Dissertation Project

Narco-Messages, Criminal Influence, and Citizen Insecurity in Mexico

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.

Working Papers

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

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 organizational factors lead criminal groups to pursue a strategy of sustained indiscriminate violence? 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 – incorporating a new, rigorous approach to analysis of narco-messages attributed to the group – demonstrates the mechanism in action, and highlights the complex connections between crime and the state.

Can the Cartel Speak? Reading Mexican Narco-Messages as Speech Acts (in development)

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.