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Tuesday, May 29, 2012


It has become conventional to refer to all types of gangs and organized crime as if they were synonymous with the illegal drug business. Popular terms like "drug gangs" and "narco-cartels" obscure a fundamental point: crime organizations are political organizations. They are rivals to the legitimate state, and their fundamental asset is their capacity for wielding violence. Their rise and fall, and the amount and kind of violence they perform is explainable by political sociology.

It is easy to demonstrate that drug business is not central, since most crime organizations historically have had little to do with it.

The Mafia in the U.S., in its most flourishing period between 1930 and 1980, was primarily involved in extortion/protection rackets. It drew most of its income and spent most of its time on rake-offs from illegal gambling, prostitution, loan-sharking, debt-collecting, as well as extortion of legal business such as construction, waste collection, wholesale food markets, restaurants, and corruption of labor unions and local government. One of the five families of the New York Mafia, the Lucchese Family, was a major conduit of heroin smuggling and wholesaling in the 1940s-60s. But this was a small part of the overall operation; the prosperity of the Mafia did not rise or fall with the heroin business, and the occasional power struggles in the five families were not over the drug business. One might argue, analogously, that alcohol prohibition during the 1920s was the stimulus to the formation of the Mafia; but Mafia organization dates from 1931 when Lucky Luciano set up the Commission, and its period of greatest dominance was in the 40 years after the end of Prohibition.

The Mafia families in Sicily, from their reestablishment after the fall of the Fascist regime in World War II through their demise in the 1990s, were involved in what Diego Gambetta [1993] calls the business of protection. In the absence of government regulation and in at atmosphere of pervasive distrust, all economic transactions needed a protector or guarantor, and this was provided by traditional secret societies of "men of honor" who received payoffs in return. The scope of businesses under Mafia protection was even wider than in the U.S., and consisted more of legal activities than illegal ones-- gambling was not prominent in Sicily, though an illegal source of income was smuggling cigarettes to avoid taxation, and turfs for pickpocket gangs were enforced in Palermo. Sicilian Mafia families did become important pipelines for heroin processing and smuggling from the Middle-East across the Atlantic. But this was not the key to the Sicilian Mafias; they existed long before the heroin trade, and their protection business remained centered on the local economy.

The Russian crime organizations of the 1990s arose during the period of privatizing the Soviet economy. Their main focus was selling protection/extortion to licit businesses, ranging from small street market vendors to commercial and industrial companies, and they had a large role in taking over former state enterprises. The biggest criminal protection businesses amalgamated with the crumbling government bureaucracy and became legitimate as the economic "oligarchs". By the early 2000s, Russian crime-orgs had ploughed back so much of their illegal gains into the above-ground economy that they abandoned illegal force and became a major part of normal business. Even during their outlaw period of the mid-1990s-- when they were most violent-- they were relatively little involved in running illicit businesses such as drugs. Why focus on drugs when you can take over oil and gas?

The Japanese Yakuza originated historically in gangs allocating stalls in outdoor markets. During the US occupation after WWII, Yakuza families expanded to provide ordinary consumer goods on a black market-- i.e. making scarce goods available outside of government rationing. Since that time, Yakuza activities have resembled those of the NY Mafia, including strong-arm debt collecting, labor disciplining for manufacturers, and protecting illicit businesses such as strip clubs and prostitution. Drugs were at most a minor part of their activities.

Similarly with smaller crime organizations: historically most gangs concentrated on other activities than drugs; even today, when many street gangs are involved in some aspect of drug distribution, for most gangs it is not their central activity. For instance, some motorcycle gangs (i.e. white gang members) are involved in distributing methamphetamine, but the primary purpose of these gangs is showing off and fighting against rival motorcycle gangs. Local gangs are sociable groups in it for action and fun, but they have a political aspect because they organize violence to back each other up-- and with organized violence, we enter the realm of politics and the state.

There are several kinds of crime organizations, and their differences are explainable by their politics. This means their internal politics-- how they control violence inside their own ranks-- and their external geopolitics-- how they deal with rival organizations. Drug business affects the structure and violence of crime-orgs only as it feeds into their politics.

What makes some gangs small, while others grow into large but loose alliances, and a few become underground governments? What makes some crime-orgs centralized and hierarchic, while others are localized and egalitarian? Why do some engage in lengthy wars of expansion and extermination, while others confine themselves to local crime and skirmishing at the borders of their turf, and still others-- the most successful ones-- make their violence terrifying but limited and stealthy? Let us compare.

