Benjamin Lessing

Associate Professor of Political Science, The University of Chicago

Director, Center for Latin American Studies at The University of Chicago  

Andrew Carnegie Fellow, 2019

Co-Director, Program on Political Violence at CPOST 

I study "criminal conflict"—organized armed violence involving non-state actors who, unlike revolutionary insurgents, are not trying to topple the state. Whereas civil wars have become less frequent in the last 30 years, criminal conflict has ravaged the three largest countries in Latin America—Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil—and now threatens to overrun Central America and spill into the US.  Additionally, I study criminal governance, gang-state negotiation, and armed electioneering by paramilitary and criminal groups. I've published in The American Political Science Review, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Rationality and Society, and contributed peer-reviewed chapters to the Small Arms Survey yearbooks (Cambridge). I'm also a regular contributor at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog. I was recently named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow for 2019.

My first book, Making Peace In Drug Wars: Cartels and Crackdowns in Latin America (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, 2018), examines armed conflict between drug trafficking organizations and the state in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. Choice named it one of its Outstanding Academic Titles for 2018, and it has received praise from Perspectives on Politics, Latin American Politics and Society, Foreign Affairs, Latin American Research Review, and Journal of Peace Studies. The book incorporates results from a data-coding project* I founded and directed, hosted by local NGOs in each country, that produced comparable datasets of violent events related to the drug trade. In November 2020 it was published in Spanish as Violencia y Paz en la Guerra contra las Drogas by Universidad de Los Andes Press / CESED.

My second book project, Criminal Leviathans: How Gangs Govern, from Behind Bars, explores the counterproductive effects of mass-incarceration policies, fostering the growth of powerful armed criminal groups at the core of the state's coercive apparatus. Two articles from the larger book project have been published: the "Legitimacy in Criminal Governance: Managing a Drug Empire From Behind Bars" (co-authored with Graham Denyer Willis) in the APSR. and Conceptualizing Criminal Governance, in Perspectives on Politics.

Together with my Chicago colleague Paul Staniland, I founded the Program on Political Violence (PPV), part of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST). Under PPV, I direct the Criminal Governance in Latin America project, currently generating estimates of the number of people living under gang rule in the region. I am also collaborating with Chicago Harris School's Chris Blattman and Colombian scholars on an NSF-funded, mixed-methods project on gang governance in Medellín, Colombia, involving what we believe to be the first randomized trial of any government anti-gang intervention of any kind in the world. A paper from this project has been accepted at Review of Economic Studies, and others are under review.

Prior to my PhD, I worked for 4 years as a researcher in Rio de Janeiro, at Viva Rio, Brazil’s largest NGO, and founded its Drugs and Human Security program. I also conducted field research in Latin America and the Caribbean for international organizations like Amnesty, Oxfam, and the Small Arms Survey, and was a Fulbright Student Grantee in Argentina and Uruguay. I was awarded an M.A. in Economics from Berkeley in 2009, and hold a B.A. in Economics and Philosophy from Kenyon College. I was born in Rochester, Michigan.

         *Narcoviolence Research International (NRI) /  Observatorio Internacional de Violencia y Narcotrafico

 Follow me on Twitter    *      E-mail: blessing [at] uchicago [dot] edu       *      Voice Mail: +1 (510) 842-6595                       

Book review, Foreign Affairs

Interview on police violence and prison gangs in Valor Económico.  Google translation.

Interview on prison gangs and milícias in Fortaleza's O Povo.  Google translation.

Interview on Brazil's Prison Gangs with Folha de S. Paulo.   Google translation.

Interview  w Veja News Magazine

Interview and story  by BBC Brasil. Google Translations

Interview, TV Brasil

Interview w Noticias  Uno Colombia 

Interview, Questão de Ordem (TV Assambléia Ceará)