Benjamin Lessing

Assistant Professor of Political Science

The University of Chicago

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.

My first book, Making Peace In Drug Wars: Cartels and Crackdowns in Latin America (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press) examines armed conflict between drug trafficking organizations and the state in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. It 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.

My second book project, tentatively titled Inside Out: How Prison Gangs Organize Crime (And Threaten the State) 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. Additionally, I have studied gang-state negotiations and the effect of paramilitary groups’ territorial control on electoral outcomes.

Together with my Chicago colleague Paul Staniland, I founded and direct the Program on Political Violence, part of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST). We have also joined with Chicago sociologist Forrest Stuart in a collaborative project, The State, Violence, and Social Control in the Contemporary World, supported by the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society.

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.

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

E-mail: blessing [at] uchicago [dot] edu

Tel: +510 356 7914

US Voice Mail: +1 (510) 842-6595

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Interview and story on my research by BBC Brasil. Google translations here.