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1 - Introduction

from Part I - Resistance to Criminal Extortion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 December 2021

Eduardo Moncada
Barnard College, Columbia University


This chapter argues that civilian resistance to criminal victimization is a gap in the growing literature on the politics of crime. It contends that much of the existing research on crime focuses on drug-related violence. But most people in Latin America experience organized crime not through spectacular acts of drug violence, but instead through the everyday victimization associated with criminal extortion. The chapter identifies the contributions that the book makes to the literatures on the politics of crime, our understanding of business as a victim of crime, and the need for dialogue between the study of crime and the political of development. The chapter previews the argument to explain variation in the processes and mechanisms that lead to different strategies of resistance. It concludes by outlining the structure of the book.

Resisting Extortion
Victims, Criminals, and States in Latin America
, pp. 3 - 17
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

In the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacán, Raul recounted the procedures that he and other members of the avocado sector in the municipality of Tancítaro followed at the stone barricade they constructed in 2013 on the road leading into their community:Footnote 1

One rifle shot meant everyone should grab their guns and be alert for anything. Two rifle shots meant come with your weapons to the barricade because the Templarios [referring to the Knights Templar drug trafficking organization, or DTO] were coming. And three shots meant that everyone, even kids, had to come to the barricade. But this was only if the [municipal] police were approaching. Because imagine what things were like before we rose up in arms: the [municipal] police had a checkpoint down the road from us, and two kilometers down from that one there was a checkpoint run by the Templarios! And the Templarios could just walk through the police checkpoint – like they were common citizens, without a worry – and into our community to insult us and demand money from us.Footnote 2

Armed autodefensas (self-defense groups) appeared in dozens of municipalities across Michoacán starting in 2013 (Reference Fuentes Díaz and PérezFuentes Díaz and Paleta Pérez 2015). Raul and several hundred avocado sector actors formed one such self-defense group to stop the Knights Templar’s extortion, popularly referred to as derecho or cuota. Collectively they planned, coordinated, and enacted lethal and nonlethal practices of collective vigilantism against the DTO.Footnote 3 As a local journalist explained to me: “The most important thing was for there to be organization in the communities. There was no other group of persons in Tancítaro that was more organized than the aguacateros (avocado producers). So they had the advantage that they could organize people very quickly once things began here.”Footnote 4 But in the municipality of La Unión also in Michoacán, mobilization to end criminal extortion looked very different.

In La Unión, producers and exporters in the municipality’s lucrative berry sector had also been extorted by the Knights Templar and, as in Tancítaro, the municipal police force was captured by the criminal organization. Berry producers repeatedly shared stories of local police looking the other way as trucks of armed men from the Knights Templar cruised the municipality’s streets, or of police who “arrested” berry producers and delivered them to the DTO for failure to pay the criminal tax. Moreover, it was widely known in both Tancítaro and La Unión that municipal presidents were handing over money from the municipal budgets to the DTO every year in order for the criminals to allow the local government to continue operating. Yet, despite these similarities in the two cases, collective mobilization to end extortion unfolded in very different ways. Unlike the centralized nature of collective vigilantism in Tancítaro’s avocado sector, where victims of extortion coordinated with each other, victims in La Unión’s berry sector fragmented into several autonomous armed groups, used varying practices to contest their victimization that often functioned at cross-purposes, and struggled to coordinate with each other. The multiple groups of victims in La Unión engaged in violence against the DTO to end extortion, but strikingly also against each other, including armed clashes in the streets as well as targeted violence against each other’s members.

But while collective mobilization in Michoacán took place in settings where police were actively complicit with criminals and governing authorities were providing criminals with public resources, state actors are not always threats to victims’ extralegal efforts against criminal actors. In El Salvador, the country’s two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (Eighteenth Street Gang),Footnote 5 are infamous for extortion in which they force victims to regularly pay informal taxes called la renta (the rent). In two municipalities – El Pilar in the country’s western region near the capital of San Salvador and Cienfuegos in the hot and humid eastern Pacific coast – small groups of victims of extortion in rural communities located within municipalities called cantones (cantons) assassinated several gang members from 2014 through 2016. These groups consisted of handfuls of small-scale farmers from the dominant agricultural economies of basic grains and vegetables in each municipality. But both groups also included a few individual local police from the lower ranks of the country’s Nacional Civil Police (Polícia Nacional Civil, PNC). The farmers and police agents shared weapons, information, and other resources to target and kill individual gang members in periodic acts of what I term piecemeal vigilantism. For example, in 2014 several farmers wore police uniforms lent to them by a local police officer as they shot an MS-13 gang member who oversaw the local collection of extortion rents. While the farmers killed the gang member in a house, another police officer kept watch outside in case police that was not privy to the group’s extralegal activities happened to pass by.Footnote 6 Unlike the military and police death squads that methodically disappeared and killed political opponents under the direction and with the support of El Salvador’s government during the civil war (Reference Arnson, Campbell and BrennerArnson 2000), the two groups engaging in piecemeal vigilantism were founded and directed by civilian victims of crime who enlisted individual police to support their occasional acts of violence in part to help them evade elements of the state that attempted to enforce the rule of law.

