A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

How Does Leadership Decapitation Affect Violence? The Case of Drug Trafficking Organizations in Mexico


How Does Leadership Decapitation Affect Violence? The Case of Drug Trafficking Organizations in Mexico

Abstract: 

Many governments target leaders of violent groups, but consequences of this strategy are unclear. Additionally, most studies examine political groups such as terrorists, ignoring criminal organizations—even though they can represent serious threats to security. This article presents a theoretical framework for how political and criminal groups differ and uses the framework to explain how group type should condition leadership removal’s effects. Decapitation should weaken criminal organizations, temporarily reducing violence. However, as groups fragment and newer groups emerge to address market demands, violence increases in the longer term. Empirical analysis using original data on Mexican criminal organizations generally supports the argument. Interestingly, the short-term violence reduction is only associated with leaders arrested (not killed) and when the target is a midlevel leader as opposed to the top leader. These results differ markedly from those found in studies of political groups.

Publication Information

Full Citation: 

Phillips, Brian J. 2015. "How Does Leadership Decapitation Affect Violence? The Case of Drug Trafficking Organizations in Mexico." The Journal of Politics 77 (April): 324-336. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/680209?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

START Author(s): 
Brian Phillips
Publication URL: 
Visit Website