Benjamin Lessing Associate Director

5828 S University Ave
Chicago, IL 60637
Office #:
Suite 517
(510) 842-6595

I study "criminal conflict" —organized armed violence involving non-state actors who, unlike revolutionary insurgents, are not trying to topple the state. Whereas civil wars have become less frequent in the last 30 years, criminal conflict has ravaged the three largest countries in Latin America —Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil— and now threatens to overrun Central America and spill into the US. Additionally, I study criminal governance, gang-state negotiation, and armed electioneering by paramilitary and criminal groups. I've published in The American Political Science Review, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Rationality and Society, and contributed peer-reviewed chapters to the Small Arms Survey yearbooks (Cambridge). I'm also a regular contributor at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog.

My first book, Making Peace In Drug Wars: Cartels and Crackdowns in Latin America (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, 2017), examines armed conflict between drug trafficking organizations and the state in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. Choice named it one of its Outstanding Academic Titles for 2018, and it was reviewed in Latin American Politics and SocietyForeign Affairs, and Journal of Peace StudiesThe book incorporates results from a data-coding project* I founded and directed, hosted by local NGOs in each country, that produced comparable datasets of violent events related to the drug trade.

My second book project, tentatively titled Criminal Leviathans: How Gangs Govern, Organize Crime, and Challenge the State from Behind Bars, explores the counterproductive effects of mass-incarceration policies, fostering the growth of powerful armed criminal groups at the core of the state's coercive apparatus. A co-authored article from this project, "Legitimacy in Criminal Governance: Managing a Drug Empire From Behind Bars" was recently published at the APSR.

Together with my Chicago colleague Paul Staniland, I founded and direct the Program on Political Violence (PPV), part of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST). Under PPV, I direct the Criminal Governance in Latin America project, currently generating estimates of the number of people living under gang rule in the region. In 2014, Staniland and I joined with Chicago sociologist Forrest Stuart in a collaborative project, The State, Violence, and Social Control in the Contemporary World, supported by the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society.

Prior to my PhD, I worked for 4 years as a researcher in Rio de Janeiro, at Viva Rio, Brazil’s largest NGO, and founded its Drugs and Human Security program. I also conducted field research in Latin America and the Caribbean for international organizations like Amnesty, Oxfam, and the Small Arms Survey, and was a Fulbright Student Grantee in Argentina and Uruguay. I was awarded an M.A. in Economics from Berkeley in 2009, and hold a B.A. in Economics and Philosophy from Kenyon College. I was born in Rochester, Michigan.