Yet, confronting criminals does not always entail victims carrying out extralegal violence. In the localities in Michoacán as well as in western and eastern El Salvador where I conducted field work, before pursuing extralegal violence, victims used rhetorical tricks and other subtle subversive tactics when interacting with the criminals that were extorting them. This strategy was particularly evident in another one of my field sites: a large informal market in Medellín, Colombia, where several hundred recicladores (recyclers) – informal vendors who scour trash bins and landfills for goods to clean, repair, and sell – paid the criminal tax known there as the vacuna (vaccination). The criminal group that taxed the recyclers, called a Convivir, worked for a powerful criminal organization that was based in one of the city’s peripheral neighborhoods and which coordinated a range of criminal markets, including drug trafficking. The vendors – who faced both local police captured by the Convivir and municipal authorities who they perceived as tolerant of extortion in the city center – did not mobilize collectively to end their victimization. Instead, they relied on individual and sporadic acts of everyday resistance (Reference ScottScott 1985, Reference Scott1990) that entailed calibrated, but contentious, verbal jousting with members of the Convivir. Although this repertoire of practices did not end extortion and only offered vendors marginal reductions in material taxation, it did enable them to reclaim a sense of dignity as workers and citizens despite ongoing victimization at the hands of a powerful criminal group.

Finally, victims’ resistance to extortion can remarkably extend beyond verbal sparring and extralegal violence to include the threat and use of violence to shape electoral outcomes and governance. In the wake of collective vigilantism in Tancítaro and La Unión in Michoacán, victims mobilized to influence local elections in 2015 and 2018. This mobilization was part of what I call the coproduction of order wherein victims, governing authorities, and police jointly build order in ways that strengthen parts of the rule of law while weakening others. The coproduction of order accomplishes this by strengthening the ability of local governments and police to enforce the law, while also enabling victims to retain informal privileges that violate the law, ranging from carrying restricted firearms in public to infringing on the authority of local police.

These contrasting cases of resistance to criminal victimization are puzzling. Popular media depicts victims of organized crime as being resigned to their fates at the hands of the powerful armed criminal groups that operate in Latin America and other parts of the developing world. The violence that criminal groups generate is undoubtedly substantial and tragic with long-lasting effects. But victims are not always helpless, even when at first glance they seem submissive in the face of armed criminal actors. Sometimes victims use indirect tactics that are difficult for observers to discern without first comprehending how victims understand criminal victimization and the power dynamics it entails, as in the case of everyday resistance by the recyclers in Medellín. At other times, victims resist in clearly observable ways, using forms of violence that mimic those they experience at the hands of organized crime, including beatings, disappearances, and lethal violence. Moreover, the manner in which extralegal violence by victims against criminals unfolds can range from occasional acts of violence that take place across months to weeks-long waves of intense coordinated violence. Thus, in contesting their victimization, civilians can contribute to the very violence and insecurity that we normally attribute only to organized crime or state–criminal conflict.

Growing academic research shows that crime influences the political behavior of victims in contrasting ways, including effects on whether and how they vote (Reference LeyLey 2018; Reference Trelles and CarrerasTrelles and Carreras 2012) as well as civic engagement (Reference BatesonBateson 2012; Reference DorffDorff 2017). But this tells us little about the ways in which victims engage and confront armed criminal groups. In shifting the focus to precisely this phenomenon, this book joins with and extends an emerging line of study on the political origins and consequences of victims’ responses to crime (Reference BatesonBateson 2013; Reference CurryCurry 2020; Reference Jung and CohenJung and Cohen 2020; Reference Mattiace, Ley and TrejoMattiace, Ley, and Trejo 2019; Reference MoncadaMoncada 2017; Reference Osorio, Schubiger and WeintraubOsorio, Schubiger, and Weintraub 2021; Reference PhillipsPhillips 2017; Reference SmithSmith 2019).

