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, 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.
My second book project, tentatively titled Criminal Leviathans: How Gangs Govern, Organize Crime, and Challenge 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, "Legitimacy in Criminal Governance: Managing a Drug Empire From Behind Bars" was recently published at the APSR.
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. 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 pre-results paper from this project has received a review and resubmit from the Journal of Development Economics.
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.
Follow me on Twitter * E-mail: blessing [at] uchicago [dot] edu * Voice Mail: +1 (510) 842-6595