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Latin American Perspectives

Drug Trafficking and Political Power: Oligopolies of Coercion in Colombia and Mexico
Gustavo Duncan
Latin American Perspectives published online 23 October 2013
DOI: 10.1177/0094582X13509071

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Drug Trafficking and Political Power
Oligopolies of Coercion in Colombia and Mexico
Gustavo Duncan

Case studies of drug trafficking in Colombia and Mexico illuminate the effects of mafias
on the relationship between political power and the social order. First, in addition to
extracting income, mafias seek to impose social orders in peripheral spaces of society,
mainly as an unintended consequence of the most obvious reason for their intervention in
politics: to provide immunity to criminals facing potential threats of state repression. This
objective makes them rivals of the state, and this competition is not only a matter of their
ability to corrupt it. Their capacity for regulating society is essentially a result of their
coercive power, and as a consequence their existence is a challenge to the Weberian prem-
ise of the modern state as a monopoly on coercion. What we see in Colombia and Mexico
today is oligopolies of coercion, a situation in which several organizations have simultane-
ous and overlapping control of the means of coercion necessary to regulate societal trans-

Estudios de caso del narcotrfico en Colombia y Mxico iluminan los efectos de las
mafias en la relacin entre el poder poltico y el orden social. Primero, ms all de la extrac-
cin de ingresos, las mafias buscan imponer un orden social en los espacios perifricos de
la sociedad, principalmente como consecuencia no intencionada de su razn obvia por
intervenir en la poltica: proveer inmunidad a los criminales enfrentados con la represin
de parte del estado. Este objetivo los hace rivales del estado, y esta competencia no acaba
en solo su habilidad para corromperlo. Su capacidad para regular a la sociedad es esencial-
mente consecuencia de su poder y, como consecuencia de su existencia, un reto a la premisa
weberiana del estado moderno como monopolio coercitivo. Lo que se ve en Colombia y
Mxico hoy da son oligopolios de coercin en donde varias organizaciones tienen coinci-
dencia simultnea en los medios de coercin necesarios para regular a las transacciones

Keywords: Drug trafficking, Political power, Coercion, Colombia, Mexico

The state and the mafia are similar in one fundamental respect: they extract
income for regulating transactions in society. The difference between them lies
in the types of transactions they regulate. Because states are supposed to main-
tain a monopoly of the legitimate use of force, they intervene in all kinds of
transactionseven criminal ones, on which they may impose sanctions. Mafias
specialize in transactions, such as drug trafficking, smuggling, prostitution,
and gambling, that states are not supposed to regulate because they are illegal.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the mafia is defined as an organization that

Gustavo Duncan is a professor at the Universidad de los Andes and visiting professor at the
Universidad EAFIT in Medelln, Colombia.

DOI: 10.1177/0094582X13509071
2013 Latin American Perspectives

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uses private coercion (Gambetta, 2007) to obtain income (Volkov, 2002).

However, this definition underestimates the extent to which criminal organiza-
tions can influence social regulation. In the case of drug trafficking in Colombia
and Mexico, for example, criminal regulation goes beyond a mere interest in
extraction. Intervention in politics by a criminal class through the corruption of
the democratic system is not only a way of pursuing immunity but also an
effort to preserve a certain type of social order that is favorable to its social
imposition. While this kind of mafia imposition is restricted to specific spaces
in peripheral areas, it is crucial to the definition of the political order both at the
local and at the national level.
Using drug trafficking in Colombia and Mexico as case studies, this paper
proposes an explanation of mafias effects on the relationship between political
power and the social order. This explanation is based on two arguments. First,
in addition to extracting income, mafias seek to impose social orders in periph-
eral spaces of society, mainly as an unintended consequence of the most obvious
reason for their intervention in politics: to provide immunity to criminals facing
potential threats of state repression. Second, when mafias aim to impose social
orders they become rivals of the state, and this competition is not limited to their
ability to corrupt it. The mafias capacity for regulating society is essentially a
result of their coercive power. As a consequence, the existence of mafias is a chal-
lenge to the Weberian premise of the modern state as a monopoly on coercion.
Instead, what we see in Colombia and Mexico today is oligopolies of coercion,
a situation in which several organizations have overlapping control of the means
of coercion necessary to regulate societal transactions. Despite frequent disputes
and changes in the balance of forces, oligopolies of coercion do not imply a con-
stant clash of armed factions. Most of the time the actors in power, legal and
illegal, maintain agreements on the modes of social regulation.
In the cases of Colombia and Mexico, this kind of shared coercion occurs
only in specific areas. In the big cities and developed areas, as well as in regions
where drug traffickers have no strategic interest, the state clearly has a monop-
oly of coercion. In isolated regions where private armies of drug traffickers are
the only source of local authority, there is also a monopoly of coercion, only
here it is in the hand of warlords. It is only in spaces where the state maintains
an intermediate level of authority and institutional presence that oligopolies of
coercion are feasible. In these spaces mafias cannot exert their authority on
their own terms; they have to bargain for the societal transactions that fall
under their orbit of influence with politicians, police, and judges. This negotiat-
ing process is not necessarily smooth and straightforward. It is full of volatility
and threats, and agreements are frequently broken. Not surprisingly, cases of
regulatory redundancy are not uncommon. When sources of coercion overlap,
a clear and harmonious delimitation of each actors regulatory space is unlikely.
An approach to the state that considers the combination within a given ter-
ritory of strong authority at the center and limited coercive capacity in the
periphery offers a conceptual advance for the study of internal violence. As a
matter of fact, many countries suffering from constant conflict are not simply
failed or weak states but states with oligopolies of coercion in peripheral
areas. This theoretical approach presupposes an alternative to work such as
that of Reno (1999) and Holsti (1996) on state building at the local level via the
hegemony of warlords, militias, and vigilante groups. In an oligopoly of

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coercion the state does not disappear but instead participates in the exercise of
local coercion through the mediation of the political class. Oligopolies of coer-
cion are also a variation of the subnational authoritarianisms of Gibson (2004)
and the brown zones of ODonnell (1993). Subnational authoritarianisms
occur in the peripheral zones when those in charge of elected appointments
distort democratic institutions to impose their personal authority and monopo-
lize relationships with the central state. Oligopolies of coercion are subnational
authoritarian systems that involve an additional distinction: the permanent
and abundant role of organized violence in the relations of the local power with
both the local population and the state.
Another key theoretical issue in the study of oligopolies of coercion is the
political effect of differences in capital accumulation between developed and
underdeveloped areas. Duffield (1998: 73) argues that current proliferation of
political projects based on mafias, warlords, and other forms of private coer-
cion is a function of the limited possibilities of inclusion in international mar-
kets of underdeveloped zones:

Compared to northern rulers, southern political actors lack the ability to use
their position within regional productive systems to retain and expand con-
ventional economic activity. . . . They have forged new alliances with interna-
tional actors, including commercial ties to develop informalised economy
(both semi-legal grey and illegal parallel activities). While largely unrecorded,
this expanding political economy has also been used to create new internal
clientage networks.

In the cases of Colombia and Mexico, drug trafficking offers incomparable

economic opportunities to backward regions regardless of the lack of develop-
ment of their productive apparatus. Sufficient political protection is all that is
necessary for success. Thus oligopolies of coercion can be interpreted, follow-
ing Winters (2011), as the strategy of a sector of oligarchs for protecting the
concentration of material resourcesthe defense of property using private
armies with the support of the lower classes, which act as loyal clienteles.
The first section of this article describes the factors of the social order that
allow drug trafficking mafias to obtain political power. The following section
explains how influence on the social order translates into political power at the
local level and how relationships with the state are redefined from the periph-
ery. Finally, the last section proposes a clarification of the way the organization
of coercion varies with the nature of capital accumulation in different types of
social orders in Colombia and Mexico.

