Research

Trejo, Guillermo and Sandra Ley. 2017. “Why Did Drug Cartels Go to War in Mexico? Subnational Party Alternation, the Breakdown of Criminal Protection, and the Onset of Large-Scale Violence.” Comparative Political Studies. DOI: 10.1177/0010414017720703

This article explains why Mexican drug cartels went to war in the 1990s, when the federal government was not pursuing a major anti-drug campaign. We argue that political alternation and the rotation of parties in state gubernatorial power undermined the informal networks of protection that had facilitated the cartels’ operations under one-party rule. Without protection, cartels created their own private militias to defend themselves from rival groups and from incoming opposition authorities. After securing their turf, they used these militias to conquer rival territory. Drawing on an original database of inter-cartel murders, 1995–2006, we show that the spread of opposition gubernatorial victories was strongly associated with inter-cartel violence. Based on in-depth interviews with opposition governors, we show that by simply removing top- and mid-level officials from the state attorney’s office and the judicial police – the institutions where protection was forged – incoming governors unwittingly triggered the outbreak of inter-cartel wars.

Ley, Sandra. 2017. To Vote or Not to Vote: How Criminal Violence Shapes Electoral Participation. Journal of Conflict Resolution. DOI: 10.1177/0022002717708600

Organized crime-related violence has important electoral consequences. Analyses of aggregate panel data on Mexican elections and an original post-electoral survey conducted in Mexico show that the strategic use of violence by organized crime groups during electoral campaigns demobilizes voters at large. Regions where criminal organizations attempted to influence elections and politics by targeting government officials and party candidates exhibited significantly lower levels of electoral participation. Consistently, at the individual level, results reveal that voters living in regions where organized crime engaged in high-profile violence were more cautious when deciding whether to vote or not. Prior research has focused on the role of crime victimization in non-electoral participation, but the empirical evidence presented here suggests that the impact of a criminal context on turnout transcends personal victimization experiences.

Aldrich, John, Gregory Schober, Sandra Ley, and Marco Fernández. 2017. “Incognizance and Perceptual Deviation: Individual and Institutional Sources of Variation in Citizens’ Perceptions of Party Placements on the Left–Right Scale.” Political Behavior, DOI: 10.1007/s11109-017-9406-8

In this paper we use comparative study of electoral systems data to understand the variation in citizens’ perceptions of political party placements on the left–right scale. We estimate multilevel models to assess the extent to which individual characteristics, party characteristics, and institutional designs contribute to variability observed in citizens’ perceptions of party placements. Because lack of information on the part of the citizens may be revealed through failure to respond to the left–right scale questions or through random components to actual placements, we develop models that include assessments of both types of responses to reduce bias from considering only one source. We find that individual-, party-, and institutional-level variables are relevant to understanding variation in citizens’ perceptions of party placements. Finally, we demonstrate that an inability to cognize the left–right scale (incognizance) and a deviation in the perceptions of party positions (perceptual deviation) have important consequences for citizens’ thermometer evaluations of political parties.

Meseguer, Covadonga, Sandra Ley, and J. Eduardo Ibarra-Olivo. 2017. “Sending Money Home in Times of Crime: The Case of Mexico.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 43(13): 2169-2192.  

We explore at the municipality level how the climate of criminal violence has affected the flow of remittances to Mexico. Using a panel of municipalities in the years 2006 and 2010, we find that drug-related crimes and overall rates of homicides have reduced the percentage of families that receive remittances. This result is robust to controlling for net migration, political variables, and traditional socioeconomic explanations of remittance sending. It is also robust to potential threats to validity. We interpret this result as suggestive of self-interested concerns when sending money home amidst a climate of rampant violence. Nonetheless, mixed motivations to remit are evident in our analysis.

Ley, Sandra. 2017. “Security and Crime Issue Voting: Electoral Accountability in the Midst of Violence.” Latin American Politics and Society 59(1): 3-27.

Rising levels of crime and insecurity affect quality of life. A fundamental question for the prospects of democracy is whether voters, in hopes of reaching better solutions to conditions of prevailing insecurity, can hold their elected officials accountable for such situations. This article argues that electoral accountability amid criminal violence requires voters to be able to assign responsibility for crime and that partisan alignment across levels of government facilitates this task. Recent Mexican elections are examined in order to test this argument. Relying on both aggregate electoral data and individual survey evidence, this paper shows that voters hold politicians accountable for crime in the narrow circumstances of organized crime-related violence and political alignment. This evidence not only provides additional caveats to issue voting models, but also opens new avenues of research on electoral accountability.

