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Legitimacy in Criminal Governance: Managing a Drug Empire from Behind Bars

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 February 2019

University of Chicago
University of Cambridge
*Benjamin Lessing, Assistant Professor of Political Science, The University of Chicago,
Graham Denyer Willis, University Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge,


States, rebels, and mafias all provide governance beyond their core membership; increasingly, so do prison gangs. US gangs leverage control over prison life to govern street-level drug markets. Brazil’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) gang goes further, orchestrating paralyzing attacks on urban targets, while imposing a social order throughout slums that sharply reduces homicides. We analyze hundreds of seized PCC documents detailing its drug business and internal disciplinary system. Descriptively, we find vast, consignment-based trafficking operations whose profits fund collective benefits for members’ families; elaborate bureaucratic procedures and recordkeeping; and overwhelmingly nonviolent punishments for debt-nonpayment and misconduct. These features, we argue, reflect a deliberate strategy of creating rational-bureaucratic legitimacy in criminal governance. The PCC’s collectivist norms, fair procedures, and meticulous “criminal criminal records” facilitate community stigmatization of infractors, giving mild sanctions punitive heft and inducing widespread voluntary compliance without excessive coercion. This has aided the PCC’s rapid expansion across Brazil.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2019 

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For their thoughtful comments, we thank Peter Andreas, Desmond Arias, Marcelo Bergman, Thomas Grisaffi, Stathis Kalyvas, Mark Kleiman, Beatriz Magaloni, Roger Myerson, Robert Pape, Robert Powell, Jacob Shapiro, David Skarbek, Paul Staniland, and Lisa Wedeen, and three anonymous APSR reviewers. We also thank the participants of the National Bureau of Economic Research Summer Institute, workshops at University of Cambridge, University College London, and the America Latina Crime and Policy Network (AL CAPONE). Douglas Block and Wenyan Deng provided invaluable research assistance. All errors are our own.

We gratefully acknowledge financial support from the Social Science Research Council/Open Society Foundations, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, the Center for International Social Science Research and the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict at the University of Chicago, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Benjamin Lessing received additional support from award W911-NF-1710044 from the US Department of Defense and US Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory under the Minerva Research Initiative. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to any of these agencies or foundations. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:



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