Dissertation Project: Criminal Communication and the Public Sphere

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.   

Killing in the Passive Voice

From 2004 onwards, written messages started to appear at the scenes of public acts of violence in Mexico. A rich literature examines the communicative aspects of violence, but these messages suggest that there is some limit to what can be communicated by violence itself. I argue that such messages provide a means to shape interpretation and to fix the meaning of acts of violence.

This chapter thus asks, what type of meaning do these messages ascribe to acts of violence? The chapter addresses this questions through analysis of patterns of language usage in the message database. It finds that messages use several recurring linguistic devices to claim the legitimacy of the act of violence, by situating violence within an intelligible order. This shifts agency away from perpetrators – who merely conform to the order – and onto the victims, who are cast as violating that order. The analysis furthermore demonstrates that in Mexico, legitimation of violence draws on long local traditions of vigilantism, and wider regional legacies of paramilitarism and social cleansing.

These findings suggest that local legitimacy for armed groups is less a matter of how violence is used, and more a matter of how violence is understood. Armed groups recognize this, and so utilize a range of tactics aimed at public engagement and persuasion.

I will present a draft of this chapter at APSA 2019 in Washington DC, and at the Conflict Research Society annual conference in Brighton.

The Crime-State Terror Nexus

Have criminal groups in Mexico been learning terror tactics from terrorist networks in other parts of the world, like al Qaeda or ISIS? Arguments about such transmission of tactics appear frequently, but are usually based on a loose correspondence in the use of horrifying violence by seemingly very different, very distant groups.  

In this study, I argue that we should focus instead on the definite, precisely traceable links between crime and state terror. Well documented connections exist between criminal groups in Mexico, and military units known for their use of terror tactics during counterinsurgency campaigns. In some cases, we can trace the transmission of terror tactics down to the level of the individual recruits that trained with military units and then joined criminal groups.

I trace out these connections through a case study of the Zetas. The Zetas are not just a notable case; they are the critical case that began the practice of actively appropriating practices of (and reputations for) state terror into criminal groups.