The Popular Culture of Illegality: Criminal Authority and the Politics of Aesthetics in Latin America and the Caribbean


In contexts of urban marginalization worldwide, criminal organizations have become increasingly powerful and institutionalized. In Latin America and Caribbean countries, criminal leaders and gangs have taken on the functions and symbols of the state. Many of these mafia-like organizations have evolved into extra-legal structures of rule and belonging. Offering social welfare, security and dispute resolution to the urban poor, these governance structures complement or even replace the formal state.

In this proposal, we argue that a new approach is needed to understand the reproduction of the socio-political authority of gangs and cartels within socially excluded communities. We must not look only to their use of violence, or their provision of material goods and services that the state does not provide. We must also pay attention to the aesthetics that constitute and legitimate their power. Such aesthetic practices are critical in persuading inner-city residents that gang rule is normal and natural.

This research will study the ?popular culture of illegality?: the music, visual culture and material culture through which the socio-political authority of criminal gangs is produced. Through which aesthetic practices are people mobilized to accept and support criminal authority? How is the popular culture of illegality central to forms of governmentality? How do visuality, aurality and materiality work to constitute and legitimate authority?

The research includes three Latin American and Caribbean subprojects. The first sub-project focuses on how criminal leaders are iconized through visual culture in Kingston, Jamaica. The second sub-project studies the ?sonic supremacy? of criminal militias, generated through music in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The third sub-project analyzes the material culture of syncretic Catholic forms associated with drugs crime in Mexico City.

Focusing on three urban case studies allows an analysis of criminal authority and aesthetic formations that is comparative, first, in terms of sensorial domains and second, in terms of a broader regional perspective. The research intervenes in the field of critical aesthetic theory by linking it to criminal authority and to work on Latin American and Caribbean popular culture. In so doing, the research will make significant empirical and theoretical contributions to studies of governmentality.


Wetenschappelijk artikel

  • R Jaffe(2013): Visual Culture and Criminal Iconization in Kingston, Jamaica Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings pp. 131 - 139





Prof. dr. R.K. Jaffe

Verbonden aan

Universiteit van Amsterdam, Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR)


Drs. S.E. Gilsing, Dr. J.C.G. Gomez Aguiar, Drs. T.A. Meikle


01/12/2013 tot 31/03/2018