Why Only Some Criminal Organizations are Violent

Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown’s interview in the current Journal of International Affairs makes the important point that transactional crimes (e.g., drug trafficking) have no inherent association with violence. The Mexican drug gangs are violent, their fellows in the Japanese Yakuza are not, for example. Even the same trafficking organization acts differently depending on the law enforcement and civil society surround:

You want to have the kind of traffickers that you have in the United States. Often these are the same groups that operate in Mexico, but when they are arrested, they do not react by shooting at the policemen; they react instead by extending their hands to allow for the handcuffs to be placed on them, because they understand the consequences of being a major challenge to the state of law enforcement, and that it is not tolerated.

Greater law enforcement capacity thus clearly reduces violence by criminals, as does reduced access to weapons. An intriguing third factor noted by Felbab-Brown concerns whether the criminal organisation is made up of younger, less experienced criminals or old hands:

In the late 1990s, Hong Kong and Macau were trying hard to hide the major escalation of violence between the Chinese tong and the triads. The reaction by the police chief in Macau was somewhat humorous and absurd, but at the same time not completely so. In an effort to assure people, especially tourists coming to Macau, that they did not need to be afraid of all the gang violence, he claimed that Macau had “professional killers who don’t miss their targets,” and who never kill innocent bystanders. In Mexico today, you have very much the opposite, such as a boy being hired to kill ten people in the hope of getting among them the intended victim. This is very different from when someone pays $400,000, for example, to hire a professional hit man to kill one person. It is a very different market that has a lot to do with internal management and the agent capacity of the criminal manager, as well as the capacity of the law enforcement.

This recalls an observation made by Debbie Reynolds regarding why she always felt safe doing shows in mob-controlled Las Vegas “No one got killed who wasn’t supposed to”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Why Only Some Criminal Organizations are Violent”

  1. i have long advocated for FREE shooting lessons, no ID, gunZNammo supplied. I just wanted those Crips and Bloods to hit what they were aiming at! No more collateral “mushrooms”, no wild bullets flying around. I consider the gang members to be volunteers, and no tears need be shed if they keep it to themselves.

  2. The lower odds of ending up dead in a ravine between arrest and jail probably also lowers resistance to arrest in the US.

  3. A lot of this also has to do with the perceived state of the criminal market and the age of the criminal institutions. In the US, for example, you had a lot more violence at times when markets were in flux, and when you had (largely) first and second-generation gang organizers running things. But in the course of events there’s typically a selection process where the most violent types get weeded out. To stay in business for a mere 30 years, for example, you must have a daily chance of getting killed well under 1 in 10,000.

    1. I recall using similar reasoning with my teacher back in elementary school, to explain why his claim that bullies wanted you to fight back was utter bunk. You know that has to be false, they’d be in the hospital in under a month, even if they won every fight, if they weren’t very careful to concentrate their predation on children who didn’t fight back.

      1. I think that Paul and Brett are oversimplifying a bit.

        No sane bully (and way too many were all too sane) would want every kid to fight back. Eventually, Brett’s right: the bully would get hurt. But the smarter bullies want a few kids to fight back, pour l’encourager les autres. Preferably, of course, the weaker ones. Credible threats, and deterrence, and all that good stuff. Note that Ronald Reagan took out Grenada, but George Bush never thought of doing the same to Venezuela.

        Selective violence can be a rational (if immoral) strategy for gangsters, bullies, Talibans, or nations. It’s only constant violence that is inherently self-defeating.

  4. This is the same distinction that has been driving much of the newer work in violence prevention: a huge proportion of the most serious “street” violence is driven by highly active criminal groups, and it is possible both in theory and practice to differentiate the violence from other criminality, make it a focus, and address it without necessarily addressing either the group as such or its other crime. A very interesting and good recent piece on the point:


  5. I’ve long thought that violence was reduced when the organizations were formalized, based on written guidance, and had access to the courts and police to enforce their contracts. Like all organizations that plan to last, criminal organizations desire to bureaucratize and depend on the government’s monopoly of force.

    It’s early in the product-market life cycle of high-markup illegal goods that the operators entering the business tend to use violence or the threat of violence to enforce their agreements. When the operators of an illegal business are properly socialized they may use the threat of violence to ensure that contracted agreements are adhered to, but they are better off not actually using it.

    Northern Mexico is high violence because the population pool the criminals are recruited from are young with little or no formal education, and the key “plazas” (smuggling routes) for shipping drugs and other smuggling items north are easily located and of great value. The result is that the different cartels go to war over control of the plazas. A really large problem in Northern Mexico is that NAFTA required Mexico to drop the protective tariffs on corn, beans and pork (the staples of the subsistence farms there) making over 2,000,000 subsistence farms uneconomic when U.S. agribusiness could sell corn beans and pork cheaper than they could produce it. Those families moved to towns that had no industry that could support that size workforce. Not only are there few jobs in the cities, there is little education or health care. Children are available at a very young age to hire as assassins – at low prices. They are desperate, uneducated, and not old enough to make adult moral judgements. Violence has become commercially viable for the cartels largely because the low-level smugglers simply have no other option, it’s cheap to operate that way, and corruption has traditionally been the way the patriarchal rural Hispanic society of Mexico has operated.

    The violence is now a major force holding the cartels together in the face of other cartels. It is interesting to note, though, that the violence mostly ends at the U.S. border. The emphasis in the U.S. is a lot more on corruption of police and criminal justice personnel.

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