Lessing, Benjamin (2017) Making Peace in Drug Wars: Crackdowns and Cartels in Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 354 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-316-64896-4

Therése Pettersson

Uppsala University

While turf wars between so-called drug cartels have received ample attention, much less is known about why cartel-state violence escalates or de-escalates. Why do cartels fight states, if not to topple or secede from them? With thorough case studies and an impressive theoretical framework, Benjamin Lessing helps us understand this phenomenon by untying it from inter-cartel fighting, which is sometimes, but far from always, related to cartel-state violence. The book shows that while state repression produces incentives for cartel-state violence, it is not a sufficient condition. To understand why some crackdowns result in escalating violence while others do not, Lessing introduces the concept of conditionality of repression. He argues that when changes in the level of state repression are reliant on the cartels’ use of violence, the cartels have incentives to eschew violence against the state; whereas when states employ high levels of repression regardless of how the cartels behave, we can expect cartels to respond with escalating attacks on state forces. By testing his theory on the three cases of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, Lessing shows that when state policy became more uncompromising, cartel-state violence intensified, whereas when the state initiated reforms that increased the conditionality of repression, periods of less violence followed. However, not all state policies succeed; Lessing shows that leaders need to overcome substantial logistical and acceptability constraints to successfully introduce an element of conditionality. He concludes that one of the most decisive factors in state policy success is reframing the challenge as stopping violence rather than one of combating the drug trade per se. In sum, this ambitious book offers convincing insights into the understudied phenomenon of cartel-state violence.