Skip to main content

The Impact of Leadership Removal on Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations



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.


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).


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.


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. 1.

    For a detailed discussion of this debate, see Guerrero-Gutiérrez (2011), Rios (2011) and Shirk (2011a).

  2. 2.

    This claim is made by experts quoted in Olson et al. (2010), Currie (2011) and elsewhere. It was also the position taken in a conversation that the author had with Mark Wells (Director of the Office of Americas Programs for the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement) and Ambassador Patrick Duddy, who served throughout Latin America during his career.

  3. 3.

    La Familia is one possible exception to the non-ideological argument. See Williams (2012) for a thorough discussion of this point.

  4. 4.

    All of the DTO leaders in the sample were male, so the gendered pronoun is used—advisedly—throughout this section and the remainder of the paper

  5. 5.

    An objection could be raised here that rational leaders might anticipate their own demise and leave the group voluntarily upon news of an attempted removal. Alternately, they could be pushed out of the group by their own members. However, neither voluntary nor internally initiated removals were observed in the sample. The absence of the former is likely due to the high level of profits involved in drug trafficking, some of which can be used to buy off corrupt officials and finance greater security. The absence of the latter form of removal is not theoretically necessary, and cases of internal removals may become public in the future. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  6. 6.

    See section “ Research Design, Data, and Key Definitions” for a discussion of how DTOs’ base states were identified and coded in the data set.

  7. 7.

    The documents cited throughout this paper were obtained in one or more of the following three ways: through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests; as part of the Wikileaks releases; or as another release of hacked documents. Wherever possible, hacked documents (including Wikileaks cables) were requested through FOIA and confirmed by multiple versions and sources. Thanks to Glen Courtney at US Customs and Border Patrol and other agency contacts throughout the Department of Homeland Security for their prompt responses to requests and phone calls.

  8. 8.

    Reducing this number as low as four or increasing it as high as eight, roughly the plausible range for the time period considered here, could introduce biased estimates but should not affect their sign.

  9. 9.

    “Mexico: The Sinaloa Drug Cartel”, 28 October 2010.

  10. 10.

    Second Superseding Indictment, USA versus Joaquin Guzman-Loera, Ismal Zambada-Garcia, Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, Alfredo Guzman-Salazar, Alfredo Vasquez-Hernandez, Juan Guzman-Rocha, German Olivares, Felipe LNU, Tomas Arevalo-Renteria, Pedro Flores, and Margarito Flores, US District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, No. 09 CR 383, April 5, 2011.

  11. 11.

    “Perpetrators of Mexican Drug Trafficking Violence”, March 2010.

  12. 12.

    SDLECC Gang Team, Intelligence Bulletin 10-002, November 17, 2010.

  13. 13.

    Vengan por otro, los estamos esperando (Ibid).

  14. 14.

    Ramirez-Peyro versus Holder, US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, No. 08-2657.

  15. 15.

    Helpful sources included the Lexis-Nexis database as well as ongoing projects to document drug-related violence in Mexico by the LA Times, New York Times, and La Reforma newspapers.

  16. 16.

    Stratfor, “Mexico Security Memo”, May 17, 2010; Beittel, J.S. 2009. “Mexico’s Drug Related Violence”. Congressional Research Service. For visualizations of DTO-controlled areas, see,, and Most DTOs’ primary areas of influence in 2010 were limited to single states, although the Guzmán cartel was more expansive as was the Gulf-Los Zetas DTO before their split.

  17. 17.

    The data can be accessed at (and downloaded from)

  18. 18.

    For an overview of seasonal patterns of violence, which are present in the Mexican crime rate, see McDowall et al. (2012).

  19. 19.

    Thanks to the anonymous reviewers for their input on modeling strategies and checks of robustness.

  20. 20.

    Thanks to Marvin McNeese Jr. for providing this data, obtained from Nicole Ramos of the Trans-Border Institute.

  21. 21.

    According to Reforma vigilante groups are now active in 13 states ( For an overview on vigilante groups and other non-government responses to violence in Mexico see this summary by Miriam Wells.


  1. Asall V, Gill P, Rethemeyer R, Horgan J (2013) Killing range: explaining lethality variance within a terrorist organization. J Confl Resolut. doi:10.1177/0022002713508927

  2. Bailey J, Taylor M (2007) Evade, corrupt, or confront? Organized crime and the state in Mexico and Brazil. In: Latin American Studies Association’s Annual Meeting, Montreal, Canada

  3. BATF (2010) Project gunrunner: a cartel focused strategy. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives

  4. Berman E (1998) Sect, subsidy, and sacrifice: an economist’s view of ultra-orthodox jews. Technical report, National Bureau of Economic Research

  5. Berman E, Laitin D (2008) Religion, terrorism and public goods: testing the club model. J Public Econ 92(10–11):1942–1967

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Boyle MJ (2012) Progress and pitfalls in the study of political violence. Terror Polit Violence 24(4):527–543