Types of Crime Organizations:

Mafia-style syndicates -- protection/extortion, govt. corruption;
underground govt.
New York, Sicily, Russia, other ex-Soviet republics, Japanese Yakuza,
Chinese Triads

Local neighborhood turf gangs (10-20-50-100 members)

Symbol-based alliances
Crips (30,000) , Bloods (15,000),
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13 & other factions: 50,000 in US )

Multi-gang alliances with political / religious ideologies
People Nation (comprised of Blackstones, Vice Lords, Latin Kings, Bloods)
Folk Nation (comprised of Gangster Disciples, Dieciocho, Hoover Crips)

Large Corporate Gangs ( Chicago) – hierarchic, mainly drug business
Blackstones / Black P. Stone Nation (60,000), Vice Lords (60,000)
Latin Kings (30-45,000)

Mafia-style syndicates

After a crime war among rival Italian, Irish, and Jewish gangs in the New York area, the victorious alliance in 1931 set up a Commission consisting of the heads of five Mafia families, with all other crime families around the USA under the jurisdiction of the one of the New York families. It was called the Peace Commission because its aim was to prevent civil wars. It kept a low profile. All killings inside the Mafia had to be authorized by the Commission; if not, the perpetrator himself would be killed. Killing policemen and government officials was strictly prohibited, and anyone found out plotting such a killing was reported to the Commission and executed. The policy of the Commission was to corrupt local government by reaching accommodation, not to fight with it and draw down the force of the Federal government. Executions were ordered as a matter of organizational discipline, targeting specific individuals as a warning to the rest to stay in line. This was strictly Mafia business; women and personal relatives of those punished were to be left alone and even supported after their man was dead. The aim was to cut off chains of revenge killings by imposing a political solution. And it was all done through layers of secrecy: the technique of murder was not a risky gunfight but a stealthy shot at point-blank range or a bomb under foot, usually set up by betrayal of one's closest friends.

The system worked but not perfectly. Occasionally aging Mafia chiefs were killed or forced out by the younger generation, and some families had brief civil wars. The Commission usually legitimated the outcomes of these wars and carried on. It was able to rule with a high degree of secrecy for 30 years, with near immunity from the corrupt New York government. Publicity began to expose the Mafia in the 1960s, and in the 1980s and 90s Federal prosecutors using RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) law reduced the Mafia to a trivial presence in a few American cities.

The Yakuza also operated more with a show of toughness than widespread use of violence. There were some periods of war between rival organizations, but for the most part the Yakuza stabilized in separate territories. They achieved a modus vivendi with Japanese government officials, and even operated openly out of offices with their names on it. Unlike the US, where Federal law enforcement was a counterpoise to corrupt state government, the Japanese national government monopolized police functions and rarely made much effort to eliminate organized crime, probably because of its long-standing alliance with the ruling party against leftist labor organizations.

Russian crime orgs in the 1990s began with a large number of small gangs, with shoot-outs peaking during 1993-95. They never achieved a centralized governing body like the New York Mafia. But they evolved a relatively peaceful (if threatening) technique of negotiating rival claims over who was protecting which business; as the gangs winnowed down to an oligopoly, their above-ground organization increased their staff of business and negotiation specialists, and eventually reduced their reliance on force as they acquired legitimate property and made alliances with government officials. Here too the path to success was by limiting violence and substituting political arrangements. The Russian crime organizations were the world's most successful Mafia. They had unusual opportunities-- the chance to take over state properties during a time when socialism was privatizing-- and relatively weak opposition-- a crumbling government bureaucracy without a legal tradition setting boundaries between crime and the new capitalist system. Ordinarily, big crime-orgs expose themselves to government attack because their sheer size becomes hard to keep under cover; in the case of the ex-Soviet Union (here we should include most of the successor states besides Russia), they were able to move above ground and become the new Establishment.

In contrast to these successful Mafias, the Sicilian Mafia fought a series of bloody civil wars among themselves in the early 1960s, and again in the late 1970s-1980s, killing up to 1000 Mafia members including many bosses. There were over 100 separate Mafia families, and they were never able to achieve stable alliances. Under the advice of lordly American mafiosi visiting in the late 1950s, at attempt was made to set up a Peace Commission, but it broke down immediately when it was unable to resolve disputes. A split in the Commission over money owed in a heroin smuggling case set off the first Mafia War. This was a political war, not a drug war; the issue was the suspicion that the Commission was just a means for one faction to impose its domination over the others. (A similar issue would break up the Crips, when that attempt at a black-unity gang alliance fell apart in accusations of a power grab.)

Spiraling Mafia violence attracted government attention from the mainland; when investigating officials were assassinated (chiefly by bombs in roadways and cars), the Italian government escalated its crackdown, with mass arrests and maxi-trials. The Sicilian mafias fought not only with each other but engaged in war with the Italian government, probably because they were made arrogant by long-standing local political control and failure of national state penetration into Sicily. But the Italian government mobilized military and police forces far exceeding the strength of the divided Sicilian groups; mafiosi under death threat from rivals began to break their oaths of silence and provide evidence. By the end of the 1990s, the Sicilian mafia was largely destroyed; on the mainland, it was displaced by Calabrian and Neapolitan crime orgs. Fighting against the government proved to be a fatal mistake. As the New York Mafia and the Russian crime-orgs demonstrate, the most successful do best by corrupting the state rather than fighting with it.

