Living in Fear: The Dynamics of Extortion in Mexico’s Drug War

Why do drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) sometimes prey on the communities in which they operate but sometimes provide assistance to these communities? What explains their strategies of extortion and co-optation toward civil society? Using new survey data from Mexico, including list experiments to elicit responses about potentially illegal behavior, this article measures the prevalence of extortion and assistance among DTOs. In support of our theory, these data show that territorial contestation among rival organizations produces more extortion and, in contrast, DTOs provide more assistance when they have monopoly control over a turf. The article uncovers other factors that also shape DTOs’ strategies toward the population, including the degree of collaboration with the state, leadership stability and DTO organization, and the value and logistics of the local criminal enterprise.

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