In settings where the state is unable or unwilling to enforce the rule of law, why do victims resist similar forms of criminal victimization in contrasting ways? By resistance I mean observable strategies outside of the rule of law that victims direct at criminals to negotiate, end, or prevent their victimization. I use the widespread, but understudied, phenomenon of criminal extortion in Latin America to introduce resistance to criminal victimization as a novel phenomenon in the emerging research on the politics of crime. To explain the different ways in which victims resist criminal extortion, my argument centers on three variables: the time horizons of criminals; the nature of local political economies; and the criminal capture of the police. Using ethnographic data collected during field research in Colombia, El Salvador, and Mexico, I identify and trace pathways and mechanisms to the following strategies of resistance: individual-level acts of everyday resistance; the sporadic killings by ad hoc groups of victims and police that characterize piecemeal vigilantism; institutionalized and sustained forms of collective vigilantism; and coordinated efforts between victims and states to co-produce order in ways that both fortify and undermine the rule of law.

1.1 Key Contributions

Latin America provides fertile terrain in which to analyze resistance to criminal extortion. Criminal violence in the region threatens economies, institutional stability, and social development (Reference MoncadaMoncada 2013). As shown in Figure 1.1, levels of lethal violence in both Central and South America tower above those in other world regions, with average intentional homicide rates between 2003 and 2018 of 22.1 and 22.7 per 100,000 population, respectively. Today Latin America accounts for 8 percent of the world’s population, but nearly one-third of the world’s annual homicides.Footnote 7 This violence prematurely ends lives; inflicts lasting psychological and emotional scars on victims, families, and communities; and constrains development.Footnote 8

Figure 1.1 Homicide rates for select world regions (2003–18).

Note: Central America refers to Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. South America refers to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

The intense criminal violence in Latin America has catalyzed a growing body of research that provides valuable insights into the dynamics of the illicit drug trade (Reference AriasArias 2006; Reference Durán-MartínezDurán-Martínez 2017; Reference LessingLessing 2017; Reference Snyder and AngelicaSnyder and Durán-Martínez 2009; Reference Trejo and LeyTrejo and Ley 2020).Footnote 9 But most people in the region experience organized crime not through spectacular and lethal acts of drug violence, but instead through the everyday victimization associated with criminal extortion. As Reference Magaloni, Robles, Matanock, Diaz-Cayeros and RomeroMagaloni et al. (2020, 1165) state: “Lethal violence is not the only or most pervasive danger for the general population. Citizens are trapped in networks of extortion and coercion where DTOs prey on them, often with the acquiescence or direct collaboration of local states and law enforcement agents.” Criminal groups in the region oversee a range of lucrative illicit markets beyond the drug trade that have been insufficiently scrutinized empirically or theoretically. Extortion is one such illicit market wherein criminal actors extract rents by threatening and/or using force in exchange for the promise of protection from others and themselves.Footnote 10 One of this book’s main contributions is therefore to broaden our understanding of the politics of crime by shifting the analytical focus onto criminal extortion.

Figure 1.2 provides a comparison of rates of extortion as documented in official government statistics in the three countries where I conducted research for this book. Because extortion often goes underreported (Reference Del FrateDel Fratte 2004, 151–152), however, the figures in Figure 1.2 most certainly underestimate the prevalence of extortion in the region. In Mexico alone, for example, an estimated 97.4 percent of extortion cases are never reported to government authorities.Footnote 11 Whereas it is difficult – though not impossible – to hide the bodies of the people killed in drug-related violence, accurately tallying extortion places the responsibility on victims to report the crime to authorities. But fear of punishment by criminals or the state – or sometimes both – provides strong disincentives for doing so. Moreover, the available evidence indicates that extortion disproportionately affects businesses relative to the general population. Based on a unique victimization survey of businesses in Mexico conducted by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (National Institute of Statistics and Geography), Figure 1.3 shows that the rate of extortion for Mexican business firms is much higher than for the general population. Remarkably, across the five waves of victimization surveys represented in Figure 1.3, an average of 95 percent of the cases of extortion of business firms were not reported to public authorities.Footnote 12

Figure 1.2 Extortion rates in Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico (2010–19).

Sources: Data for Colombia is from the Ministry of National Defense of Colombia. Available at: Accessed on July 15, 2020. Data for El Salvador is from the Polícia Nacional Civil de la República de El Salvador. Available at: Accessed on May 2, 2020. Data for Mexico is from the Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública. Available at: Accessed on May 3, 2020

Figure 1.3 Extortion rates for business firms in Mexico (select years).

