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 (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, 2017), 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. A co-authored article from this project has been conditionally accepted at the American Political Science Review.

Additionally, I study criminal governance, gang-state negotiation, and armed electioneering by paramilitary and criminal groups. I've published in Journal of Conflict Resolution, Rationality and Society, and contributed chapters to the Small Arms Survey yearbooks (Cambridge). I'm also a regular contributor at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog.

Together with my Chicago colleague Paul Staniland, I founded and direct 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. In 2014, Staniland and I 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. 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

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

Interview w Veja News Magazine

Interview, TV Brasil

Interview w Noticias Uno Colombia

Book review, Foreign Affairs

Interview and story by BBC Brasil. Google Translations.