The Influence Of Drug Trafficking On The Social Order

By social order I mean the organization of individuals in terms of social

groups and classes and the patterns of interaction within and between those
groups and classes. In the case of drug trafficking in Colombia and Mexico,
transformations in the social order have come from the opportunity of obtain-
ing unimagined fortunes. Hundreds of millions of dollars are sufficient to
improve anyones position in a society. However, the effects of drug trafficking
on the social order are more complex than this and are not limited to resource

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concentration. The social order is transformed beyond the individuals who get
rich through criminal activity. Drug trafficking becomes a relevant attribute for
determining status in a group (what I call the narcotrafficking subculture), and
drug capital is transformed into an important source for mass consumption in
society, with clientelism as the basis for the distribution of these resources. This
section focuses on explaining these transformations and illustrating them with
empirical evidence from case studies in Colombia and Mexico.

The Narcotrafficking Subculture

The narcotrafficking subculture emerges when the exercise of some criminal

activity related to drug trafficking becomes a crucial attribute for the status of
individuals in a social space. This concept derives from Cloward and Ohlins
(1960: 7) definition of the criminal subculture, which follows the theoretical
stream in criminology known as deviance theory:

In a non-delinquent group, all roles within the group can be performed suc-
cessfully without resorting to delinquent behavior. Members of the group may
tolerate such behavior, but they do not require it as a demonstration of eligibil-
ity for membership or leadership status. A delinquent subculture is one in which
certain forms of delinquent activity are essential requirements for the performance of
the dominant roles supported by the subculture. It is the central position accorded
to specifically delinquent activity that distinguishes the delinquent subculture
from other deviant subcultures.

The criminal subculture appears along with the perception of exclusion of

communities that have become isolated from their traditional values and prac-
tices during the process of modernization (Cohen, 1966). When local communi-
ties are incapable of becoming integrated into modern life and their members
have few options under the new rules of the game, they may develop alterna-
tive systems of stratification and norms. If their low educational levels and lack
of social networks and capital prevent any chance of success and recognition
within the legal channels of social promotion, crime becomes an alternative for
social realization. In particular, rapid modernization, in which communities are
unprotected against the demands of the new order, lacking traditional elements
such as the sense of belonging, self-sufficient economies, collective sanctions
for the moderation of undesirable conduct, and bonds of solidarity, constitutes
an opportunity for the emergence of mafias.1 The disturbance of the traditional
order by exposure to a world that demands new values, skills, and knowledge
allows certain individuals to alleviate the communitys feeling of exclusion
from the benefits of criminal activity. In such cases, criminals provide the com-
munity with a kind of stability, security, and income when they impose a social
order that is coherent with the attributes of communities marginalized by mod-
In addition, the attributes available among members of the marginalized
communities, in particular young men, are valuable inputs for a criminal career.
These individuals possess both the physical strength to terrify potential com-
petitors and a predisposition to break the law, commit violence, and risk their
lives. Furthermore, the existence of a criminal subculture transforms these attri-
butes into valuable assets for becoming socially accepted. Someone who is

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feared and powerful in the criminal world has significantly higher status in the
social order. Also, the codes and norms that regulate the interaction between
the members of these communities are affected. The possibility of threatening
and committing violence, among many other attributes introduced by the crim-
inal subculture, eventually dictates the relations between the different groups
of society. For instance, individuals who are either part of or close to the crimi-
nal organizations take advantage of their power to intimidate during their
transactions with other members of the community.
The concept of the criminal subculture can be applied to many social spaces
in Colombia and Mexico because their inclusion in the modern world is recent
and unfinished and because the drug traffickers can claim superiority in the
process of social transformation (Duncan, 2010; Edberg, 2004). In his research
on Mexican narcocorridos, Edberg (2004: 45) asserts,

It appeared likely that the narcotrafficker was commonly viewed by non-elite

Mexicans as a social bandit, as a symbol of power and efficacy outside the
domination of the United States or of the Mexican elite, in short, as a model for
how to be a person of status and importance even in the face of subordinate
social positiona model, one could say, of social mobility.

The existence of this subculture is evident in the apparently irrational behav-

ior of those criminals who have become big bosses in the drug business. Drug
trafficking as an economic activity is basically a matter of risk reduction.
Profitability is ensured, since prices are higher than production costs and the
demand always exceeds the supply. The risks, however, are numerous and
involve not only economic loss but also the physical disappearance of partici-
pants, their indefinite imprisonment, and the lack of safety of their families. By
becoming very visible, traffickers who aspire to rule the business do everything
opposite to what rational-choice theory predicts: they increase the risks and
costs that facilitate their prosecution by the state. But making themselves visi-
ble is not irrational, since social recognition by a particular community is their
ultimate goal. Only through such visibility can they attain high status in the
social order.
Many drug traffickers have become popular heroes to the lower classes.
They are concerned with public investments for local communities as a strategy
for obtaining social recognition. Pablo Escobar went even farther; 2 he opened
the private zoo on his infamous hacienda Napoles to the public and financed a
public housing program called Medelln without Slums. It is no coincidence
that even today in poor neighborhoods of Medelln people still worship him.
An article about a Medelln assassin reports that he remains a legend among
the criminals of the city: When the Medelln cocaine baron Pablo Escobar had
become the planets biggest drug trafficker, mentioned as a billionaire on
Forbes rich list, Gustavo was just seven years old. By then, Escobar was such
a legend in the slums that even children talked about him. Up in the comunas
Pablo was like a king. He was bigger than the Colombian president, Gustavo
says (Grillo, 2010). In Mexico, Joaquin El Chapo Guzman achieved the
respect and admiration of the population when, after heavy rains devastated
the local agriculture one year, [he] gave thousands of dollars worth of supplies
to his gomeros [opium growers]. At Christmas, another gift arrived: 100 all-
terrain vehicles for the locals (Beith, 2010: 156). As a consequence, he has

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become a leader of a people who had barely ever received anything from their
government, people whose first priority is survival rather than worrying about
whether theyre on the right side of the law, people who look up to a man who
rose from abject poverty to be a successful, free man, living as he desires in the
mountains of Mexico (157).
As narcotrafficking subcultures expand in a community, a specific type of
crime dominates drug trafficking activities: the organization of coercion. When
coercion reaches a certain level, the rest of the criminal activities that take place
in the community are kept under control and a criminal career in the mafia is
the main mechanism of status achievement. Colombian and Mexican drug
bosses control and extract income from other criminals involved in drug traf-
ficking. Gambettas (2007) definition of a mafia as the business of private pro-
tection can be applied here as the private protection of property rights related
to the production and trafficking of drugs.
In Colombia, mafia rule has its origin in the organization by the same drug
traffickers of armed apparatus specialized in subjugating other drug traffick-
ers. The history of Pablo Escobar and the creation of the Medelln cartel is
essentially the history of the making of a mafia with the goal of imposing
authority over the rest of the criminals and monopolizing the income of the
business (Duncan, 2006). The Mexican case is different, since in the beginning
the regulation of crime was organized by the state. The government party
imposed its authority on the criminal class using the repressive institutions of
the state. In exchange for part of the income of the drug business, the political
class assigned plazas (smuggling corridors) to the drug traffickers and enforced
the property rights of criminals (Resa, 2001). In 2000, after the presidency
shifted from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional
Revolutionary PartyPRI) to the Partido Accin Nacional (National Action
PartyPAN), this institutional control dissipated (Astorga, 2005). The new rul-
ing party did not have the mechanisms of institutional coercion to subjugate
the drug traffickers, and as the state lost control the mafias achieved power.
According to Hernndez (2010), the current wave of violence in Mexico is
explained by an alliance between the PAN and the drug lord Chapo Guzmn
against the rest of the mafias in the country.
A superior kind of mafia project occurs when the narcotrafficking subculture
spreads across the whole society. In certain zones armed control by mafias is so
extensive that it is inaccurate to talk about a criminal subculture because the
whole social order has attributes associated with crime. Here we are talking not
about marginalized communities but about the dominant culture in a middle-
sized city or a region. Drug trafficking becomes the main source of prestige and
social status. Under these circumstances the coercive capability of the mafias
extends to the regulation of all sorts of economic transactions and the adminis-
tration of justice at the local level. The construction of local projects by drug
traffickers has been evident in Colombia since the boom of paramilitary groups
in the mid-1990s (Duncan, 2006; Romero, 2003). In Mexico the power achieved
by mafias in the rural areas and municipalities of isolated regions like Sinaloa,
Durango, and Michoacn covers practically the whole society. A clear example
of this control is their capacity for solving criminal cases in these communities
(Beith, 2010: 86):

