Research Agenda

My research interests focus, broadly, on the causes and consequences of criminal non-state armed groups. One branch of this research agenda focuses on the relationships that develop between organized crime and populations subject to their authority. In my current book project, I focus on the governance practices of drug trafficking gangs which dominate hundreds of favelas that dot Rio de Janeiro’s vast urban landscape. It is primarily motivated by the following puzzle: why do some gangs develop responsive and beneficial governing relationships with populations under their control while others do not? Another related set of questions focus on how and why individuals and communities respond to organized crime. How do residents in areas where organized crime operates respond to violence and uncertainty? What kinds of treatment are they willing to endure? And why do they choose to resist or support these violent organizations? I explore these dynamics both in the book manuscript as well as article-length projects. Finally, I also seek to understand the relationship between forms and categories of violence that have previously been studied in isolation. In this regard, I seek to integrate organized criminal violence within the broader literature on political violence, exemplified in a forthcoming article, “Criminal Politics: An Integrated Approach to the Study of Organized Crime, Politics, and Violence” (see below).

Book Manuscript

For more than thirty years, powerful drug trafficking gangs in Rio de Janeiro have engaged in a variety of illicit activities including drug trafficking, electoral fraud, bribery of public officials, and extraordinary levels of violent crime. They have also monopolized violence in hundreds of favelas across the city and replaced state authority with governance forms of their own. Yet the relationships that they maintain with favela communities vary considerably across the city. In some favelas, gangs have developed systems of law and justice that are responsive to resident demands while maintaining a high degree of social order and providing some forms of welfare. In other favelas, gangs have implemented more coercive and unresponsive governing institutions while offering residents little in terms of goods and services. My current book project, tentatively entitled The Politics of Violence: Criminal Governance in Rio de Janeiro, seeks to understand these divergent outcomes.

The central argument of the book is that the local security environment determines governance outcomes. Gangs face two chief adversaries in their effort to maintain territorial control of favelas: rival criminal organizations and Rio’s public security apparatus. I argue that these two types of threat impact gang governance strategies by incentivizing them to use greater degrees of coercion in the case of rival criminal threat and to provide more goods and services to the local population when they face significant police enforcement. One of the primary reasons for the divergence in gang response to these two security threats is that high levels of police enforcement, unlike rival criminal threat, offers residents greater opportunities to denounce local gang members. To avoid denunciation and subsequent police enforcement, gangs seek higher levels of public support by implementing more responsive and beneficial forms of governance.

To develop and test this theory of gang governance, the book employs a multi-method research design. I spent nearly three years in the field engaging in participant observation and archival research methods while also conducting 175 interviews with current and former gang members, local politicians, NGO workers, and long-time favela residents. These qualitative methods provide the backbone for three in-depth case-studies in which I trace how shifting security environments impact gang governance through several mechanisms. I supplement these qualitative methods with data from two large sample surveys of favela residents and a dataset of geo-located anonymous hotline denunciations of local gangs by residents.

Peer-Reviewed Publications