10 January 2020

How the Mexican Drug War Affects Kids and Schools: Evidence on Effects and Mechanisms

By Brenda Jarillo, Beatriz Magaloni, Edgar Franco, Gustavo Robles

We investigate the effect of drug-related violence in Mexico on academic achievement. We estimate the impact on math test scores of both turf war exposure and turf war persistence during the academic year. According to our results, both the exposure to and persistence of criminal violence reduces math test scores.


This article focuses on how violent crime affects one of the most vulnerable groups: children and adolescents. Broadly, this study examines the consequences of criminal violence on educational outcomes. In particular, it seeks to estimate the impact of the explosive increases in violence observed in Mexico on educational indicators such as academic performance. In addition, it explores empirically the transmission mechanisms that explain this impact. A second objective of our study is to investigate how the characteristics of the school and of the locality in which the school is located mediate the impact of violence on the behavior of students and teachers.


Violence in Mexico has exploded in recent years as a result of structural changes in both the drug trafficking business and in government strategies to combat drug trafficking organizations. Between 2007 and 2012, violence increased almost threefold, more than 60,000 murders took place, and thousands disappeared or were displaced. 

With the increase in drug trafficking-related murders over the past seven years, crime-related violence has become a rising threat to schools, teachers, and students. Schools temporarily close because of gun shootings. After receiving several extortion demands from drug trafficking organizations, for example, teachers in the state of Guerrero went on strike demanding federal and state governments to provide additional security efforts at the school level. Even if students and educators do not experience crime first-hand, the fear of victimization is an increasing concern across the country. According to the 2012 National Survey on Victimization and Public Security Perception, 28% of the population reported feeling unsafe in the surroundings of schools. 

Details of the intervention

In order to estimate the increases in violence, we identified turf wars at the locality level. We define drug-related turf war exposure as when, in at least one month during the school academic year, the monthly number of firearm-related homicides in a locality surpasses a threshold of two standard deviations above its moving average during the previous four years. Since both students’ locality of residence and academic achievement are strongly correlated with community-level and family-level social and economic resources, we rely on school fixed-effects models to measure the impact of drug-related turf wars on math test scores over the period of 2006 and 2011. We use the same empirical strategy to compare potential mechanisms and estimate heterogeneous effects across types of settings and levels of education. 


  • Exposure to and persistence of drug-related turf wars in Mexico negatively impact academic achievement in a national sample of elementary and lower secondary schools. 
  • Violent crime persistence increases teacher turnover, teacher absenteeism, and teacher tardiness. 
  • Persistence of violence is also associated with increased student absenteeism and students frequently leaving school early. 
  • Schools located in large-urban settings experience the largest negative effects of drug-related turf wars on academic achievement. 
  • Compared to elementary schools, secondary schools are significantly more affected by drug-related turf wars.
  • The negative effects of criminal violence for lower secondary schools are heightened in areas with a stronger street gang presence.


  • Government policy should include school- or community-based strategies to insure the safety of school personnel and students. 
  • School-based programs must contemplate additional days of instruction to compensate for instructional time lost during the academic year due to violence. Such efforts should particularly target marginalized localities in urban areas. 
  • It is very important for schools affected by street gangs to collaborate with government officials, civil society organizations, and other members in the community to assess the extent of gang involvement in criminal activity so that interventions and resources can be directed toward efforts to prevent youth violence and victimization. 
  • Schools and communities must invest in programs designed to mitigate mental stress, fear, trauma, and physical harm among students.


Jarillo, Brenda, Beatriz Magaloni, Edgar Franco, and Gustavo Robles. (2016). “How the Mexican drug war affects kids and schools? Evidence on effects and mechanisms.” International Journal of Educational Development 51: 135-146.