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Several years back a group of teenagers stole a number of gas tanks from a
depot on the outskirts of town, a resident recalls. The local police were at a
lossthey couldnt conduct a house-to-house search of the nearby mountains,
it would prove fruitless and timewasting, and possibly even put their lives in
danger. So Chapoor el Seor, as many locals call him out of respecthad his
people ask around. They quickly rounded up the perpetrators, and dropped
them off at the police station. . . . Stories on the discipline laid down by Chapo

The pursuit of social recognition and the development of mafias have effects
on the resilience of drug trafficking. The visibility of the first drug lords created
the conditions for their own demise. High visibility increased the risk of being
prosecuted and the costs of officials corruption. After bloody vendettas and
assassinations, the mid-level mafiosi and rising criminals ousted the former
drug bosses. This happened in Colombia with Escobar, Rodrguez Gacha, the
Cali cartel capos, and the other legendary figures of the drug business and in
Mexico with Felix Gallardo, Caro Quintero, and Garca Abrego, among others.
However, the spread of the business as a productive activity with the opera-
tional knowledge required for its execution is ensured. In the collective social
memory, knowledge about essential elements of the drug industry such as coca
farmers, transporters, input suppliers, cocaine manufacturers, and assassins
spreads despite state persecution.3
Mafias are important in narcotrafficking subcultures because they shape the
supply of young people with a criminal vocation in terms of the operational
demands of drug trafficking. Without mafias these young peoples feelings of
frustration would be channeled into less profitable and less complex crimes.
Cloward and Ohlin (1960) argue that in the case of a criminal subculture the
absence of organizations of adult criminals leads to teenage gang vandalism,
street robbery, and other low-profit offenses. When powerful criminal organi-
zations regulate status aspirations in the criminal subculture, the effects on
peripheral societies are dramatic. In the cases of the drug mafias in Colombia
and Mexico, these effects involve training young criminals in activities that
create higher added value, injecting significant flows of capital in such a way
that the rest of society has to consider their new economic importance, and set-
ting limits to state intervention.

The Transformation Of Drug Capital Into Mass Consumption And


Drug traffickers may become really powerful in areas where a criminal sub-
culture exists, concentrating economic means and symbolic power, but their
influence on larger and more complex societies is constrained by other forms
of social power. Here the attributes that classify the population are so abundant
that crime as an alternative for achieving status becomes a marginal factor.
However, drug traffickers have found a powerful mechanism of social influ-
ence in the transformation of drug capital into mass consumption and clien-
telism as a means to regulate access to this consumption.
The reason that capital owned by drug traffickers is relevant to the social
order is not its transformation into production; criminals do not become the
owners of firms that sustain the national economy, despite generating income

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estimated at 27 percent of the gross domestic product annually (ICE and DHS,
2010; Steiner, 1997). The big firms, corporations, and factories in these countries
are owned by well-known capitalists. The capital of drug traffickers is impor-
tant to the social order because it injects currency into the market and creates
new possibilities of consumption for much of the population. For many munic-
ipalities and regions this is the principal source of goods and services produced
outside of the local economy such as electronic devices, televisions, cars,
Internet, and cell phones. In addition, these municipalities and regions do not
produce anything for other markets, and as a consequence they depend on the
injection of currency by the state and criminals to consume those goods. Drug
capital is important because it allows access to goods of mass consumption in
social spaces where otherwise such consumption would be severely con-
Mass consumption is a consequence of the accumulation of capital in the
developed world. The redistributive processes of these economies generate
enough employment and wages for almost all of the population to participate
freely in the market (Hobsbawm, 2001). This participation is free because it is
not subject to any type of mediation except that of an open market of labor and
of consumption goods (North, Wallis, and Weingast, 2009; Simmel, 1978). In
municipalities, communities, and regions in which the influence of drug traf-
ficking is overwhelming, in contrast, capital accumulation is very limited.
Opportunities for employment depend on commerce and services, and these
markets depend to a great extent on drug capital both to import consumption
goods and to redistribute their revenues among the local population that will
consume those goods.
The redistributive processes are not free. Much of the population depends
on clientelistic relations for access to mass consumption markets. The most
basic form of clientelistic exchange is direct contact between drug traffickers
and the communities, but it is the other two types of clientelism that have the
more profound effects on the redistribution of drug revenues and their trans-
formation into mass consumption. There are entrepreneurs specialized in
money launderingconverting dirty dollars into clean money through offers
of goods and services in the market. In the Colombian Sanandresitos, for
instance, drug traffickers funded the import of merchandise for wholesalers,
and when the wholesalers sold the merchandise to retailers they recovered the
amount invested minus the fee charged by the laundering operation. Around
the stalls of smuggled goods, many informal jobs were provided. Furthermore,
the prices of the merchandise were affordable for local people because they
were virtually subsidized by being tax-free and by serving as a means for laun-
dering money.
A recent report in the newspaper El Tiempo (May 20, 2010) reveals the mag-
nitude of the underground business related to smuggling and drug trafficking
in the Sanandresitos: In four years, confiscated goods account for 1.7 billion
pesos, 550,000 pesos per year, but this is less than 5 percent of what the smug-
glers trade. Each year, according to the DIAN [Direccin de Impuestos y
Aduanas Nacionales], the import of illegal merchandise amounts to 10 billion
pesos [approximately US$5 billion]. Research on the size of the informal econ-
omy in Colombia has found that on average informal labor oscillates between

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31.7 percent and 64.1 percent of total employment (Arango, Misas, and Lopez,
2006). In Mexico the situation is also critical. The drug economy is approxi-
mately 5 percent of GDP4 and piracy and smuggling 20 percent.5
At the same time, there is a political classa mixture of traditional caciques,
former grassroots politicians, and individuals directly involved with criminal
activitiesthat specializes in converting the electoral support of its clients into
immunity for drug traffickers. These politicians have played an important role
in the spread of drug trafficking throughout the social order: they are respon-
sible for ensuring the survival of a social order based on patronage relations as
a mechanism for the production and distribution of income. This income comes
from the public budget and drug traffickers bribes, but only with the support
of the clientelistic votes has it been feasible to control the government transfers
and to offer protection to criminals. Research by Botero, Hoskin, and Pachon
(2009), based on the Latin American Public Opinion Survey,6 found that in cer-
tain regions more than 20 percent of the population usually sell their votes. And
according to a poll by Gallup Invamer (Agence France-Presse, March 6, 2010),
7 percent of Colombians have sold their votes at least once in exchange for
cash, a market, a job, or building materials, . . . [and] for 22 percent of respon-
dents who had not sold their votes directly someone has promised them work,
housing, or scholarships in exchange for their support.7
In Mexico this situation seems to be more dramatic, since historically the
political class has played an active role in the direct exercise of mafia activities.
Currently, with the states loss of control of the business with the demise of the
PRI, drug lords are more concerned with political participation in national and
local elections (Hernndez, 2010). Money is their principal means of affecting
electoral results by funding the traditional clientelistic exchanges of Mexican
politics. Not surprisingly, press reports frequently denounce the corruption of
the democratic elections under the new political circumstances related to drug

