This kingpin strategy increased homicides by 80 percent

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

The record shows that removing leaders often leads to more chaotic violence, Max Abrahms points out:

In January 2016, Mexican marines captured Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the longtime head of the Sinaloa Cartel. Taking him off the streets made the gang bloodier than ever before. Not only did the amount of violence increase, but the target selection expanded to include innocent bystanders. A gang member who worked for a contemporary of El Chapo compared the type of cartel violence before and after the arrest: “If we wanted to kill you and you turned up with your wife and children, we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t touch you. Now, they don’t give a damn … If they see you in a taco stand, they’ll come and shoot it up.”

More systematically, the economists Jason Lindo and María Padilla-Romo examined the effects of targeting high-ranking gang members on Mexican homicide rates from 2001 to 2010. This “kingpin strategy,” they found, increased homicides by 80 percent in the municipalities where the leaders had operated for at least one year.

Many militant groups have also become less restrained toward civilians after the death or imprisonment of senior figures. In 1954, the British launched Operation Anvil to stamp out the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya. Capturing leaders around Nairobi initiated a period of uncoordinated, rudderless violence. South Africa’s African National Congress also became less tactically disciplined when its leadership was marginalized. In 1961, the ANC established an armed wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe, which came to be known as the MK. Leadership stressed the value of “properly controlled violence” to spare civilians. For three years, MK members complied by studiously avoiding terrorist attacks. After Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, however, young men in the ANC engaged in stone throwing, arson, looting, and brutal killings of civilians. The political scientist Gregory Houston observed that “the removal of experienced and respected leaders … created a leadership vacuum” that empowered undisciplined hotheads. When Filipino police assassinated the Abu Sayyaf founder, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, in 1998, the group devolved into a movement of bandits that preyed on private citizens. When Nigerian police summarily executed the Boko Haram founder, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2009, the terrorist organization also turned ruthless against civilians. And the al-Qaeda–linked rebel group Ahrar al-Sham became even more radical after a 2014 attack on its headquarters, in the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria, took out its leadership.

The theory that removing leaders results in worse violence is supported by more than mere anecdote. In a couple of peer-reviewed studies, I’ve tested whether killing the leader of a militant group makes that group more tactically extreme. Across conflict zones from the Afghanistan-Pakistan to the Israel-Palestine theaters, my co-authors and I found that militant groups significantly increase their attacks against civilians after an operationally successful strike against their leadership. Vengeance is not the main driver, as the overall quantity of violence changes less than the quality does. So-called leadership decapitation does not elicit a paroxysm of violence, but makes it more indiscriminate against innocent civilians.

Leadership decapitation promotes terrorism by empowering subordinates with less restraint toward civilians. In empirical research, I’ve demonstrated that militant groups fare better politically when they direct their violence at military and other government targets rather than civilians. Unlike guerrilla attacks against government targets, terrorist attacks against civilian targets tend to reduce popular support, empower hard-liners, and, most important, lower the odds of government concessions. But lower-level members, compared with their superiors, are less likely to grasp that attacking civilians does not pay.


Of course, not all militant leaders appreciate the folly of terrorism or possess the organizational clout to prevent operatives from perpetrating it. To a large extent, the effects of targeted killing thus depend on the type of leader killed. As I predicted in October, the death of the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, did not increase the group’s terrorist attacks, because he had favored maximum carnage against civilians and exercised limited control over his subordinates, particularly “lone wolves” who simply declared their rhetorical allegiance to him. Leadership decapitation is most likely to increase terrorism when the leader understood the strategic value of tactical restraint toward civilians and imposed his targeting restraint on the rank and file. A salient example is the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which ramped up their terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians when their leadership was crushed during the Second Intifada.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    I have to think that having a leader is of some benefit to the gang or else they wouldn’t bother.

    What about the long term trend? Is the uptick in violence a permanent change, or just the last hurrah of a dying mob?

    Or… perhaps it’s part of the process by which a new leader is chosen.

