In 2006 the Mexican government launched an aggressive campaign to weaken drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs). The security policies differed significantly from those of previous administrations in the use of a leadership strategy (the targeting for arrest of the highest levels or core leadership of criminal networks). While these strategies can play an important role in disrupting the targeted criminal organization, they can also have unintended consequences, increasing inter-cartel and intra-cartel fighting and fragmenting criminal organizations. What impact do captures of senior drug cartel members have on the dynamics of drug-related violence? Does it matter if governments target drug kingpins vs. lower ranked lieutenants? We analyze whether the captures or killings of kingpins and lieutenants have increased drug-related violence and whether the violence spills over spatially. To estimate effects that are credibly causal, we use different empirical strategies that combine difference-in-differences and synthetic control group methods. We find evidence that captures or killings of drug cartel leaders have exacerbating effects not only on DTO-related violence, but also on homicides that affect the general population. Captures or killings of lieutenants, for their part, only seem to exacerbate violence in “strategic places” or municipalities located in the transportation network. While most of the effects on DTO-related violence are found in the first six months after a leader’s removal, effects on homicides affecting the rest of the population are more enduring, suggesting different mechanisms through which leadership neutralizations breed violence.
Gustavo Robles is PhD candidate in political science at Stanford University with specialization in political methodology and comparative politics. His research interests include the economics of crime and violence in Latin America, political economy of development, and legislative studies. He is currently working on his PhD dissertation on the dynamics and consequences of drug-related violence in Mexico. He is a researcher for the Program on Poverty and Governance at CDDRL. Before attending Stanford, Robles worked at Protego Asesores as a financial advisor for states and municipalities in Mexico. He also worked as an economic analyst for the Mexican Minister of Finance and for the Cente r of Analysis and Economic Research at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM). He holds a M.A. in economics from Stanford University and a B.A. in economics and political science from ITAM. He won the Ex ITAM Research Prize for the best undergraduate thesis in Political Science in 2009 and the Fulbright-García Robles Scholarship in 2008 (declined).