Tuesday Seminar Series: The Scramble for Brazil: How Prison Gangs Colonized a Continent’s Criminal Markets


Tuesday, October 9, 2018, 12:00pm


CGIS South, S250, 1730 Cambridge Street

Speaker: Benjamin Lessing, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago

Throughout the Americas, prison gangs have learned to establish governance over street-level actors from behind bars. The leading example is Brazil’s Primerio Comando da Capital (PCC), which since 2001 imposes social order and alternative justice throughout São Paulo's urban periphery. It has also expanded territorially, establishing cells in all 27 Brazilian states, reshaping criminal subworlds across the country. The PCC's superior organization and bureaucratic structure give it technological advantages over local rivals and Rio's de Janeiro's older and cruder Comando Vermelho, making it the largest criminal group in the country. However, It has also faced strong resistance from these gangs, seriously impeding its imperial ambition. I argue that the Comando Vermelho's more charismatic style of rule has proven resilient despite its inefficiency, because charismatic authority is ultimately better suited to the criminal enterprise.

Benjamin Lessing, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, studies "criminal conflict"—organized violence involving armed groups that do not seek formal state power, such as drug cartels, prison gangs, and paramilitaries. His first book, Making Peace In Drug Wars (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, 2017), examines armed conflict between drug cartels and the state in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. Currently, he is conducting field research in Brazil for a second book, tentatively titled Inside Out: How Prison Gangs Organize Crime (And Threaten the State) From Behind Bars. It explores the counterproductive effects of mass-incarceration policies, which inadvertently strengthen armed criminal groups at the core of the state's coercive apparatus. Lessing has also founded the Criminal Governance in the Americas project, which is measuring the extent and intensity of gang rule over civilian populations throughout Latin America. With Chris Blattman (Harris School of Public Policy), he is conducting a field experiment in Medellin, Colombia aimed at reducing criminal governance in low-income neighborhoods, and he is co-director, along with Paul Staniland (UChicago Political Science), of the Project on Political Violence at Chicago. Lessing has also studied gang-state negotiations and armed electioneering by paramilitary groups.  Prior to his doctoral work at UC Berkeley, Lessing lived in Rio de Janeiro for five years, first as a Fulbright scholar, later conducting field research on arms trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean for non-governmental organizations including Amnesty International, Oxfam, and Viva Rio, Brazil’s largest NGO. Lessing attended Kenyon College, and was born in Rochester, Michigan in 1973.