Thinking like a kingpin: an ethnography of narco-violence in Central America
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Drug trafficking is popularly associated with high-levels of violence; however, this relationship does not hold across all cases. This dissertation asks: why do traffickers sometimes decide to use violence, but other times demonstrate restraint? Building on recent work on criminal politics and patterns of drug violence, this dissertation explores how criminal organizations’ choices of strategy impacts drug-related violence in the areas where they operate. I specifically focus on a certain type of trafficker that has received less attention in the academic literature to-date: Central American transportistas. I argue that politics and institutions incentivize drug traffickers to use different strategies in different locations. Specifically, traffickers’ strategies are determined first by whether or not the country where they are operating has institutionalized corruption. In countries where there is institutionalized corruption, the centralization of political power and electoral competition are important in determining whether traffickers will pursue collusion strategies or attempt to co-opt politics. In the absence of institutionalized corruption, I argue traffickers are left with evasion as their only means of operation. These strategies lead to different levels of narco-related violence: collusion results in the lowest levels of violence, evasion yields moderate levels of violence, and co-optation produces the highest levels of violence. In addition, I explore how traffickers’ relationships to communities at the local level further impacts their modus operandi and levels of violence. I show how narcos have assumed roles traditionally associated with the state and gained support and legitimacy within some communities in Central America. I argue that support for illicit economies occurs when (1) traffickers are operating in their own communities, (2) in rural spaces, (3) in highly marginalized areas, and (4) are not reliant on evasive strategies. Communities where narcos have greater levels of support experience lower levels of violence, all else being equal. Moreover, narcos’ strategies vis-à-vis both states and communities have implications not just for the overall level of violence, but also for the visibility, geography, and nature of the violence. I explore this theory with comparative ethnographic methods, drawing on over two years of fieldwork in several drug trafficking hubs along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. During this time, I conducted participant observation and spoke with over 200 individuals, including politicians, residents, police, drug dealers, and both former and current traffickers ranging from low to relatively high-level. Ultimately, there are policy lessons evident in the differences in violence related to narco strategies vis-à-vis both states and communities. Illicit economies do not have to be violent. Policy priorities should shift away from intercepting drug shipments and arresting transportistas and instead focus on limiting violence related to the drug trade.