Now in Print: “The Impact of Leadership Removal on Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations”

My Journal of Quantitative Criminology article “The Impact of Leadership Removal on Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations” is now in print. For the abstract and other discussions of the research see here, as well as the posts tagged “Mexico,” “drug trafficking,” and “leadership removal“.

Here is a timeline of the research and publication process:

  • Read an article in the Economist about DTO leadership removal, December 2010
  • Preliminary research for a graduate seminar in time series analysis at the University of Houston, Spring 2011
  • Draft of paper incorporating other research on organized crime and political violence for a seminar at Duke University, Fall 2011
  • Revised manuscript rejected from a security studies journal after R&R, Spring 2012
  • Revised manuscript rejected from a political violence journal after R&R, Late summer 2012
  • R&R from JQC, Summer 2013
  • Accepted for publication in JQC, December 2013
  • Published online, March 2014
  • Published in print, December 2014

All in all, a four-year project, with no significant changes to the manuscript in about 18 months previous to the print publication. The paper absolutely improved thanks to feedback from reviewers and quality, but I think you will agree that this is a very long feedback cycle.

“The Impact of Leadership Removal on Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations”

That’s the title of a new article, now online at the Journal of Quantitative Criminology. Thanks to fellow grad students Cassy Dorff and Shahryar Minhas for their feedback. Thanks also to mentors at the University of Houston (Jim Granato, Ryan Kennedy) and Duke University (Michael D. Ward, Scott de Marchi, Guillermo Trejo) for thoughtful comments. The anonymous reviewers at JQC and elsewhere were also a big help.

Here is the abstract:

Objectives

Has the Mexican government’s policy of removing drug-trafficking organization (DTO) leaders reduced or increased violence? In the first 4 years of the Calderón administration, over 34,000 drug-related murders were committed. In response, the Mexican government captured or killed 25 DTO leaders. This study analyzes changes in violence (drug-related murders) that followed those leadership removals.

Methods

The analysis consists of cross-sectional time-series negative binomial modeling of 49 months of murder counts in 32 Mexican states (including the federal district).

Results

Leadership removals are generally followed by increases in drug-related murders. A DTO’s home state experiences more subsequent violence than the state where the leader was removed. Killing leaders is associated with more violence than capturing them. However, removing leaders for whom a $30m peso bounty was offered is associated with a smaller increase than other removals.

Conclusion

DTO leadership removals in Mexico were associated with an estimated 415 additional deaths during the first 4 years of the Calderón administration. Reforming Mexican law enforcement and improving career prospects for young men are more promising counter-narcotics strategies. Further research is needed to analyze how the rank of leaders mediates the effect of their removal.

I didn’t shell out $3,000 for open access, so the article is behind a paywall. If you’d like a draft of the manuscript just email me.

Mexico Update Following Joaquin Guzmán’s Capture

As you probably know by now, the Sinaloa cartel’s leader Joaquin Guzmán was captured in Mexico last Saturday. How will violence in Mexico shift following Guzman’s removal?

(Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

(Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

I take up this question in an article forthcoming in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology. According to that research (which used negative binomial modeling on a cross-sectional time series of Mexican states from 2006 to 2010), DTO leadership removals in Mexico are generally followed by increased violence. However, capturing leaders is associated with less violence than killing them. The removal of leaders for whom a 30 million peso bounty (the highest in my dataset, which generally identified high-level leaders) been offered is also associated with less violence. The reward for Guzmán’s capture was higher than any other contemporary DTO leader: 87 million pesos. Given that Guzmán was a top-level leader and was arrested rather than killed, I would not expect a significant uptick in violence (in the next 6 months) due to his removal. This follows President Pena Nieto’s goal of reducing DTO violence.

