The Popular Culture of Illegality

This research project studies the popular culture through which the socio-political authority of criminal gangs is produced in Latin America and Caribbean countries. 

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.

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.

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

  • University Utrecht
  • University of Amsterdam


Wayne Modest
Head Research Center for Material Culture
Martin Berger
Curator Middle and South America