Until recent years, Mexican drug traffickers focused the bulk of their bribery
efforts on law enforcement rather than politicians. Their increasing involve-
ment in local politicsin town halls and state capitalsis a response, experts
say, to the national-level crackdown, to changes in the nature of the drug trade
itself, and to the evolution of Mexicos young democracy. Starting in 2000, a
system of fiercely contested multiparty elections began to replace 71 years of
one-party rule, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. In this newly
competitive, moderately democratic system, it takes serious money to run a
political campaign, says James McDonald, a Mexico expert at Southern Utah
University in Cedar City, Utah. This has given the narcos a real entry into
politics, by either running for office themselves or bankrolling candidates. . . .
According to a September 2007 intelligence assessment by the U.S. Federal
Bureau of Investigation, the governors of the states of Veracruz and Michoacan
had agreements with the Gulf Cartel allowing free rein to that large drug-
trafficking gang. In return, said the report, which was reviewed by The Wall
Street Journal, the cartel promised to reduce violence in Veracruz state and, in
Michoacan, financed a gubernatorial race and many municipal campaigns
across the state.

As a consequence, clientelism becomes a system for producing income for

various social groups, and the political class articulates the mass consumption

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provided by drug capital with the provision of state public services. Whereas
the entrepreneurs specializing in money laundering transform dirty capital
into clean capital, the politicians transform illegal capital into legal power
through the purchase of clientelistic loyalties in the vote market. Therefore, the
class structure in the Colombian and Mexican cases cannot be defined only in
terms of the classic distinctions of ownership of the means of production. There
are individuals who depend on the clientelistic system to obtain political power
and economic resources and those who do not, and among those who depend
on clientelistic exchanges there are patrons and clients. In cases of heavy depen-
dence on drug capital, the population outside of the clientelistic relations can
be divided between groups with free access to local markets from the owner-
ship of stores, agrarian production, and appointment to the few good jobs
available and groups that access the market without any special economic attri-
butes under the pressure of exclusion from clientelism and market shortages.
In this class structure, drug traffickers are crucial because they meet the
demands of middle-income groups and foster an informal sector that, though
insufficient to include all of the marginal population in the market, is vital as
partial relief for their situation.
The importance of drug trafficking in the social order is not only a conse-
quence of its acquisitive and redistributive capacity. It also depends on the
direct effects of mass consumption on the society. Without the goods that are
valuable for the organization of society, the capital of drug trafficking would
not have the impact it has. Although this was not planned or envisioned by a
criminal class, drug traffickers found an advantage in the transformation of
society from Fordism to post-Fordist capitalism (Alonso, 2005; Lee, 1993). The
media, the Internet, cell phones, electronic devices, restaurants, discos, and
videos, among many other fashionable objects of consumption adapted to the
demands of local values, have become a priority for the inhabitants of many
communities in Colombia and Mexico. Although the new forms of consump-
tion come to peripheral communities in their most precarious versions, without
the diversity and intensity of the rich post-Fordist markets, the fact is that they
have replaced the consumption of basic needs as the main purpose of local
A remarkable example of this change in consumption patterns is the way in
which drug trafficking has become fashionable in some societies (Osorno,
2010: 281) :

The clothes of a drug trafficker are code for I am untamable, I am an outlaw.

. . . From the tips of the Australian ostrich boots to the phosphorescent buttons
of the imitation Versace shirt, secrecy because of illegality is forgotten. The
malls in Culiacan, meeting places for the traditional elite, are democratic
places. The shop windows belong to everyone. Nowadays the narco rejects
discretion; it isnt enough just to show off at big dances or private parties.

The anthropology-of-consumption approach suggests two significant

changes in the attributes of the social order as a result of drug traffickings
capacity to fund mass consumption in isolated regions. First, the new possi-
bilities of consumption now largely determine social stratification. To be able
to purchase a high-end automobile, a sophisticated cell phone, and a vacation
house with a pool and a Jacuzzi is not just a matter of enjoying luxuries but also

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about marking ones status in the social order. Secondly, when these goods
become so valuable in the social order, the person who controls their provision
controls one of the main sources of power, and because of that drug traffickers
are now in a position to ask for the support of the rest of the population.
One way in which drug traffickers acquire social power through the control
of consumption is the seduction of women. Chronicles in Colombia of their
sentimental and sexual life show that one of the most common ways of attract-
ing women is to offer to pay for their breast implants. Furthermore, some big
bosses have opened their own hospitals to keep their potential sexual partners
interested. Mafia Chicks (Lpez and Ferrand, 2009), a book on drug traffickers
women, shows that in some regions of Colombia these women now expect
opulent gifts as a part of the seduction game. Another popular gift is the cell
phone; the book tells the story of a capo who spent several hours in a phone
store trying to choose the right one to conquer a teenage girl.
Finally, it is important to mention that the boom of mass consumption is a
consequence of a worldwide social phenomenon, not invented by drug traf-
ficking. What is different here is the control that drug traffickers can exert over
the social order when they bring capital to regions that lack the revenue to
acquire goods and services in the international markets. Indeed, the influence
of drug trafficking on a given social order can be classified in terms of the role
of illegal capital in the organization of mass consumption. Basically, three types
of society can be distinguished: (1) those in which drug capital is clearly insuf-
ficient to control the funding of local markets and access to the market is open,
(2) those in which drug capital is relevant to the consumption capacity of the
market but the channels of clientelistic distribution are also controlled by other
actors such as entrepreneurs and politicians, and (3) those in which both capital
and distribution are under the direct control of a criminal class.



The intensity of the narcotrafficking subculture and resource distribution

determines the degree of influence of drug trafficking on the social order. The
foundation of this influence is found at the subnational level. Gibson (2004) and
ODonnell (1993) have described territorial discontinuities across democratic
states, and democratic societies also have such discontinuities. In Bogot and
Mexico City, for instance, there may be huge flows of illegal capital, but their
effects on the social order are mitigated by the overwhelming magnitude of the
economic, social, and political transactions that take place in these cities. It is in
certain social spaces of the peripherymunicipalities, middle-sized cities, mar-
ginal neighborhoods, and rural areasthat the social influence of drug traffick-
ing reaches its peak.