Local neighborhood turf gangs

Turn now to the other end of the scale. Gangs are relatively small groups, controlling a few blocks of a city. Structures vary; some have elected leaders, others are informal. Their origins are in children's play groups, dedicated to having fun and getting into mischief. They may engage in crimes, but this is not necessarily an organized activity of the group. The clubhouse or hangout is a place where gang members can form ad hoc crews to carry out car thefts, burglaries, robberies, or extortions; i.e. the gang is more of an umbrella under which its members come together to commit their own crimes. Some gangs claim a percentage of their criminal profits, others collect dues, chiefly for the clubhouse and for parties. Neighborhood gangs are often like social clubs, fraternities for poor people, who support themselves to an extent with crime.

The identity of the gang is based on its violence, or more precisely, ostentatious bluster and threat. Elijah Anderson argues that the code of the street in the black inner-city is mainly projecting a tough demeanor; when this is done correctly, it establishes membership and deters violence. But the gang has to demonstrate some violence, both in initiation fights, and in threats against rivals who enter their territory, and occasional incursions into enemy territories. Gang "rumbles" existed since violent teen-age gangs appeared in the 1950s, first with Puerto Rican gangs in New York City. The early gangs were not fighting over drug business, nor even protection rackets; they existed largely for the prestige of fighting, and their main concern was "action".

Since the 1970s and 80s, it has become common for local street gangs to be connected with the drug business, usually at the low retail end, and violence can take place over prime vending locations. But this is not a necessary gang activity; gangs have existed without the drug business, either as an umbrella for crime crews, or just for sociability and the excitement of fighting. In the 1950s, gangs were often consumers of heroin, but not dealers. It is still the case now, when gangs sell drugs, either as a collective enterprise or as individuals protected by the gang, that gang members consume much of the drugs themselves; such gangs do not derive much profit from the drug business. Gangs with a lavish, hedonistic lifestyle accumulate very little wealth from crime-- including non-drug crimes. Here is another way gangs differ from successful Mafias, which are much more disciplined in their lifestyle. The most self-disciplined of all were the Russian crime-orgs, which reinvested their income in buying up legitimate businesses, and eventually raised themselves out of the crime world.

Symbol-based Alliances and Multi-gang Alliances: Diplomatic Peace Treaties

These are loose, horizontal alliances between gangs who adopt the same symbols. Symbol-based gangs, with their distinctive gang colors and signs (hand gestures, ways of strutting, etc.) are diplomatic peace treaties among those who belong. Instead of every local gang being the enemy of every other, half the gangs they encounter may be their allies. It is suggestive that the cities with the highest homicide rates--- Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia-- have no little structure beyond small gangs fighting each other every few blocks.

The Crips were created in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, during the Civil Rights movement, in an attempt to stop fighting among Black gangs and concentrate on their racial enemy-- hypothetically whites, but in practice Hispanic gangs. The Crips alliance did not hold together, and a split produced the Bloods, a rival gang who spend their time chiefly in hostility to the Crips, thus producing a grand division between two different segments of black gangs. In areas where there are only Crips and no Bloods, the alliance does not work, since its outside enemy does not exist; in these places Crips divide into local factions who fight each other. As is typical of gangs, most violence is inside their own ethnic group; black gangs usually fight each other, Hispanic gangs are against each other, with white gangs in yet a third arena (such as rivalries between motorcycle gangs). Racial segregation of violence in the gang world is evidence that their violence is largely honorific; despite occasional ideological claims of rebellion against dominant white society, gang violence is a local game in a racial arena, a way of claiming status simply by being in the action. * Compared to Mafias, who are after real power and use violence strategically to uphold their organization, gang alliances and their violence are largely adolescent-style bravado.

* Crips-vs-Bloods conflict was called off during the major race riot in Los Angeles in 1992, following the Rodney King verdict. For the moment, racial alliance was reestablished while there was open violence against whites and Korean store-owners.

Symbol-based alliances have no hierarchy. There is no national leader of the Crips or the Bloods. They are umbrellas joining together all those who display the same symbolism. They are simply dividing lines, telling you who to fight, and who not to fight. The component gangs inside these alliances may engage in various crimes, including the drug business. But the symbolic alliance per se does not engage in the drug business, or any other collective activities. An analogy in political history would be wars between Catholics and Protestants, with further subdivisions of radical Protestants (Calvinists, Evangelicals) against conservative Protestant churches (Anglicans or Lutherans).