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Byman D (2006) Do targeted killings work? Foreign Aff 85:95–111

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Currie D (2011) Mexico agonistes. National review online

  9. Flanigan ST (2012) Terrorists next door? A comparison of Mexican drug cartels and middle eastern terrorist organizations. Terror Polit Violence 24(2):279–294

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Freeman L (2006) State of siege: drug-related violence and corruption in Mexico. Washington office on latin America special report, June

  11. Friman H (2009) Drug markets and the selective use of violence. Crime Law Soc Change 52(3):285–295

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Gambetta D (2009) Codes of the underworld: how criminals communicate. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  13. González F (2009) Mexico’s drug wars get brutal. Curr History 108(715):72–76

    Google Scholar 

  14. Grayson GW (2010) La familia drug cartel: implications for US-Mexican security. Strategic Studies Institute, USA

    Google Scholar 

  15. Guerrero-Gutiérrez E (2011) Security, drugs and violence in Mexico: a survey. In: Prepared for the 7th North American Forum, Washington, DC

  16. Hafez M, Hatfield J (2006) Do targeted assassinations work? A multivariate analysis of Israeli counter-terrorism effectiveness during Al-Aqsa uprising. Stud Confl Terror 29:359–382

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Honig O (2007) Explaining Israel’s misuse of strategic assassinations. Stud Confl Terror 30(6):563–577

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Iannaccone L (1992) Religious markets and the economics of religion. Social Compass 39(1):123

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Ingram M, Shirk D (2010) Judicial reform in Mexico: toward a new criminal justice system. Trans-Border Institute special report

  20. Johnston P (2012) Does decapitation work? Assessing the effectiveness of leadership targeting in counterinsurgency campaigns. Int Secur 36(4):47–79

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Jordan J (2009) When heads roll: assessing the effectiveness of leadership decapitation. Secur Stud 18(4):719–755

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Kalyvas S et al (2006) The logic of violence in civil war. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  23. Kellner T, Pipitone F (2010) Inside Mexico’s drug war. World Policy J 27(1):29–39

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Kenney M (2007) From Pablo to Osama: trafficking and terrorist networks, government bureaucracies, and competitive adaptation. Penn State Press, Pennsylvania

    Google Scholar 

  25. LaFree G, Dugan L, Xie M, Singh P (2012) Spatial and temporal patterns of terrorist attacks by eta 1970 to 2007. J Quant Criminol 28(1):7–29

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Lawrence A (2010) Triggering nationalist violence: competition and conflict in uprisings against colonial rule. Int Secur 35(2):88–122

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. McDowall D, Loftin C, Pate M (2012) Seasonal cycles in crime, and their variability. J Quant Criminol 28(3):389–410

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Miller E (2012) Patterns of onset and decline among terrorist organizations. J Quant Criminol 28:77–101

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Natarajan M (2000) Understanding the structure of a drug trafficking organization: a conversational analysis. Crime Prevent Stud 11:273–298

    Google Scholar 

  30. Natarajan M (2006) Understanding the structure of a large heroin distribution network: a quantitative analysis of qualitative data. J Quant Criminol 22(2):171–192

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Olson E, Shirk D, Selee A (eds) (2010) Shared responsibility: U.S.-Mexico policy options for confronting organized crime. The Woodrow International Center for Scholars and the Trans-Border Institute, University of San Diego, Washington, DC/San Diego

  32. Pyrooz D, Sweeten G, Piquero A (2013) Continuity and change in gang membership and gang embeddedness. J Res Crime Delinq 50(2):239–271

    Google Scholar 

  33. Reuter P (2009) Systemic violence in drug markets. Crime Law Soc Change 52(3):275–284

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Rios V (2011) Understanding Mexico’s drug war. Harvard University, manuscript

  35. Rios V, Shirk D (2011) Drug violence in Mexico: data and analysis through 2010. Trans-Border Institute, San Diego

    Google Scholar 

  36. Sabet K, Rios V (2009) Why violence has increased in Mexico and what can we do about it? Technical report, unpublished working paper, November 28, 2009. As of October 4, 2010.

  37. Salazar M, Olson E (2007) A profile of Mexicos major organized crime groups. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Mexico Institute

  38. Schelling T (1971) What is the business of organized crime? J Publ L 20:71

    Google Scholar 

  39. Shirk D (2011a) Drug violence and state responses in Mexico. University of San Diego, manuscript

  40. Shirk D (2011b) The drug war in Mexico: confronting a shared threat. Council on Foreign Relations Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  41. Skaperdas S (2001) The political economy of organized crime: providing protection when the state does not. Econ Gov 2(3):173–202

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Skarbek D (2011) Governance and prison gangs. Am Polit Sci Rev 105:702–716

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Snyder R, Duran-Martinez A (2009) Does illegality breed violence? Drug trafficking and state-sponsored protection rackets. Crime Law Soc Change 52(3):253–273

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Sullivan J (2012) Criminal insurgency: Narcocultura, social banditry, and information operations. Small Wars J 3(4):30

    Google Scholar 

  45. Sung H (2004) State failure, economic failure, and predatory organized crime: a comparative analysis. J Res Crime Delinq 41(2):111–129

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Tiernay M (2013) Killing Kony leadership change and civil war termination. J Confl Resolut (in press).

