In December 2006, right after winning the election by a margin of victory of less than 1 percent, the Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a full-fledged military campaign against drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs). The punitive strategy triggered a turf war between DTOs and the state as well as among competing DTOs. The escalation of violence has generated an estimated death toll of more than 40,000 people in four years and a half. This project analyzes the dynamics of large-scale organized crime violence in Mexico by addressing three questions: What explains the onset of the war on drugs in Mexico? Once the conflict starts, whay does drug violence escalate so rapidly? And lastly, why is there subnational variation in the diffusion patterns of violence? The argument holds that democratization undermines pacts between organized criminals and politicians, and motivates politicians to fight crime, thus triggering different mechanisms of violence-imposition, contestation, competition and succession-which tend to cluster around strategic territories. In order to test this argument, this project builds the first geo-referenced database of daily events of drug violence in Mexico using computerized coding. This dataset, comprising roughly 9 million observations when completed, will provide detailed information on who did what to whom, when and where in the war on drugs in Mexico.

Scholars have relied on machine coding to analyze international conflicts. This research improves on thes previous efforts by focusing on sub-national actors and, for the first time, adapting the protocol to codify text in Spanish for identifying three key elements of a violent event: the perpetrators, the violtent action, and the target of such action. In order to avoid bias from individual sources, the coding scheme will process a vast quantity of national and local newspapers and government press releases for the last ten years. The dependent variable will be an index comprising the frequency and type of drug violent events.

The project will provide several contributions. By focusing on organized criminals, it studies a largely neglected actor capable of perpetrating large-scale violence. Theoretically, it bridges research on political violence and organized crime to fill a gap in the literature on intra-state conflict. It provides an integrated explanation for the onset, escalation and diffusion of drug violence and disaggregates different processes of violence while incorporating them into a unifying framework. Methodologically, this research provides a coding protocol to process documents in Spanish. The project will also produce the first geo-referenced database of daily drug violence in Mexico. This database will be made available to citzens, scholars, and authorities.

By focusing on Mexico, this research responds to the imperative need to understand large-scale organized crime violence. Lessons from the Mexican war on drugs will generate valuable insights for comprehending and controlling a pervasive threat to political stability in Latin American countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, and Honduras and in fragile states such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Myanmar, and Somalia.

Project Report

Javier Osorio, University of Notre Dame This research project aims to understand three different aspects of the war on drugs in Mexico: the onset, the escalation and the concentration of drug violence. My dissertation addresses three questions. What explains the onset of a full-fledged punitive campaign from the state against criminal organizations in Mexico? Once the conflict starts, why does drug violence escalate so rapidly? And lastly, why is violence concentrated in some areas while others remain unaffected by the diffusion of violence? The wave of drug violence in Mexico is explained by a twofold argument. I argue that, as democratization advances, pacts between organized criminals and politicians become less stable, thus motivating politicians to fight crime. Government intervention disrupts a non-violent equilibrium among criminal organizations. Once the conflict starts, the escalation of violence is composed by different mechanisms of conflict which tend to cluster around strategic territories. To test these hypotheses I rely on both statistical methods and qualitative analysis. The results provide the following findings: Increasing levels of democratic development–measured by the number of effective parties at different levels of government (president, senate, chamber and governors) and political alternance–are associated with increasing levels of state enforcement against criminal organizations. Increasing violent state enforcement (defined as the use of state force to kill or hurt a presumed member of a criminal organization) is associated with a large increase of violence among rival criminal groups. The results also indicate that other types of non-violent state enforcement (e.g. arrests and seizures of assets, weapons and drugs) also increase the levels of violence among criminal organizations. However, the effects of non-violent state enforcement are smaller than the effect generated by violent law enforcement. Finally, the analysis reveals that violence among rival criminal groups tends to concentrate in geo-strategic territories favorable for the production, reception, local consumption and international distribution of illegal drugs. This research project generated the following contributions: Theoretical: To explain these dynamics of conflict I developed a formal theoretical model to understand the interactions between the state and criminal organizations and among rival criminal groups in the context of the war on drugs. Empirical: To test the hypotheses of my model, I developed the first geo-referenced database of daily events of drug violence in Mexico between 2000 and 2010. This dataset, comprising roughly 9.8 million observations provides daily event data at municipal level on who did what to whom, when and where in the war on drugs in Mexico. Technological: To build this database I developed Eventus, a computerized coding protocol to systematically identify event data from news sources in Spanish. Eventus identifies the "source" (an actor perpetrating an actor against a target), the "action" (the action being conducted) and the "target" (the actor receiving the action) in text and transforms this information in a numeric format with a database structure. In addition, the software identifies the date and location of an event. Therefore, it is capable of identifying who did what to whom, when and where. Eventus was specifically developed for identifying drug related violent events between the State and criminal organizations and among rival criminal groups in Mexico. However, after minor modifications, Eventus is capable of identifying any other type of events from reports written in Spanish. This technological development constitutes an important public good for the broader academic community in the social sciences interested in generating and analyzing event data from primary sources in Spanish. Methodological: My dissertation combines quantitative and qualitative analysis. The statistical analysis consists of temporal and spatial regression models of all Mexican municipalities between 2000 and 2010. After conducting preliminary statistical analysis of the data I selected three cities for conducting qualitative research. Substantive: This research helps to elucidate the challenges of new democracies in terms of providing public security. In particular, this dissertation provides rigorous evidence of the deleterious consequences of large scale punitive campaigns against drug trafficking organizations. Relying on state enforcement as the central component to fight drug trafficking triggers an escalation of drug related violence. In particular, state enforcement generates a wave of violence from organized criminals against state authorities and a surge of violence among rival criminal organizations. These dynamics of violence tend to concentrate in specific territories valuable for drug trafficking activities. The sound theoretical framework and solid empirical analysis generate evidence based arguments questioning the approach of fighting drugs through the supply side. In consequence, this research urges for seeking policy alternatives focused on harm reduction and fighting drugs from the demand side. This implies a shift from a punitive approach based on criminalization and punishment towards a strategy emphasizing human security and drug consumption as a public health issue.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame
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