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How Nonstate Actors Govern in Medellã­n, Colombia, 1984-2009: Legitimacy and Governance amid Complex Violence

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This policy brief is drawn from the author’s doctoral thesis, Microdynamics of Illegitimacy and Complex Urban Violence in Medellín, Colombia.

In the absence of state actors, a wide variety of armed nonstate actors have controlled most of Medellín’s slums for at least 25 years. The most successful of these groups have turned significant territory within the city into their own “statelets” for years at a time. Those actors who were relatively resource-poor won and held those statelets by legitimizing their control internally: they provided public services (adjudication of disputes, public safety, jobs, etc.) and enforced local, traditional social values. Those who were relatively resource-rich maintained control by force, coercion, and barter, and by avoiding illegitimacy: they maintained a relatively predictable daily living environment for the community. Rich or poor, successful nonstate governors were effective at border control, external defense, and, often, diplomacy, although none created formal institutions, few were sensitive to human rights or humanitarian standards, and all eventually were defeated by rivals for territorial control or illegitimized themselves to local populations due to corruption or overreach.

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