My research focuses on the causes and consequences of organized criminal groups. One branch of this research agenda investigates the relationships that develop between gangs and local communities. In my current book project, “Inside Gang Governance” (under contract with Cambridge University Press), I focus on the coercive and beneficial practices of drug trafficking gangs in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (informal and impoverished neighborhoods). The book is primarily motivated by the following puzzle: why do some gangs develop responsive and beneficial governing relationships with local communities while others do not? In a series of other article-length projects I explore how state interventions affect these groups, how individuals and communities respond to criminal organizations, and the consequences of gang territorial control for electoral democracy. 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 recent article, “Criminal Politics: An Integrated Approach to the Study of Organized Crime, Politics, and Violence.”

Book Project

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, Inside Gang Governance: How and Why Gangs Rule the Streets of 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 gangs 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 competition 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 threat from rivals, 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, the book employs a multi-method research design. I spent nearly three years in the field, living in one set of gang territories for 18 months, during which I engaged in participant observation and archival research methods while conducting more than 200 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. I supplement these qualitative methods with micro-level data from residents denunciations of gang behavior from an anonymous hotline.

Peer-Reviewed Publications