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!

Share Button

Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 37

Happy new year from Venus in Arms! Whatever this year will bring, US defence and foreign policy decision will keep being decisive in shaping the world to come. This long essay of James Fallows discusses the “tragedy of the American military” as the outcome of a long-term process of separation of the armed forces from American society that led to the paradoxical outcome of making war less relevant for Americans, and at the same time more likely.

How’s the new US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter going to manage the defense apparatus in such critical times? Well, he might follow what Joshua Jones calls the Rolling Stones’ rule of leadership: “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” That is: refine priorities, create better communications between civilian leaders and uniformed men in the Pentagon, build long-term relations with Allies and friends, improve the procurement process. Not easy tasks…

Where will conflicts be in 2015? French strategist Jean-Marie Guéhenno selects ten hot spots where violence might persist or rise this year. Apart from the usual suspects (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya), he’s pessimist about chances of peace in Africa (from DRC to Nigeria) and perhaps in Latin America too (oil prices might deeply affect Venezuela’s political stability).

On the brighter side, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack on Slate argue that the world is not falling apart. While news always (inevitably) focus on what happens, and thus conflict and violence seem ubiquitous, numbers would show that violence – from homicides to mass killings – are on decline. At least in the “long run”.

If you still have time (a lot, in fact), the NSA released at the end of last year internal reports on activities documenting abuses as well. You can start from here.


Share Button

Why Mafias Kill. Exploring homicides in Southern Italy

Well, this should be a blog on Italian and European defence and security, and organized crime has been increasingly on the radar, both of institutions and scholars dealing with security issues. Most attention has been to so-called transnational organized crime and the possible responses to its rise, both in Europe and the US. Another strand of studies, possibly epitomized by the excellent Federico Varese’s Mafias on the Move, have dealt on organizational features and operational modes of different mafia groups that have their base on a specific territory (and might, or might not, extend their range of action). If the problem one wishes to understand is why and how organized criminal groups (and the “mafia” sub-species) use violence, Mexico comes immediately to the mind, with thousands of deaths in the past few years in what are actual “wars”. Or, if looking back to the recent past, one might consider Italy, where mafia violence often emerged in chronicles because of intense inter-group fighting and occasional dramatic attacks to judges and other State representatives (or, more rarely, “terrorist” attacks against civilian targets). Quite surprisingly, there is not much research on the topic (a notable exception is here).

A recent paper by Andrea Petrella, Salvatore Sberna and Venus in Arms’ Francesco Moro looks at mafia homicides perpetrated in Southern Italy – where mafias (namely Cosa Nostra, Stidda in Sicily, Camorra in Campania, ‘ndrangheta in Calabria and Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia) are traditionally deep-rooted –  in the period 1983 – 2008 (you can find an early version of the paper for download here).

The article contains some multivariate statistics that you can read if you like, but three statements deserve particular attention.

1. Notwithstanding widespread pictures (yes, movies to begin with) of violence constituting an essential and defining characters of mafias, the actual use of violence is constrained in space and time. Figure 1 below shows how the intensity of violence (defined by the number of homicides over the population in a given province) widely varies over space, suggesting that there might be contextual and/or organizational factors that can account for that variation. Figure 2 similarly shows variation in time in the region of Campania (where Camorra’s presence has been made famous by Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah)

Figure 1. Where mafias kill



Figure 2. When mafias kill


2. Mafia violence often is the outcome of rivalries among groups competing for establishing themselves as dominant in a given area. At least in the Italian South, by “area” we have to intend a territory (elsewhere, interestingly, criminal groups can compete for functional control of specific business sectors, both “legal” and illegal). Homicides, then, mostly target other Mafiosi.

3. One of the key factors that lead to increasing tension, and then competition and violent conflict, among different mafia groups, is the lack of available channels to achieve its objectives. As “the Mafia exists side by side with the State”, political parties play a role in shaping access to the political system, which is essential for mafia groups, as such access can guarantee business opportunities in public works or licenses, as well as “favourable” law enforcement. Thus, “In a competitive criminal market, when Mafia groups find limited ways to access the political arena, they have strong incentives
to revert to violence in order to compete with rival criminal groups. Violence will then be higher in areas where the vote is concentrated in one or two political parties and the level of political fragmentation is low”. The fragmentation of the political arena, in other words, can lead to reduced levels of violence as access to government is available for more groups.

Further research on the theme is on the way. Stay tuned for news.


Share Button