The presence and activities of armed criminal groups has shaped governance and state capacity at the subnational level in many territories of contemporary Latin America. In turn, criminal group behavior and competition are driven by subnational government performance. Yet empirical studies of organized crime and criminal violence have been limited by a dearth of high-quality, systematic data on key attributes of violent criminal organizations including their structure, where they operate, what activities they engage in, and how they relate to one another. We present the first results of Mapping Criminal Organizations, a project that combines sources and methods, from hand-coding data to scraping and processing entire archives, to identify where armed criminal groups have operated and how they have related to each other, starting with Mexican states, cities, and municipalities. We also discuss three ways in which thedata can be used to advance research on the presence and control of armed criminal groups: micro-dynamics of violence, variations on property rights protection, and provision of security. And we illustrate two of these avenues with examples from Mexico’s northern states.
Recent empirical work has produced evidence that the forced removal (arrest or killing) of high-ranked members of criminal organizations in Mexico influences subsequent violence, generally finding that it leads to more violence within a year or in the longer term. However, those studies have been limited to a period of five years or less and have not tested the mechanisms through which criminal group “decapitation” is theorized to cause violence. This paper addresses both limitations. I scrutinize theorized mechanisms and test them using panel data regression analysis at both the state and municipal level, with the state level analysis expanding to eight years (2007–2014). I find no evidence for one of the key theorized channels through which kingpin strikes were thought to exacerbate violence—induced violent competition between enemy organizations—or for other testable mechanisms. In line with these findings, I find no relationship between kingpin strikes and subsequent violence in affected areas. The dynamics of leadership removal and subsequent violence are not yet fully understood, and likely evolved.
In 2010, the government, private businesses, and local universities in the northern Mexico state of Nuevo León forged an unusual alliance to design and implement sweeping law-enforcement reforms in a challenging context. At the time, powerful drug cartels were fighting increasingly bitter and bloody wars to control their turf—which intimidated an existing police service already hampered by low pay, weak morale, corruption, and disorganization. Public confidence in the state’s ability to maintain order had evaporated. During the next five years, the public–private partnership oversaw the creation of an entirely new police service that, in tandem with other reforms, significantly strengthened the state’s capacity to ensure public safety and helped rebuild public confidence.
Patrick Signoret drafted this case study based on interviews conducted in March and April 2018 and on earlier research carried out by Ariana Markowitz and Alejandra Rangel Smith in October 2014. New York University’s Marron Institute helped support Alejandra Rangel Smith’s participation. Case published July 2018.