What does Lawfare as in warfare mean in Latin America? Lessons for Lanka on “dripping coups” and the criminalization of progressive political leaders
Posted on October 2nd, 2023

Valeria Vegh Weis


This article addresses the origins of the term lawfare, as well as different definitions developed in the Global North and the Global South while proposing a conceptualization linked to the particularities of this socio-legal phenomenon in Latin America. Focusing on the cases of Brazil and Argentina the article deploys the notions of psychological, judicial and media warfare to analyze the different dimensions that an analysis of lawfare opens in relation to democracy, the penal system, and mainstream media.

The article also explores different dimensions of lawfare and a notion in Spanish with the potential to replace the anglicism: dripping coup (golpe por goteo). Finally, the article proposes different measures to counteract lawfare in the judicial, educational, media, and social spheres. In particular, the conclusions refer to the relevance of social movements in what can be conceptualized as a cautionary popular criminology”.

In Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and many other countries of the Patria Grande, the word lawfare” is heard daily – in the media, as well as in the speeches of political leaders – concerning cases of corruption involving progressive political leaders and discussed in key electoral moments.

The term was coined twenty years ago in the Global North (Dunlap, 2001), but it was in the mid-2010s that it started to be broadly deployed in Latin America, particularly in Brazil and Argentina. In Brazil, the term appeared in the public discourse in 2014, when criminal charges were brought against former President and then presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula” da Silva. He was accused of receiving an apartment as part of bribes in return for awarding contracts to specific construction corporations in a case that also implicated many other politicians and members of the state-owned oil company Petrobras. Lula ended up in pre-trial detention and was banned from competing in the national elections (Limongi, 2021). In Argentina, the first case labelled as lawfare occurred in 2016 and involved the then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, accused of manipulating the price of the dólar futuro” (future dolar) – an estimated price of how much a dollar would cost in relation to the local currency- in detriment of the Central Bank reserves (SAIJ, 2021). Cristina Fernández de Kirchner explicitly used the term lawfare when declaring in another case against her under charges of corruption in the adjudication of public work (el País, 2019).

In line with Lula and many other centre-left political leaders in the Latin-American region, Fernández de Kirchner described lawfare as the mechanism through which certain sectors of the judiciary, the mainstream media, and the opposition manipulate criminal cases based on corruption charges to delegitimize and ban progressive leaders from democratic politics. In contrast, part of the judiciary, the mainstream media, and politicians from the establishment argue that the notion of lawfare is deployed by progressive politicians to delegitimize serious criminal investigations aimed at ending corruption in the region (La Nación, 2020).

Amid these conflictive positions, the definition of lawfare is far from clear: What are its main features? Where does the term come from? Why even use an anglicism in Latin America? Is it a new phenomenon? Is it a negative one? If yes, how can it be fought?

Are corruption and related allegations being weaponized to break trust among citizens and leaders by external actors and forces for their Geopolitical Economic gain in Sri Lanka?

Is Lawfare, a form of hybrid (economic) warfare, enabled by Foreign Aid donors to the legal and judicial sector being used to destabilize countries, while promoting Disinformation and protests that shut down national economies and debt trap countries, also to destroy progressive leaders in the Global South—as happened to Brazil’s President Lula?

The Full article is available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/14624745221116348


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