A stronger form of alliance has been attempted in multi-gang alliances such as the People Nation (comprised of Blackstones, Vice Lords, Latin Kings, Bloods) and the Folk Nation (comprised of Gangster Disciples, Hoover Crips, Dieciocho). These mega-alliances brought together already large gang structures, and were created by gang leaders in prisons-- by imitation one right after the other in November 1978. These too were offshoots of the Civil Rights movement; they had explicit political or sometimes religious ideologies, keeping the peace among gangs to concentrate against white society. But criminal gangs are not well equipped to contest political power on the state level, and in practice the People Nation and Folk Nation operated as diplomatic alliances grouping many of the big gangs into two blocs, fighting each other. For the most part these mega-gangs just concentrated on displaying their identities by flashing symbols, and performed no coordinated action; leaders like Larry Hoover (who held the honorific title of Chairman) were figures of prestige rather than authorities giving orders.

Some mega-gangs pushed further. The Latin Kings began as an organization of Puerto Rican gangs in Chicago, with a breakaway eventually transferring its center to New York. The Latin Kings attempted an political hierarchy, with top leaders adopting titles like the Inca-- identifying with non-Western symbols, much as some of the big Chicago gangs identified with Islam. In the Puerto Rican neighbourhoods of New York, Latin Kings ventured above ground, taking part in Puerto Rican nationalist rallies and political movements. Their move into legitimate politics was not successful, since it did not deter government officials from arrest sweeps and RICO prosecutions. This points up an important difference between even very large gang alliances and the various Mafias: Mafias prospered where they were able to corrupt government, acting surreptitiously and keeping their identity secret; whereas all of the American-style gang alliances have been very ostentatious, flaunting their colors and gang signs in public. This left them in no position to corrupt the government secretly; and it made them easy to identify when the government cracked down.

Multi-gang alliances were not organizational bases of the drug business. Their members might be in the drug business, but the mega-gang gave them little help in this respect. In New York in the 1990s, the Latin Kings became antagonistic to Dominican drug wholesalers who supplied Puerto Rican street dealers. With their increased political consciousness, the leaders of the Latin Kings recognized that the Dominican wholesalers were franchising out drug sales to another ethnic group, who received the smallest share of profits, and took the greatest risk of street violence and arrest. In effect, the Dominican dealers were capitalists exploiting Puerto Rican labor. The ideology of the Latin Kings shows that a large, politically conscious crime-org may actually oppose the drug business.

As Naylor [2004] has pointed out, wholesale production and distribution of illegal drugs is most effective when it is decentralized. It is prudent to employ isolated individuals or small groups, who have little information about supply chains as a whole. An expectable percentage of smugglers are arrested and their drugs confiscated; a wholesaler needs to be decentralized, especially on both sides of an international border crossing. Similarly with the manufacture of raw materials into drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine: economies of scale are not desirable, due to the danger of detection and exploitation (either by the government or by rival crime organizations); many decentralized plants are better than a few large ones. Ethnic networks are often useful, since they provide a degree of cultural filtering to provide trustworthy connections, but to speak of a Dominican mafia or cartel would be misleading: its effectiveness is in staying decentralized. It is not surprising that a big, unusually centralized (and out-front) organization like the Latin Kings, would be in low-end drug retailing, and exploited by a decentralized (and much more secretive) network of wholesalers (who are unified only by being Dominican).

Large Corporate Hierarchical Gangs: an exception, but temporary

For a time during the 1960s through the 1990s, large hierarchic gangs built up, chiefly in Chicago. Among the most famous were the Blackstones (with various name changes) and the Vice Lords, each reaching 60,000 members. As we know from Venkatesh, who penetrated the middle levels of the organization, there was an unusual amount of top-down control: low-level members were paid salaries, assigned regular hours, and inspected by managers. Earnings went upwards through middle ranks to the top of the hierarchy, a board of directors who made considerable incomes and held property through their mothers or families. These corporate gangs were to a large extent based on the drug business, not only staking out particular territories (typically staircases in the public housing projects) but also controlling access to wholesalers. It wasn't all drugs; the corporate gang collected protection/extortion money, not only from illicit businesses such as prostitution but also from "gray-market" or "off the books" businesses inside gang turf, such as persons who operated hair salons, grocery stores, or other businesses without getting licenses from the city. It would be misleading to think of the corporate gang as a drug business that operated protection rackets on the side; the key is having sufficient political power to control a territory. If it has this power, it can turn it to any criminal use, including the drug business; but those are outcomes of the criminal organization, not determinants of it.

