In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Organized Criminal Syndicates and Governance in Mexico and Central America

  • Introduction
  • Approaches to the Study of Organized Crime in Political Science
  • The Political and Socioeconomic Origins of Organized Criminal Violence in Mexico
  • State-Criminal Group Relationships in Mexico and Central America
  • Constellations of Criminal Governance
  • Vigilantism and Community Reponses to Criminal Violence
  • Electoral Violence and Political Participation
  • The Political and Socioeconomic Consequences of Organized Criminal Violence

Political Science Organized Criminal Syndicates and Governance in Mexico and Central America
Omar García-Ponce
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0353


Organized criminal groups (OCGs), ranging from local gangs to powerful drug cartels that operate across national boundaries, represent the single most important security threat in Mexico and Central America. A growing body of research in political science and other disciplines has examined the political and socioeconomic roots of these organizations, as well as the mechanisms underlying the production of organized criminal violence. The unprecedented wave of organized criminal violence that has been affecting the region in recent years can be traced back to political transformations and policy changes that disrupted the social and political order at the local level, redefining the organization of illicit markets, and undermining the rule of law. On these issues there is a particularly rich literature that focuses on understanding the outbreak of violence and criminal rivalry in Mexico. Several studies have emphasized the role of state-criminal group relationships as a key factor to understand the challenges that organized crime poses in terms of peacebuilding and democratic rule. Within this framework, the existing literature has identified various forms of criminal governance prevalent in Mexico and Central America, and shed light on how communities respond to crime and violence in contexts of low state capacity. Some of these responses include social mobilization, vigilantism, and support for extralegal violence. The use of violence by OCGs in electoral contexts has also received particular attention in the literature, since they often target candidates or intimidate voters, affecting political preferences and patterns of political participation. Finally, a series of studies has rigorously investigated the impact of organized criminal violence on a number of outcomes, including political attitudes and behavior, trust in institutions, and health and education, among others.

Approaches to the Study of Organized Crime in Political Science

Since the 2010s, the study of organized crime has become increasingly important in political science. The escalation of organized criminal violence around the globe, and particularly in Latin America, has encouraged political scientists to study the causes and consequences of organized crime. The proliferation of organized criminal groups and their violence remained understudied for a long time in political science because they were not regarded as fundamentally political. The relatively recent interest in the study of organized crime in political science has brought conceptual challenges and important theoretical contributions. In this regard, Kalyvas 2015 and Barnes 2017 are essential contributions that approach the study of organized crime from an integrated political science perspective. These studies are relevant for the study of large-scale organized crime in Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere.

  • Barnes, Nicholas. “Criminal Politics: An Integrated Approach to the Study of Organized Crime, Politics, and Violence.” Perspectives on Politics 15.4 (2017): 967–987.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592717002110

    Barnes presents a conceptual typology for incorporating the study of criminal organizations into the political violence literature. This integrated approach to the study of organized crime underscores the collaborative and competitive relationships between criminal organizations and the state—these organizations exert significant political influence through different mechanisms, including violence and intimidation.

  • Kalyvas, Stathis N. “How Civil Wars Help Explain Organized Crime—and How They Do Not.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 59.8 (2015): 1517–1540.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002715587101

    This study addresses the conceptual challenges of studying organized criminal violence from a political science perspective. Kalyvas argues that large-scale organized crime occupies a gray zone between ordinary crime and political violence. The author proposes to draw primarily from the micro-dynamics identified by the civil war literature to study organized crime.

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