Dissertation Project

As Mexico transitioned to a more open democracy in the early 2000s, criminal groups that had kept a low profile for decades began to aggressively advertise themselves. This shift in strategy is usually examined in terms of the frequency and visibility of violence, but violence is only one tool in the criminal repertoire. To fully comprehend the way insecurity can permeate throughout public life, scholars need a richer account of the ways in which criminal groups influence society. My project focuses on written communication publicly displayed by criminal groups. “Narco-messages” began to appear in 2004, and have since been displayed throughout Mexico. I argue that narco-messages follow a different strategic logic to other public acts by criminal groups. Language creates narrative and meaning, and criminal groups use this ability to (attempt to) impose their authority over society. I ask two research questions. First, why do narco-messages appear when and where they do? Second, what type of influence do narco-messages exert over society? Overall, I find that previously reclusive criminal groups responded to the democratic opening by using narco-messages to impose their influence over, and ultimately to undermine, the public sphere. In developing this argument, the project draws upon two main sources of data. One is a database of 6,180 narco-messages that appeared in Mexico between 2004 and 2013. I compiled this database during field research in 2017 and 2018. The other data come from interviews and ethnographic field work, which I will continue to collect in early 2019.

Killing in the Passive Voice

From 2004 onwards, written messages started to appear at the scenes of public acts of violence in Mexico. A rich literature examines the communicative aspects of violence, but these messages suggest that there is some limit to what can be communicated by violence itself. I argue that such messages provide a means to shape interpretation and to fix the meaning of acts of violence.

This chapter thus asks, what type of meaning do these messages ascribe to acts of violence? The chapter addresses this questions through analysis of patterns of language usage in the message database. It finds that messages use several recurring linguistic devices to claim the legitimacy of the act of violence, by situating violence within an intelligible order. This shifts agency away from perpetrators – who merely conform to the order – and onto the victims, who are cast as violating that order. The analysis furthermore demonstrates that in Mexico, legitimation of violence draws on long local traditions of vigilantism, and wider regional legacies of paramilitarism and social cleansing.

These findings suggest that local legitimacy for armed groups is less a matter of how violence is used, and more a matter of how violence is understood. Armed groups recognize this, and so utilize a range of tactics aimed at public engagement and persuasion.

I will present a draft of this chapter at APSA 2019 in Washington DC, and at the Conflict Research Society annual conference in Brighton.

The Crime-State Terror Nexus

Have criminal groups in Mexico been learning terror tactics from terrorist networks in other parts of the world, like al Qaeda or ISIS? Arguments about such transmission of tactics appear frequently, but are usually based on a loose correspondence in the use of horrifying violence by seemingly very different, very distant groups.  

In this study, I argue that we should focus instead on the definite, precisely traceable links between crime and state terror. Well documented connections exist between criminal groups in Mexico, and military units known for their use of terror tactics during counterinsurgency campaigns. In some cases, we can trace the transmission of terror tactics down to the level of the individual recruits that trained with military units and then joined criminal groups.

I trace out these connections through a case study of the Zetas. The Zetas are not just a notable case; they are the critical case that began the practice of actively appropriating practices of (and reputations for) state terror into criminal groups.