Power And Local Order

The scope of the political power of drug traffickers depends on their ability
to convert their means of coercion into social regulation. In certain contexts,
coercion by mafias is sufficient only to regulate criminal activities; with the
exception of the violence of criminal transactions, the state maintains the
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Bribe Mediation Delegation

(Monopoly) (Oligopoly) (Monopoly)
Resource Type 3
Distribution Criminal Marginal
markets zones

Type 2

Middle-sized cities (only Middle-sized citiesand regions in

money laundering and which drug bosses live and operate

Type 1

Large cities and

developed zones

Dominant culture
Mafiosi threshold threshold

Figure 1. Drug trafficking and political power.

monopoly of coercion across the territory. In other contexts, the social order
encourages mafia aspirations regarding the regulation of social spaces, and
there is an overlap in the exercise of coercion by the state and the mafias. Hence,
instead of a monopoly of coercion the situation is one of an oligopoly of coer-
cion or, in extreme cases, a monopoly of coercion by warlords.
Figure 1 depicts the influence of drug trafficking on the social order and its
implications for political power. The horizontal axis indicates the extent of
narcotrafficking subcultures, with the proportion of communities in which
status is determined through crime being greater to the right. Two thresholds
are meaningful for classifying the effects of the narcotrafficking subculture on
political power. The first is the one at which mafias develop, and the second
is the one at which the narcotrafficking subculture becomes dominant
throughout the social space. When this second threshold is crossed, the exer-
cise of coercion extends to most of the activities and transactions of the soci-
ety and status depends not only on controlling crime but also on governing
the community.
The vertical axis in Figure 1 indicates the proportion of the resources of a
social space that is distributed through clientelistic networks funded by drug
capital. This is a relative measure of mass consumption in a society under non-
free-market relations. The three types of control exerted on the distribution of
resources in the marketType 1, free access; Type 2, clienteles of entrepreneurs
and politicians; and Type 3, direct control by drug traffickerssignal the three
thresholds of the influence of drug trafficking on the social order. The higher
the value on the vertical axis, the more control drug traffickers have over the
clientelistic distribution of goods in local markets.
In large cities and developed areas in which access to the market is free
(Type 1), the influence of crime on the social order is marginal. The resources
distributed by drug trafficking do not reach a significant percentage of the cur-
rency available in the market. The resources brought by drug traffickers are

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accumulated in the long run by legal capitalists who supply the local demand.
Criminals may produce revenues, occasionally in significant amounts, but the
complexity of these markets, the abundance of legitimate firms, and the diver-
sity of jobs free of clientelistic relations undermine their status. The liquid
resources available are insufficient to support a superior position in the social
order. Fortunes of illegal origin depreciate in a context in which state institu-
tions work, there is a vigilant free press, and people enjoy sophisticated life-
styles. The diversity of fashions and the cultural capital of the population
overshadow any attempt of drug traffickers to attract attention as new
tycoons. Individuals with power in institutions such as the state, the press,
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other sources of social power
have more influence on the social order despite not owning much economic
The political class commits to drug traffickers only in terms of the logic of
the bribe. Professional politicians receive money to fund their campaigns and
amass personal fortunes. In exchange, the drug traffickers ask only that certain
of the authorities reduce their efforts to repress them; they do not pretend that
state institutions legitimate crime as a source of prestige. Furthermore, their
money is not sufficient to decide elections in favor of corrupt politicians, not to
mention the risks involved in bribery. The press is vigilant with regard to the
actions of candidates for public office. Civil society organizations such as
NGOs, human rights groups, and electoral observers are ready to use any
opportunity to report candidates with illegal links. A politician under suspicion
of drug links encounters enormous difficulties in getting elected and must con-
cede a lot of power to stay in charge. Frequently, when the pressure overwhelms
the political class agreements are broken and criminals are severely repressed.
Politicians can betray criminals because the mafias capacity for coercion in
these social spaces is limited. They rely on state institutions such as the police
and the army, which under these circumstances are a serious threat to the pri-
vate armies of a criminal class. For these reasons, large cities and developed
areas are located on the left side of Figure 1, in which the narcotrafficking sub-
culture is unable to exercise coercion beyond a certain threshold.
The only spaces in large cities that are vulnerable to the influence of drug
traffickers on the social order are marginal neighborhoods such as comunas and
colonias (the local version of American ghettos) and public markets specialized
in money laundering (smuggling, gambling, and prostitution). The capital
from the drug trade is so important in these spaces that they are treated as part
of Type 3 in Figure 1. Also here the narcotrafficking subculture is so extensive
that the criminal markets are ruled by fully established mafias. At the same
time, marginal neighborhoods are strictly controlled by mafias composed, in
their most extreme versions, of teenage gangs that impose a bloody law based
on low-profit but violent crimes. When more sophisticated mafias organize the
coercion in these neighborhoods and discipline the young criminals, petty
criminal activity is severely punished and new sources of income such as the
monopolization of drug corridors and racketeering in commerce and transport
The spaces of Type 2 in Figure 1 include societies in which drug capital is
relevant to ensuring mass consumption capacity but state institutions, the
political class, and other sources of social power are also important in the social

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order. Professional politicians, public officials, traditional caciques, middle-

class legal entrepreneurs, big landowners, and other local notables still have
significant influence on the organization of society. Though drug trafficking is
a challenge to these actors, in practice there are more agreements than contra-
dictions. The various expressions of local clientelism proper to big landowners,
caciques, and professional politicians are adapted to absorb drug capital into
the exchange between patron and clients (Duncan, 2006; Gonzlez, 2003). In
the long run, both sources of power, legal and illegal, adjust their interests to
determine the social order. Under these transactions legal elites maintain some
elements of social power such as relations with national politicians, the owner-
ship of land, the education required to be appointed to public office, and the
cultural capital to negotiate with national elites. Nevertheless, they need the
resources of drug trafficking to provide the consumption demands of the local
population and themselves. Drug traffickers have money to spend, but they
need the social power of traditional elites to obtain social recognition and, more
important, to obtain the services crucial to their success. In terms of the logic of
mutual interest, the legal elites receive capital and the upcoming criminals
receive services of mediation in order to obtain immunity for their operations.
Not everything in the agreements between legal and illegal elites is free from
tension. The sources of legal power gradually diminish as drug capital acquires
importance in the funding of local economies. In the long run, it seems that the
agreements tend to favor the criminal class, since the legal elites cannot fulfill
their material needs when access to markets depends on drug capital. The dis-
tinctions that classify these social orders, such as race, lineage, prestige, social
discrimination, clothes, language, and customs, are undermined by the values
of mass consumption markets. In addition, the relations between legal and
illegal elites have a new element: the organization of coercion. It is in these
social spaces that oligopolies of coercion appear. Thus social spaces of Type 2
are located in the center and to the right of Figure 1, in which narcotrafficking
subcultures are more extensive.
As the narcotrafficking subculture extends among the population, private
violence becomes a major source of power in the social order. Legal elites can
compete with the mafias in violence only with the support of the armed and
judicial institutions of the state. Their basic interests in the contest for the local
power are achieving access to the capital of drug traffickers through minimal
concessions of social power and limiting the scope of the mafias to the control
of drug trafficking activitiespreventing them from crossing the dominant-
subculture threshold.
Professional politicians, in contrast to other legal elites, find a source of
resources to compete with the capital of drug trafficking in the budget transfers
of the state. Additionally, they may resort to the coercive institutions of the state
to compel drug traffickers to cede capital without conceding their control over
local governments. However, the equilibrium of forces favors the mafias as
drug trafficking becomes more influential. The political class needs the mafias
to have any chance of success in local elections. The results in the democratic
game depend on capital support by drug traffickers and coercion by mafias.
This is not a moral dilemma but a reality. If illegal money is not accepted, there
is no way of winning elections.

