Book Project

Narcotization: The Messaging, Marketing, and Making of Organized Crime

My book project, entitled Narcotization: The Messaging, Marketing, and Making of Organized Crime, asks: why do criminal actors communicate publicly, despite the costs of doing so? Public communication by criminal actors occurs in numerous settings, but I focus on “narco-messaging,” a distinctive style of written messaging that is frequent and infamous in Mexico. This generates a follow-up question: why did public communication by criminal actors in Mexico spread just as a newly elected government declared war on narcotrafficking?

The book advances a two-pronged theory. First, I identify three distinct communication strategies: establishing, disputing, or fortifying regimes of territorial control. In communicating publicly, criminal actors switch rapidly between these strategies. Public communication thus offers criminal actors a versatile means of marketing themselves. Second, I argue that the war on narcotrafficking provided a platform for criminal actors to market themselves as dangerous, but also as more appealing than their state and criminal rivals. I call this “narcotization,” turning clandestine criminal actors into sensationalized public figures.

Narcotization offers novel contributions to several scholarly conversations. First, my findings challenge conventional expectations about the behavior of criminal actors. Public communication and the manipulation of public opinion are important but overlooked tools in the repertoires of these actors. Second, my argument demonstrates that conceptions of non-state governance – by criminal or rebel groups – must include communication and marketing from the outset. While the scholarly focus is often on the monopolization of violence, these actors invest in communication strategies throughout their governance projects – and sometimes as an alternative to violence. Finally, the study rethinks theories of securitization and emergency rule. While state actors formally declare an emergency, outlawed actors also exercise considerable agency in determining how security crises unfold and are understood. This bears particular importance in democratizing and democratic contexts, as an open public sphere affords more space for dissenting speech to challenge official authority.

Research for this project involved field work and extensive online archival work. I spent one year in Mexico conducting interviews and media analysis in Spanish. This built upon prior experience living in Mexico, which provided the initial motivation for the project. I also compiled an original dataset of about 6,200 narco-messages. This is the most extensive collection of narco-message data. During the summer of 2022, I worked with assistants to complete follow-up research. This extended the dataset to cover the period from 1999 to 2013. With this expanded data, I trace the earliest emergence and spread of criminal communication in Mexico. My book will be the first study to document this process.

I talked to the Urban Violence Research Network about my research on narco-messages. View the video here.