Theory and Society

, Volume 39, Issue 3–4, pp 397–413 | Cite as

Irregular armed forces, shifting patterns of commitment, and fragmented sovereignty in the developing world



Historically, the study of state formation has involved a focus on the urban and national conditions under which states monopolize the means of coercion, generate legitimacy, and marshal sufficient economic resources to wage war against enemies while sustaining citizen allegiance through the extension of social programs, new forms of national solidarity, and citizenship. In Charles Tilly’s large body of work, these themes loomed large, and they have re-emerged in slightly reformulated ways in an unfinished manuscript that reflected on the relationship between capital and coercion in which he also integrated the element of commitment—or networks of trust—into the study of state formation. This article develops these same ideas but in new directions, casting them in light of contemporary rather than historical developments. Taking as its point of departure the accelerating rates of criminal violence and citizen insecurity in cities of the developing world, this essay suggests that random and targeted violence increasingly perpetrated by “irregular” armed forces pose a direct challenge to state legitimacy and national sovereignty. Through examination of urban and transnational non-state armed actors who use violence to accumulate capital and secure economic dominion, and whose activities reveal alternative networks of commitment, power, authority, and even self-governance, this essay identifies contemporary parallels with the pre-modern period studied by Charles Tilly, arguing that current patterns challenge prevailing national-state forms of sovereignty. Drawing evidence primarily from Mexico and other middle income developing countries that face growing insecurity and armed violence, the article examines the new “spatialities” of irregular armed force, how they form the basis for alternative networks of coercion, allegiance, and reciprocity that challenge old forms and scales of sovereignty, and what this means for the power and legitimacy of the traditional nation-state.


