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The Perils of High-Powered Incentives: Evidence from Colombia's False Positives

Daron Acemoglu, Leopoldo Fergusson, James A. Robinson, Dario Romero, Juan F. Vargas

NBER Working Paper No. 22617
Issued in September 2016, Revised in March 2018
NBER Program(s):Political Economy

High-powered incentives for the military and security services have become a common counterinsurgency strategy over the last several decades. We investigate the use of such incentives for members of the Colombian army in the long-running civil war against left-wing guerillas, and show that it produced several perverse side effects. Innocent civilians were killed and misrepresented as guerillas (a phenomenon known in Colombia as ‘false positives’). Exploiting the fact that Colombian colonels have stronger career concerns and should be more responsive to such incentives, we show that there were significantly more false positives during the period of high-powered incentives in municipalities where a higher share of brigades were commanded by colonels and in those where checks coming from civilian judicial institutions were weaker. We further find that in municipalities with a higher share of colonels, the period of high-powered incentives coincided with a worsening of local judicial institutions and no discernible improvement in the overall security situation.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w22617

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