My paper was in progress for a while, so the data is a few years old. Fortunately Brian Phillips has also taken up this question using additional data and similar methods, and his results largely corroborate mine:

Many governments kill or capture leaders of violent groups, but research on consequences of this strategy shows mixed results. Additionally, most studies have focused on political groups such as terrorists, ignoring criminal organizations – even though they can represent serious threats to security. This paper presents an argument for how criminal groups differ from political groups, and uses the framework to explain how decapitation should affect criminal groups in particular. Decapitation should weaken organizations, producing a short-term decrease in violence in the target’s territory. However, as groups fragment and newer groups emerge to address market demands, violence is likely to increase in the longer term. Hypotheses are tested with original data on Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs), 2006-2012, and results generally support the argument. The kingpin strategy is associated with a reduction of violence in the short term, but an increase in violence in the longer term. The reduction in violence is only associated with leaders arrested, not those killed.

A draft of the full paper is here.

Organized Crime Roundup

I have been arguing for years that organized crime has an inherently political component. Certainly I am not alone, and researchers far superior to me have made the same point–for example, Charles Tilly and James Buchanan. However, mainstream political reporting seems to have been catching onto this over the past few months. I have rounded up a few of these posts that will be of interest to long-time readers. See also my working paper on violence following targeted leadership removals in Mexico.

Are Mexican Drug Lords the Next ‘Terrorist Targets’?” by Douglas Lucas. Lucas accurately describes the framing of drug lords as terrorists to be a form of “mission creep.”

Peter Andreas responds to Moisés Naim’s essay in “Measuring the Mafia-State Menace.” I was not aware of Andreas’s work until Daniel Solomon recently shared it on Twitter but now I have several of his books (including this one) on my reading list.

Although somewhat sensationalized, Christian Caryl also has a nice overview piece on global organized crime at Foreign Policy: “Mob Rule.” Some of the statistics there seem questionable but the overall point–that students of politics should pay attention to organized crime–is a valid and important one.

Finally, World Politics Review features an interview with Brian Phillips, who argues that targeting DTO leaders in Mexico has not reduced violence. This matches my own research on the topic.

Leadership Targeting and Perverse Incentives

Enrique Pena Nieto with supporters. Photograph: Daniel Aguilar/Getty Images

Enrique Pena Nieto with supporters. Photograph: Daniel Aguilar/Getty Images

If targeting of Drug Trafficking Organization (DTO) leaders in Mexico has contributed to high levels of violence, as I argue in a working paper, then why hasn’t the Mexican government stopped the policy? Under former president Felipe Calderon there were a number of possible answers, included the fact that his get-tough policy toward crime was a major part of his campaign strategy in 2006. But that does not explain why the policy has persisted under the new president.

When Enrique Pena Nieto won the 2012 election he promised that his crime fighting policy would aim to “reduce violence and above all protect the lives of all Mexicans.” The new administration acknowledges that leadership targeting led to increased violence, and a number of experts seem to agree. So why hasn’t the policy been changed?

The answer comes down to cold hard cash, and lots of it. US officials have been strongly supportive of DTO leadership targeting, echoing as it does the American policy of targeting terrorist leaders. And they have backed up that rhetoric with generous funding for Mexican security forces:

On Monday, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said the strategy caused a fragmentation of criminal groups that had made them “more violent and much more dangerous,” as they branched out into homicide, extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

The next day, Jesus Murillo Karam, the new attorney general, said in a radio interview that the strategy was responsible for spawning 60 to 80 small and medium-sized organized crime groups.

But just because the strategy has taken some hits doesn’t mean it’s dead. And Peña Nieto, who took office Dec. 1, is unlikely to kill it….

Peña Nieto is also unlikely to jeopardize the generous security assistance provided by the United States, which helped design the kingpin strategy. The U.S. is intimately involved in carrying it out, providing intelligence on drug leaders’ whereabouts and spending millions to strengthen the Mexican security forces who act on that intelligence.

All of which probably explains why, shortly after the ministers’ criticism of kingpin, a top presidential advisor told The Times that the new government had no plans to abandon it.

“That will not stop at all,” said the advisor, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

One can appreciate the rock and hard place between which Pena Nieto finds himself. His party has been criticized for being in the pocket of the cartels, so he cannot afford to look weak. There are also the entrenched interests of the military and police to keep in mind–they have no interest in giving up power. Unfortunately for the tens of thousands of Mexicans who have lost their lives or loved ones to violence over the last seven years, their voice in the government has not kept his word.

