Narcommunication: The Messaging, Marketing, and Murder of Organized Crime

My dissertation, entitled “Narcommunication: The Messaging, Marketing, and Murder of Organized Crime,” asks why criminal actors communicate publicly to broad audiences. Most research expects organized crime to maintain a low profile, communicating through coded signals and intimate connections. Yet criminal actors often communicate publicly, whether through newspaper ads, social media posts, press conferences, or murals and graffiti. In Mexico, organized crime remained largely clandestine across decades of single-party rule, before turning to public speech in the years following democratization. A growing body of research examines high profile activity by criminal actors, but focuses primarily on public violence. This research rarely distinguishes between violence and other ways of communicating a message.

To understand why criminal actors communicate publicly, I contend that we need to address what they say, and what they affect by saying it. Taking the practice of “narco-messaging” in Mexico as my focus, I show that organized crime uses public speech to make three types of claims – territorial, normative, and political – each of which exerts a distinct influence over democratic politics or society. Territorial claims define and assert control over a constituency. Normative claims articulate and impose a social order with clear rules. Political claims lobby for government action. Whether or not claims are accompanied by violence further shapes the meaning and influence of communication. Public communication with violence emphasizes fear and coercion, while communication without violence emphasizes restraint.

I assembled the data for this project over ten months of field work in Mexico. During this research, I collected data on 6,180 narco-messages displayed publicly between 2004 and 2013. This is the largest existing collection of narco-message data, and the first to identify the origin of the practice. In addition, I conducted interviews with journalists, government officials, and civil society figures. To build a theory of criminal communication, I manually coded every message in my collection. Having identified hundreds of codes, I inductively categorized these into broad types of claims, using interviews to validate my interpretations. I use case studies to demonstrate the social and political influence produced by each type of claim.

This project makes several contributions to interdisciplinary knowledge. First, my theory challenges any hard distinction between crime, politics, and society. The power of criminal actors resides not only in their ability to generate illicit revenue or deploy violence, but also in their capacity to persuade the public and lobby the government. I find that criminal actors make similar claims to “civil” social and political actors, and take advantage of the same opportunities – such as increased press freedom and new technologies – to broadcast these claims.

Second, I demonstrate that violence is part of a wider repertoire of communicative action. Speech and violence combine in different configurations: criminal actors sometimes kill publicly, sometimes speak publicly, sometimes do both, and sometimes remain entirely clandestine. These different configurations show that violence does not always speak for itself, and that violence is often more persuasive or coercive when combined with other messaging.

Finally, I highlight a policy challenge. Security policy that forcefully silences organized crime also legitimizes censorship and repression. Such action might drive criminal actors back to hidden communication, but this approach does more damage to the public sphere than to crime. Organized crime can thrive perfectly well under a repressive state. I argue that security policy should emphasize credible counter-messaging, and protection for democratic institutions such as a free press. In Mexico, this must include ending impunity for violence against journalists.