Organized crime and “political” violence: A report from MPSA 2015 and a focus on Italian mafias

Midwest Political Science Annual Conference last week in Chicago. Good place to keep updated – and try to contribute on – recent advancements in the discipline. Few strands of literature have been enjoying a blossoming in the past years as conflict studies did. Evolving political realities – lot of attention was devoted to “Afghanistan and Iraq-like wars” – and progresses in research design and methods – with a strong push coming from quantitative studies blended in making the field so rich. Within this growing body of studies, a relevant place has been occupied by research looking at forms of violence and agents, such as organized crime, which have often escaped classical analyses of “political” violence.  Or at least those following Schmitt’s classical distinction between political and criminal aims contained in the famous Theory of the Partisan.

Thus, the panel on “Political Violence and Crime” at MPSA constituted an interesting opportunity to discuss current research on the theme (I think the late Charles Tilly, who was always keen in relating organized crime and political phenomena, would have been happy about it). Five very interesting pieces of work were presented. Harvard’s Bradley Holland presented a paper on ethnic violence linked to drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Southern California. Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley (Notre Dame) showed the link between the structures of political arenas and DTOs’ killings of politicians in Mexico. University of Wisconsin’s Nicholas Barnes presented his extensive fieldwork on gang governance in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, and Wolfgang Muno (University of Mainz) laid out an interpretative framework to analyse “bad informal institutions”.

And then (highly likely that it is not the best piece, but for sure the dearest to Venus), Francesco (Moro) and Salvatore Sberna had a piece on violence in non-traditional areas – that is in the regions were mafia consortia did not have their roots – in Italy. The problem is a central one, given that organized crime and mafias are increasingly mobile and that violence perpetrated by these groups has been making the news on both sides of the Atlantic. Across the Ocean, there has been a lot of discussion over the effect of Mexican drug cartels’ presence in large US cities. Italian mafias as well sparked debate, both in Italy – where presence in the Northern regions of the country has been expanding for decades – and abroad – where violence erupted in “surprising” locations (such as Duisburg in Germany, where a massacre took place in 2007).

The paper addressed, both theoretically and empirically, two major puzzles. First, notwithstanding expansion in Northern regions, the number of mafia homicides in these areas is overall much lower than in Southern regions where mafias have their strongholds. Second, although limited, violence (measured by mafia homicides) in Northern regions present notable diversities: some provinces in some years are clearly more violent than others. How, then, can this diversity be explained?

Three main findings emerge:

  • Violence in non-traditional areas is more limited as groups do not find the same environmental conditions of territories of origin. First, the balance of forces versus law enforcement is penalizing. Second, business in new markets is less confined to the provision of “private protection” and more based on the attempt to penetrate legal markets, where resort to violence is less needed. Becoming legitimate, by way, has been the attempt of most criminals in pop-culture, from Michael Corleone to Lemond Bishop (a reference for the Chicagoans). This has always Third, and as a consequence, mafia groups in new areas often choose to “outsource” the use of violent means to other agents (often, coming from parent groups in areas of origin).
  • When violence happens in new territories, it is often the result of “transfers” (spillovers) from mafia violence in the old ones. That is, if a conflict erupts in a Sicilian province, it will likely affect violence in a Northern province where the Sicilian groups involved in the conflict previously migrated.
  • Violence transfers are affected by local conditions as well. Spillovers, in other words, happen in the provinces where the mafia groups’ presence has been more consolidated (over time) and where they actually have more capabilities/resources (which is signalled by the absence of other mafia consortia in the same area).

Work is under way in these directions. Stay tuned for details!

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