Sources: Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI). Encuesta Nacional de Victimización de Empresas 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020. Available at Accessed on October 1, 2020

Yet, extortion generates both direct and indirect costs for victims, societies, and states (Reference Frye and ZhuravskayaFrye and Zhuravskaya 2000; Reference GambettaGambetta 1996; Reference Varese and PaoliVarese 2014). Rough estimates suggest that the economic consequences of extortion in Latin America are substantial. In El Salvador extortion by gangs costs the country’s economy at least USD 4 billion annually, or approximately 15 percent of the national annual gross domestic product.Footnote 13 In downtown Medellín alone criminal extortion generates nearly USD 250,000 every month for criminal actors.Footnote 14 However, when we conceive of criminal extortion as a onetime physical act rather than a dynamic relational process that includes but extends beyond its material costs, we risk overlooking its important social and political dimensions. My focus on the process of criminal extortion therefore invites us to complicate how we study the nature and consequences of relations between criminals and victims.

Research often shifts from victims experiencing criminal acts to assessing whether this makes it more or less likely that the victims will either engage with or disengage from the state via conventional channels of participation. This makes it difficult to see and study the iterative nature of relations between victims and criminals. Not all crimes are onetime acts. Victimization can consist of a series of acts and reactions that together shape the process of victimization. The nature of victim–criminal relations can thus vary across different types of crimes as well as across space and time. I find that the extraction of criminal rents is embedded within contentious power relations between victims and criminals that are analogous to those between subordinate and dominant actors. I detail and build on this finding to bridge the study of the politics of crime and broader research on relations between the ruled and rulers (Reference MigdalMigdal 1988; Reference Migdal, Kohli and ShueMigdal, Kohli, and Shue 1994; Reference ScottScott 1990). For example, scholars of state–society relations (Reference Migdal, Kohli and ShueMigdal, Kohli, and Shue 1994), state-building (Reference BooneBoone 2003), authoritarianism (Reference BlaydesBlaydes 2018; Reference WedeenWedeen 1999), capital–labor relations (Reference ScottScott 1977), and colonization (Reference LawrenceLawrence 2013) show that seemingly asymmetric power relations are often more contested than we suspect. Recent civil war studies similarly complicate the assumption of civilian submission to rebels and other armed political actors (Reference ArjonaArjona 2017; Kaplan 2017a; Reference KrauseKrause 2018; Reference MampillyMampilly 2012; Reference MasulloMasullo 2020; Reference MetelitsMetelits 2009). I find analogous dynamics in my research on criminal extortion showing that it is more than a material transaction and instead a relationship in which victims and criminals contest material and non-material forms of power. This insight gleaned through in-depth fieldwork in multiple localities enables us to extend research on relations between subordinate and dominant actors into a new empirical terrain.

This book also brings business into the study of the politics of crime. Scholars analyze how economic actors shape the trajectories of civil wars (Reference WoodWood 2000) and post-conflict peace-building (Reference RettbergRettberg 2008). But the role of business in the growing literature on crime is comparatively underdeveloped.Footnote 15 Meanwhile scholars analyze how crime affects productivity and capital investment (Reference BenYishay and PearlmanBenYishay and Pearlman 2014; Reference GaviriaGaviria 2002), while others assess how businesses’ demands for order fuel the private security industry (Reference Abrahamsen and WilliamsAbrahamsen and Williams 2010; Reference UngarUngar 2007) or preferential treatment by police (Reference Becker and Markus-MichaelBecker and Müller 2013; Reference DavisDavis 2013; Reference SamaraSamara 2011). These studies are partly motivated by the fact that businesses are often disproportionately the victims of crimes relative to individuals and households. But our understanding of the victimization of business is limited given that with rare exceptions, such as that presented in Figure 1.3, victimization surveys disproportionately focus on individuals and households (Reference MugelliniMugellini 2013).Footnote 16

I tackle this empirical gap not by enumerating the incidence of criminal extortion, but by collecting and analyzing ground-level data to generate a fresh analytical perspective into how business firms experience and react to criminal extortion. This approach provides a powerful vantage point from which to study the repeated, face-to-face interactions between business owners and the criminals who extort them. By doing so, this book reveals the ways in which criminal actors not only extract money, but also strategically use other aspects of the identities of business owners to facilitate victimization, including offending victims’ status as entrepreneurs and citizens of the state. Throughout my fieldwork business owners highlighted these nonmaterial dimensions of extortion in discussing how they both experience and resist criminal victimization.Footnote 17 Discovering this led me to approach victimization under extortion as a more complex phenomenon than a coerced transaction and instead explore it as an intense and layered experience where both victims and criminals invoke multiple aspects of each other’s identities in order to contest power between them.

