Small Wars Journal

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico

Sat, 10/31/2020 - 9:08pm

SWJ EL Centro Book Review – Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico

Daniel Weisz

Votes, Drugs, Violence

Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley, Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. [ISBN: 978-110884174-0. Hardcover, 370 pages]

The drug war in Mexico and the escalation of violence has been a subject of interest that has produced several contesting theories.  Most scholars have taken socio-economic approaches to explain the rise of homicides and explain the behavior of cartels and organized crime groups (OCGs).  This book is written by Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley.  Guillermo Trejo is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and Director of the Violence and Transitional Justice Lab at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies.  Sandra Ley is an associate professor of Political Science at CIDE: the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (Center for Research and Teaching in Economics) Political Studies Division in Mexico City.  The authors focus on transitions from authoritarian regimes to multiparty democracy uncovers a new understanding of organized crime.  Their theory proposes a link between the transition from authoritarianism to democracy and the large-scale criminal violence experienced in Mexico.  The authors conceptualize OCGs and cartels as political actors that read and react to the political environment in Mexico and show that there is a symbiotic type of relationship between the OCGs or cartels and an informal level of the state.

This book is organized into four main sections with seven chapters, with an introduction at the beginning and notes, index, figures, maps and tables at the end. Their figures span from models explaining how informal government protection for OCGs in autocracy functioned to figures showing the percentage of criminal attacks by target and political party. Their map section spans from maps showing the geography of inter-cartel murders in Mexico to maps showing the geography of criminal attacks against government officials and party members. The tables in the book also provide important empirical data and span from models on subnational party alternation and inter-cartel violence in Mexico to models used for robustness checks using available government data.

The first section includes Chapter 1 (The Political Foundations of Peace and War in the Gray Zone of Criminality) and looks at the relationship between the state and both OCGs and cartels. The authors explain how during the seven decades of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party) authoritarian regime, state specialists in violence would be rewarded for their work securing the dominance of the regime by working and profiting with the OCGs and cartels.  The authors assume that organized crime cannot successfully operate without some level of informal state protection and they theorize the creation of a “gray zone” when these two actors work together.

The second section addresses why the OCGs and cartels went to war and traces the transition from an authoritarian regime that provided security to OCGs and cartels within the gray zone to a multiparty democracy that replaced specialists in violence and created uncertainty in the gray zone.  This section includes two chapters, Chapter 2 (Why Cartels Went to War: Sub national Party Alternation, the Breakdown of Criminal Protection, and the Onset of Inter-Cartel Wars) that focuses on how Mexican cartels went to war because of their lost access to the informal networks of government protection that had been provided under the PRI.  Chapter 3 (Fighting Turf Wars: Cartels, Militias, and the Struggle for Drug Trafficking Corridors) focuses on how the removal of top- and mid-level officials who had traditionally provided protection to cartels led to uncertainty in the gray zone and the creation of private militias.  The third section analyses the politicization (politization) of law enforcement and how these politicized interventions stimulated violence.

The third section includes Chapters 4 and 5; Chapter 4 (Why the State’s War against the Cartels intensified Violence: Political Polarization, Intergovernmental Partisan Conflict, and the Escalation of Violence) provides evidence to show how drug violence became more intense in municipalities of states ruled by the opposition (leftist government). President Felipe Calderón used law enforcement to support his political parties state governments and abandoned those ruled by his opposition.  Chapter 5 (Unpacking the War on Drugs: Presidents, Governors, and Large-Scale Narco Violence) uses three case studies to explain how partisanship affected the intervention by the federal government and how this resulted in varied effects for inter-cartel violence.  The OCGs and cartels were able to read the political environment and reacted by targeting politically unprotected individuals in leftist states.