DTO Leadership Targeting Increased Violence, Multiplied Cartels

mexico-troopsNow that President Felipe Calderon is out of office, the new administration is attributing the rise in violence to his hardline policies:

With the capture of dozens of drug capos, an achievement trumpeted by Calderon, “we have moved from a scheme of vertical leadership to a horizontal one that has made them more violent and much more dangerous,” Osorio told the heads of the military and the governors of Mexico’s 31 states…

Calderon repeatedly said before leaving office that his forces had captured 25 of Mexico’s 37 most-wanted drug lords, a strategy backed by the U.S. government with hundreds of millions in funding and close cooperation with American law-enforcement, military and intelligence agencies.

Osorio Chong and President Enrique Pena Nieto have promised to adjust Calderon’s strategy in order to move away from a focus on killing and capturing cartel leaders and toward a focus on reducing crimes against ordinary citizens, most important homicides, kidnappings and extortion.

During Calderon’s term Mexico witnessed over 50,000 murders and 25 high-level drug trafficking organization (DTO) leaders were arrested or killed. In the latest draft of a working paper I estimate that this policy was responsible for about 900 additional murders, although this estimate is on the conservative side.

Another new administration official, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam blamed the leadership targeting strategy for fracturing the cartel:

Murillo Karam told MVS Radio that officials are working to identify all the country’s 60-80 small- and mid-size drug trafficking organizations. In its last public evaluation of the strength of Mexico’s cartels, the Calderon administration issued an August report naming only eight large drug organizations. It had, however, said that at least one cartel, the Beltran Leyva group, had split into smaller fragments after a government offensive that killed its leader.

Murillo elaborated on the new administration’s critique of the Calderon strategy, holding it directly responsible for a rise in kidnappings and related crimes over the last six years.

“It led to the seconds-in-command, generally the most violent, the most capable of killing … starting to be empowered and generating their own groups, generating another type of crime – spawning kidnapping, extortion and protection rackets,” he said.

Dan Trombly points out that more but fewer DTOs may allow the new administration to treat counter-narcotics as a law enforcement issue rather than a military problem. Although this development occurred after the period examined in my paper, it is an interesting development that deserves further study.

What Did Manifest Destiny Look Like?

“Manifest Destiny was the belief widely held by Americans in the 19th century that the United States was destined to expand across the continent. The concept, born out of ‘a sense of mission to redeem the Old World’, was enabled by ‘the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven.'” (Wikipedia, citing Frederick Merk)

Now, Michael Porath has told the story of manifest destiny in a series of 141 maps. The main technical trick is that Porath designed the site in HTML5, so it has some nice interactive features. The maps appear on a single page in four columns but you can click any of them for a close-up with an explanation of the changes, or mouse-over a region of the map to see what political entity it was under at the time (e.g. unorganized territory, Spanish colony).

There are two additions that I think would help improve this project. The first is a sense of time scale–some of the maps are only a month apart (January and February 1861, for example) while others are separated by several decades (March 1921 and January 1959). Adding time would allow for a second feature: an animation that would show the areas of change and continuity over time. An excellent example of this is David Sparks’ choropleth maps of presidential voting over time.  I do not know whether this could still be done in Porath’s HTML5 setup, but it is often useful to think about changes to graphical displays (additions or subtractions) that would help to convey meaningful information. What other suggestions do you have for these maps?

Do Targeted Killings Work?

Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations rounds up answers from Daniel Byman (sometimes), Joshua Foust (maybe), Sarah Holewinski (probably not), Patrick Johnston (yes, if targeted selectively), and Pir Zubair Shah (probably, at least in Pakistan).

I have explored this question myself, as it pertained to Osama bin Laden (both before and after his death) and the removal of cartel leaders in Mexico. The latter question–whether leadership removals in Mexican drug-trafficking organizations leads to more or less violence–is the topic of one of my current working papers (somewhat outdated draft).