The Chicago corporate gangs are the major exception to my argument: crime organizations that are indeed centrally based on the drug business. But the big Chicago gangs were largely destroyed in the 1990s; not by eradicating the drug business, but by attacking the political vulnerabilities of the crime-org and its territorial base. Federal prosecutors used RICO indictments pioneered against the Mafia. Especially fatal was the city of Chicago tearing down the massive pubic housing projects in the black neighbourhood-- huge buildings that were effectively no-man's-land where the police would not venture. It was like a real-life experiment, changing the crucial variable. Once their protected turf was gone, the big corporate gangs broke up. Today the old gang names remain, but without economic clout nor violent backup from the hierarchy; Gangster Disciples and others mingle on the streets, warily negotiating mutual threats on the level of small groups. [see forthcoming analysis by Joe Krupnick and Chris Winship]

The Mexican Cartels: Theory and Predictions

The situation of Mexican crime organizations is distinctive because there are so many organizations-- at least 11 major ones. The original cartels were in geographically distinct areas-- the Gulf cartel along the south-east Texas border; the Sonora cartel on the Arizona border; the Arrelano Felix organization in Baja California; the Sinoloa cartel on the major port cities on the Pacific side such as Mazatlan. They were cartels in the true sense, dividing up non-competing territories. More recently they stopped being cartels, as they have invaded each other's territory. The name "cartel" serves as a term of convenience, but it is inaccurate. To call them "drug cartels" involved in a "drug war" is doubly inaccurate. Popular terms are impossible to eradicate, but they hide reality. Mexican crime-orgs are less like rival businesses than rival warrior states of the pre-modern era.

Over time, the situation of territorial cartels developed into multi-sided wars. This came about by a combination of political processes.

Because there are so many players, various alliances were possible. When any one crime organization attempted territorial expansion, counter-alliances were created. Some organizations sent expeditionary forces-- military aid-- to their allies, thereby also expanding their territorial reach, and provoking further defensive reactions. Alliances could change when the host organization felt threatened by the outsiders and made new alliances to throw them out.
A defeat in war, or arrests by the government, would result in a power vacuum. When one organization was weakened, outsiders could move into their territory; or a split would occur within the organization, creating a power struggle among new factions that might crystalize into separate organizations if there were no clear-cut winner. Thus a multi-sided struggle became even more multi-sided as time went on.

Examples: this happened as the Arellano Felix Organization in Baja California split when its older leaders were arrested; when the Sinaloa cartel was split by the Beltrán Leyva brothers; and when Los Zetas broke from the Gulf Cartel. The government acts as a complicating factor in the multi-sided situation, bringing the total number of players to 12 or more, depending on how many independent factions there are in the Mexican government. Above all, government strategy of decapitating the most prominent cartels kept stirring the mix; far from destroying organizations, it kept creating new opportunities for local factions and rival cartels to expand.

These multi-sided conflicts and repeated power vacuums push cartel members into switching sides. Such switches of allegiance are typical in multi-sided geopolitics; the history of European diplomacy is full of them, with the English, French, Germans, Russians and others switching between friends and enemies numerous times over the centuries. The Zetas have been the most aggressively opportunistic. They began as elite airmobile Special Forces set up by the Mexican government distrustful of their own regular military and police. Their very isolation made them amenable to being recruited as bodyguards by one of the quarreling leaders of the Gulf cartel in the early 2000s. Within a few years, as the Gulf cartel was weakened by the government offensive, the Zetas broke free of their underground employers and became another crime-org in its own right. This disloyalty is typical of what happens to paramilitary forces set up by governments outside of normal bureaucratic channels-- for instance in Africa and the Middle East [Schlichte 2009]. Not only are the Zetas not a cartel in the technical sense, but they lack a distinctive territorial base-- being tied neither to particular drug routes nor local roots. They have expanded into anywhere in Mexico where there has been the hint of a power vacuum.

Similarly, vigilante groups set up to keep out intruders or punish criminals the weak state cannot touch, themselves can turn into crime organizations. This has been the pathway of La Familia in Michoacan (far from the major drug routes, but including the Pacific port nearest to Mexico City). It started as a religiously-based rehabilitation movement for drug addicts (not unlike the Synanon movement in California during the 1960s and 70s, which evolved from a group psychotherapy drug cure into a religious cult and eventually into a violent organization). La Famiglia Michoacana (which means "the Michoacan family") gradually shifted from a local self-protection group, defending the region against incursions by the Zetas and others, into the business of protection/extortion and eventually into drug dealing itself. Local loyalties have remained especially strong, since La Famiglia not only maintained its public image as a protector but siphoned its criminal income back into supporting local churches and institutions. The pattern resembles the Latin American tradition of a populist revolutionary movement gone corrupt.

We now have a structural mechanism to explain a distinctive feature of the Mexican cartel wars: spectacular public violence. These are not just killings but tortures and beheadings; displaying corpses-- or parts of them-- in public places; leaving notes on the bodies giving warnings, insults, or explanations.

This raises a technical question in the sociology of violence. In order to torture and mutilate someone, it is necessary to capture them first. This is difficult to do. Many kinds of criminal organizations are unable to do this. American street gangs do not engage in torture and mutilation of their enemies, because their style of violence is brief confrontations or drive-by shootings. Street gangs have narrow territorial boundaries, and lack information about what happens outside their turf.

