“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:


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.

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.

Two Great Talks on Government and Technology

If you are getting ready to travel next week, you might want to have a couple of good talks/podcasts handy for the trip. Here are two that I enjoyed, on the topic of government and technology.

The first is about how technology can help governments. Ben Orenstein of “Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots” discusses Code for America with Catherine Bracy. Catherine recounts some ups and downs of CfA’s partnerships with cities throughout America and internationally. CfA fellows commit a year to help local governments with challenges amenable to technology. One great example that the podcast discusses is a tool for parents in Boston to see which schools they could send their kids to when the city switched from location-based school assignment to allowing students to attend schools throughout the city. (Incidentally, the school matching algorithm that Boston used was designed by some professors in economics at Duke, who drew on work for which Roth and Shapley won the Nobel Prize.)

The second talk offers another point of view on techno-politics: when government abuses technology. Steve Klabnik‘s “No Secrets Allowed” talk from Golden Gate Ruby Conference discusses recent revelations regarding the NSA and privacy. In particular he explains why “I have nothing to hide” is not an appropriate response. The talk is not entirely hopeless, and includes recommendations such as using Tor. The Ruby Rogues also had a roundtable discussing Klabnik’s presentation, which you can find here.

Other recommendations are welcome.

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.

How “The Wire” Explains Microsoft

I cannot speak to the accuracy of this since I do not know much about the internal workings of Microsoft, but as an analogy I found it fascinating. David Auerbach on how The Wire explains Microsoft:

What does Microsoft in the Ballmer era have in common with drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s organization in The Wire? For years, both of them had the strongest package. They owned their territory, owned their market, owned their users. They were untouchable. Then times changed, bringing new competitors with new, intense products. Their own product went weak. But they couldn’t let go. “We got a weak product, and we holding on to prime real estate with no muscle,” Avon’s cerebral second-in-command, Stringer Bell, complains to him. For the Barksdale organization, the product was heroin and the real estate was the drug-ravaged Franklin Towers housing project. For Microsoft, the product is Windows and the real estate is the PC.

More here (some language NSFW).

More on Food Truck Regulation

Popular Durham-area food truck Chirba Chirba serves dumplings. Photo via livewell.

Popular Durham-area food truck Chirba Chirba serves dumplings. Photo via livewell.

More on the plight of food truck operators in NYC, from the Times:

There are numerous (and sometimes conflicting) regulations required by the departments of Health, Sanitation, Transportation and Consumer Affairs. These rules are enforced, with varying consistency, by the New York Police Department. As a result, according to City Councilman Dan Garodnick, it’s nearly impossible (even if you fill out the right paperwork) to operate a truck without breaking some law. Trucks can’t sell food if they’re parked in a metered space . . . or if they’re within 200 feet of a school . . . or within 500 feet of a public market . . . and so on.

Enforcement is erratic. Trucks in Chelsea are rarely bothered, Nafziger said. In Midtown South, where I work and can attest to the desperate need for more lunch options, the N.Y.P.D. has a dedicated team of vendor-busting cops. “One month, we get no tickets,” Thomas DeGeest, the founder of Wafels & Dinges, a popular mobile-food businesses that sells waffles and things, told me. “The next month, we get tickets every day.” DeGeest had two trucks and five carts when he decided he couldn’t keep investing in a business that was so vulnerable to overzealous cops or city bureaucracy. Instead, DeGeest reluctantly decided to open a regular old stationary restaurant.

We’ve discussed food truck regulations and the competition between vendors before. There is certainly a place for regulation, but inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary enforcement undermines the goal of clarifying expectations between all parties.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Gypsy Law

Cartoon gypsy Esmerelda in Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

Cartoon gypsy Esmerelda in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

Forthcoming from Peter Leeson (who previously brought us an analysis of pirate democracy), a new paper on self-governance among Gypsies (via Mike Munger):

Gypsies are nomads. They’re often separated from one another, which precludes direct monitoring. Further, Gypsies’ locations are changing continuously. In the past Gypsies arranged debris on roadsides and configured bits of torn cloth in nearby tree branches to communicate messages to passing fellow Roms (Yoors 1967: 126). Still, “As most of these Roms” were “constantly travelling about, the problem of communication with one another [was] a serious one” (Brown 1929: 158). Nomadism rendered direct monitoring impossible for all but a few and made society-wide communication very expensive for Gypsies. (pp. 12-13)

Gypsies’ inability to rely on government for many of their most important relationships means not only that they must enforce social rules regulating such relationships privately. More fundamentally still, they must create those rules in the first place. Romaniya superstition achieves this by folding worldly crimes—traditional antisocial behaviors, such as theft and contractual breach—into its “spiritual” crimes, such as using the wrong bar of soap to clean one’s head. Thus the “unbending notion of purity (and impurity) which governs most [of Gypsies’] behaviour” described above has two meanings: one “spiritual” and the other very much of this world (Liégeois 1986: 84). (pp. 15-16)

Risk, Overreaction, and Control

11-M_El_How many people died because of the September 11 attacks? The answer depends on what you are trying to measure. The official estimate is around 3,000 deaths as a direct result of hijacked aircraft and at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. Those attacks were tragic, but the effect was compounded by overreaction to terrorism. Specifically, enough Americans substituted driving for flying in the remaining months of 2001 to cause 350 additional deaths from accidents.

