Mariana Ramírez


Dissertation Project: “Public Opinion Dynamics around the Illegal Co-optation of Power by Narco-linked Candidates and Organizations”

Why do citizens support candidates with links to drug trafficking? And, in turn, how does this illicit economy shape citizens’ political attitudes? Drawing on theories of voting behavior and accountability, as well as research on illicit economies, I argue that voters willingly support narco-linked candidates when they perceive that the benefits of drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) –particularly, economic and security goods– outweigh the costs. Moreover, these extra-legal actors can also (re)define citizens’ beliefs. I argue that, on the one hand, the rise in illegal economic revenues from the cocaine trade increases citizens’ support for the local government in high drug trafficking areas, which in turn hinders accountability due to the (illegal) economic dependence. On the other hand, given that these criminal organizations need structures, clear chains of command, and secrecy to keep business as usual, I contend that living in areas of known DTOs’ presence makes citizens more accustomed to vertical authority structures, leading to lower support for democracy and trust in elections. 

I test this theory through a mixed-method approach, primarily focused on the Peruvian case given the comparatively low levels of narco-violence. This context better allows us to assess the effect of the illegal activity, since local dynamics are not defined by striking levels of criminal violence, but rather by the illicit nature of this economy. Through online experiments, I first find that individuals are more likely to support a narco-linked candidate when this illicit economy provides security side benefits, as well as when they hold normative views that justify this illicit activity. Further, an in-depth case study of the Monzón Valley shows citizens’ ambivalent discourse about drug trafficking, and high support for the then-mayor, who was allegedly involved in drug trafficking and terrorism. High popular support is associated with a positive narco-economy and significant social dependence on it. Using nationally representative survey data, combined with underused subnational data on coca prices, eradication, and production data from UNODC from Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, I find that an increase in coca leaf prices leads to higher support for the local government. Finally, using survey data, which I will complement with qualitative evidence from direct observation and focus groups with ordinary citizens in Peru, I demonstrate that citizens’ awareness of DTOs’ presence in neighborhoods is associated with lower levels of support for democracy.