To capture an enemy requires stealth and planning; this requires information, and therefore informants. A high level of information is displayed also in extortion threats; for instance phone calls to victims telling them details of their families' daily routines.

The structural situation of multi-sided conflicts produces much switching of sides; and this generates useful informants with information about enemies' routines. Internal splits in an organization also creates informants, since whoever leaves one faction can tell the other details about the routines of those they have left.

The situation worsens. As the cycle of defeats and victories, power vacuums, and side-switching goes on, informants themselves are targeted. Informants are the most important weakness for an organization, therefore it tries to deter informants by using spectacular punishments-- more tortures and beheadings.

Public violence has a second purpose: it can be used to send propaganda. Messages attached to bodies can proclaim that it is done to protect the local communities against terrorists, drug cartels, and criminals-- as in the propaganda of La Familia Michoacana. This is propaganda to create local legitimacy. Or propaganda of violence can be used to intimidate possible enemies. But the intimidation is usually not definitive, since in a situation of multi-sided instability, side-switching inevitably happens and the cycle of spectacular violence continues.

What can we predict, using our comparisons among the political structures of crime organizations?

First: drug business is not the key determinant of what they will do. Drugs provide one source of income, and the variety of drug routes provides bases on which some-- but not all-- of the cartels originated. But the main resource of a crime-org is how much violence it can muster, and that depends on its political reach and strength of organizational control. Once the military/political structure exists, it can be turned to different kinds of criminal businesses, whether these involve running a drug business (or any other illegal business); or merely raking off protection money from those who run an illegal business; or extorting protection money from ordinary citizens, including kidnapping. A crime-org might start out in the drug business and shift its activities elsewhere, or vice versa. Randolfo Contreras has shown that in the 1990s when the crack cocaine business dried up in the Bronx, former street dealers went into other areas of crime. In Mexico, when increased border surveillance cut into drug deliveries to the US, crime-orgs expanded into extortion and kidnapping for ransom. The Zetas, because of their organization as Special Forces, were less directly connected with the drug business itself; when they became independent of the declining Gulf cartel, they have moved aggressively into more purely predatory use of violence against other cartels' territories. This is not so much an effort to monopolize the drug trafficking business, as a different political strategy, leveraging their special skill, highly trained military violence.

It follows that ending the illegal drug business-- whether by eradication or by legalization-- would not automatically end violence. Mexican crime-orgs could intensify other types of violent extortion (and so they have, with increased pressure on the US border), as along as they still held territories out of government control; and wars between the cartels would not cease. It is a non sequitur to argue that if the US would stop drug consumption, Mexican cartels and their violence would disappear.

A second prediction comes from historical similarities. The Mexican situation from 2000 onwards resembles the Sicilian Mafia wars that took place from the 1960s through the 1980s. The Sicilian mafias also engaged in corruption of local governments, and a system of protection/extortion covering all economic activities. Surveillance was provided by a large network of informants; and spectacular violence was used when mafiosi were challenged. As in Mexico, there were a large number of Sicilian Mafia families. The wars were multi-sided, both among the different mafia coalitions, and against the Italian national government.

The situation in Sicily was precisely what the US Mafia had organized the Commission to avoid: lengthy civil wars; public violence; and attacks on government officials. After the fall of the crime regime in 1920s Chicago headed by Al Capone-- who was too blatantly public about his political control, and his drive-by machine guns in the street-- the New York mafia ruled by secrecy. There was no effective Peace Commission in Sicily, no centralized organization by which the top Mafia bosses exercized selective violence to keep discipline inside the organization.

The Prognosis: The Italian government won the Sicilian Mafia war; as their local war escalated into attacks on officials of the national government, the government counter-escalated until the Mafia was largely destroyed. Mexico could go the same path. It would be a long war, but winnable-- it took 20-30 years for the national government to reassert control in Sicily.

An alternative pathway could be a change in government policy. Since the PAN administration of President Calderón took office in 2006, the policy has been to pursue all-out war against all the crime organizations, resulting in at least 50,000 persons killed through 2011, with the yearly number rising to 15,000. It is possible that an electoral victory by PRI, the long-time former ruling party known for its history of corruption, would result in a new policy of accommodation. Some of the more stable and least expansive cartels would be given tacit recognition in their region, while the more aggressive and territorially expansive groups-- above all the Zetas--- would be targeted for extermination. The result might be something like the fate of the Russian mafia of the 1990s: ending their mutual turf wars, reducing conflict among themselves, and finding acceptance by corrupt government officials sharing in their wealth. In the case of Russia, the whole process was finished in about 10 years. Given that the intense cartel wars in Mexico so far have gone on about 5 years, the Russian example suggests a decline in violence in a few years might be feasible.