  2. Kirk says:

    The reality is that going after just the leaders and then thinking that that is all of the problem now solved…? That’s purest delusion. It’s like saying “Oh, hey… We found the cancer, and we cut out the parts we could see…”, and then supposing you’ve cured the patient.

    Criminal gangs and terrorists have this in common: They arise out of a failure of governance. You have to deal with the underlying condition effectively, and that means dealing with all of it. Remove the leaders, remove the members, and then deal with the conditions that allowed their rise. You have to cut it all out, in order to cure it. Lopping off the most visible parts don’t help–Take out the leaders, new ones will arise. Eliminate the members, the leaders will recruit more. Eliminate both, and then fail to deal with what motivated them in the first place? You’re going to get a new and different set of criminals/terrorists to replace them.

    And, yes, if you really want to “solve” a problem like that in Mexico, you’re damn near going to have to perform a curettage on the scale of Cortez, which would probably get you blamed for conducting a genocide. I’m not sure what the hell you do, once the infection/cancer is allowed to metastasize the way it has in Mexico, but… I can say it’s going to be a huge job, and is probably going to damn near kill the patient.

    Good Christ, they’re criminalizing the lime and avocado industries, now. Pretty soon, you buy a lime, and you’re gonna be subsidizing the cartels the same way a dope user was. Which is probably the point past which you don’t go back to “normal”, and have to acknowledge that the entire country is a pesthole of crime and malfeasance.

    God help the honest Mexican, because their government and our sure as hell won’t.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    Human nature is what allowed their rise. A better constructed society can help manage the problem. But to eliminate evil entirely from the world is a Puritan fantasy.

    No government can solve all problems. Government is management. It manages the human condition. Law and order are inherently artificial, not organic.

  4. RLVC says:

    Harry Jones,

    You’re a Puritan fantasy.

    In all seriousness, you’re whipping a strawman; read a book.

  5. Ezra says:

    Street gangs in the USA also. Leadership goes to prison, and the underlings, not having direction of whatever sort, resort to even more violence to solve “disputes”. So it is alleged.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    Street fights are just war on a much smaller scale. It’s all just a way to sort out the pecking order.

  7. Sam J. says:

    “…Street gangs in the USA also…”

    I heard an interview with Billy Corgan, of Smashing Pumpkins group, who was friends with cops in Chicago. He said that the top drug dealers were all put in jail and the city rapidly ramped up to high levels of murder. They started fighting over territory.

  8. Kirk says:

    I have to laugh at that anecdote. A celebrity Irishman with “friends” on the Chicago PD… That’s an authority figure.

    Street-level cops I knew in Chicago had a different take on the whole thing–The violence really started ramping up when the politicians and the gangs became allies. The “top drug dealers” Corgan referred to were the former competition that was unfortunate enough to have bosses who didn’t get on board with the politicians, and who didn’t get the protection from them. The legal system was utilized to take them out, while the connected gangs and their members took over. The killings were of those who resisted the “connected” takeover and who “didn’t get the word”.

    At this point, you’ve got a better chance of being arrested for self-defense during a mugging than you do for gang activity. Chicago street politics, at this point, is the product of an unholy alliance between the political class and the gangs. Much as it was during the Capone era, although without quite the same class of criminal. I doubt we’re going to see the Crips and Bloods (and, whoever else is there…) eulogized and memorialized the way we do the Italian mafia of Capone’s era. The food isn’t as good, either–What’re they going to serve at the gang-theme restaurants? Spaghetti-O’s? Bologna sandwiches?

  9. Graham says:

    I’ll need to think more on it, but my main takeaway is that governments should assassinate enemy leaders, wait for the groups to get less discriminate in their targeting and lose any public sympathy, and then solicit legislative and public opinion support for a free hand to wage a far more violent campaign against the groups and their supporters, with less discrimination in turn.

    I’m not sure that strategy will work with every audience, but I bet it’s worked before and will again.

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