Coercive Force Armed Actor Illicit Activity Transnational Network Global South 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Agnew, J. (2007). Sovereignty regimes: Territoriality and state authority in contemporary world politics. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95(2), 437–461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  3. Appuradai, A. (2003). Sovereignty without territoriality: Notes for a postnational geography. In S. Low & D. Lawrence-Zuniga (Eds.), The anthropology of space and place: Locating culture (pp. 337–349). Boston: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  4. Arias, E. D. (2004). Faith in our neighbors: Networks and social order in three Brazilian Favelas. Latin American Politics and Society, 46(1), 1–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Arias, E. D. (2006). The dynamics of criminal governance: Networks and social order in Rio de Janeiro. Journal of Latin American Studies, 38(0202), 1–32.Google Scholar
  6. Arias, E. D., & Goldstein, D. (Eds.). (2010). Violent democracies in Latin America: Toward an interdisciplinary reconceptualization. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Astorga, L. (2007). Seguridad, traficantes y militares. El poder y la sombra. México, DF: Tusquets.Google Scholar
  8. Bailey, J., & Godson, R. (Eds.). (2000). Organized crime and democratic governability: Mexico and the US-Mexican Borderlands. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  9. Caldeira, T. (2001). City of walls: Crime, segregation and citizenship in São Paulo. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  10. Campbell, E. H. (2006). Economic globalization from below: Transnational refugee trade networks in Nairobi. In G. Myers & M. Murray (Eds.), Cities in Contemporary Africa (pp. 125–147). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  11. Castells, M., & Portes, A. (1989). World underneath: The origins, dynamics, and effects of the informal economy. In M. Castells, A. Portes, & L. A. Benton (Eds.), The informal economy: Studies in advanced and less developed countries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Cohen, M., & Rubio, M. (2007). Violence and Crime in Latin America (p. 5). Paper prepared for the Consulta de San Jose 2007 and presented at the Copenhagen Consensus Conference, available at:
  13. Coletta, N. J., & Cullen, M. (2000). The nexus between violent conflict, social capital and social cohesion: Case studies from Cambodia and Rwanda. Social Capital Working Paper No. 23. Washington: World Bank.Google Scholar
  14. Collier, P., Elliott, V. L., Hegre, H., Hoeffler, A., Reynal-Querol, M., & Sambanis, N. (2003). Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil war and development policy. Washington: World Bank and Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Davis, D. E. (2006a). Undermining the rule of law: Democratization and the dark side of police reform in Mexico. Latin American Politics and Society, 48(1), 55–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Davis, D. E. (2006b). Conflict, cooperation, and convergence: Globalization and the politics of downtown development in Mexico City. Research in Political Sociology, 15, 143–178.Google Scholar
  17. Davis, D. E. (2007). Insecure and secure cities: Towards a reclassification of world cities in a global era. Sociologia Urbana e Rurale, XXIX(82), 67–82. [Also reprinted in MITIR: The MIT International Review, Spring 2008, available at].Google Scholar
  18. Davis, D. E. (2010). The political and economic origins of violence and insecurity in contemporary Latin America: Past trajectories and future prospects. In D. Arias & D. Goldstein (Eds.), Violent democracies. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Davis, D. E. (forthcoming). Policing and populism in the Cardenas and Echeverria Administrations. In A. M. Kiddle, & M. L. O. Muñoz (Eds.), Men of the People: The Presidencies of Lázaro Cárdenas and Luis Echeverría in Mexico. University of Arizona Press, in production.Google Scholar
  20. Davis, D. E., & Pereira, A. (Eds.). (2004). Irregular armed forces and their role in politics and state formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Davis, R. C., Ortiz, C., Dadush, S., Irish, J., Alvarado, A., & Davis, D. E. (2003). The public accountability of private police: Lessons from New York, Johannesburg, and Mexico City. Policing and Society, 13(2), 197–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Devetak, R., & Higgott, R. (1999). Justice unbound? Globalisation, states, and the transformation of the social bond. University of Warwick CSGR Working Paper no. 29/99 (May).Google Scholar
  23. Fearon, J., & Laitin, D. (2003). Ethnicity, insurgency, and civil war. American Political Science Review, 97(1), 75–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gazit, N. (2009). Social agency, spatial practices, and power: The micro-foundations of fragmented sovereigny in the occupied territories. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 22, 83–103. p. 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Goldstein, D. (2003). The spectacular city: Violence and performance in urban Bolivia. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Guaracy, M. (2007). O trabalho da inteligencia no controle do crime organizado. Estudos Avancados, 21(61), 51–69.Google Scholar
  27. Hasan, A. (2002). The changing nature of the informal sector in Karachi as a result of global restructuring and liberalization. Environment & Urbanization, 14(1), 69–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hinton, M., & Newburn, T. (Eds.). (2009). Policing developing democracies. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  29. Huber, P., & Reimann, C. (2006). Non-state Armed Actors: An annotated bibliography. Geneva: Swiss Piece Center for Peacebuilding.Google Scholar