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Venkatesh, Sudhir. 2008. Gang Leader for a Day.
Volkov, Vadim. 2002. Violent Entrepreneurs. The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Moby Dick is usually regarded as a novel of deep symbolism. No doubt this accounts for much of its literary appeal. But it is built on a practical observation. Herman Melville, through his experiences on whaling ships, recognized that a harpooned whale essentially kills itself. By running away, the whale dragged a boat-load of sailors for several miles until the whale was exhausted, and this eventually allowed the harpooner to close in and finish it off. A whale is much bigger and stronger than its pursuers; if it fought them head-to-head in the water it would win. But whales are not belligerent animals, and they are frightened, and this is what drags them to their death.

Moby Dick is a thought-experiment. Melville imagines what it would be like if a whale were as intelligent as a human. Instead of running away it would turn and fight. Moby Dick, the white whale, is scarred with harpoons still tangled on his back; these are wounds or trophies from previous encounters with humans, but he always turned and wrecked the harpooners’ boats. As literary critics have generally recognized, he is white to indicate he is nearly human. But no one in the novel explicitly recognizes wherein his humanness lies-- that he recognizes the tactic humans rely on to kill whales. The limits of humans’ perceptiveness of animals come out in their seeing Moby Dick only as supernatural or diabolical (and in the case of the critics, as symbolic). Moby Dick is not necessarily malevolent, but he is intelligent enough to see that running away will kill him, and that his only chance is to turn and counter-attack.

In this respect, Moby Dick also illustrates a main principle of human-on-human conflict. Winning a fight generally begins with establishing emotional dominance; and most of the physical damage occurs after one side emotionally dominates the other (Collins, 2008, Violence: A Macro-Sociological Theory).

Ernest Hemingway gives a parallel but much more explicit analysis of bullfighting (1932, Death in the Afternoon). A mature fighting bull is much bigger, stronger, and faster than the humans who try to kill him in the bull ring. The bull weighs 800 to 1000 pounds, runs faster than humans for short distances, and has horns that are sharp and penetrating as the swords and lances bullfighters use against him. The only way humans can kill a bull (without resorting to guns or poisons, that is) is wear him out. The team of bullfighters lure the bull one way and another by waving bright colored capes and cloths on sticks at him, getting the bull to chase the human but getting out of the way of his horns (if the bullfighters are skilled and lucky) while the bull follows the lure of the cloth. Near the beginning of the fight the humans also stab the bull in the shoulders with lances and mini-harpoons so that the bull will spend the rest of the fight goaded into anger, and indeed looking a little like Moby Dick; also this is done to tire the bull from carrying his head high where he can use his horns to stab a human in the chest. The bullfighter’s main technique for wearing down the bull, however, is the fancy spins and side-steps with the cape, which not only cause the bull to miss the man-- and make the audience cheer-- but make the bull turn abruptly in his tracks. This is a way of using the bull’s weight and speed against himself; the bull cannot turn in a radius less than the length of his own body, and if he tries, he twists his spine and eventually reaches a point where he can barely charge, and cannot keep his head up where he can kill the man with his horns. At this point, the matador lures the bull’s head downwards with the bright red cloth in one hand, while he reaches in over the horns with a sword and kills him through a spot in the back of his neck.

Hemingway explicitly mentions that the bullfighters’ technique is like that of a big-game fisherman, tiring a big fish by letting it run on a rod until it is so exhausted that it can be hauled out of the water to die. He doesn’t mention Moby Dick, and presumably no fish have been intelligent enough to use Moby Dick’s tactic against the fisherman. But bulls appear to be good learners. In fact, Hemingway states, the cardinal rule of the modern bullfight is that the bull should never have fought a human before it enters the bullring. It has never seen the inside of a bullring before, nor a crowd, nor the bright-colored capes nor the bullfighters and their weapons. It follows the lure of the bright-colored cloths and misses the humans it aims at with its horns. It tires itself out chasing and dies when it is worn out.

For bullfighting, this is more than a thought-experiment, as Hemingway describes occasions where experienced bulls fight humans again and again. The first-rate bullrings in the big cities use only new, inexperienced bulls, but bullfights in smaller towns, and especially those where amateurs fight, use cheaper bulls-- used bulls. Like used cars, the principle is buyer beware, since used bulls are experienced bulls, and they have learned the tricks humans are up to [pp. 19-21, 94, 104, 111-114]. Hemingway mentions a bull that killed sixteen men and wounded another sixty; no humans were ever skilled enough to kill it in the ring, and it was eventually disposed of in a meat slaughter-house. Experienced bulls soon recognize that they are only being lured by the bright cape; they will stand still and refuse to charge, then pick out one particular human in the throng and chase him down, refusing to be distracted by the others, until the bull has caught his victim and tossed and gored him as many times as he can. The bull who has fought before no longer charges straight at the bright cloth, but chops sideways and cuts with his horns looking for the man behind it. Hemingway comments that even inexperienced bulls can learn during the course of a 15-minute bullfight, so that if they are not sufficiently worn down by the bullfighters’ tactics the bull will become increasingly dangerous and able to kill the man before he kills him. The most intelligent bulls are the most dangerous, and a bull that has successfully gored a man gains confidence and aims to gore him again.