Relatedly, this book shows how dialogue between emerging studies of the politics of crime and the established literature on the political economy of development can contribute to both lines of research. I engage with the rich literature on state–business relations (Reference Doner and SchneiderDoner and Schneider 2000; Reference EvansEvans 1979; Reference Maxfield and SchneiderMaxfield and Schneider 1997) that shows how businesses mobilize in response to state policies that affect their economic interests. This business mobilization weighs on the substance and trajectory of a range of issues, including economic liberalization, land reform, labor protections, and privatization, among others (Reference Bartell and PayneBartell and Payne 1995; Reference Durand and SilvaDurand and Silva 1998; Reference FairfieldFairfield 2015; Reference KingstoneKingstone 1999; Reference SchneiderSchneider 2004). But we know comparatively less about how businesses respond to the informal policies of criminal actors who wield authority within territory and intervene in everyday life in ways that directly and indirectly impact their economic interests. I show how the types of organizational arrangements that govern economic sectors and that emerge out of state–business relations affect the ways in which businesses later mobilize to resist victimization.

1.2 Previewing the Argument

This book advances theory-building about the phenomenon of resistance to criminal victimization. I therefore unpack and describe the different strategies of resistance that victims pursue, and then I trace, analyze, and compare the dynamic processes and mechanisms that can lead to these distinct strategies. To develop my argument, I combine inductive and deductive strategies. I use process tracing (Reference Bennett and CheckelBennett and Checkel 2015; Reference CollierCollier 2011) to interrogate diverse forms of data that I collected during my field research in Colombia, El Salvador, and Mexico. Process tracing that triangulates multiple types of data is particularly well suited for generating theory and making legible the processes and mechanisms associated with distinct outcomes. I leverage variation in resistance to criminal extortion to carry out cross-case and within-case comparisons of processes and mechanisms. I find that three factors help us to better understand the observed variation in strategies of resistance: the time horizons of criminals; the nature of local political economies; and whether there is criminal capture of the police.

Building on classic analyses of state formation (Reference OlsonOlson 1993; Reference TillyTilly 1982) and agenda-setting research on governance by armed non-state actors (Reference AriasArias 2017; Reference ArjonaArjona 2017; Reference Magaloni, Franco-Vivanco and MeloMagaloni, Franco-Vivanco, and Melo 2020; Reference MampillyMampilly 2012; Reference MetelitsMetelits 2009), I argue that the time horizons of criminal actors influence the nature of their interactions with victims. But while existing studies focus on how shifts in time horizons impact the behaviors of armed non-state actors, I consider how criminals’ time horizons impact the behavior of victims. When criminal actors have long time horizons, victims are more likely to opt for everyday resistance that contests, but does not end, victimization. This is because under long time horizons criminal actors not only provide victims with goods and services – notably protection and order – but also enjoy a position of strength given a lack of external challengers. Victims thus prefer negotiating with criminal actors in order to reduce the level and/or frequency of material taxation, and because they deem the risk associated with attempting to end victimization as too high. By contrast, criminal actors with short time horizons provide fewer goods and services and use more predatory behaviors because they face challenges from either the state and/or criminal rivals that threaten their positions by generating uncertainty and stress on their resources. Under these circumstances victims prefer to end their victimization. But while it is necessary to consider how the time horizons of criminal actors influence victims’ preferences, it is not sufficient. I find that even when faced with criminals who all have short time horizons, the structures, practices, and trajectories of resistance vary across my cases. To explain this variation, we also need to consider the capacity of victims to mobilize collective action.

