The Provision of Public Services by Criminal Organizations in Mexico and Brazil

Police car in Rio de Janeiro favela


In some regions and countries, criminal gangs and other non-state actors compete with the state to provide public services, gain popular support, and jeopardize security. Understanding how they do this can help governments develop policies and tools to counter these groups' activities.


Using two Latin American countries marked by considerable but contrasting criminal or gang activity — Brazil and Mexico — the research team will systematically collect and analyze empirical evidence and combine this primary research with data from the existing literature to answer the following questions:

  • What services do non-state actors — in particular, criminal or violent organizations — provide and who uses them?
  • How important are these services for the beneficiaries in their day-to-day lives?
  • What are the implications of such non-state actors supplanting the state from the perspective of U.S. national security?
  • What commonalities or differences exist across different social and geographic contexts, for example gang activity in Brazil and drug cartel organizations in Mexico?
  • What policy approaches have worked, or are likely to work, to undermine non-state service provision by such groups or to incorporate these activities into legitimate state operations? Are these methods transferable?


In both sites we will conduct expert interviews with individuals in governmental and nongovernmental organizations, the police, the mayor's office as well as academics at universities in both Mexico City and Salvador, Brazil. We will conduct a quantitative survey of 600 households in each site to systematically assess the types of services provided by non-state actors and the characteristics of households that use those services.

Research Team

Christopher Mays Johnson and Nicholas Burger