Blattman Lessing Tobon Duncan 2022

From Projecting Power

Gang Rule: Understanding and Countering Criminal Governance[edit]

Main Argument:[edit]

Christopher Blattman, Gustavo Duncan, Santiago Tobón and Benjamin Lessing explore how the state governance and gang rule co-exist and possibly compliment each other, despite the differing tactics of eliciting power, through examples of gang presence in several countries, noting how gangs tend to drive out the state and serve civilians. Throughout this essay, they interview gang members, perform case studies in Medellín, Colombia, and analyze the emergence, growth, and establishment of gang rule while acknowledging the state's presence and impact on gang rule.


  • Millions of people across the globe live under criminal and state governance, experiencing the establishment of a new social order, community rules in neighborhoods, and other key governance activities while living under a "duoploy of coercion"
  • Blattman, Duncan, Tobón, and Lessing, however, explore how criminal and state governance can be complimenting each other, where criminal governance can demand governance from all state actors, while also reducing the dependence on the police institution by satisfying civilian needs
    • This would, in turn, make it more difficult for police to arrest gang members and the demise of gang rule could end up backfiring on state governance
  • Medellín, Colombia is run by about 350 small gangs or combos. Blattman, Duncan, and Lessing conducting a survey of about 7,000 residents where they found the state to be the predominant provider of governance, while smaller communities continued to be provided governance mostly through combos. The combos collected taxes from the community and emphasized, however, how their collection of taxes was not meant for direct profit, but rather a blanket of protection for their drug sales and business sales from the police.
  • Blattman, Duncan, Tobón,and Lessing provide a diagram outlining the increase in distance from policing and columnas and how this led to lower gang rule and a an increase in violent crime due to the lowered responsiveness of state actors, impacting the legitimacy of state governance amongst civilians.
  • Gang rule appears and manifests differently in countries like El Salvador, eastern Congo, and Mexico--gang rule is not objective.

Data and Methods[edit]

Qualitative Interviews[edit]

  • Blattman, Duncan, Tobón,and Lessing conducted 118 interviews with criminal leaders and members across 41 groups, including 28 combos and 13 high-level, mafia-like organizations called razones.
  • Most interviews were conducted in public areas and prisons and the sample is from leaders and members who were willing to speak. Some even led them to additional sources.
  • Blattman, Duncan, Tobón,and Lessing also interviewed local crime experts, the Attorney General's office and members of the Metropolitan Police.
  • Blattman, Duncan, Tobón,and Lessing also conducted 153 interviews with community leaders and members in 108 neighborhoods. They also return post-pandemic to follow-up with community and criminal leaders to see how the pandemic impacted gang governance.
  • Data quality: Blattman, Duncan, Tobón,and Lessing believed the gang leaders were truthful as gang organization and rule is a non-sensitive subject and not a prosecutable offense. Many gang members were flattered by the interviews and believed academia would fortify the power of gangs and their power reputation to the state. Blattman, Duncan, Tobón,and Lessing also validated their observations with multiple sources--although the qualitative data cannot be trusted entirely.
  • Qualitative Methods:Blattman, Duncan, Tobón,and Lessing collaborated with two economists, two ethnographers, a local organized-crime journalist, and a government gang outreach worker in order to conduct interviews, transcribe, and upload them to a private encrypted wiki to preserve its continuous collaborative format.
  • Ethics and Human Subjects Protections: Blattman, Duncan, Tobón,and Lessing emphasized the intentions of their research while also attempting to maintain anonymity and confidentiality. They also made it clear to only take voluntary interviews, where gang members and community members did not feel forced to speak.

Survey Data and Measurement Strategies[edit]

  • Blattman, Duncan, Tobón,and Lessing conducted over 7,000 private community surveys while acknowledging the possible misreporting of gang activity and address the concern of under-reporting, which they did not encounter.

Descriptive Analysis[edit]

  • The State: Medellín has 2.6 million people,269 nieghborhoods or barrios, and about 2500 civilian staff from The Secretariat to provide on-call response to violence and emergencies. The Metropolitan Polcie is separate from the governemnt and has about 280 officers per 100,000 people.
  • Combo Organizations and Operations:380 combos, 354 of which are in Medellín, and Blattman, Duncan, Tobón,and Lessing have the most detailed information on 12 combos. Combo revenue comes from retail drug sales in plazas de vicio, a business security fee for protection services, local loan-sharking known as gota a gota, and collect debts for a fee while managing local consumer markets. Most combos are small and have autonomy, led by a coordinador'; with a long-term relational contract with razones who supply wholesale drugs for the combos retail operations

'Combo Organization and Governance'[edit]

  • Combo Organization:The combo of organization and governance basically exist in every low and middle-class neighborhood as a local combo. The 2019 combo census identified 380 active local combos: 354 in Medellín and 380 in the greater metropolitan area (Blattman, Duncan, Lessing, and Tobon, 2021a. The borders for each combo aren't directly specified, but there is detailed data provided on 12 local combos. Most of the combos have a core in range of 12 to 40 permanent salaried members. The observed combo territories are no more than a few square blocks, but the borders are well-defined and long-standing, and known to the locals in the area. Many of the combos have been present for decades and have been re-created by the younger generations that have taken over the organization from the older combos that existed.
  • Combo Revenues:Combo revenues come from four main sources. Nearly every combo has a local monopoly on retail drug sales in their neighborhood, of which occur at defined locales known as plazas de vicio. This is typically their most profitable activity and a large number charge a security fee to at least some of the residents and businesses, typically in return for protection services. About a third also engage in a local loan-sharking practice known as gota a gota (“drop by drop”), according to a survey (Boatman, Lessing, Tobon, and Duncan). Also, many of the combo governances collect debts for a fee, in addition manage, regulate, or participate in local consumer goods markets, such as cooking gas, arepas, and eggs.
  • Combo Members:Members of the combos are usually poor, uneducated young men between the age of 15–35. Most members are born, raised, and currently living in the neighborhood that they control. Even low-ranking combo members are paid well and earn a salary equivalent to the median salary in the city. Most of the combos are small, autonomous, and headed by a leader called a coordi- nador. Horizontal integration amongst neighborhoods are rare, of which causes most combos to have less than 40 members and small territories. Medellín’s combos are the base of the criminal organization's pyramid. Above the combos are about 17 mafia-like groups, often called "razones".