  30. Huggins, M. (Ed.). (1991). Vigilantism and the State in Latin America: Essays in extra-legal violence. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  31. Huggins, M. (1998). Political policing: The United States and Latin America. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Jackson, R. (1990). Quasi-States: Sovereignty, international relations, and the third world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Jojarth, C. (2009). Crime, war, and global trafficking: Designing international coordination. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Keck, M., & Linklater, A. (1993). The transformation of political community: Ethical foundations of the Post-Westphalian Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Keck, M., & Sikkink, K. (1997). Transnational issue networks in international politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Koonings, K., & Kruijt, D. (Eds.) (1999). Societies of fear: The legacy of civil war, violence and terror in Latin America. New York: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  37. Koonings, K., & Kruijt, D. (Eds.) (2007). Fractured cities: Social exclusion, urban violence, and contested spaces in Latin America. London: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  38. Kraxberger, B. (2005). Strangers, indigenes, and settlers: Contested geographies of citizenship in Nigeria. Space and Polity, 9(1), 9–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kurtzman, J. (2009). Mexico’s instability is a real problem: Don’t discount the possibility of a failed state next door. Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2009.Google Scholar
  40. La Jornada (2009). Ayer, 40 muertos, 11 de ellos en Ciudad Juarez. La Jornada, July 11, 2009, p. 7.Google Scholar
  41. La Jornada (2009). Descarten armar civiles en Le Barón; se creará policiá, afirma Reyes Baeza. La Jornada July 10, 2009, c.f. Justice in Mexico News Report, July 2009, p. 8,
  42. Lacy, M. (2008). Officials say drug cartels infiltrated Mexican law unit. New York Times 26 October 2008, p. A9.; see also Bailey, op. cit.Google Scholar
  43. Landau-Wells, M. (2008). Capital cities in civil wars: The locational dimensions of sovereign authority. Crisis States Research Center, Occasional Paper 6, April 2008.Google Scholar
  44. Leeds, E. (2006). Cocaine and parallel polities in the Brazilian urban periphery: Constraints on local-level democracy. Latin American Research Review, 31(3), 41–83.Google Scholar
  45. Linklater, A. (1993). The transformation of political community: Ethical foundations of the Post-Westphalian Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Litzinger, R. A. (2006). Contested sovereignties and the critical ecosystem partnership fund. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 29(1), 66–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lupsha, P. (1996). Transnational crime versus the nation-state. Transnational Organized Crime, 2(1), 21–48.Google Scholar
  48. Maimbo, S. (Ed.). (2006). Remittances and economic development in Somalia: An overview. Social Development Papers No. 38. Washington: World Bank.Google Scholar
  49. McIlwaine, C., & Moser, C. (2001). Violence and social capital in urban poor communities. Journal of International Development, 13(7), 965–984.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Moser, C. (2004). Urban violence and insecurity: An introductory roadmap. Environment & Urbanization, 16(2), 3–16.Google Scholar
  51. Murray, M. J. (2008). Taming the disorderly city: The spatial landscape of Johannesburg after Apartheid. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Picatto, P. (2003). A historical perspective on criminality in Twentieth-Century Mexico. USMEX 2005-04 Working Paper Series, University of California San Diego.Google Scholar
  53. Reno, W. (2004). The changing nature of warfare and the absence of state-building in West Africa. In D. E. Davis & A. Pereira (Eds.), Irregular armed forces and their role in politics and state formation (pp. 322–345). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Rodgers, D. (2004). Disembedding the city: Crime, insecurity, and spatial organisation in Managua, Nicaragua. Environment and Urbanization, 16(2), 113–124.Google Scholar
  55. Rodgers, D. (2006). The state as a gang: Conceptualizing the governmentality of violence in contemporary Nicaragua. Critique of Anthropology, 26(3), 315–330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Rodgers, D. (2007). Slum Wars of the 21st century: The New Geography of Conflict in Central America. Working Paper No. 10, Crisis States Research Centre. London: London School of Economics.Google Scholar
  57. Rotker, S., Goldman, K., & Balan, J. (Eds.). (2003). Citizens of fear: Urban violence in Latin America. Camden: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Rozema, R. (2008). Urban DDR-processes: Paramilitaries and criminal networks in Medellin, Colombia. Journal of Latin American Studies, 40(3), 423–452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Sassen, S. (1991). The global city. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Sassen, S. (2007). Territory, authority, rights: From medieval to global assemblages. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  61. Simone, A. M. (2006). Pirate towns: Reworking social and symbolic infrastructures in Johannesburg and Douala. Urban Studies, 43(2), 357–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Sparke, M. (2005). In the space of theory: Post-foundational geographies of the nation-state. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  63. Tilly, C. (1985). Warmaking and statemaking as organized crime. In D. Rueschemeyer, P. Evans, & T. Skocpol (Eds.), Bringing the state back in (pp. 169–191). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Tilly, C. (1990). Capital, coercion, and European States, AD 990-1992. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  65. Tilly, C. (2008). Cities, states, and trust networks. Chapter 1 of Cities and States in World History, manuscript, March 11, 2008, in this issue.Google Scholar
  66. Volkov, V. (2002). Violent entrepreneurs: The use of force in making Russian capitalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Urban StudiesMITCambridgeUSA

Personalised recommendations