Where to begin?

When I defended my dissertation proposal, I set a rather familiar and somewhat arbitrary start date for the database that I wanted to build. Violence in Mexico is generally understood to have spiked sharply with the start of Felipe Calderón’s presidency, and his declaration of war against organized crime in December 2006. During the proposal process I was more concerned with fixing an end date for the data base, than with questioning this start point.

As I began trawling media archives, however, it became apparent that the phenomenon that I am trying to understand has antecedents prior to 2006. The term narcomensaje first turns up in El Norte newspaper in 1999, and returns in 2001, and again in 2005. These, however, seemed isolated occurrences; as I worked through media source after media source, my database grew a little in 2006 and 2007, and a lot for the years after those. When I talked about my data, I hedged by saying that the base started in 2006, but but would incorporate the earliest examples of messages.

In fact, my approach to data collection prevented me from getting to grips with the beginning of the phenomenon of narcomensajes. My main search terms in online media archives were variations on narcomensaje and narcomanta (narco-mensaje, narco_mensaje, narcomensajes, etc. etc. etc…), and a few less-common terms like narcopropaganda. Such terms, however, only came into use once the phenomenon that they describe was relatively well-know to the readers and writers of media accounts. These terms have become so ubiquitous that they yield thousands of hits when searched for, but the terms couldn’t tell me how the pattern of messages first arose.

A note attached to one of the earliest points in my database mentioned that a guy known as Barbie (Edgar Valdez Villareal – stay tuned for the Hollywood biopic) had left other messages in northern Mexico before 2006. I thus took a pause from scouring new media sources to return to one of my tried and tested sources, and to change my search terms. Searching for “Barbie” brought me information on some messages from 2005, and a couple from 2004 (it also had me wading through pages and pages of results about the famous doll, and the many celebrities that have been likened to her). More importantly, this searched turned me on to the fact that Valdez’s main rivals, the Zetas, were more prolific message-displayers, and that they passed this tactic on to another group, the Familia Michoacana, who used it even more frequently. Perhaps more importantly still, this slow trawling of early records – and it was very slow work, between new data points – revealed that before narcomensaje stuck as the most common term for this phenomenon, newspapers tended to use a different term entirely: recado. This term can still be translated as message, but is less commonly used. This makes it a particularly handy way to search for early examples of this phenomenon.

Following these various clues, jumping from search term to search term, has given me a much clearer answer to the question of where my database begins. The pattern of public messages starts in 2005, and becomes significantly more frequent in mid-2006, with the rise of the Familia Michoacana. The term narcomensaje begins to appear with any regularity in 2006, becoming increasinglye common throughout 2007.

This discovery also furnishes me with a new facet to my dissertation. In the broadest terms, I want to understand why narcomensajes appear, and what they actually do. One way in which I can address this in my dissertation is by tracing out the historical (very recent historical) origins of the messages. Starting with this would allow me to better situate closer case studies of the emergence of messages in specific cities, municipalities, or states.

Finally, this discovery can speak back to my comparison of my database to the other main narcomensaje database. This other database covers December 2006 until the end of 2011,  but doesn’t record its first message until March 2007. This can give the impression that narcomensajes do indeed emerge after the uptick in violence after Calderón declared war on crime. The new, early points in my database, however, demonstrate that the phenomena we think of a characterizes Calderón’s Mexico is actually part of a longer continuity of practices.

Comparing databases (and discovering just how far I have to go)

Since arriving in Mexico I have been steadily building a database of narcomensajes.  Over the course of several months, and working with different media sources, that base has grown by the thousands. It was never very clear, however, just how many messages I could expect to find. By one very rough estimate, I thought I should be able to find at least 3,500 messages from between 2006 and 2013. When my database passed 4,000 messages, I figured it was time to pause, and to try to get some sense of the real size of the phenomenon I am studying.

To do so, I planned to cross-check my database with another. One of the few previous studies of narcomensajes uses government-compiled crime data for the period 2006-2011, which was leaked to CIDE (a local university). That base only includes messages left at the scene of a homicide, whereas my database includes other types of messages as well. Still, I figured the government would have unparalleled access to data, and thus that by comparing my collection of messages left at crime scenes to this other collection of messages, I would gain some sense of how well my data collection was going. Furthermore, this other database is the only one I know of that isn’t compiled from media sources – which means that it is the only way I can peer outside of whatever biases creep into my data, based on the source material. The overall results of the comparison are as follows.

Cross-check results
Entries in my DB: 2,817
Entries in CIDE DB: 2,642
Matches: 915
Unique to my DB: 237
Unique to my DB (ineligible for CIDE DB): 1,660
Unique to CIDE DB: 1,727

At first glance, these results are a little dispiriting. There’s a huge number of messages that my data collection approach isn’t capturing – far bigger than I expected. A fairly comprehensive database of messages for the time period that I am covering should probably contain more than 6,000 messages, which means growing my current base by another 50%. While I can do much of this by importing the data from the other base, the CIDE base contains only sparse information – no message transcriptions, and almost no contextual details. Importing the data will be a start, but I need to dig deeper into the media archives.