The fourth and final section addresses the rise in targeted attacks against sub national governments and the evolution of OCG’s and cartel’s goals into establishing themselves as de facto local rulers.  This section contains Chapter 6 and 7, in Chapter 6 (Why Cartels Murder Mayors and Local Party Candidates: Subnational Political Vulnerability and Political Opportunities to Become Local Rulers) the authors trace how OCGs and cartels have murdered mayors and candidates to office in order to infiltrate local campaigns and municipal governments that allows them to develop control over local governments. In Chapter 7 (Seizing Local Power: Developing Subnational Criminal Governance Regimes) the authors explain the evolution of OCGs and cartels into territorial actors as the fragmentation of cartels and OCGs led to the diversification into extractivist industries of human and natural wealth that requires the control of civilian populations.

This book uses multi-method research with a unique theoretical approach that provides a unique look at how electoral politics are an important factor behind the rise of OCG and cartel violence in Mexico.  The authors built two original datasets that count all murders attributed to organized criminal groups in Mexico from 1995-2012 and a dataset measuring criminal attacks against public authorities in Mexico committed by OCGs and cartels from 1995-2012.  They also use more than 40 in depth interviews spanning from former governors to former security officials.  The authors use unique evidence produced from their methodology to refine the narrative of OCGs and cartel violence in Mexico.  They are able to show that the escalation of violence is tied to the defeats of the PRI in the early 1990’s in local elections as a response to the uncertainty of losing the protection that had been previously provided by the PRI’s authoritarian regime.

Trejo and Ley are able to explain three phenomena’s that have major implications beyond Mexico.  The book explores why cartels went to war in Mexico, why drug violence escalated after the federal government declared war on the OCGs and cartels and why OCGs and cartels have become political-territorial actors that seek subnational criminal governance regimes.  This book has the potential to revolutionize the literature on organized crime by introducing the importance of local electoral politics in countries moving away from authoritarian regimes into “thin” electoral transitions.  They define "thin" electoral transitions, as transitions in which countries adopt multiparty electoral democracy without reforming corrupt, repressive, and politicized security and judicial systems.

The authors also provide a unique theoretical perspective as they go beyond the simplistic zero-sum view of state and both OCG and cartel relations and conceptualize a gray zone created from the cooperative relationship between some agents of the state and both OCGs and cartels.  They masterfully show how Mexico’s transition into democracy was intertwined with the production of drug violence as the gray zone that provided security for both OCGs and cartels became immersed in uncertainty.  As new political parties took control of localities and replaced the state’s specialists in violence, the gray zone could no longer provide the support and security of the past regime and emboldened both OCGs and cartels to form their own private militias.  They’re tracing of the evolution of both OCGs and cartels into political-territorial actors contextualizes why violence has increasingly targeted civilians and local government officials and candidates in Mexico.

This book is important as it provides a valuable understanding and description of the mechanisms that support the rise of criminal governance.  Overall Trejo and Ley make a solid contribution to the literature on criminal insurgency[1] and on co-opted state reconfiguration[2] and add both valuable quantitative validation of past research and new insights through the recollection and usage of rich empirical data. They present a new perspective about the war on drugs and the escalation of violence in Mexico by embracing the relationship between politics and both OCGs and cartels.


[1] See John P. Sullivan, “From Dug wars to Criminal Insurgency: Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Insurgency in Mexico and Central America. Implications for Global Security.” Working Paper No 9. Paris: Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme. April 2012.

[2] See Luis Jorge Garay Salamanca and Eduardo Salcedo Albaran, Drug Trafficking, Corruption and States: How Illicit Networks Shaped Institutions in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. (A Small Wars Journal-El Centro and Vortex Foundation Book). Bloomington: iUniverse, 2015.


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Daniel Weisz Argomedo earned his PhD in Political Science at the University of California Irvine with a focus on International Relations and Comparative Studies. His dissertation focused on the war on drugs and its impact on women’s security in Mexico. He holds an M.A. in Political Science from San Diego State University where he wrote a dissertation on ‘Hacktivism and social movements; and earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Alberta where he wrote a thesis on the Mexican war on drugs. He wrote "Climate Change, Drug Traffickers and La Sierra Tarahumara" for the special issue on climate change and global security at the Journal of Strategic Security. He is a founder and secretary of the Leonora Carrington Foundation. He is fluent in Spanish and his research interests include cyberwarfare, the war on drugs, women’s security and contemporary Latin American politics and history.  He can be reached at



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