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The violence work of transnational gangs in Central America


According to international relations scholars, an important change taking place in the post-Cold War context concerns the lethality of non-state armed groups (NSAGs). Underlying this observation is the conventional assumption that non-state violence is intrinsically illegitimate. This article shifts the analysis of violence away from the terrain of legitimacy, which tends to moralise the difference between state and non-state forces, and towards the terrain of work, where their violence features as part and not separate from a shared political economy. I propose the notion of violence work as a resourceful analytic into the dialectics of everyday violence and the complex processes of value production in social life. Against the background of the extreme cruelty attributed to transnational gangs in Central America, I argue that their violence work is expressive of prevailing modes of accumulating wealth in the region. Drawing on multi-sited fieldwork in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, I show how gang violence work animates a system of economic cooperation that engages a wide array of subjects who traverse state/non-state and legal/illegal divides.

Keywords: Non-state armed groups, transnational gangs, violence, labour, Central America, illicit political economy


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