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The Logic of Violence in Drug War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 June 2020

Stanford University
University of Pennsylvania
Juan Camilo Castillo, Economics Department, Stanford University,
Dorothy Kronick, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania,


Drug traffickers sometimes share profits peacefully. Other times they fight. We propose a model to investigate this variation, focusing on the role of the state. Seizing illegal goods can paradoxically increase traffickers’ profits, and higher profits fuel violence. Killing kingpins makes crime bosses short-sighted, also fueling conflict. Only by targeting the most violent traffickers can the state reduce violence without increasing supply. These results help explain empirical patterns of violence in drug war, which is less studied than are interstate or civil war but often as deadly.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association.

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We are especially grateful to Daniel Mejía for his guidance when conceiving this project. For comments, we thank David Bardey, Jim Fearon, Leopoldo Fergusson, Ana María Ibáñez, Krzysztof Krakowski, Marc Meredith, Emily Sellars, Hernán Vallejo, colleagues at Stanford and Penn, workshop participants at Yale, Princeton, and Bocconi, and four anonymous reviewers.


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