Dissertation Project

Message in a Battle: Contesting Territory and Controlling Local Populations Through Narco-Messages

Working Papers

From the Cuartel to the Cartel: Linking Military Origins to Violent Outcomes for Criminal Groups (submitted, under review)

In 2010, the Zetas criminal organization massacred 72 undocumented migrants in Mexico. The Zetas are notorious for their use of indiscriminate violence, yet such behaviour from a criminal group is puzzling, because it offers little economic gain, but risks costly delegitimisation. This study asks: what mechanisms lead armed groups with a primarily economic purpose to pursue a strategy of indiscriminate violence, when opportunities to moderate the use of violence exist? The study argues that groups that first mobilize out of military institutions such as barracks (cuartel in Spanish) generally combine a high capacity for violence with a low capacity for social integration. This primes the group to utilize indiscriminate violence, and to focus on manipulating public perception of that violence instead of moderating its overall use. A case study of the Zetas – utilising primary and secondary documents, including narco-messages attributed to the group – demonstrates the mechanism in action.

Can the Cartel Speak? Reading Mexican Narco-Messages as Speech Acts

A recent body of critical scholarship on Mexico argues that the image of mighty drug cartels threatening to overthrow the state is largely a creation of that same state, with little basis in reality. This scholarship argues that violence in Mexico is perpetrated by a diverse mix of smaller criminal groups and state agencies, but that – to quote the title of a recent book – the cartels do not exist. In a definitional sense this is true, but it overlooks the reality on the ground in Mexico, where thousands of narco-messages supposedly authored by cartels have appeared in public. This paper reads such narco-messages as speech acts, which speak (or write) the cartels into existence. Notorious entities such as the Sinaloa Cartel might not exist as monolithic institutions, but through narco-messages, the names and histories of these cartels continue to appear and to exert a powerful influence within society. The paper demonstrates this argument through analysis of a collection of over 6,000 narco-messages that appeared in Mexico between 2004 and 2013. It then focuses on the first major narco-message campaign, in which a criminal group named La Familia Michoacana wrote itself into existence in 2006. Overall, this paper contributes a more nuanced understanding of the social reality of crime and security discourse in Mexico, as well as a conceptual note on the difference between academic categories and realities on the ground.

Returning to the Battlefield for the First Time: Discipline and Recidivism at Guantánamo Bay