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The expectations of the criminal class increase as drug trafficking acquires

influence on the social order. It is no longer enough to ensure the immunity of
criminal activities and properties; now the mafias demand that transforma-
tions in society be directed toward the materialization of their aspirations to
social predominance. That predominance is premised on three conditions. The
first one is the protection and legitimacy of capital of criminal origin. The prop-
erty rights of drug traffickers do not enjoy legitimacy under the law, and there
is no reason for them not to be expropriated. In contrast, these property rights
enjoy full legitimacy in the local society, since there is neither moral nor practi-
cal disapproval of the origin of this capital. On the contrary, it is welcomed as
a source of revenue to sustain the consumption capacity of local markets.
The second condition is access to mass consumption as a means for social
distinction. Drug traffickers have a status advantage over other elites in pur-
chasing valuable objects of consumption. The display of high-end automobiles,
mansions, expensive electronic devices, beautiful escorts, imported liquors,
and all kinds of luxury merchandise and the possibility of choosing who else
can enjoy these goods provide drug traffickers with an impressive amount of
social power. The importance of this condition is not only economic but also
symbolic, since the ownership of certain goods assigns status positions.
The third condition is the preservation of clientelism as an important form
of social interaction. Clientelism is the asymmetric exchange of resources con-
trolled by a patron for support in achieving political and social power. The
clientelistic exchange in the case of drug trafficking in Colombia and Mexico is
an adaptation of other traditional forms of clientelism in peripheral zones (see
Sives, 2002). This adaptation is a consequence of both the availability of new
resources and the importance of armed protection as a public service. To
belong to a clientelistic structure in the zones where mafias and warlords rule
is, in addition to a vital source of income, one of the few ways to ensure prop-
erty rights and to survive.
In social spaces of Type 3 the dependence on drug capital is so extreme that
legal elites have almost no possibility of access to social power. These spaces
are made up of poor rural villages with a population of a few thousand or less
and the marginal neighborhoods of big cities. Their historical isolation from the
modern world and the nation-state because of their remoteness and their pov-
erty is suddenly broken by the capacity of a criminal activity to connect them
to the international markets. Here the influence of the narcotrafficking subcul-
ture is almost absolute and the dominant-subculture threshold is easily crossed.
Status definition is essentially a matter of the links with drug capital and, spe-
cifically, with the organization of private coercion around drug trafficking.
Coercion goes beyond the police function to the creation of regular armies that
establish monopolistic control over the local order. In practice, the state is
absent. Therefore, this is not an oligopoly but a monopoly of coercion.
The dilemma of the former legal elites is the same as in Type 2 spaces: how
to preserve their social influence when they desperately need the capital
brought by drug traffickers to participate in the mass consumption markets.
The difference is that their social power and capital are so limited that there is
no chance of their competing with drug trafficking. The development of alter-
native sources of social power such as the prestige of local notables, the agrar-
ian economy, the press, the political parties, the church, and the intellectuals is

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too precarious and weak to offer any resistance to the economic and coercive
capacity of private armies.
The social order that emerges in these social spaces can be summarized in
terms of three basic features: the extreme dependence of the local market on
capital related to drug trafficking, a monopoly of coercion by actors other than
the state,9 and the stratification of society on the basis of the principal sources
of power of criminalscapital and coercion. The role of patron is confined to
those who have drug-related income to support local consumption and the
armies to protect loyal clienteles.
The monopolization of local power has definitive effects on the political
power derived from democratic competition. The role of the political class is
diluted. Warlords, mafias, and even, in the case of Colombia, guerrillas decide
who can participate and win local elections, who can be appointed to public
office, and which candidates the population has to vote for in presidential and
congressional elections. The best scenario for a professional politician is to
become the mediator between the population and the private armiesin a
sense, simply an electoral broker. When politicians with aspirations to national
positions need local votes, they negotiate for them directly with the organiza-
tion that has the monopoly of coercion.

Categories Of Local Power And Relations With The State

The influence of drug traffickers on the social order depends not on the total
amount of capital they control or the total number of inhabitants living under
a narcotrafficking subculture but on their relative weight in society. Because a
mafia can concentrate resources in any place in a territory, its relative influence
on the social order is given by the size and the development of the local society.
In a given social space, the process of capital and demographic accumulation,
as well as the process of modernization and integration into international mar-
kets, reduces the impact of drug trafficking on a social order. As a consequence,
it reduces the influence of the mafias that control drug trafficking on political
power. At some point of accumulation of capital and population in a society,
mafias have neither the capital nor the coercive capacity to compete for political
power with other sources of social power.
The transformation of the social power of drug trafficking mafias into polit-
ical power has two dimensions. One dimension is their degree of influence on
the democratic systemthe extent to which they are capable of appointing
public officials, influencing the decisions of the political class and the state
authorities, and trivializing the charges pressed against them by the press and
the NGOs. The other is the direct exercise of political power through their own
criminal organizations, based on the means of coercion to impose certain forms
of social regulation and the capital to capture the loyalty of large clienteles. In
terms of these two dimensions, three categories of political power acquired by
mafias can be proposed: clear monopolistic control by the state, with the polit-
ical power of mafias restricted to their ability to bribe authorities and public
officials; an oligopoly of coercion, in which social regulation is an area of con-
stant competition; and a monopoly of coercion by armed organizations other
than the state.

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The three categories of political power are related to the possibilities of

imposing a social order by the actors who control the means of coercion in the
society. The contest is therefore both for political power and for the imposition
of certain forms of social order. Both the emergent criminal sectors and the legal
elites aim to impose a regulation of society that contributes to their superiority
in the social order. At first glance this can be seen as a zero-sum contest, since
the gains of one party are the losses of the other, but in practice drug trafficking
is for many legal elites in the periphery an opportunity to reverse their relative
loss of power vis--vis the national elites. Without alternative sources of capital
to compete with the accumulation of capital in the center, local elites inevitably
occupy a back seat.
In addition to the contest for political power in the periphery, the mafias that
control drug trafficking have to deal with the intervention of the state. The
basic dilemma of the state is how to obtain resources from social regulation in
order to fund the means of coercion necessary to rule the society (Tilly, 1985).
However, the nature of state regulation varies according to the demands of
society regarding the attributes of the social order that the state should rule,
and the various groups and classes of a society are not uniform with regard to
their ideas about the nature of the social order. They often demand attributes
that are contradictory not only in the obvious cases of class struggles such as
wages but also with regard to the fundamental attributes of economic and
social relations. The preservation of clientelism as the basic pattern of social
relations and economic power based on patrimonial accumulation with public
resources, for instance, are attributes of the social order that must be considered
by the state. Whether to repress or to protect them, it must intervene. The dif-
ference lies in the influence of the diverse groups and classes on state decisions
across the territory.
Therefore, the costs of coercion and of administration are not the only factors
that determine the decisions of the state regarding how to intervene in the dif-
ferent social spaces. The influences on state institutions, mainly through com-
petition in the democratic game, are crucial for determining the nature of state
regulation. This is the reason for the power of the political class, since it works
as a mediator between the societys demands and the state. For drug traffickers,
as for the rest of the important groups in society, professional politicians con-
stitute the brokers of their demands vis--vis the state. The central issues of the
negotiation are related to the exchange of resources for protection with the
national politicians and the extent of mafia influence over the professional pol-
iticians in the periphery.
Corruption and clandestine agreements between politicians and mafias are
everyday events, but they have real effects only when they are materialized in
institutional decisions. The change of an unfavorable law, an unfriendly public
official, or an inconvenient policy is possible only through state decisions made
by professional politicians. In practice, influence over these sorts of decisions is
the real measure of the power of mafias in the periphery. Their leverage lies in
their capacity to mobilize resources in the form of capital and coercion to accu-
mulate clientelistic votes. For this reason, clienteles are key to strengthening the
negotiating capacity of peripheral politicians in the decision making of the
state. Consequently, the delimitation of powers between legal and illegal elites,

