Violent governance, identity and the production of legitimacy: autodefensas in Latin America

  • Alexander Curry
  • Leonie Ansems de Vries
Original Article


This article examines the intersections of violence, governance, identity and legitimacy in relation to autodefensas (self-defence groups) in Latin America, focusing on Mexico and Colombia. By shifting focus from the question of where legitimacy lies to how it is produced and contested by a range of groups, we challenge the often presumed link between the state and legitimacy. We develop the idea of a field of negotiation and contestation, firstly, to discuss and critique the concept of state failure as not merely a Western hegemonic claim but also a strategic means of producing legitimacy by autodefensas. Secondly, we employ and enrich the notion of violent pluralism to discuss the pervasiveness of violence and the role of neoliberalism, and to address the question of non-violent practices of governance. We argue that the idea of a field of contestation and negotiation helps to understand the complexity of relationships that encompass the production of legitimacy and identity through (non)violent governance, whereby lines between (non)state, (non)violence and (il)legitimacy blur and transform. Yet, we do not simply dismiss (binary) distinctions as these continue to be employed by groups in their efforts to produce, justify, challenge, contest and negotiate their own and others’ legitimacy and identity.


Autodefensas Colombia Mexico State failure Violent pluralism 



Alexander Curry’s research was sponsored by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP), an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Doctoral Training Partnership, Grant Number AH/L503873/1. Find out more at The authors would like to thank Professor Adam David Morton for his help and support in the writing of the article. They would also like to acknowledge the European and International Studies Association and UCL Americas Research Network for allowing the presentation of drafts of this paper at their conferences in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Thanks are also due to the discussants at each of these conferences—Dr. Marsha Henry and Dr. Thomas Rath—for their helpful comments and suggestions. Finally, thanks are due to the three anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments, which were important in bringing focus to the arguments in the article.


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Advanced StudyInstitute of Latin American StudiesLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of War StudiesKing’s College LondonLondonUK

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