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Police, politicians and the regulation of drug trafficking in Latin America

  • Author(s): Flom, Hernan
  • Advisor(s): Post, Alison E
  • Arriola, Leonardo R
  • et al.
No data is associated with this publication.

How do states regulate drug trafficking? The sale of illicit drugs generates an estimated US$870 billion per year – more than 1 percent of global GDP. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people die annually from drug-related violence and ensuing state repression. While national-level governments establish the normative framework regarding drug trafficking, subnational governments carry out the lion’s share of drug enforcement, confiscating drugs, arresting (or killing) dealers and traffickers, or brokering peace bargains with, or extracting rents from drug gangs. Despite the recent immersion of political scientists into the study of drug trafficking, we have yet to explain how and why subnational governments choose the strategies they do when dealing with this organized criminal activity. This dissertation analyzes subnational states’ different approaches to drug trafficking, or drug trafficking regulatory arrangements.

Most studies of drug trafficking and its associated violence treat the state as a unitary actor and neglect the role of the police, despite the latter’s fundamental importance (and discretion) in enforcing legislation related to drug trafficking and organized crime. By contrast, I propose that different types of interactions between subnational politicians, primarily governors, and their police forces influence state responses to drug trafficking, with differing consequences with respect to state and criminal violence as well as police corruption. Understanding the state’s regulation of drug trafficking requires incorporating the interests and strategies of police forces –which may well conflict with those of their political superiors- into empirical studies.

I argue that subnational patterns of political competition shape the state’s regulation of drug trafficking in metropolitan areas by affecting police levels of autonomy. Two aspects of competition are central in shaping police force’s autonomy: the extent to which the same party remains in power over time (political turnover) and the dispersal of political power in a given period (political fragmentation). The different combinations of turnover, fragmentation and police autonomy yield four types of regulatory arrangements: tacit coexistence, protection-extraction rackets, particularistic negotiation and particularistic confrontation, which differ with respect to police violence, corruption and criminal violence.

Low political turnover reduces police autonomy and generates coordinated regulatory arrangements -tacit coexistence and protection-extraction rackets. Entrenched governments are able to implement and sustain autonomy-reducing police reforms, or gain the necessary leverage to extract cooperation from the force. Fragmentation, in turn, affects the governments’ stance toward police rent extraction. Under conditions of low turnover, low fragmentation motivates incumbents to politicize the police and appropriate its rents from trafficking, while high fragmentation compels them to professionalize the force and restrict its rent extraction, as political rivals can either monitor the government’s extraction or compete for police rents. With low fragmentation, governments centralize police rents from drug trafficking and control violence through protection-extraction rackets. By contrast, when fragmentation is higher, governments reach tacit coexistence agreements with organized criminal actors, in which police and gangs restrain their mutual confrontation. Both cases exhibit lower state and criminal violence, while differing in their relative levels of corruption.

By contrast, frequent changes in administration (high turnover) undermine both governments’ capacity to sustain reforms and their leverage over the police, increasing police autonomy and generating uncoordinated regulatory arrangements, i.e. particularistic negotiation or particularistic confrontation. In this situation, high fragmentation might obstruct reformist initiatives or spark political competition for police rents, while low fragmentation is insufficient to reduce police autonomy. These arrangements are defined by either fragmented corruption deals between police officers and traffickers (particularistic negotiation) or dispersed attacks by police squads against drug gangs (particularistic confrontation). Both regulatory types result in high levels of criminal violence while diverging in their levels of state-driven violence.

I test this theory with a subnational comparative research design, focusing on the main metropolitan areas of Argentina –the provinces of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe- and Brazil –the federal units of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Relying on interviews with politicians, police officers, and actors from civil society, as well as on document analysis of newspapers, NGO reports and government briefs, I conduct process tracing to examine the within-case variation of each subnational case since the return of democracy, a period of over 30 years. This dissertation’s findings of how political turnover and fragmentation influence police autonomy and, through it, shape drug trafficking regulatory arrangements have several implications, not just for thinking about the state’s response to organized crime but for the relationship between political competition and public security, and the role of police in democracies with weak institutions.

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This item is under embargo until November 2, 2020.