Narcommunication: The Marketing and Messaging of Organized Crime

In the years following the end of single-party rule in Mexico, criminal groups that had kept a low profile for decades began to advertise themselves through public communications, going to considerable lengths to ensure that these “narco-messages” generated media attention and made headlines. Research on organized crime emphasizes that the power of criminal groups lies in dense, often clandestine social networks within limited territories. When criminal actors communicate, they limit their audience by using discreet or coded media. Practices of public communication to broad audiences would seem to offer few benefits to criminal actors.

To better understand variation in criminal communication, this project asks several questions. What do criminal actors say when they speak publicly? What meanings are conveyed by this public speech? What implications does this public communication have for civil society and the public sphere?

During 10 months of field research in Mexico, I assembled an original collection of over 6,000 narco-messages that appeared between 2004 and 2013. I manually coded these messages to identify patterns in the claims that criminal actors make in their public communications. I supplemented this analysis by conducting interviews with journalists and other public figured.

I find that three main types of claims recur across public communication by criminal groups: territorial claims, normative claims, and political claims. Each of these types of claims targets a different set of social relations, with the aim of shifting and settling these relations in ways that benefit the criminal actor. Territorial claims target relations between criminal actors and civil society. Normative claims target relations between different criminal actors. Political claims target relations between criminal actors and state actors. These claims portray criminal actors as legitimate extralegal actors that represent and protect society, but I find that they also produce alternative meanings. Rather than stabilizing and establishing the authority of any one criminal actor, public communication generates uncertainty and fear, undermining existing order.