10 January 2020

The Beheading of Criminal Organizations and the Dynamics of Violence in Mexico

By Gabriela Calderón, Gustavo Robles, Alberto Díaz-Cayeros, Beatriz Magaloni

This paper assesses the Mexican government’s strategy to weaken drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs). Results show that arresting/executing drug cartel leaders and lieutenants increases not only DTO-related violence, but also civilian homicides.


Decapitation strategies (i.e., targeting for arrest the highest levels or core leadership of criminal networks) play a significant role in counter-narcotic policies in the U.S., Mexico, and other countries. However, do they work? Does it matter if governments target the kingpins or lower ranked lieutenants? Is it possible for authorities to apprehend key drug lords while still securing peace and order?


Mexico is currently facing one of the most severe crises of violence and insecurity in recent history. In March 2009, the government released a list of Mexico’s 37 most wanted drug lords. By January 2011, authorities captured or killed 20 of those 37 targets. However, violence did not recede. On the contrary, it is estimated that more than 66,000 drug-related deaths took place in Mexico between 2007 and 2012.

Details of the Intervention

Our empirical strategy combines a difference-in-differences design with synthetic control methods to construct credible control municipalities that have similar trends in homicide rates compared to those of treated municipalities (i.e. where kingpins or lieutenants were killed or arrested).


  • The neutralization of drug cartel leaders exacerbate short-term effects not only with regard to DTO-related violence, but also in relation to civilian homicide rates. The increase in drug-related violence during the first six months after the removal of a leader in a municipality is estimated to be 36.5%.
  • After capturing a leader and/or a lieutenant, violence spills over to neighboring municipalities, particularly to places that are connected to the transportation network. Within the first 6 months after capturing a lieutenant, homicides in these municipalities increased by 50% for males between 15 and 39 years old; in addition, deaths presumably related to DTO rivalries increased by 64%.
  • All spillover effects on homicides are observed in the medium term. During this period, we find a 25.1% increase in homicides among persons outside the “male, between 15 and 39 years old” group in strategic neighboring municipalities. 
  • Decapitation strategies increased violence not only among DTOs, but also affected the general population. As a result of the killing or arrest of drug capos, criminal cells become loose and predate more on the population. 


Our results highlight limits to so-called “beheading” counter-narcotic strategies. When drug capos are eliminated, other cartels possess incentives to fight turf wars by reducing the costs of fighting against the decapitated DTO. Moreover, as the elimination of drug capos weakens existing chains of command, criminal cells begin operating with less restraint, which leads to an escalation of violence against the general population. In this regard, our work accounts for why the decapitation of DTOs might fail to produce the same desired outcomes that otherwise result from the decapitation of terrorist or rebel groups. Therefore, this strategy, albeit important, requires a significant redesign and rethinking of its core objectives.


Magaloni, Beatriz, Gabriela Calderón, Gustavo Robles, and Alberto Díaz-Cayeros. (2015). “The beheading of criminal organizations and the dynamics of violence in Mexico.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 59(8): 1455-1485.