Desmond Arias on How Criminals Govern


In politics, people sometimes talk about whoever is in power as if they were criminals. On occasion, these claims are technically correct. Someone someplace might be stealing money. Someone someplace might be ignoring the technicalities of the law.

This is not the same as genuine bona fide criminal governance. Criminal governance is when criminal gangs really ARE the primary political power in an area. The leading expert on this subject is Desmond Arias, at John Jay College at the City University of New York. He has compiled a career of distinction looking at the relationship between criminal gangs, slum dwellers and the government in Latin America. He has done extensive work on such high crime settings as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Medellin in Colombia, Kingston in Jamaica and more recently, Caracas in Venezuela. His early work centered on alliances between gangs and political parties – and the key role of gangs in winning elections. Criminal governance does not necessarily involve the actual holding of government office. Criminal governance can occur when:

1. The power of the official government does not extend to certain regions. Inside those areas, whoever has access to physical force becomes the government by default. Guillermo O’Donnell referred to such holes in the fabric of government control as “brown zones”.

Brown zones most typically occur in two types of settings.

a. They occur in wilderness frontiers such as dense forests or mountain ranges. Roads into these regions are few and far between. Hostile forces can disappear into inaccessible terrain. Frontier brown zones are basically stateless with transitory political control. Whoever has gunmen here and now controls the area. That control will last until the gunmen leave.

b. Brown zones can also occur in urban slums. Technically, the police or the military “could” force the gangs out of particular slum neighborhoods. But for various reasons, they choose not to do so. Why do they choose not to do so?

2. The criminal gang was instrumental in getting the current government elected into power. In return for their political support, the government lets the gang run its own territory at will.

3. The criminal gang contains elements of the police or the military. The government does not go after the gang, because the government IS the gang. In some cases, the money from criminal operations filters up to higher individuals in government. In some cases, the gang does dirty jobs the government needs done but should not do itself. (Silencing protesters, for example, or violently removing residents from land the government wishes to develop.)  In other cases, there is no economic relationship between the gang and the government whatsoever – but there are ties of personal loyalty to the policemen or military officers in the gang. Either way, the gang is free to do what it likes on its home territory.

In Arias’ article in the February 2020 edition of Current History, he turns his attention to what gangs do when they actually have political control over their home territory. How do gangs actually govern?

The simple answer to this question is that gangs have two different modalities of governing. They are not mutually exclusive.

One modality is to buy the loyalty of local residents by providing legitimate government services. Brazil has a lot of “militias”, gangs comprised heavily of current or ex-policemen. Brazil also has a lot of political office holders who are gang members. Holders of elected offices are exempt from criminal prosecution in Brazil. This is an excellent motivation for gang leaders to run for election for positions such as state senator or city councilman. Once the leaders hold bona fide elected positions, they get access to the same patronage and pork that would be available to non-criminal politicians. They can use those to improve the quality of state and municipal services for their constituents. They also get the ability to run charities, manage government contracts and control local government administrative offices like lotteries and notaries. Much the same as non-gang politicians, they run these functions partially legitimately and partially corruptly; they expropriate part of the revenue for themselves but otherwise do their jobs.

Other services involve providing alternative forms of policing. Gangs can crack down on other criminal activities that occur in their territory. They can provide bona fide protection to merchants. They can enforce community norms of justice against violent offenders.

Gangs can also intervene to facilitate access to government services for poor people who would otherwise be underserved. Patients who might otherwise have to wait hours to be seen in an understaffed emergency room can receive expedited treatment with the appropriate escorts. Brazilian gangs can also be spectacular entertainers. One can buy a lot of loyalty with food, drink and music. Gang neighborhood parties can be generous with good eating, lavish supplies of intoxicants and first-rate performers.

This does not mean all gangs are Robin Hood, and that criminal cartels are just normal governments that work using other means.

The second modality for gang governance is extortion. The gangs use their power over their territories to raise money for the rest of their operations. The paying of protection money is routine. They also monopolize businesses that would otherwise be the basis for economic opportunities for the rest of the community. In Rio de Janeiro, the gangs control the distribution of cooking gas canisters, the operation of informal minibuses, and access to cable TV and the internet. The gas and minibus operations are particularly concerning because those are labor intense operations. They could provide tremendous opportunities for local residents to become entrepreneurs and attain upward mobility. Gang control also raises an issue for consumers. Monopoly control means higher prices for gas, for minibuses and for informal access to cable. Criminal control of these sectors lowers employment in the relevant neighborhoods and raises the cost of living for people who already have little access to money.

Arias’ analysis does not particularly suggest that there are “nice” gangs and “not-so-nice” gangs. It would seem that most gangs both provide legitimate services and extort the community for money simultaneously. Would the neighborhoods be better off without the gangs is a complicated question which differs from case to case. When the gangs are not comprised of police members themselves, the gangs often protect against predations by racist or corrupt police. Levels of government services and police protection are often wretched in poor neighborhoods. The gangs in some cases can represent an improvement. In other cases, including in my opinion, nearly all of the cases of gangs run by present-day or former policemen, criminal control of neighborhoods is highly problematic for the residents involved.

However, regardless of whether we view gangs as a good thing or a bad thing, the present-day conditions of the Global South guarantee that they will be a continuing thing. And in a world of questionable governance, they will continue to be an important and hard-to-ignore governing force. Posturing by the American mass media and by American politicians about whether they like this group or that group in charge of the country as a whole, and arguments about democracy versus dictatorship, or pro-West versus pro-Something-Else, ignore the fact that the government that the mass media and the politicians are talking about who rules the Presidential Palace and the Legislative Chambers only. The Official Government may not control all of the Capitol City.  It may also not control huge swathes of the hinterlands.

The control that matters will be local control. Much of that local control will be in the hands of gangs.

For More Information 

Desmond Arias’ classic discussion of the relationship between gangs and political power is his first book on Rio de Janeiro: Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks and Security. (2009, North Carolina).

 For an extension to other nations in Latin America, see his Criminal Enterprises and Governance in Latin America and the Caribbean. (2018, Cambridge)

On Brown Zones, see Guillermo O’Donnell’s “Quality of Democracy: Why the Rule of Law Matters.” in the 2004 Journal of Democracy