Local political economies shape whether and how businesses mobilize collectively to resist criminal victimization. Following work on subnational political economies (Reference HerrigelHerrigel 2000; Reference LockeLocke 1995), I conceptualize local political economies as consisting of two dimensions: relations among business firms on the one hand and between firms and local governing authorities on the other hand. I differentiate between three ideal-type local political economies: atomized, segmented, and encompassing. The first refers to political economies where ties among firms and between them and governing authorities are nearly nonexistent. Here victims will struggle to mount sustained collective resistance and instead are limited to individual or sporadic practices among small groups. By contrast, victims in encompassing political economies will mobilize and enact resistance as a single group because they harness the bonds of trust and familiarity, robust decision-making structures, and pooled assets contained within a single central preexisting organization that encompasses all relevant business actors. This single coordinating organization in an encompassing political economy also serves as the primary institutional channel between firms and political authorities. Having this single channel of communication with political authorities enables victims to work with governing authorities to jointly advance particular strategies of resistance. Finally, segmented political economies feature multiple groups of victims organized under competing organizations who fight against the criminal actor but, despite their shared grievances, also among themselves as they compete for resources, like money and authority. Here the absence of a single central channel to government officials further fuels competition between subsets of victims who use violence to also seek out legitimacy, political power, and informal control over politicians and governing institutions as part of resistance to criminal victimization. My focus on how victims repurpose business organizations to enact resistance to criminal extortion aligns with diverse literatures that examine the role that associational organizations play in a range of outcomes, including democracy (Reference BermanBerman 1997; Reference Putnam, Leonardi and NanettiPutnam, Leonardi, and Nanetti 1994), development (Reference TsaiTsai 2007), and ethnic conflict (Varshney 2003), as well as civilian mobilization in the face of repressive states (Reference Chenoweth and StephanChenoweth and Stephan 2011; Reference Zald and McCarthyZald and McCarthy 1987) and rebel insurgencies (Reference ArjonaArjona 2017; Kaplan 2017a; Reference MampillyMampilly 2012). By analyzing how these organizations serve as critical links between victims and the state, I draw from and contribute to research on the role of business organizations in the political economy of development (Reference Doner and SchneiderDoner and Schneider 2000; Reference FairfieldFairfield 2015; Reference HerrigelHerrigel 2000; Reference KingstoneKingstone 1999; Reference LockeLocke 1995; Reference Maxfield and SchneiderMaxfield and Schneider 1997; Reference SchneiderSchneider 2004).

The third factor that influences resistance by victims is whether there is criminal capture of the police. A defining feature of the state is having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force (Reference Weber, Gerth and Wright MillsWeber 1946). Theoretically the police embody this feature in their role as “street level bureaucrats” (Reference LipskyLipsky 1980) that provide order while adhering to the rule of law. But across much of Latin America, the police lack the capacity to provide order while concurrently adhering to the rule of law (Reference UngarUngar 2002, 2011). Efforts to strengthen their abilities to do so confront the reality of criminal capture of the police across much of the region (Reference YasharYashar 2018). By criminal capture I am referring to instances in which criminal actors use a combination of bribes and threats to obtain police complicity in their illicit activities. This complicity can range from passive practices, such as looking the other way in the face of criminal activities, to the active participation of police in crimes in support of criminal actors, including extralegal acts. In contexts of criminal capture, victims are confronted by police who are theoretically responsible for upholding the rule of law but who in practice are complicit in criminal victimization.Footnote 18 Here victims will avoid incorporating the police into their resistance and, in some instances, will target police as part of their mobilization.

But what about when the police have limited institutional capacities, but they are not captured by criminal actors? The conventional wisdom under these conditions is that victims still have no recourse to end their victimization. But as I show in this book, if the police are autonomous from criminal actors but lack institutional capacity to impose order within the constraints imposed on them by the rule of law, I find that both police and victims have incentives to work together. Low-capacity, but autonomous, police have incentives to join with victims in extralegal violence to ensure their own survival in contexts where criminal actors threaten them. Since even low-capacity police can still offer some valuable inputs for extralegal practices, including protection from other parts of the state for their extralegal activities, victims have incentives to incorporate police into their efforts to resist victimization. My analysis shows that providing order, in other words, can result from processes that either contribute to or weaken the rule of law. This should dissuade us from viewing groups of victims who engage in extralegal practices as part of resistance as “lesser evils” relative to criminals, but instead as complex efforts to reshape order and reconfigure modalities of local governance.

1.3 Structure of the Book

This book is divided into three sections. Part I builds the argument of resistance to criminal extortion. In Chapter 2 I discuss the key concepts that readers will encounter throughout this book. I then develop the argument to explain variation in the strategies of resistance that victims pursue in the face of criminal extortion. Here I expand on why a focus on criminals’ time horizons, the nature of local political economies, and criminal capture of the police can help to account for this variation. I show that the confluence of these factors yields distinct strategies of resistance that vary in their structures, practices, and trajectories. I label these ideal-type strategies everyday resistance, piecemeal vigilantism, collective vigilantism, and the coproduction of order. Part I concludes with a discussion of the argument’s scope conditions, case selection, and strategies of data collection and analysis.