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rather than a result of negotiations between mafias and governments, is the

result of political contests between national and regional politicians within the
same democratic institutions.
The paradox is that, despite being the ones who take part in most of the drug
trafficking corruption, the professional politicians are the ones who constrain
the power of mafias in the social order. The drug business boom is not the cause
either of corruption or of the use of public appointments to pursue income. The
political classes in Colombia and Mexico have often used the institutions of the
state for personal economic gain. What is new in the case of drug trafficking is
the ability to concentrate resources to decide elections and impose demands on
the state regarding the regulation of the social order. Drug trafficking has
become an important source of resources and an important set of interests in
the democratic systema new source of social power that must be considered
in the definition of political power.
The states response to mafias pretensions to power varies with the relative
weight of drug trafficking in the social order across the national territory.
Figure 1 summarizes the relation between forms of coercion and relations with
the state. Where the social order is scarcely influenced by drug traffickingin
large cities and developed areasthe state response is mainly through agree-
ments based on bribes. Thus, the state maintains the monopoly of coercion, and
mafia violence is restricted to criminal activities. The explanation for this lies in
the strength and diversity of other sources of social power. Basically, the mafias
scope is reduced where the state and the core of national political power are
Where oligopolies of coercion are presentin middle-sized cities and regions
in which drug bosses live and operatethe political class becomes the media-
tor between the mafias and the state. The state delegates decisions regarding
the government of the periphery to the political class. As long as the costs of
coercion are low and the corruption in the state allows it, the state offers the
support of the national coercive institutions to local politicians. It is at the local
level that spaces under the coercive regulation of mafias and spaces under the
control of the state are identified. The interest of the state is that the agreements
between mafias and politicians remain balanced and do not increase the costs
of intervention in the peripheral areas.10 If the concessions to drug traffickers
are too expensive and visible, the state must deploy more coercion because of
media pressure and the interests of other sectors in repressing the political aspi-
rations of the mafias. If, in contrast, the politicians repress the drug traffickers
aspirations, a violent response by mafias, electoral rejection by the criminal
clienteles, and the deterioration of local economies could lead to a crisis in the
Finally, in those marginal spaces of society in which the social order is
defined by the resources of the drug business, the state delegates the regulation
of society to the private armies that control drug trafficking. The control of
these territories is not part of the strategic interests of the state. This population
is costly and difficult to regulate, and the economic activities that take place in
these spaces are not subject to taxation because most of the production is illegal.
As a result, the state finds it convenient to delegate the regulation and even the
exploitation of these social spaces to organizations of private coercion. However,

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delegation is often destabilizing for the state. In Colombia, the guerrillas have
used the resources and the coercive capacity accumulated in the most marginal
peripheries to attack the state in developed areas. In Mexico the paramilitary
army of the Gulf cartel engages in bloody battles in cities as Ciudad Jurez and

The Rationality Of The Three Categories

Of Political Power

Agreements between politicians and mafias are neither stable nor fixed, and
the relations between center and periphery do not remain static over time.
Changes in state officials, the aspirations of the political class, competition for
the control of drug trafficking, and breakdowns in the balance of power cause
crises in the established pacts. Moments of instability are also moments of
redefinition of legal and illegal powers. International pressure, corruption
scandals, violence, and attempts by the mafias to expand the scope of their
power may cause the state to intervene in the periphery. However, these inter-
ventions are temporary. After a time the rationality of the actors who concen-
trate capital and coercion, not to mention the rationality of the local population,
This rationality is a matter of the predominance of forms of regulation
whether by the state, the mafia, or boththat are coherent with the different
levels of capital accumulation. This coherence can be understood as an adapta-
tion of Duffields (1998) argument that warlords and mafias are rational
responses of the South channeling demands for integration into the interna-
tional market. Given the limited possibilities of competing in the world eco-
nomic system because of capital constraints, the South finds a rational
alternative in illegal forms of commerce in drugs, mineral resources, and weap-
ons. The regulation of this kind of commerce by warlords and mafias is more
effective than its regulation by a legitimate nation-state.
The accumulation of capital is important in the rational decisions of the pop-
ulation because it is related to the availability of resources for consumption. If
capital accumulation is high, then so are the intensity and diversity of economic
agents in the local market. Many entrepreneurs are attracted by the consump-
tion of people who enjoy the revenues of a society that has accumulated capital.
In the same vein, the accumulation of capital makes these entrepreneurs an
influential group in society. They become a collective actor with its own inter-
ests and sources of power, autonomous from other powerful actors. They do
not depend, for instance, on the injection of currency into local markets by drug
trafficking or on the public budget controlled by the political class. It also allows
the press, the universities, the think tanks, the NGOs, and other organizations
that influence public opinion to acquire more autonomy, since there are more
economic resources for funding them.
The rationality of these entrepreneurs aims to preserve regulation by the
state. They may be lax with regard to the resources that drug traffickers inject
into the local market, which is good for them since they increase internal
demand, but they do not like the fact that the control of these resources

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Capacity State


Delegation Mediation Bribe

(Monopoly) (Oligopoly) (Monopoly)


Figure 2.Capital accumulation and consumption capacity.

threatens state hegemony. Neither mafias nor warlords offer reliable protec-
tion of their property rights as the state does. Additionally, a reduction of the
states regulatory capacity implies new costs that may eventually be too
high. Because these local markets are not dependent on drug capital, the
resources brought by mafias do not make up for the losses of the new taxes
imposed by a criminal class when it regulates the market.
Figure 2 summarizes the effects of capital accumulation on the consumption
capacity of internal markets under state monopoly, oligopoly of coercion, and
mafia monopoly. The social spaces in which processes of capital accumulation
have occurred are located to the right. From point B to the right, state regulation
predominates and the influence of drug trafficking is mainly through bribes.
Here the effects of capital accumulation on the consumption capacity of the
society are greater. As capital accumulation increases, its profitability in terms
of consumption capacity decreases under hypothetical regulation by a mafia
monopoly and by an oligopoly of coercion.
When local markets depend on drug capital and budget transfers from the
state to maintain their consumption capacity, the situation regarding the ratio-
nality of social regulation is diametrically different. Oligopolies of coercion are
more profitable in terms of consumption for local entrepreneurs because they
protect these sources of capital. The losses caused by mafia extortion and the
corruption of professional politicians are compensated for by the increase in
internal demand. The sales of the firms attending local markets would be much
reduced without the distribution of resources coming from crime. Logic dic-
tates that at these levels of capital accumulation the entrepreneurs who supply
the internal market prefer to sacrifice their social and political power in
exchange for the preservation of their economic achievements.
Nevertheless, at the middle levels of capital accumulation it is also rational
for the state not to concede all control to the mafias. Under a certain develop-
ment of the internal market and despite the dependence on the income from
drug trafficking, some social sectors need to resist the potential excess of mafia
control. Professional politicians, big landowners, skilled workers, legal busi-
nessmen, some service firms, and the rest of the elites need capital from criminal

