10 January 2020

Living in Fear: The Dynamics of Extortion in Mexico’s Drug War

By Beatriz Magaloni, Gustavo Robles, Aila M. Matanock, Alberto Díaz-Cayeros, Vidal Romero

Using list experiments, this paper measures the prevalence of extortion and assistance among drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Results show that territorial contestation among rival organizations produces more extortion, while monopoly control over a territory leads DTOs to provide more assistance. The paper also explores how variation in criminal organization and patterns of DTO-state collusion largely influence DTO behavior toward the community.


Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have employed different strategies toward the communities in which they operate. Sometimes, DTOs exhibit “benign" relationships with these communities, providing them with assistance and supplying local order. Other times, the relationships between DTOs and their communities are predatory: DTOs will extort, rape, and disappear civilians. To account for variation in DTO strategies toward civil society, this paper develops a theory about DTOs’ incentives and organizational structures. 


Mexican DTOs have shifted their activities: they no longer focus primarily on the shipment of illegal drugs to international markets, and instead have diversified into criminal activities that prey on citizens such as extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, and the collection of protection money. This paper offers theoretical and empirical evidence to explore the reasons why this metamorphosis in criminal behavior has taken place. 


DTOs often seek active control of a territory or “turf" not only to hide from the state and protect themselves from other criminal groups, but also to extract profits from the illegal drug trade. Since deals among criminal groups are hard to enforce, DTOs commonly aspire to retain monopolistic control of these turfs. Our theory argues that DTOs require active collaboration from the community in order to retain control of these valuable territories. Four variables shape how DTOs behave toward the community. 

The first variable is the degree of territorial contestation. Following Olson (1993) and others in the conflict literature, we argue that under monopolistic control, DTOs can be more confident of reaping future gains if they continue to show restraint, and they may even provide a share of those gains to the community to ensure its continued cooperation. In contrast, when DTOs contest territory, time horizons shorten and their incentives to predate increase. 

Second, our theory proposes that criminal behavior is also shaped by DTO-state relationships.  DTOs need some level of informal state protection to successfully produce, process, and traffic drugs. We hypothesize that violence against the community should be more prevalent where local criminal groups operate with the complicity, tolerance, acquiescence, and/or cooperation of the state. We proxy for the level of state-DTO relationship with the political party in control of the local government. Our assumption is that, in PRI-controlled areas, we will find more collusion between DTOs, local governments, and the police.

Third, DTO organization also matters. A DTO that has leadership stability and is hierarchical should be better able to restrain its armed cells than a criminal organization that is more decentralized. The neutralization of a DTO's leadership breaks chains of command, reduces that DTO’s time horizon, and increases territorial contestation. According to our theory, these processes generate more DTO predation of the local community. 

Lastly, characteristics of the turf and the logistics of the local criminal enterprise likely influence DTO behavior toward the population. Here, turfs can be distinguished in terms of logistics and value. Ceteris paribus, transit areas should be less valuable than border crossings and hence we expect DTOs to seek more active collaboration with the community in the latter. 


We conducted a series of list experiments embedded in a nationwide survey carried out in Mexico in July 2011. We focus on experimental questions that assess the extent of DTO extortion and civilians’ use of DTO assistance. 

Additionally, we used Coscia and Rios’s (2012) dataset on Mexican DTOs’ areas of operation. The authors developed a Web crawler to extract information from Google. We classify a municipality as “monopoly” or “contested” if one or more groups, respectively, have a dominant presence in the area.


  • DTOs extort civilians primarily in contested territories, and offer “help” to community members in monopolistic ones. The highest levels of extortion are observed in contested municipalities with high levels of inter-cartel violence. 
  • Our results demonstrate that extortion is lower in states and municipalities governed by the National Action Party (PAN) than in states governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The highest levels of extortion are found in states governed by the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). 
  • Less hierarchical DTOs exhibit significantly higher levels of extortion and less assistance than more hierarchical criminal organizations. 
  • Drug capo arrests are associated with significantly less assistance, which suggests that leadership stability is a key factor enabling DTOs to establish collaborative relationships with the community. 
  • Border crossings that require more community collaboration in order to maintain control are associated with more assistance than transit points. Drug producing turfs are associated with less extortion.


Mexican DTOs no longer focus primarily on the shipment of illegal drugs to international markets. Instead, they have diversified their criminal activities. Four factors influence DTOs’ behavior toward the community:  the degree of territorial contestation and violent conflict between the DTOs themselves; the degree of collusion with the state and law enforcement; DTOs’ organization and leadership stability, and the characteristics of the local turf.


Magaloni, Beatriz, Gustavo Robles, Aila Matanock, Alberto Diaz-Cayeros, and Vidal Romero. (Forthcoming) “Living in Fear: The Dynamics of Extortion in Mexico’s Drug War.” Comparative Political Studies