Parts II and III present the empirical case studies. Part II begins by drawing on evidence from across my cases to show how when criminal actors enjoy long time horizons victims are relegated to everyday resistance regardless of variation in the nature of their political economies and status of the police. This part of the book then analyzes and contrasts cases in Colombia and El Salvador where victims operated in atomized political economies with weak ties among them on the one hand and between them and governing authorities on the other hand, but faced varying types of police. Police in the case of the informal vendors in Medellín were captured by the criminal group carrying out extortion, making the police unavailable to assist the vendors in resisting victimization. Vendors thus pursued everyday resistance consisting mainly of rhetorical practices meant to negotiate the material aspect of victimization but also to contest the strategies that criminals used to impose social and political domination over the vendors as part of sustaining extortion. Chapter 4 then turns to the case of small-scale farmers extorted by gangs in El Salvador and who also operated in atomized political economies. But unlike the informal vendors in Medellín, the small-scale farmers faced police that were not captured by the gangs but were instead autonomous from them. Here farmers thus pursued piecemeal vigilantism wherein they worked in coordination with handfuls of police to carry out sporadic acts of extralegal violence against gang members responsible for extortion. Part II of the book ends with a discussion of how these cases illuminate the crucial role that the status of the police plays in shaping victims’ strategies of resistance despite shared conditions of criminal actors with short time horizons and atomized political economies.

Part III turns to the cases in Mexico. The case of Tancítaro has recently garnered international media attention as a locality where the avocado sector finally reached a breaking point with continued extortion and violence at the hands of a DTO and so took up arms against it.Footnote 19 I delve deeper into the case to show how the encompassing political economy in the avocado sector, wherein victims counted on a single robust sectoral organization to coordinate among themselves and between them and governing authorities, unleashed a particular process and activated specific mechanisms that led to a centralized form of collective vigilantism. This entailed sustained collective mobilization in which victims carried out a range of practices closely coordinated by a group of leaders. I then contrast the case with that of the berry sector in a nearby municipality that I call La Unión, where a segmented political economy featured a plurality of competing sectoral organizations that precluded victims’ abilities to coordinate with each other as part of a unified self-defense group or with local governing authorities. This led to decentralized collective vigilantism in which multiple self-defense groups engaged in a range of both complementary and contradictory practices against criminals and simultaneously jockeyed against each other for power and resources. Chapter 6 continues the comparative analysis of the two municipalities in Michoacán by leveraging within-case shifts in the availability of police as allies for victims’ resistance efforts. In both Tancítaro and La Unión the variants of collective vigilantism produced “bottom-up” purges of the local police who had been captured by criminal actors. Victims responded to this shift in strategic conditions by pursuing the coproduction of local order. Yet the projects of coproduction varied in their structures and practices in ways that reflected the enduring differences in the nature of the local political economies and the legacies of differing forms of collective vigilantism. In Tancítaro victims employed their robust sectoral organization and joined with governing authorities to jointly shape local order, whereas in La Unión the legacy of decentralized collective vigilantism and weak ties to governing authorities resulted in violent competition between coalitions of armed victims and politicians to obtain political power. Chapter 7 concludes by exploring the theoretical extensions of the argument, tasks for future research, and the policy implications derived from the analysis and findings.

Collecting the data necessary to trace these processes, identify mechanisms, and compare strategies of resistance to criminal victimization required repeated stints of field research in multiple localities. Each of the field sites posed complex and different challenges in terms of security for participants, research assistants, and me. In the Appendix I discuss the research process and how each method generated different types of data that I then triangulated to study processes and mechanisms leading to strategies of resistance. I do not use all of the data that I collected – doing so would pose risks for some of the people who put their trust in me by accepting invitations to discuss sensitive topics. I state this to underscore the dangerous conditions and difficult choices that the people who accepted these invitations face on a daily basis. Thus, in addition to contributing to our scholarly understanding of the politics of crime through the unique focus on resistance to criminal extortion, my hope is that this book is also able to convey to readers a small part of these lived realities in settings of insecurity and crime.


1 I use pseudonyms for all of the individuals who were interviewed or participated in focus groups for this project. With the exclusion of Tancítaro in Mexico and Medellín in Colombia, I also use pseudonyms for the localities where I conducted field research. I discuss the security protocol that I followed in more detail in both Chapter 2 and the Appendix.

2 Interview with Raul (MCN950), avocado producer, Tancítaro, July 2018.

3 DTOs are not cartels because they do not control the pricing market for their products through collusion with each other (Reference ThoumiThoumi 2003, 6). Additionally, because the term “cartel” itself is politically contentious (Reference GrilloGrillo 2011), I refer to them as DTOs except where the term appears in the title of existing works, in the names of particular criminal organizations, or is used by an interview subject or focus group participant.

