Sandra Ley, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Country: Mexico

About Me:

I am an assistant professor in the Political Studies Division at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City. My research analyzes the impact of criminal violence on the exercise of democratic citizenship in Latin America, with central emphasis on Mexico. I also study the linkages between democracy and organized crime. 

Research Interests

Crime Politics

Political Participation

Political Violence

Latin American And Caribbean Politics

Organized Crime

Elections And Turnout

Civil Society Organisations

Countries of Interest


My Research:

My work examines how variations in the level of criminal violence condition the activation of civil society networks, citizen participation, and electoral accountability. I find that even as victims take to the streets to demand peace and justice, violence threatens the electorate as a whole and reduces incentives to take part in elections. Moreover, electoral accountability amid violence requires voters to be able to assign responsibility for crime. Given such a difficult task, voters hold politicians accountable for insecurity in the narrow circumstances of organized crime-related violence and partisan alignment across levels of government.My individual and co-authored work has been published in Comparative Political Studies, British Journal of Political ScienceJournal of Conflict Resolution, Latin American Politics, Election Law Journal and Política y gobierno. 


Journal Articles:

(2019) Indigenous Resistance to Criminal Governance. Why Regional Ethnic Autonomy Institutions Protect Communities from Narco Rule in Mexico, Latin American Research Review

This article explains why some indigenous communities in Mexico have been able to resist drug cartels’ attempts to take over their local governments, populations, and territories while others have not. We argue that while indigenous customary laws and traditions provide communal accountability mechanisms that make it harder for narcos to take control, they are insufficient. Using a paired comparison of two indigenous regions in the highlands of Guerrero and Chihuahua – both ideal zones for drug cultivation and traffic–we show that communities most able to resist narco conquest are those that have a history of social mobilization, expanding village-level indigenous customary traditions into regional ethnic autonomy regimes. By scaling-up local accountability practices regionally and developing trans-local networks of cooperation, indigenous movements have been able to construct mechanisms of internal control and external protection that enable communities to deter the narcos from corrupting local authorities, recruiting young men, and establishing criminal governance regimes imposing rule through force.

(2018) 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

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.

(2017) To Vote or Not to Vote: How Criminal Violence Shapes Electoral Participation, Journal of Conflict Resolution

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.

(2017) Security and Crime Issue Voting: Electoral Accountability in the Midst of Violence, Latin American Politics and Society

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.