There is another way in which bulls learn their fighting skills, although this part has nothing to do with humans. Bulls out on the range fight with each other, head to head; using their horns like fencers, blocking and parrying; if one bull gets through and gores the other, he may not let it get up but keeps it off balance and gores it again until it is dead. Once getting the momentum, the dominance of energy and psychology, the victorious animal may push his advantage to the death. If two sparring bulls develop their skills at the same rate, their fights end in stalemates, like skilled boxers who block all the dangerous blows and wind down in respectful equality. But a bullfight with humans is designed to end in death on one side or the other; and if a bull is able to get through the human’s tricks of distracting his attention with bright colored cloths, he has the skilled moves with his horns that he learned against other bulls. Bulls who are only two or three years old are not very dangerous yet, and novice bullfighters can use them to practice their own skills on; but five-year-old bulls have learned too much and only the best bullfighters are supposed to fight them (and vice versa).

Hemingway comments that a bullfight is not designed to be a fair fight or a sport, but a spectacle to show off certain human skills and generate emotions from the apparent risk of human death. Hemingway was a meticulous observer and did not take other people’s word for anything, but checked out the details himself. (In this case, he saw 1500 bullfights.) He was one of the great sociologists of micro-interaction, 30 years before Goffman and 50 years before we started examining human-on-human interactions in detail with audio recordings and now photos and videos. Not many sociologists have studied human-animal interaction (although recently an increasing number; see especially the works of Colin Jerolmack on pigeons). My chief caveat is about claiming that human-animal confrontations-- i.e. violence-threatening confrontations-- are the same as human-on-human confrontations. Humans confronting each other come up against a wall of confrontational tension/fear (ct/f), a tension arising from the hard-wiring in humans that makes us especially susceptible to rituals of mutual solidarity, Interaction Rituals in the specifically sociological sense. (This is very different from the way ‘ritual’ has been used by animal ethologists where it means genetically determined gestures of dominance and submission; see Collins, Violence, pp. 25-29). Successful instances of human violence come from getting around the barrier of ct/f, sometimes by chance, but also by techniques that persons skilled in violence learn to use.

The kinds of violence that Hemingway describes in the case of bullfights come close to the claim that both humans and animals can lose fights by fear, and by the dominant side taking advantage of the other side’s fear; (elsewhere Hemingway makes somewhat similar arguments in the case of big-game hunting: see especially The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber). Apropos of bulls, Hemingway also claims that some animals and humans are just inherently braver than others (how would we prove this?); and that they get killed not out of being emotionally dominated but out of stupid moves that they make out of bravery and that get taken advantage of by the other side’s conscious anticipation and trickery (which is probably true). Thus the skilled human bullfighter finds it easier to fight a brave bull than a less aggressive but more intelligent, strategic bull. With big-game fish like marlins, the equivalent of bravery seems to be the energetic drive that makes them run and pull to their deaths. With whales, the animals seem easily put into a state of fear and avoidance; and for a whale to act like Moby Dick would take an unrealistically human quality of intelligence that tells him the best strategy is not to run but to use his superior strength in a counter-attack.

The comparison makes it puzzling why whales, which are regarded as closer to humans in their intelligence, are not as good at learning fighting skills (and seeing through the techniques that humans use on them) as bulls, of a species never regarded as very intelligent. The entire question suggests that we are dealing with multiple dimensions, and that neither a biological generalization across all species, nor a gradation of nonhuman-to-human intelligence, will get at the key sources of variation. In my own work on the micro-sociology of human violence, I have avoided generalizing beyond humans, because I have not systematically looked at the primary data on infra-human animal interactions; and judging from my own experience with what other researchers have said about human violence, I don’t trust many researchers to make a well-justified theory out of what first-hand observations actually show.

With Hemingway on bulls, and Melville on whales, we have a couple of careful observers who came to their own conclusions. I’m not prepared to go much further than this, but one point seems justified: skills at violence are learned, certainly by humans, and apparently by animals where we can carefully observe them in various situations. The main aspect of violent skill is a social skill: being able to pick out a favorable opponent, recognize the opponent’s weakness-- above all the moment of emotional weakness-- and in more highly skilled forms, to recognize the tactics the opponent is using and make allowance for them. Fighting bulls, who otherwise don’t seem very intelligent, are good at this, just as humans who fight bulls have collectively evolved a set of techniques for fighting animals who also have such capacities. Perhaps this is an unusual case in humans-vs-animals conflict. But it illustrates well the character of human-vs-human conflict in our own history.


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