Machine Gun Politics: Why Politicians Cooperate with Criminal Groups



Why do politicians cooperate with organized criminal groups? Existing accounts explore such groups’ incentives to cooperate, but largely treat politicians as either victims of violence or passive bribe takers. This paper considers why politicians may seek criminals’ help to get votes. I argue that some politicians win by using an electoral strategy called criminal clientelism. Politicians hire criminal groups as brokers to deliver votes through two mechanisms: (1) corralling mobilizes groups of residents to the polls and (2) gatekeeping prevents rival candidates from accessing voters. I use a natural experiment that leverages exogenous variation in voter assignment to ballot boxes and a novel dataset on criminal governance to test my theory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I show that corralling increases turnout and influences vote choice, and gatekeeping restricts the candidate pool. Together, the mechanisms underpinning criminal clientelism decrease competitiveness and increase the probability of victory for criminally allied candidates.

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