Topics Discussed: What is war?, Justification for war, War in Ukraine, Nuclear war, Drug cartels, Joseph Kony, World Wars, Civil wars, Israeli–Palestinian conflict, China vs USA, Love, Hard data, Mortality, Advice for young people, Tyler Cowen.

Chris Blattman Thumbnail

Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman is a professor at the University of Chicago studying the causes and consequences of violence and war.

Books Mentioned in this Podcast with Chris Blattman:

The Surprising Lessons in Conflict Resolution: Insights from Medellín's Gang Wars

In the shadowy world of organized crime, the city of Medellín, Colombia, stands as an intriguing case study. Known for its tumultuous history and violent past, this city has been a battleground for various criminal organizations, most notably the infamous Medellín Cartel. However, beneath the surface of chaos and criminality, there are valuable insights to be gleaned regarding conflict resolution and governance. In this article, we delve into the surprising lessons in conflict resolution from the heart of Medellín’s gang wars.

The Economics of Peace and War

Medellín, much like many urban centers plagued by gang violence, has experienced periods of extreme bloodshed and mayhem. Yet, what sets it apart is its ability to maintain relative peace, even in the midst of powerful and ruthless criminal organizations. How is this possible? The answer lies in understanding the economics of peace and war.

  1. The Role of Criminal Hierarchy: At the core of Medellín’s relative peace is the presence of a hierarchical structure within the criminal organizations. These organizations, often referred to as “resonates” or “bandas corinales,” maintain a level of control over the various street gangs operating within the city. Instead of allowing hundreds of gangs to engage in perpetual turf wars, the criminal hierarchy imposes rules and regulations.

  2. Scheduling Territory Control: One striking feature of these criminal organizations is the meticulous scheduling of territorial control. Each gang is assigned specific territories for particular time intervals. This system reduces conflict and minimizes the chances of violent clashes over territory, effectively lowering the homicide rate.

  3. Enforcing Norms and Rules: Surprisingly, these criminal organizations also enforce norms and rules aimed at reducing violence. There are prohibitions against certain types of crimes within specific neighborhoods. While this enforcement serves the interests of the criminal organizations themselves, it results in a reduction of violence within these areas.

The Prison as a Hub of Negotiation

Another unique aspect of conflict resolution in Medellín’s underworld is the role of prisons as hubs of negotiation. Many of the leaders of these criminal organizations find themselves incarcerated but often in the same prison wings. This proximity provides them with a space to communicate, bargain, and reach agreements.

  1. Informal Meetings: These incarcerated leaders engage in what can be termed as “informal meetings” or “alpha cenas.” These gatherings, though not face-to-face, allow for discussions and decision-making. It’s here that they coordinate efforts to maintain peace on the streets and avoid destructive conflicts.

  2. Coordinated Efforts: While these leaders are in prison, they continue to oversee their criminal empires. Paradoxically, this arrangement fosters stability. Rather than decentralizing power to hot-headed younger members, the leaders maintain control and use it to prevent widespread violence.

  3. Reducing Information Asymmetry: The presence of these leaders in prison reduces information asymmetry among the gangs. In other words, it limits misunderstandings and miscommunication that often lead to violent escalations. By having leaders in close proximity, they can clarify intentions and negotiate to keep the peace.

Implications for Conflict Resolution

Medellín’s gang wars offer unique insights into conflict resolution that extend beyond the criminal world. While criminal organizations seek self-preservation and economic gain, they inadvertently create structures and norms that lower violence. Examining these lessons can inspire new strategies for mitigating conflicts on a larger scale.

  1. Incentives Matter: One key takeaway is the significance of incentives in shaping human behavior. By altering the incentives for actors involved in a conflict, it is possible to influence their actions and outcomes positively.

  2. Governance and Norms: The application of governance structures, even within criminal organizations, demonstrates the importance of rules and norms in reducing violence. Building such structures in conflict-prone regions could help in conflict resolution efforts.

  3. Communication and Negotiation: Medellín’s criminal leaders use communication and negotiation to maintain peace. This highlights the critical role of diplomacy and dialogue in resolving conflicts, whether in the world of crime or international relations.


While Medellín’s criminal underworld may seem worlds apart from conventional conflict resolution, it offers invaluable lessons in the economics of peace and war. By examining how criminal organizations maintain relative peace, we gain insights that can inform strategies for resolving conflicts in broader society. Incentives, governance, and communication are universal factors that shape human behavior, and understanding their dynamics can lead to a more peaceful world.