David Myers was the first to raise this possibility in a December, 2001, essay. In 2004, Gerd Gigerenzer collected data and estimated the 350 deaths figure, resulting from what he called “dread risk”:

People tend to fear dread risks, that is, low-probability, high-consequence events, such as the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. If Americans avoided the dread risk of flying after the attack and instead drove some of the unflown miles, one would expect an increase in traffic fatalities. This hypothesis was tested by analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the 3 months following September 11. The analysis suggests that the number of Americans who lost their lives on the road by avoiding the risk of flying was higher than the total number of passengers killed on the four fatal flights. I conclude that informing the public about psychological research concerning dread risks could possibly save lives.

Does the same effect carry over to other countries and attacks? Alejandro López-Rousseau looked at how Spaniards responded to the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid. He found that activity across all forms of transportation decreased–travelers did not substitute driving for riding the train.

What could explain these differences? One could be that Americans are less willing to forego travel than Spaniards. Perhaps more travel is for business reasons and cannot be delayed. Another possibility is that Spanish citizens are more accustomed to terrorist attacks and understand that substituting driving is more risky than continuing to take the train. There are many other differences that we have not considered here–the magnitude of the two attacks, feelings of being “in control” while driving, varying cultural attitudes.

This post is simply meant to make three points. First, reactions to terrorism can cause additional deaths if relative risks are not taken into account. Cultures also respond to terrorism in different ways, perhaps depending on their previous exposure to violent extremism. Finally, the task of explaining differences is far more difficult than establishing patterns of facts.

(For more on the final point check out Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, which motivated this post.)

The Political Economy of *Killing Them Softly*

killing-them-softlyOver the weekend I rented Killing them Softly expecting a relatively mindless movie featuring Brad Pitt as a hitman. I was only half right. During several key scenes George W. Bush and his administration officials can be heard giving statements to the press about the financial crisis; Barack Obama is elected near the end. The man hiring Pitt refers to the “corporate mentality” of his bosses and tries to pay him less than he is owed. The plot centers around a gambling racket in New Orleans. Do you get the metaphor yet?

Yes, the movie is a cautionary tale about greed and risk in light of the 2008 financial crisis. The following quotes from an interview with writer and director Andrew Dominik make the connection clear:

[A]s I started adapting it, it was the story of an economic crisis, and it was an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling — and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation….

I always feel that crime films are about capitalism, because it’s the one genre where it’s perfectly acceptable for all the characters to be motivated by desire for money only. I always think in some ways the crime film is the most honest American film, because it portrays Americans as I experience them. Particularly in Hollywood, people are very concerned with money….

The film’s not about Obama, it’s about a crisis in the economy, and the people who have to clean it up.

Don’t worry–the movie doesn’t come off as hokey or the metaphor as forced. (The use of politicians as background audio is mostly in the first half.) It’s a satisfying film whether you want the shoot-em-up I expected or something a bit deeper.

For more YSPR fun at the movies see these posts on Public Enemies and Moneyball.

Phony Rules of English Grammar

The phrase "to boldly go where no man has gone before," popularized by Star Trek, includes a split infinitive--but the grounding for this prohibition is shakier than you may think.

The phrase “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” popularized by Star Trek, includes a split infinitive–but the grounding for this prohibition is shakier than you may think.

You have heard the rules before: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. Don’t start with a conjunction. But who makes these rules? How did they become incorporated into English grammar?

One culprit is Robert Lowth, who advised against ending English sentences with prepositions based on an earlier Latin rule. Similarly, according to Smithsonian Magazine, Henry Alford popularized the prohibition against splitting infinitive’s in A Plea for the Queen’s English.

In Latin, sentences don’t end in prepositions, and an infinitive is one word that can’t be divided. But in a Germanic language like English, as linguists have pointed out, it’s perfectly normal to end a sentence with a preposition and has been since Anglo-Saxon times. And in English, an infinitive is also one word. The “to” is merely a prepositional marker. That’s why it’s so natural to let English adverbs fall where they may, sometimes between “to” and a verb.

We can’t blame Latinists, however, for the false prohibition against beginning a sentence with a conjunction, since the Romans did it too (Et tu, Brute?). The linguist Arnold Zwicky has speculated that well-meaning English teachers may have come up with this one to break students of incessantly starting every sentence with “and.” The truth is that conjunctions are legitimately used to join words, phrases, clauses, sentences—and even paragraphs.

This is a case where a little learning is a dangerous thing. Because the rules are easy to remember, snobs can readily point them out in writing or speech. There is also a desire for social acceptability: no one wants to look stupid, even if the reasons for the rule make no sense. Writers trying to stick to the letter of the law often contort their sentences, while the better practice is often simply to say what sounds natural.

Micro-institutions can seem so ingrained that we fail to question them. Just going with the flow can sometimes make sense, but looking a little deeper can help to expose senseless rules or useless norms. The key is to understand which rules fall into which category. I do not have an answer now. But it’s something I would like to know more about.