cartels. Unlike insurgents, cartels do not seek to secede from or overthrow the state. Rather, Lessing argues, cartels fight “to increase the flow of profits from ongoing criminal activity.” Most cartels adopt a ‘hide’ strategy, “using anonymity and bribes to minimize confrontation and maximize profits”. Lessing identifies a number of ‘logics’, specific circumstances under which fighting is more profitable than hiding, resulting in increased armed violence against the state.

For example, cartel-state violence correlates positively with inter-cartel turf wars. A state may become ‘effectively “maxed out”’ policing cartel violence, decreasing the cost of armed violence against the state to each individual cartel. If the cost of fighting is less than the cost of non-violent corruption, e.g. bribes, Lessing argues the cartel is more likely to take up arms against the state.

Lessing uses case studies from Colombia (1984-1993), Mexico (2006- ), and Brazil (1985- ) to demonstrate the effects of these logics based on changes in violence as the result of state crackdowns on cartels. State crackdowns appear to be more effective at quelling violence when they are conditional, i.e. when they target violent cartels for additional or differential repression, because it increases the cost of doing armed business. Though conditionality of repression creates an incentive for cartels to eschew violence, Lessing says security sector fragmentation and rhetorical commitments often constrain states from applying such conditions. Calderon’s all-out war on drugs in Mexico (c. 2006) is an example of an unconditional state crackdown that has only resulted in increased violence, aggravated by widespread police corruption.

I found the lecture particularly fascinating, given the upcoming Mexican Presidential elections and my newfound fascination with drug cartels inspired by Breaking Bad.