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activities to preserve local consumption capacity, but if mafias acquire too

much power the extraction of income could threaten the operations of legal
economic agents. In Figure 2 this rationality is present between points A and B,
where consumption capacity is higher under an oligopoly of coercion than
under a monopoly of either the state or the mafias.
Support for an oligopoly of coercion is not only a product of the rationality
of the elites and economic agents. The rationality of the lower classes, which are
organized mainly through clientelistic structures, is also significant for main-
taining shared regulation by politicians and mafias. Winters (2011: 6) shows
that the defense of property is a priority of oligarchiesthose actors in a society
who command and control massive concentrations of material resources.
The property of oligarchs is threatened horizontally by other oligarchs, from
above by the actors who control the state and the means of coercion, and from
below by the lower classes. In societies with moderate levels of capital accumu-
lation, the lower classes may become a means to ensure the ownership of large
amounts of capital rather than being a threat. In these cases, the mafias act as
organizations specialized in the defense of the property of an oligarchy of crim-
inals. Among their functions is the building of loyal clienteles within the local
population. It is through these clienteles that mafias concentrate votes, soldiers,
and popular support to defend the property of drug traffickers as oligarchs
against state repression and the claims of other drug traffickers and other social
actors. The local population finds it rational to be part of a clientelistic structure
and support the property rights of a criminal class because its access to con-
sumption depends on this type of social relation. The limited accumulation of
capital in the areas where oligopolies of coercion predominate does not allow
free access to the market. As a consequence, without drug revenues the possi-
bilities of consumption of the population that depends on clientelistic relations
would be confined to the public resources distributed by the political class.
Finally, in those social spaces where the internal market is based mostly on
the capital from drug trafficking, monopolistic regulation by mafias and war-
lords is convenient for both the few local entrepreneurs and the population.
When economic dependence is extreme, mafias and criminals are also visible
in the daily life of these communities. Their security is based not on their capac-
ity to remain clandestine but on the exercise of coercion by private armies. For
this reason, state repression means the departure of the main economic agents
of the social order and, as a collateral effect, the depreciation of local markets.
Neither the entrepreneurs that supply the internal markets nor the local popu-
lation have enough money to purchase merchandise outside of their interaction
with activities related to drug trafficking. This situation is depicted at the left
in Figure 2, where the consumption capacity of the mafia monopoly is superior.


Tilly (1985) compares the process of European state making with the protec-
tion and income extraction of criminal organizations. These states were the
result of the elimination and co-optation of internal competitionof other
armed organizations that wanted to impose their coercive and extractive capac-
ity across a given territory. The particular form of the modern nation-states of

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Europe emerged in part from the accumulation of capital by economic agents

protected by the state. At some moment in history, the demands of capital hold-
ers prevailed over the extractive interests of the state. The state had to be
responsive to the demands of the capitalist class because only with its resources
could it maintain the means of coercion to face internal competition and threats
from other states. At a more recent moment in history, with the modernization
and industrialization of society, income from protection was surpassed by
income from technological innovations in economic production (Lane, 1958).
The idea of states as coercive enterprises that specialized in extracting income
became a thing of the past.
Apparently, the making of the Colombian and Mexican states has followed
in broad terms a similar path of capital accumulation and the subjugation of
internal competition. In both cases, relatively strong states with the support of
a vigorous capitalist class have emerged. Since the middle of the twentieth
century the central authority has been fully definedregardless of changes of
governments and regimes. The political elites have always had access to the
capital necessary to exert and legitimate the authority of the state. In exchange,
the capitalist elites have been favored with the protection of the state and the
emergence of an important internal market to secure their property rights, cre-
ate new economic enterprises, and accumulate more capital. The results are
evident. The Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim is the second-richest man in the
world, according to Forbes magazine, and the Colombians Luis Sarmiento and
Julio Mario Santodomingo are in the top 100.11
The recent outbursts of violence make it seem that the concentration of coer-
cion and the capacity of administering public resources of these states are suf-
fering a structural crisis. The taking of villages by Colombian guerrillas, the
massacres of the paramilitary groups, the exhibition of decapitated bodies in
the middle of the street, and other terrorist actions perpetrated by the mafias
certainly point to the problems faced by the state in imposing a monopoly of
coercion. However, in contrast to the claim that Colombia and Mexico are fail-
ing states or collapsed states, this paper offers a different way of under-
standing the process of state making in states based on the relations between
capital and coercion. Its principal conclusions are that (1) violence in Colombia
and Mexico is a matter of the imposition of private coercive organizations that
are coherent with capitalist development in peripheral areas and (2) the hege-
mony of the state has never been threatened in its main centers of power.
Neither the oligopoly of coercion nor the monopoly of warlords is a threat to
the accumulation of capital by the national economic elites. Drug traffickers
produce huge flows of capital, but they transform it not directly into the means
of production but into consumption capacity. Few drug traffickers have created
big enterprises that operate rationally in the market. It makes no sense to do so,
since the risk of expropriation by the authorities is too high. The enterprises
created by drug traffickers have another type of functionality; they are efficient
not because of their profitability but because of their role in laundering inter-
national currency in the national market. And those who supply the demand
that stems from this permanent injection of currency are mainly the owners of
the big corporations and firms in these countries. In the long run, they are the
ones who accumulate the capital from drug exports.

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As a consequence, the mafias in Colombia and Mexico are part of a pro-

cess in which the state delegates authority to the periphery through the
exercise of private coercion but at very low cost and while preserving its
fundamental interests. As a matter of fact, a necessary condition for a mafias
exercising coercion is the support of the democratically elected public offi-
cials. The protection of a political class that can effectively influence state
decisions makes it possible to break the law. The mafias in Colombia and
Mexico are so rational that when a mafia is defeated in its confrontation
with the state a new oneusually one that has worked as a partner of the
state to defeat that mafiaappears almost immediately to control the same
social order and territory. This is what happened with the alliances between
the Cali cartel and the Colombian police to eliminate Pablo Escobar (Bowden,
2002; Lpez, 2008) and is currently occurring with the alliances between the
Mexican government and Chapo Guzmn to destroy the Zetas (Hernndez,


1. Hobsbawm (1969) and Dickie (2004) mention this factor in the emergence of social bandits
and mafias, respectively. Many criminologists have pointed to a response to the abrupt transfor-
mations of the modern world as an explanation for crime in certain types of social groups and
classes (see Lilly, Cullen, and Ball, 2006).
2. This is a recurrent topic in the biographies of Escobar and many other drug traffickers (see,
for example, the biographies of Rodrguez Gacha [Cortes, 1993] and Jaime Builes [Castro Caycedo,
3. Drug traffickers, when interviewed, usually say that if they were murdered or imprisoned
everything would remain the same (see, e.g., Zambada, 2010).
4. (accessed December 2010).
5. (accessed October 2009).
6. (accessed April 2010).
7. In the same report we read: A week before the legislative elections in Colombia, candi-
dates and electoral observers denounce huge expenditures in the campaigns and the possibility
of vote-buying in a political process still marked by drug traffic and clientelism. The Electoral
Observation Mission (MOE) in Colombia knew the case of a Senate candidate with expenditures
that could reach 7,000 million pesos (around US$3.5 million) despite the cap of 675 million stipu-
lated by the law.
dinero_en_la_actual_campana_-id-10337.htm (accessed July 2010).
8. (accessed July 2009).
9. In a well-documented study,
Garca Villegas (2009) shows how judges in Colombia are relegated to resolving the less conse-
quential cases.
10. The logic of this argument is similar to that of Derluguian and Earle (2010: 52): Why would
central rulers abdicate from direct control and instead rely on the self-serving local notables?
Because, compared with the costs and risks of a serious state-building effort, this personalistic
strategy offers a quick fix, which is relatively inexpensive and can be manipulated easily in the
short run according to chieftancys ever shifting calculations. It seduces the rulers concerned
mainly with buying off internal rivals rather than containing class-organized political competition
for directing the state. Moreover, the majority of peripheral states to this day contain large pools
of rural or semi-rural populations whose (arguably miserable) life conditions are obtained through
various forms of subsistence and subsidiary sources like labor migration, micro-entrepreneurship
or informal micro-trade.
11. See
Rank.html (accessed October 2010).

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