Trejo, Guillermo and Sandra Ley. 2016. “Federalism, Drugs, and Violence. Why Intergovernmental Partisan Conflict Stimulated Inter-cartel Violence in Mexico.” Política y Gobierno 23(1): 9-52. Special bilingual volume on Democracy, Conflict, and Violence in Latin America

The dominant view of the dramatic increase of criminal violence in Mexico following the 2007 federal intervention in the War on Drugs suggests that inter-cartel violence became particularly intense in subnational regions where the president could not coordinate the federal government’s actions with subnational opposition rulers but came under control where the president worked with his co-partisans. In this article we challenge the “coordination” argument and claim that in contexts of acute political polarization between Left and Right – like the one Mexico experienced before the War on Drugs – partisan conflict can motivate federal authorities to develop cooperative military and policing interventions in regions where the president’s co-partisans rule, but to deliberately neglect effective assistance to the president’s main political rivals and then blame the violence on them. Based on an original dataset of inter-cartel violence in Mexico (2006-2012), we show that while criminal violence was more intense in municipalities from states ruled by opposition parties, it was five times greater in cities ruled by the Left – the president’s political nemesis. We use case studies to show how Mexico’s conservative federal government followed differentiated strategies to deal with spirals of drug violence: it worked together and protected subnational co-partisans (PAN); partially cooperated with centrist opposition authorities (PRI); but confronted leftist governors and mayors (PRD) and left them at the mercy of drug cartels. Our results are consistent with findings in conflict studies showing that state agents do not always seek the monopoly on violence and sometimes tolerate violence to punish their political enemies.

At the Polling Station: The Determinants of Citizen Participation in the Organization of Elections (with Francisco Cantú, Revise & resubmit)

Citizen participation is crucial for the strengthening of democracy. However, the literature has largely focused on voter turnout, dismissing an equally important role that citizens play on Election Day: their role as poll workers. Moreover, our knowledge of the determinants of political participation is limited, as most of the existing evidence comes from survey data. To address these substantive and methodological gaps, we take advantage of an original feature of the Mexican election system: the participation of randomly selected citizens to organize and oversee the operation of polling stations. We argue that the socio-political context in which elections take place greatly affect citizen participation in them. In particular, for the study of nascent democracies, studies of political participation must incorporate two dynamic processes that many of them face: the contested legitimacy of electoral institutions and rising violence. The nature of our dataset allows us to address the measurement problems frequently associated with empirical analyses that use self-reported participation, which weakens the validity of their conclusions.

Participation in High-Risk Activism: Protesting Amid Violence (Work in progress)

When and why do citizens living amid criminal violence pour into the streets to demand peace and justice, regardless of the risks that protesting in such context may entail? This paper argues that while violence and victimization experiences provide an initial motivation for participation in protests, social networks play a fundamental role for the occurrence of citizen mobilization against insecurity. Supporting evidence is derived from an original dataset on protest events in reaction to violence in Mexico between 2006 and 2012, as well as from an original survey data collected in Mexico in 2012. In addition, in-depth interviews with protest participants reveals the mechanisms through which social networks stimulate protest participation. This paper contributes to the prevailing literature on victimization and political participation and provides new compelling answers on when and how experience with violence can encourage involvement in politics and promote democratic accountability.

“High-Profile Criminal Violence: Why Drug Cartels Murder Government Officials and Party Candidates in Mexico.” (with Guillermo Trejo, under review) 

This article explains a surprising wave of lethal attacks by drug cartels against hundreds of local elected officials and party candidates in Mexico, 2007–2012.  These attacks are puzzling because criminal organizations prefer the secrecy of bribery over the publicity of political murder. Scholars suggest that war drives armed actors to attack state authorities in search of protection or rents. Using original data of high-profile attacks in Mexico, we show that war need arguments underexplain violence. Focusing on political opportunities, we suggest that cartels use attacks to establish criminal governance regimes and conquer local governments, populations, and territories. We present quantitative and qualitative evidence showing that cartels took advantage of Mexico’s political polarization and targeted subnational authorities who were unprotected by their federal partisan rivals. Cartels intensified attacks during subnational election cycles to capture incoming governments and targeted geographically adjacent municipalities to establish controls over large territories. Our findings reveal how cartels take cues from the political environment to develop their own de facto political domains through high-profile violence. These results puts into question the widely shared assumption that organized criminal groups are apolitical actors.