There are a couple of other unexpected and more interesting  stories within the comparison results. First, the CIDE database officially starts in December 2006, but the first narco-message doesn’t appear until March 2007. This is the year for which my database has the highest relative number of messages that ought to be in the CIDE base. This tells me that the people compiling the data took a while to pick up on the emerging phenomenon of messages – quite a while longer than journalists. The earliest use of the term narcomensaje that I have found in the media dates back to 1999, and the term became more common – became something of a phenomenon – throughout 2006.

Related to this, with every year the gap between points unique to the CIDE base, and points unique to my base (that would be eligible for the CIDE one) grows. This tells me that over time, government security officials not only get a better sense of the emerging phenomenon, but also increase their ability to control the public perception of it. There are all sorts of reasons why messages might not make it into the press, but the overall trend is that the government officials are capturing and recording a greater portion of the messages – and also preventing journalists from doing the same. This accords with the newspaper reports that I have been reading, which over time become more dependent on official government accounts of the contents of messages.

Looking more carefully at the points that should be but aren’t in the CIDE base, I suspect that what is left out is not just a matter of what government officials accidentally overlooked. Some states, such as Sinaloa and Guerrero, have very high levels of violence, with even higher spikes of violence. It is unsurprising to see that a good number of the points unique to my database come from these states. Something strange happens, however, in the state of Nuevo León. This state saw relatively few messages until a massive increase in 2011. At the same time, however, the number of data points from NL that are unique to my base also spikes. State officials weren’t capturing the increase, despite the fact that it was highly public, widely reported, and came at the time of the state’s greatest control over the dissemination of these messages. It almost looks like this surge in messages is being kept out of the government data, so anomalous is the discrepancy.

Overall, the comparison shows that I have a lot of work still to do. My database can stand to grow a lot, and to add much richer data – I want as many of those message transcriptions as possible. The comparison also shows, however, that the CIDE database is less perfect than expected. I had assumed that this base would capture pretty much every message displayed, but clearly there are limits to even this expansive collection.

The deaths behind the data

I had not thought death had undone so many.


For the first three months of my field research, I pored over online newspaper archives, adding data to a growing spreadsheet of narco-messages (narcomensajes or narcomantas). I developed a habit, and spent two hours almost every morning adding data points, before returning for at least another hour in the afternoon. Having located a few excellent sources of data, this routine saw the database grow and grow. This type of research isn’t exactly glamorous; there are no sudden revelations, just the slow and steady agglomeration of stories, trends and patterns.

The online archives of the magazine Proceso must have yielded close to one thousand entries for the database, and as I sorted these into the spreadsheet, it was encouraging to see a lot of concurrence across sources. Once I had finished with the swell of data from Proceso, I switched to Noroeste – a newspaper local to Sinaloa state, with a big reputation for courageous reporting. I wondered if there would be many new data points to find. The local focus of Noroeste, in fact, brought many more new data points. There has been a lot of violence, and accompanying messages, in Sinaloa – enough that other papers don’t bother to report on most of it. What had looked like a relatively complete database, with multiple confirming sources for many points, was suddenly studded with new events. The spreadsheet grew longer and longer, until it reached 4,000 messages.

Noroeste is by no means the biggest contributor to my database, but it was among the new data points from Sinaloa state that I began to feel daunted by the magnitude of the thing (whatever it is) that I am trying to study. Not just the messages themselves, but also and especially the violence, the dead to whom these messages often refer.

In the early days of charting out this project, a number of professors warned me about the confronting nature of the material that I would be dealing with. They were referring, by and large, to sites such as El Blog del Narco, which publish images of crime scenes, and violent videos filmed by gangs. It turns out, however, that these sites aren’t great sources for my database, largely because they don’t maintain readily searchable archives, and often don’t report contextual details of messages. Instead, I have been trawling newspaper archives that generally contain only the text (and not the gorey accompanying images) of reporting. Nevertheless, by the time I started working on the Noroeste archive, the feeling was strong: of the relentlessness of the violence that I am studying. Of how quickly the dead become anonymous, mere asides in newspaper articles, mere numbers in my spreadsheet. Of how fast those numbers multiply.

And lurking behind the tallies of the dead that do make it into my database, and the threats of more killing to come that are contained in some messages, is a more disturbing reality still: the vast majority of the victims of violence are not found with a message, if they are found at all.

Narco-messages in Mexico City

About two weeks before I moved to Mexico City to start my field research, a narco-message appeared over a major street in the city. This was a big deal; while thousands of these messages have appeared in cities and towns throughout the country, Mexico City is one of those places in which messages are regarded as a rarity. For me it was intriguing; I was moving to Mexico to study narco-messages, but I wasn’t expecting to be anywhere near the actual messages. I wanted to be in the city to be closer to academics and journalists. I have no interest in chasing down narco-messages, but I do want to speak to the people that do.

As I progress with my research, however, it becomes obvious that narco-messages in the capital aren’t so unusual. Indeed, the more remarkable point might be how short our memories are, when it comes to these messages. In the article linked above, Proceso – one of the more reliable reporters of messages – mentions only one prior case. So far, in the years between 2006 and 2013, I have found about 35 cases of messages left in the city – more than that, if you factor in that sometimes clusters of messages are displayed at the same time. Some of these messages should be difficult to forget.

In 2007, a narco-message and an unexploded grenade were left in the Miguel Ángel de Quevedo metro station, between the hip neighbourhoods of Coyoacán and San Ángel (the area around the station is a gold mine for book stores). Narco-messages were still a relatively uncommon occurrence in 2007, but already it was clear that few parts of the capital would be off-limits to such threats.

In 2011, and as part of larger campaign across the metropolitan area, a group known as the Hand with Eyes left five messages within the city proper. The group became something of a fascination in the media, owing to its mysterious, cult-like branding, and its distinctive pattern of decapitating victims, and then leaving a message in which the headless victim was named.

In 2013, a suitcase containing the corpse of a woman and a narco-message was found in the San Antonio metro station. This station is close to the centre of the city, and surveillance cameras revealed that the man carrying the suitcase had boarded a train in the outskirts of the city, carrying it all the way the centre, before leaving it to be found.

Given such cases, why do I and many others still act as if narco-messages within the city are somehow exceptional?

I suspect a part of this might be highly effective discourse promoted by Miguel Ángel Mancera, who was the mayor of Mexico City from 2012 until recently. Mancera took an aggressive stance of denial regarding crime in the capital. Not that there wasn’t any, but that it was among street gangs and petty delinquents. It was the “narco” part of narco-messages that Mancera denied, with the logic that there were no narcos in the city, so how could there be narco-messages, or narco-violence, or narco-anything. A discourse of exceptionalism:  the narcos might be elsewhere, but they aren’t here.

Francisco Goldman traces out an example of Mancera’s strategy, and this exceptional discourse, in his book The Interior Circuit. As Goldman points out, this strategy shares a lot with that of president Peña Nieto (also 2012-2018), even though president and mayor come from rival parties.

I assumed that basing myself in Mexico City would mean studying narco-messages at some distance, and while I am in no hurry to go looking for any message here, even this idea of distance plays into the discourse of the exceptional capital. This city is less removed from the rest of the country than we might want to believe.

The perfect source, and its difficulties

A core part of my research involves the collection of data on the narcomensajes that have been appearing in Mexico since about 2006. Ideally, that data includes information about where and when the messages appear, contextual information such as whether the messages appear at a crime scene, and a full transcription of each message. There are numerous sources from which I can draw for the data collection, from national magazines, to local papers, to social media sites and narco blogs. The difficulty of data collection is not with the volume of sources, but with finding sources that can do what I need them to do: that are reliably searchable, have comprehensive archives, and that report the level of detail that I am looking for.

When I first started this project, conducting a preliminary investigation and working with the sources that I knew best, it would take me at least an hour to collect data on ten messages.

Before returning to my research this semester, I conducted a more comprehensive survey of media sources. This is how I found El Norte, a paper based in Monterrey, and part of the Reforma group of publications. El Norte had it all: an archive that dates back to 2006, a reliable search function, stories that cover all of Mexico, and reporting that includes all of the details that I am searching for (plus a lot more), presented in a succinct style. I had found close to my perfect source. When I started searching, I added about 30 data points in an hour.

Narcomensajes began appearing in Mexico in 2006, but at the time were a rare occurrence. With each passing year, however, the messages became more frequent. Searching the El Norte database, I could see certain patterns appear and disappear within the larger trend of messages, and I could watch certain cities or municipalities – Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, Acapulco, Cuernavaca – being festooned with messages.

But then, searching the archives for the year 2011, that began to change. The violence that had mostly occurred in other parts of the country came to Monterrey and its surrounding municipalities.

El Norte was now reporting on violence taking place in the streets and neighbourhoods – sometimes literally on the doorsteps – of its core readership. The content of the newspaper articles began to change. Less transcriptions of messages were printed, and in their place vague allusions and paraphrasing were offered. Usually this amounted to generic lines such as “the message spoke of rivalry between criminal groups.” Reading between the lines, it is not hard to see that the paper was facing state pressure not to transmit the message of purported criminal groups. Very likely, the paper also faced pressure from rival criminal groups.

The reporting in El Norte also becomes much less outward looking at this time. Instead of setting the scene with the state and municipality within which a message appeared, stories start with a cross street or local landmark in greater Monterrey. For local readers, such detail provide a crucial sense of certainty, a better grasp of exactly what is happening around them. For the very distance researcher, unfortunately it means more searching for less results.

Even with this shift, El Norte has proven an invaluable source for my research. Thanks to the paper, and the efforts of its staff, I am going to have a halfway decent database. The difficulties encountered by the paper are also a reminder of just how dynamic of a research topic violence is. Violence can’t be reduced to an input or output. It changes everything it touches. That includes academics; we may be more removed than our sources, but we need to reflect on what we’re doing, and what our research is doing to us.