Economic Shocks and Rebel Tactics: Evidence from Colombia

58 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2015 Last revised: 17 Sep 2015

See all articles by Austin L. Wright

Austin L. Wright

University of Chicago - Harris School of Public Policy

Date Written: September 11, 2015


Why do rebels vary their tactics? Some insurgents employ terrorism and hit-and run attacks; others wage conventional wars against state rivals. Although recent scholarship studies how the technologies of rebellion differ across insurgencies, we have few explanations for why rebel tactics vary within conflicts. I argue rebels’ tactical choices reflect the incentives and imperatives of three constraints: economic opportunities of non-combatants, state strength, and rebel capacity. To test if these constraints shape the character of internal violence, I study microdata on rebel violence in Colombia and exploit plausibly random shocks to local income from coffee, oil and coca production. I find evidence that local economic shocks substantially affect rebel tactics. Specifically, when government forces benefit from local windfalls and economic opportunities for civilians improve, insurgents favor irregular tactics. On the other hand, when rebels are strengthened, they favor conventional tactics. These results are robust to accounting for numerous potential sources of bias, including atmospheric dispersion of illicit crop herbicides, violence spillovers from drug trafficking, and foreign military aid shocks. The main findings also support my claim that economic constraints bind rebel tactics, challenge prominent theories of insurgency, and are relevant to the comparative study of political violence, with important implications for scholars and policy makers.

Keywords: political violence, economic shocks, illicit activity, insurgency

JEL Classification: D72; D74; O13; O17; O19; Q02; Q34

Suggested Citation

Wright, Austin L., Economic Shocks and Rebel Tactics: Evidence from Colombia (September 11, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Austin L. Wright (Contact Author)

University of Chicago - Harris School of Public Policy ( email )

1307 E 60th St
Chicago, IL IL 60637
United States


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