The Mexican Mafia is a fairly small prison gang (perhaps 150-300 made members) and it has significant operational control only within prisons in Southern California yet the Mexican Mafia is extremely powerful. In fact, the MM taxes hundreds of often larger Southern California street gangs at rates of 10-30% of revenues. How can a prison gang tax street gangs? In Governance and Prison Gangs (also here), a new paper in the APSR, David Skarbek explains the structure, conduct and performance of the Mexican Mafia.
The key to the MM’s power is that most drug dealers will sooner or later, usually sooner, end up in prison. Thus, the MM can credibly threaten drug dealers outside of prison with punishment once they are inside prison. Moreover, prison is the only place where members of many different gangs congregate. Thus, by maintaining control of the prison bottleneck, the MM can tax hundreds of gangs.
One of the most interesting aspects of Skarbek’s analysis is that he shows–consistent with Mancur Olson’s stationary bandit theory–that as the MM grew in power it started to provide public goods, i.e. it became a kind of government. Thus, the MM protects taxpayers both in prison and on the street, it produces property rights by enforcing gang claims to territory and it adjudicates disputes, all to the extent that such actions increase tax revenue of course. The MM is so powerful that it often doesn’t even have to use its own enforcers; instead, the MM can issue what amounts to a letter of marque and reprisal, a signal that a non-taxpaying gang is no longer under its protection, andprivateers will do the rest.The abstract of the paper:
How can people who lack access to effective government institutions establish property rights and facilitate exchange? The illegal narcotics trade in Los Angeles has flourished despite its inability to rely on state-based formal institutions of governance. An alternative system of governance has emerged from an unexpected source—behind bars. The Mexican Mafia prison gang can extort drug dealers on the street because they wield substantial control over inmates in the county jail system and because drug dealers anticipate future incarceration. The gang's ability to extract resources creates incentives for them to provide governance institutions that mitigate market failures among Hispanic drug-dealing street gangs, including enforcing deals, protecting property rights, and adjudicating disputes. Evidence collected from federal indictments and other legal documents related to the Mexican Mafia prison gang and numerous street gangs supports this claim.