How the War on Drugs Increases Violence and Rewards Cartels

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Nicole Wells, covers the new article by Juan Camillo Castillo, Stanford University and Dorothy Kronick, University of Pennsylvania, The Logic of Violence in Drug War

In 1971, the U.S government rolled out a national policy to fight drug abuse and stop the trafficking of illegal drugs. The government’s War on Drugs has failed to curb drug related violence in the United States and Latin America. Mexico estimated that 150,000 murders have occurred since 2007 and that more than 61,000 Mexicans are missing due to drug related violence. As a result, the U.S. and Mexico have continued to ramp up drug operations to decrease the flow of illegal drugs. However, a recent study by political scientist Dorothy Kronick and economist Juan Castillo shows that government policies that crackdown on drug trafficking often increases the violence they are trying to contain.

Castillo and Kronick’s study looks at unintended consequences of two typical drug-war policies: government seizures of illegal drugs, and arrests of big-name drug traffickers. Politicians often claim that these policies are effective in fighting drug cartels. Castillo and Kronick find instead that both policies drive violence. To effectively reduce violence, governments should target cartels that back out of low violence pacts.

In a formal model, Castillo and Kronick find that government seizures of illegal drugs can reduce the supply of drugs that make it to the streets—but in doing so, seizures also raise prices. And because there is often no comparable substitute for illegal drugs, higher prices may not dampen demand. In that case, drug cartels’ profits go up. This can spark turf wars, because cartels are more inclined to fight over higher profits.

The authors argue that arresting or killing drug kingpins also has unintended consequences. When cartel leaders are constantly fearful of imminent arrest or assassination, they get impatient. They care less about making profits in the distant future, and more about making money today. That also sparks conflict, increasing cartel-vs-cartel violence.

The Mexican drug war follows this logic. Before Felipe Calderón became President of Mexico in 2006, Mexican cartels forged peaceful agreements to share the drug market. At the behest of the U.S., Calderón deployed a ‘decapitation’ strategy’ that targeted cartel leaders. Shortly after, violence skyrocketed as gangs went to war. Castillo and Kronick’s research can explain how the escalation of drug policies under Calderon caused traffickers to become impatient and forgo peaceful agreements which led to increased violence.

(…) Current policies in place are ineffective and undermine the goal of reducing the level of violence in cartel warfare.

To undermine rising profits and reduce the temptation to fight, the authors argue for targeted action against drug cartels. To effectively reduce violence, governments should target cartels that back out of low violence pacts. This type of policy discourages traffickers from fighting. Similarly, arresting only cartel leaders who break peaceful pacts can reduce violence, encouraging cartels to share the market peacefully.

Castillo and Kronick’s research has important policy implications for the War on Drugs. Their research shows that current policies in place are ineffective and undermine the goal of reducing the level of violence in cartel warfare. This shows that it’s time to reexamine the War on Drug’s role in exacerbating drug related violence.


Nicole Wells is a PhD student at George Mason University. Her research focuses on democratization, democratic erosion and authoritarianism in Europe and Eurasia. Prior to becoming a PhD student, Nicole was a Fulbright Scholar where she taught Visual Culture, American Rhetoric, and American National Identity at Transylvania University in Brașov, Romania. When she is not studying, Nicole volunteers as a museum guide with the National Women’s Party and educates the public on the NWP’s role in winning women’s right to vote. She resides in Washington, DC where she is known in her neighborhood as the crazy cat lady that walks her cat on a leash

The Public Scholarship Program was created in collaboration with the APSA Presidential Task Force for New Partnerships, and is made possible by the generous support of the Ivywood Foundation.