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The Political Economy of Transnational Drug Trafficking: Criminal Rackets and State-Making in Modern Mexico



Change log


Lerch, Alejandro 


Far from embodying distinct social actors, the line separating the ‘police’ from the ‘criminal’ is historically fluid and at times very thin. Generated by the capitalisation of economic relations, waves of bandits and criminals have often been instrumental to advance the interests of their enabling economic and political elites by forming the security apparatuses (reliant on preying, delinquency and extortion) supporting the elites' hegemony. Mexicans, at multiple stages in the country's national history, have become well-acquainted with the blend of legality and illegality characterising the country’s security sector. Building from historical sociology, comparative studies and critical approaches to policing, this thesis argues that criminal activities (in particular contraband and drug trafficking) were important political economies supporting the development of the state security apparatus under the PRI regime in Mexico (1940s to 1990s). The thesis documents the paradoxical but regular input of criminal markets into the political economies of pacification, policing and state repression, taking place at crucial junctures in the history of the single-party state, and assisting the production of its particular socioeconomic order. This ‘instrumentalisation’ of transnational criminal markets connects with and replicates little-studied Cold War security dynamics whereby the reach of the U.S. security apparatus (global policing, paramilitarism, counterinsurgency, dirty wars, etc.) was expanded by tapping into criminal activity in host nations. Building from the Mexican experience, the thesis argues that state rackets in (transnational) crime generated political economies that, embedded into local processes, played a notable part in the making of capitalist modernity, liberal state making and empire. The thesis documents in particular the ancillary role of drug and contraband markets in the operation of the PRI’s central security bodies, the Dirección Federal de Seguridad and the Policía Judicial Federal. Drawing from multi-archival research and unprecedented testimonies by former law enforcement agents, the thesis provides a new framework to grasp the important role of criminal-police entanglements in the making of Mexican modernity.





Denyer Willis, Graham


drug trafficking, organised crime, intelligence services, policing, banditry, corruption, mexico, cold war


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Conacyt, Cambridge Trust, CLAS, St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge Political Economy Society.