My primary research interest is understanding how changes in violent non-state actors' financial capacity affect their choices in conflict and their interactions with the state. I focus on the micro-level implications of shifts in actors' capacity, contributing to previous work on natural resources in conflict, local governance in civil war, and competition between rebel groups. My work makes use of a variety of quantitative methodologies and formal modeling. Specifically, my current work focuses on militant groups' access to natural resources, as described in detail below. More broadly, I am engaged in coauthored projects about pro-government militias, sanctions in civil war, and networks of offshore entities. 


Civilian Self-Defense Militias in Civil War (with Lucia Bird, Kaisa Hinkkainen, and Navin Bapat)

      International Interactions

To mitigate the costs associated with suppressing rebellion, states may rely on civilian self-defense militias to protect their territory from rebel groups. However, this decision is also costly, given that these self-defense groups may undermine control of its territory. This raises the question: why do governments cultivate self-defense militias when doing so risks that these militias will undermine their territorial control? Using a game theoretic model, we argue that states take this risk in order to prevent rebels from co-opting local populations, which in turn may shift power away from the government and toward the rebels. Governments strategically use civilian militias to raise the price rebels must pay for civilian cooperation, prevent rebels from harnessing a territory's resources, and/or to deter rebels from challenging government control in key areas. Empirically, the model suggests states are likely to support the formation of self-defense militias in territory that may moderately improve the power of rebel groups, but not in areas that are either less valuable or areas that are critical to the government's survival. These hypotheses are tested using data from the Colombian civil war from 1996 to 2008. 

Under Review

A Deal with the Rebels? Labor-Intensive Resources and Negotiation in Civil War.

Does rebel access to natural resources hurt or help warring parties' chances of negotiating? To address this, I consider how rebels create new markets for lucrative primary commodities by striking deals with suppliers. Rebels weigh state offers of negotiation against anticipated commodity revenue. Similarly, governments co-opt rebels' possible suppliers, thus maintaining their territorial control without making concessions to militant groups. Commitment problems arising from suppliers' shifting loyalties lead to delayed negotiation. I develop a game theoretic model of government, rebel, and supplier strategic interaction. The model's implications indicate that increasing militants' access to natural resources will increase the probability that states will locally co-opt rebels' suppliers rather than negotiating at the conflict level. This means that negotiation and conflict resolution are delayed as states and rebels bargain with these key suppliers. I find support for this hypothesis with a quantitative test using municipal level Colombian data about the FARC's involvement in the coca trade.

Rebel Commodity Markets, Price Shocks, and Supplier Victimization.

A common argument in the civil war literature is that rebel organizations benefit from the sale of primary commodities. However, certain primary commodities require extensive labor for production. Rebels ensure a consistent supply of the lucrative good by providing security and payment to laborers. Rebels' ability to uphold agreements with suppliers depend on the commodity's profitability, and prices for these commodities may be volatile and susceptible to shocks. How, then, do price shocks to labor-intensive primary commodities impact rebel organizations' relationships with suppliers and rebels' access to commodity markets? I hypothesize that negative price shocks limit rebels' ability to uphold their social contracts with laborers, who are then encouraged to turn to other economic activity. This leads cash-strapped rebels to resort to coercive action to maintain laborers' loyalty and future sales of lucrative goods. Conversely, states seek to prevent rapid increases in rebels' profit while avoiding the reputational costs of engaging in repression against rebel suppliers. I further hypothesize that following positive price shocks states will delegate coercive action against rebels' suppliers to groups such as pro-government militias (PGMs).  I test these hypotheses with a new dataset that combines monthly U.S. STRIDE data on fluctuations in cocaine price over the years 1998-2008 with municipal-level data from the Colombian Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica about the FARC and paramilitary groups' use of civilian victimization.

Working Papers

Pro-Government Militias and Civil War Duration (with Lindsay Reid)

In a diverse set of civil wars such as those in Colombia and Sudan, Pro-Government Militias (PGMs) serve as common tools for states seeking to counter the influence of rebel groups. Despite the ubiquity of PGMs, their impact on conflict duration and resolution remains poorly understood. While conventional knowledge suggests that higher numbers of conflict actors render settlement more difficult, we expect the effect of PGMs to be conditional on the PGM's degree of affiliation with and support from the government. On the one hand, PGMs that are state-funded and closely monitored expedite conflict termination through two possible pathways: (1) by helping to encourage rebels' surrender, and (2) by facilitating a military defeat of the rebels. On the other hand, PGMs that are self-funded and only partially monitored by governments still have the intended effect of decreasing rebel capacity whilst creating the adverse consequence of prolonging conflict. Specifically, autonomous PGMs prolong conflict both because they profit from the continuation of fighting and because the state holds little leverage to compel PGM involvement in settlement processes. In sum, we hypothesize that PGMs that are closely affiliated with the state will, on average, shorten conflict duration and make negotiated settlements more likely. Conversely, more autonomous PGMs increase conflict duration. We quantitatively test our expectations on civil wars occurring between the years 1981 and 2007. Relying upon data from the Pro-Government Militias Database and the UCDP Conflict Termination Dataset, we use survival analyses to parse the effects of PGMs on civil war duration.

The Rebels' Resource Curse

Natural resource access has been shown to benefit militant groups by increasing their power relative to the state. However, the empirical literature also demonstrates that similar resource access can drive corruption, graft, and infighting within governments and military forces. This raises several questions overlooked by current research: can natural resources similarly corrupt and harm militant organizations, and what are the conditions under which they do? Additionally, how does access to natural resources impact groups' outcomes of victory, failure, or negotiation?  I argue that militants, like states, can experience a 'resource curse' in which they are negatively impacted by resource access due to poor organizational capacity. This impact includes the possibility of leader corruption, deviation in group behavior away from fighting in favor of economic activity, and an inability to reach negotiations with the state.  To test this argument, I employ Bayesian competing risks analysis on a new dataset that pairs militant group characteristics with their access to natural resources.


Chelsea Estancona, Ph.D.

Department of Political Science

University of South Carolina


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