Narcommunication: The Marketing and Messaging of Organized Crime in Mexico (Dissertation project)

Scholarship on organized crime generally expects that criminal groups will maintain a low public profile, preferring to wield influence through subtle and often intimate connections. High profile violence or other activity on the part of criminal groups is usually associated with brief campaigns of intensive lobbying against specific state policies – Pablo Escobar’s campaign to change Colombian extradition policy is a well-known example of this.

From about 2004 onwards, criminal groups in Mexico began to buck this expectation by publicly displaying written messages, often doing so strategically to maximize media exposure. Why would criminal groups, some of which had kept a low profile for decades, suddenly begin to court the media, to draw attention to themselves, and to speak publicly through these messages? What effects does this change in criminal strategy have on the emergent public sphere? And are the liberalizing processes that opened up the public sphere around this time also connected to this change in strategy?

To thoroughly examine these questions, my dissertation project undertakes a thorough examination of criminal communication, and of the phenomenon of “narco-messages” in Mexico. I use primarily ethnographic methods and discourse analysis to examine how criminal communication operates, and to what social effects.

I have spent close to a year collecting data in Mexico, since my first research trip in the summer of 2017. During this time, I assembled a database of about 6,100 narco-messages, covering the period from 2004 to 2013. I have also collected reams of other media material as part of a “print ethnography” of newspaper production and circulation. In 2019, I conducted a case study of the city of Cuernavaca, interviewing journalists and other public figures there. I supplemented these with further interviews with journalists, activists and state officials in Mexico City.   

The Crime and State Terrorism Nexus: How Organized Crime Appropriates Counterinsurgency Violence

Perspectives on Terrorism 13, 6. 2019. Click the title to read the article. Perspectives on Terrorism is an open access journal.

Studies on the connections between organized crime and terrorism tend to focus on non-state armed groups, and on the convergence of violent tactics. This article demonstrates that such a focus can overlook well-documented connections between state terrorism and organized crime. Particularly in post-Cold War Latin America, criminal groups recruit violence specialists from military and paramilitary units with histories of using indiscriminate violence and other forms of terrorism during counterinsurgency campaigns. Through this recruitment process, tactics of state terrorism are appropriated into the repertoires of criminal groups.

This article demonstrates this process with a case study of the Zetas in Mexico, which was the first group in the country to actively recruit soldiers with counterinsurgency training. By doing so, the group caused a paradigm shift in criminal operations in the country, leading to the widespread adoption of terrorist tactics. This case study highlights the need for scholars of terrorism and organized crime to bring state terrorism back in, and to more thoroughly examine the points of contact between state and non-state terrorism.