  47. Tita G, Radil S (2011) Spatializing the social networks of gangs to explore patterns of violence. J Quant Criminol 27(4):1–25

    Google Scholar 

  48. Turbiville G (2007) Private security infrastructure abroad: Criminal-terrorist agendas and the operational environment. Technical report, DTIC Document

  49. Turbiville G (2010) Firefights, raids, and assassinations: tactical forms of cartel violence and their underpinnings. Small Wars Insurg 21(1):123–144

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Varese F (2005) The Russian Mafia: private protection in a new market economy. Oxford University Press, USA

    Google Scholar 

  51. Villarreal A (2002) Political competition and violence in mexico: hierarchical social control in local patronage structures. Am Sociolog Rev 67:477–498

    Google Scholar 

  52. Williams P (2012) The debate over mexican drug trafficking violence. Terror Polit Violence 24(2):259–278

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Wilner A (2010) Targeted killings in Afghanistan: measuring coercion and deterrence in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. Stud Confl Terror 33(4):307–329

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthew Dickenson.

Additional information

Thanks to Cassy Dorff, Jim Granato, Ryan Kennedy, Sandra Ley, Scott de Marchi, Shahryar Minhas, David Skarbek, Lydia Tiede, Guillermo Trejo, seminar participants at the University of Houston and Duke University, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. All remaining errors and opinions are the author’s alone.

Appendix: Robustness Checks

Appendix: Robustness Checks

Supplementary material in this section includes alternative model specifications and distributional assumptions, subsetting the data, and checking for reverse causality. Results from all of these robustness checks support the findings presented in the main body of the text.

Additional Lags

Table 5 displays model estimates corresponding to those in Table 3, extending the lag structure in all four models to 6 months. Removal in a DTO’s base state (Model 1) has a positive effect on murders in the all six lags, further supporting the argument that removing leaders is followed by additional violence. In the state in which a removal occurred, the coefficient of interest loses its significance the as early as the second month after the removal. Estimates of increased violence for killing leaders also endure for the full 6-month period. The removal of leaders for whom a $30m peso bounty was offered are followed by less violence than the average removal.

Table 5 DTO leadership removals and violence with 6-month lags, 2006–2010

Poisson Models

Although the dependent variable is an overdispersed count—and thus most appropriately modeled by a negative binomial distribution—some readers may be interested in a set of Poisson models with the same covariates. Table 6 displays the results of using Poisson models with the same fixed effects structure as the negative binomial models in Table 3. Poisson estimation did not change the direction of the results but did yield more precise estimates. However, the model fit statistics (AIC and log-likelihood) indicate that this model is less appropriate for the data at hand.

Table 6 Poisson models of leadership removal and violence

Omitting Cases of Low-Level Leadership

Inferring information about DTO leaders from news reports and government documents runs the risk of over- or under-counting removals. The government of Mexico may have an incentive to exaggerate the significance of the leaders they have removed in order to gain confidence from the public. During data collection the leaders were assigned to one of three tiers (discussed in section “Research Design, Data, and Key Definitions”). Tiers one and two contain the highest level leaders who exercised control over the entire organization or a significant portion thereof (such as a plaza). Tier three leaders had more operationally-focused roles, such as controlling trafficking routes or logistics.

How do the estimates change if we exclude this lowest tier of leaders? Table 7 displays negative binomial estimates for the same models as in the main text, but with cases of tier three leadership removals omitted. Although the point estimates have changed slightly, the direction and relative magnitudes of all covariates remains the same as before. This suggests that including third-tier leaders in the data did not undermine the results. Analyzing removal of different types of leadership is an intriguing topic for future research.

Table 7 DTO leadership removals and violence (third tier omitted)

Checking for Reverse Causality

We have seen so far that leadership removals are followed by increased levels of murders. By lagging leadership removal by 1 month we avoided simultaneity bias, but there is still the potential that causation is running in the reverse direction. Leadership removal could be more likely in states with higher levels of violence. To assess whether this is the case, Table 8 presents two logistic regressions with removals from Models 1 and 2 above as the dependent variables. Total murders are used to predict the probability of a removal. The cross-sectional and temporal fixed effects structure is the same as in the models above. The lag structure extends to 6 months to allow for the time it takes to organize a removal mission. No coefficients in the model are significantly different from zero, suggesting that levels of violence do not help to predict where or when removals will occur.

Table 8 Total murders as predictors of removal

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Dickenson, M. The Impact of Leadership Removal on Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations. J Quant Criminol 30, 651–676 (2014).

Download citation


  • Leadership
  • Violence
  • Murders
  • Drug trafficking