Logics of Violence in Criminal War Journal of Conflict Resolution
Benjamin Lessing  |  December 1, 2015

What kind of war is Mexico’s drug war? The prominent “criminal insurgency” approach helpfully focuses attention on cartel–state conflict, but unnecessarily redefines insurgency as “state-weakening,” eliding critical differences in rebels’ and cartels’ aims. Whereas rebels fight states, and cartels fight with one another, to conquer mutually prized territory and resources, cartels fight states “merely” to constrain their behavior and influence policy outcomes. This distinction yields a typology with theoretical consequences: decisive victory plays an important role in most models of civil war but is impossible or undesirable in wars of constraint. Theories of criminal war must therefore explain how ongoing coercive violence can be preferable to pacific strategies. I distinguish two such coercive logics of cartel–state conflict: violent lobbying and violent corruption. Lobbyings' more universalistic benefits elicit free riding, so turf war among cartels should make it rarer than violent corruption. This prediction accords with qualitative and quantitative evidence from Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil.