Book Project

Criminal Communication: The Messaging, Marketing, and Murder of Organized Crime

I talked to the Urban Violence Research Network about this project. I’ll post the link here once the video is available.

Criminal actors are widely assumed to maintain a low profile, exerting power through corruption, coercion, and clandestine networks. Scholarship that addresses public action on the part of criminal actors focuses almost exclusively on acts of violence. However, an ample empirical record demonstrates that criminal actors also communicate publicly to broad audiences. To better understand this practice, this project focuses on the phenomenon of narco-messaging in Mexico. The project asks: what do criminal actors say when they speak publicly, and why do they say it?

The core data for this project comes from an original collection of 6,178 narco-messages that appeared in Mexico between 2004 and 2013. By manually coding thousands of message transcriptions, the project identifies three consistent patterns of claim-making: territorial, normative, and political claims. This data is supplemented by semi-structured interviews, media reports, and homicide figures.

The project argues that criminal communication occurs in contexts of transition or uncertainty, and identifies three specific strategic contexts. Establishing control involves the creation of a new regime of criminal governance. Disputing control occurs when an existing regime of governance is destabilized and rivals aim to assert control. Entrenching control is a surprising context in which a dominant criminal actor breaks silence to speak publicly. This occurs in response to transition or uncertainty beyond the criminal actor’s field of influence.

Combining these claims and contexts, the project argues that criminal communication follows a marketing logic operating within an ideological constraint. A marketing logic is more adaptable than other approaches to asserting control, allowing criminal actors to brand and rebrand quickly, and to claim to provide long-term order even when operating on short time horizons. However, there are clear limits on what criminal actors will say; a consistent ideology emerges across campaigns of narco-messages by different actors. This ideology emphasizes the local and parochial, positioning criminal actors as a viable, extralegal alternative to the distant state. This theory of criminal communication raises difficult questions about the risks and costs associated with silencing criminal actors.