Clara Voyvodic Casabo: Criminal or political - a viable typology for future studies of the changing character of violent conflict?

Resource type: Blogs


Clara Voyvodic Casabo, University of Oxford

The Changing Character of Conflict Platform stresses the need to integrate more orthodox understandings of war with the evolving complex realities on the ground. This blog article considers the distinction of conflict and criminal in academic research and argues that this fails to address the different overlapping motivations and forms in which actors and groups choose to engage in armed violence.

Are political scientists not keeping pace with the interlinked nature of political conflict and organized crime, as a World Bank development report claimed in 2011? And if so, why does it matter? Studies of security and conflict have an entrenched fascination with the relation between violence and the state. Warfare, insurgencies, terrorism, crimes against humanity are all the subject of considerable research in understanding how states go to war, or why non-state actors may attack the state. In contrast, criminal violence is often ignored. The shifting environment of conflict requires us to challenge the distinction between political and criminal violence. Hanging on to the narrow typologies of political violence would otherwise lead to a dangerous dismissal of the experiences of those exposed to ‘common’ violence.

Within International Relations the two spheres of political and criminal conflict are best exemplified by Hedley Bull’s argument that there is a distinction between ‘civil violence’ and ‘common violence’. Civil violence is political. It means the use of force to affect the civil or domestic political process and the coercive responses by established political authorities to counter these acts of violent protest, rebellion, insurgency or revolution. Common violence is apolitical. It occurs as a result of social conflict not related to political motives or events and it is often related to personal and property crime, or organized crime. Others note that common violence is frequently ascribed to profit-seeking behavior, as an extension of business. That is, criminal groups and their activities are seen as categorically non-ideological. Criminal actors do not have political agendas of their own.

However, these views are at odds with the phenomena actors are observing in the field. In 2011, the World Bank Development Report condemned the international system for not keeping pace “with the emerging analysis of conflict – in particular, recognition of the repetitive and interlinked nature of conflict, and the increasing challenge of organized crime and trafficking.” In 2015, despite distinguishing common and political violence, the World Bank notes that violence seems to be shifting from “large-scale violent conflicts to the less visible but widespread forms of common violence and occasional outbursts of collective violence.” Indeed, research shows that terrorists and criminal organizations often “share members, operate in the same areas, trade specialized services, or merge strategies.” Actors deemed political may resort to activity such as trafficking, extortion, and bribes, while criminal groups use violence against the state and civilians to control territory and impose social order. These can range from large-scale territorial control of the cartels in Mexico to gangs in urban centers where violence is employed to exert a form of social order in cities all over the world. Charles Tilly and later Anthony Giddens taught us that violence is endemic to the creation of statehood and centralized monopoly of violence. Where states are not capable of exerting control, or do so in a way that marginalizes and oppresses minorities or social groups within their borders, this lack of governance leads to a vacuum. By occupying it, rightly or wrongly, successfully or not, criminal groups are acting politically.

In Colombia, a long history of guerrilla warfare was interrupted and transformed by the introduction of the drug trade. Now Colombia’s violence defies categorization of either criminal or political. Insurgent actors, such as the ELN and until recently, the FARC, resort to drug trafficking to fund their political violence. Paramilitaries have had a long history in the drug trade while politically opposed to the ideology of the Marxist insurgents. With the fall of the Medellin and Cali cartels, control of the drug trade was disputed between armed groups. In 2005, the official disbanding of the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia resulted in a huge fragmentation of armed actors who continued to engage in the drug trade. These were abruptly renamed bacrim, (criminal groups) despite evidence that they still engaged in anti-insurgent action or in attacking civil society leaders. This leads to a very important interrogation of the distinction between political and criminal violence. As Paul Brass argues, these categorizations of violence are reflective of the interpretations by authorities, media, politicians, and even scholars more than the inherently political nature of a violent event itself. Where political violence is often explored in detail to determine which grievances, incentives and ideological positions motivate actors, criminal violence is instead often used as shorthand for state failure to monopolize the use of force rather than complexly integrated.

The power and impact of labelling violence is therefore one that scholars should interrogate rather than assume. As so-called criminal groups become more sophisticated and entrenched within their socio-cultural contexts, is treating them as deviant profit-seekers not only unhelpful to better analysis, but also exacerbating insecurities? In El Salvador, violence dropped dramatically from fifteen to five deaths a day when the government agreed to help broker a truce between the powerful transnational criminal gangs competing in the country. Strategies to help prevent individuals, especially the most vulnerable, from experiencing violence should not seek to reduce violence into types. In the local everyday of those affected by violence in Colombia, a criminal label has only served to obfuscate the complex histories and intentions of actors engaging in violence. Carolyn Nordstrom argues that violence is “employed to create political acquiescence; it is intended to create terror, and thus political inertia; it is intended to create hierarchies of domination and submission based on the control of force.” The so-called bacrim in Colombia continue to use violence to this ends, in seeking to control territory, attempting to subdue opposition, and repressing civil and union leaders advocating for social and economic transformation. In the evolving theatre of actors willing to use violence, its study should reject binary typologies of political revolution or mere profit-seeking, nor should it be homogenized. Instead we should ask how violences, in the plural, are used by different actors, how they connect to instances of power, sovereignty, and control, and how they shape the experiences of the local.


1. Brass, Paul. Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1997.

2. Sloan, Britt and Cockayne, James. “Terrorism, crime, and conflict: exploiting the differences among transnational threats?” Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation Policy Brief, February 2011.

3. Bull, Hedley. “Civil Violence and International Order.” Civil Violence and the International System. Adelphi Papers. 83. London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1971.

4. Finckenauer, John. “Problems of Definition: What is Organized Crime?” Trends in Organized Crime. 2005. Vol 8 Iss 3: 63-83.

5. Giddens, Anthony. The Nation-State and Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

6. McDermott, Jeremy. “The BACRIM and Their Position in Colombia’s Underworld”, Insight Crime. May 2014. Accessed: 14 February 2018. URL:

7. Nordstrom, Carolyn. “War on the Front Lines,” in Carolyn Nordstrom and Antonius C. G. M. Robben, eds., Fieldwork under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

8. Nordstrom, Carolyn. Shadows of War: Violence, Power and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

9. Serrano, Monica and Toro, Maria Celia, “From Drug Trafficking to Transnational Organized Crime in Latin America,” in eds Mat Berdal and Monica Serrano Transnational Organized Crime and International Security, Lynne Rienner Publishing, London, 2002, 155-182.

10. Telesur. “Rural Workers’ Union Chief Killed in Colombia”, July 2017, Accessed 12 Feburary 2018. URL:—20170701-0022.html

11. Tilly, Charles. The Formation of National States in Western Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

12. World Bank, “Making societies more resilient to violence; A conceptual framework for the conflict, crime and violence agenda”, Report from Social Development Department, Washington, DC, World Bank, 2015.

13. World Bank, “World Development Report: Conflict, Security and Development”, Washington, DC, World Bank, 2011.