Mexico’s President-Elect Aims to Reduce Violence

Image credit: AP/Christian Palma

PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto is the apparent winner of Mexico’s presidential election held over the weekend. The PRI has been accused of corruption during its seven-decade reign that ended in 2000 with the election of Vicente Fox. (Mexico’s presidents are elected to six-year terms without the chance of standing for re-election.)  Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderón, spearheaded a get-tough policy toward the drug-trafficking organizations. During Calderón’s tenure, violence increased dramatically with little discernible effect on trafficking.

The president-to-be says he will attempt a different strategy:

Wary of becoming bogged down in a drug war that has dominated Calderon’s presidency, Pena Nieto says he will put more emphasis on reducing violent crime than on targeting drug barons.

“The fight against crime will continue, yes, with a new strategy to reduce violence and above all protect the lives of all Mexicans,” Pena Nieto said on Sunday night.

However, he dismissed accusations by opponents that the PRI might try to make cut deals with the cartels. “Let it be very clear: There will be no deal, no truce with organized crime.”

At the risk of oversimplifying her findings, Melissa Dell’s job market paper from last year supports optimism following the PRI victory. From the abstract:

First, regression discontinuity estimates show that drug trade-related violence in a municipality increases substantially after the close election of a mayor from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), which has spearheaded the war on drug trafficking. This violence consists primarily of individuals involved in the drug trade killing each other. The empirical evidence suggests that the violence reflects rival traffickers’ attempts to wrest control of territories after crackdowns initiated by PAN mayors have challenged the incumbent criminals. Second, the study predicts the diversion of drug traffic following close PAN victories by estimating a model of equilibrium routes for trafficking drugs across the Mexican road network to the U.S. When drug traffic is diverted to other municipalities, drug trade-related violence in these municipalities increases.

You can also find my research on the effectiveness of Calderón’s targeting of DTO leaders here.

Notes on the Sinaloa Cartel

From NYT over the weekend. Some of the article is hyperbolic, but I present the interesting parts here without comment.

On logistics:

From the remote mountain redoubt where he is believed to be hiding, surrounded at all times by a battery of gunmen, Chapo oversees a logistical network that is as sophisticated, in some ways, as that of Amazon or U.P.S. — doubly sophisticated, when you think about it, because traffickers must move both their product and their profits in secret, and constantly maneuver to avoid death or arrest…. In its longevity, profitability and scope, it might be the most successful criminal enterprise in history.

On profitability:

The Sinaloa cartel can buy a kilo of cocaine in the highlands of Colombia or Peru for around $2,000, then watch it accrue value as it makes its way to market. In Mexico, that kilo fetches more than $10,000. Jump the border to the United States, and it could sell wholesale for $30,000. Break it down into grams to distribute retail, and that same kilo sells for upward of $100,000 — more than its weight in gold. And that’s just cocaine. Alone among the Mexican cartels, Sinaloa is both diversified and vertically integrated, producing and exporting marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine as well.

On corporate structure:

The organizational structure of the cartel also seems fashioned to protect the leadership. No one knows how many people work for Sinaloa, and the range of estimates is comically broad. Malcolm Beith, the author of a recent book about Chapo, posits that at any given moment, the drug lord may have 150,000 people working for him. John Bailey, a Georgetown professor who has studied the cartel, says that the number of actual employees could be as low as 150. The way to account for this disparity is to distinguish between salaried employees and subcontractors. A labor force of thousands may be required to plow all that contraband up the continent, but a lot of the work can be delegated to independent contractors, people the Mexican political scientist and security consultant Eduardo Guerrero describes as working “for the cartel but outside it.”

On violence:

“In illegal markets, the natural tendency is toward monopoly, so they fight each other,” Antonio Mazzitelli, an official with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Mexico City, told me. “How do they fight: Go to court? Offer better prices? No. They use violence.” The primal horror of Mexico’s murder epidemic makes it difficult, perhaps even distasteful, to construe the cartel’s butchery as a rational advancement of coherent business aims. But the reality is that in a multibillion-dollar industry in which there is no recourse to legally enforceable contracts, some degree of violence may be inevitable.

“It’s like geopolitics,” Tony Placido said. “You need to use violence frequently enough that the threat is believable. But overuse it, and it’s bad for business.”