4 Esperanza (MCN201), journalist, Tancítaro, electronic communications, May 2018.

5 In 2005 the Barrio 18 gang split into two factions: the Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries) and Sureños (Southerners).

6 Case M, El Pilar, judicial files. See the Appendix for a description of the individual legal cases that I analyze in El Salvador.

7 Tom Phillips, “Breathtaking Homicidal Violence: Latin America in Grip of Murder Crisis,” Guardian (US edition), April 26, 2018.

8 During the first decade of the twentieth century, for example, sharp growth in homicides in Mexico reversed the trend of the previous six decades of increased life expectancy (Reference Aburto, Beltrán-Sánchez, García-Guerrero and Canudas-RomoAburto et al. 2016).

9 Reference BergmanBergman (2018) analyzes contraband and smuggling economies in Latin America.

10 I am not implying that researchers have exhausted the study of the illicit drug trade. To the contrary, studies continue to unpack important dimensions of the drug trade that we are only just beginning to understand, including the nature and strategic use of lethal violence (Reference Durán-MartínezDurán-Martínez 2017; Reference LessingLessing 2017; Reference OsorioOsorio 2015; Reference RíosRíos 2013; Reference ShirkShirk 2010; Reference Snyder and AngelicaSnyder and Durán-Martínez 2009; Reference LeyTrejo and Ley 2018) and the complex relations between criminal actors involved in different aspects of the drug trade, the state, and social groups (Reference AriasArias 2017; Reference LeedsLeeds 1996; Reference PenglasePenglase 2014; Reference WillisWillis 2015; Reference WolffWolff 2015).

11 Parker Asmann, “Underreporting Helps Extortion Thrive in Mexico, Latin America,” InSight Crime, November 1, 2018.

12 The survey specifically asks firms the following question: “Did the owner, a legal representative or employee go to the Public Ministry to report the crime?” Available at: Accessed on October 1, 2020.

13 Molly O’Toole, “Micro-extortion by Gangs Is Costing El Salvador Millions of Dollars a Year, $10 at a Time,” Quartz, June 17, 2017.

14 “Miembros de ‘Convivir’ de Medellín Ganan un Millón de Pesos Mensuales,” El Tiempo, August 11, 2014.

15 See Reference Flores-MacíasFlores-Macías (2014) on how insecurity shapes the tax preferences of the private sector.

16 A business is defined as “a company, public corporation, partnership or individual which sells goods and/or services with the intention of generating a surplus from its trading activities for its owners” (Reference GrantGrant 1987, 3).

17 This aligns partially with Reference LovemanLoveman’s (1998) argument that collective action against repressive actors is driven by a combination of material incentives and “purposive motivations.” See also Reference WoodWood (2003) on how “pleasure in agency” drives participation in rebellion.

18 Note that this is distinct from settings where police coordinate, direct, and are the primary beneficiaries of the extortion of civilians (see Reference Tellez, Wibbels and KrishnaTellez, Wibbels and Krishna 2020).

19 Katy Watson, “The Avocado Police Protecting Mexico’s Green Gold,” BBC, November 28, 2017.

Figure 0

Figure 1.1 Homicide rates for select world regions (2003–18).Note: Central America refers to Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. South America refers to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Source: UNODC ( Accessed on May 26, 2020
Figure 1

Figure 1.2 Extortion rates in Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico (2010–19).

Sources: Data for Colombia is from the Ministry of National Defense of Colombia. Available at: Accessed on July 15, 2020. Data for El Salvador is from the Polícia Nacional Civil de la República de El Salvador. Available at: Accessed on May 2, 2020. Data for Mexico is from the Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública. Available at: Accessed on May 3, 2020
Figure 2

Figure 1.3 Extortion rates for business firms in Mexico (select years).

Sources: Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI). Encuesta Nacional de Victimización de Empresas 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020. Available at Accessed on October 1, 2020
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  • Introduction
  • Eduardo Moncada, Barnard College, Columbia University
  • Book: Resisting Extortion
  • Online publication: 23 December 2021
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  • Introduction
  • Eduardo Moncada, Barnard College, Columbia University
  • Book: Resisting Extortion
  • Online publication: 23 December 2021
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  • Introduction
  • Eduardo Moncada, Barnard College, Columbia University
  • Book: Resisting Extortion
  • Online publication: 23 December 2021
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats