Digging into the nota roja

When I am out and about during field research, I invariably have a roll of papers under my arm. If I don’t have a roll of papers, it is only because I’m en route to raid one of the local newsstands. The roll of papers is usually a mix of weekly or monthly political magazines, and daily newspapers and tabloids – the mags and the rags.

I started poring over the mags and the rags to get a feel for the media landscape and style of reporting in Mexico. Media archives were my main source, in putting together a database of narco-messages, so I wanted some context for the sources I was using. Over time, however, digging into the papers has become its own activity. In this I have been inspired by ethnographers like Lisa Wedeen, who talk about coming back from the field with boxes of material to continue picking through. I’ve never kept track of how much of this material I work through, but on this current trip, I am spending at least an hour a day in the mags and rags.

This time around, I arrived with a different priority for this print ethnography (or whatever we’re going to call it). On past trips, I dipped into the nota roja – the notorious tabloid papers that show graphic photos of crime scenes on their front covers. I quickly learned not to open these over lunch, and made a point of not picking up these rags more than once or twice per week. This time around, however, I decided I was missing something important by not digging deeper into the nota roja. So I have started picking up Extra, one of Cuernavaca’s local rags, every day (despite the protestations of the vendor at my local newsstand).

Why focus on these pages full of blood and violence (and football)? In previous interviews with journalists, I heard that Extra is less dependent on the government than most local papers. Extra has a huge circulation; it funds itself. A lot of the other papers depend on government funding through purchase of advertising space and similar, in order to stay in circulation. I already knew that the nota roja published material that other papers didn’t, but it was through the interviews that I realized Extra publishes material that others cannot, rather than just what they will not.

A second reason arose while I was reading Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds. Pachirat argues against the idea that if we could only see violence or injustice, we would turn against and reject it. He sees a more complex tension; our disgust or outrage are only sustained by distance from an objectionable thing. With proximity and familiarity, we lose our ability to be shocked. In the case of his work on slaughterhouses, Pachirat doesn’t think a more open or transparent meat industry will lead to mass conversion to vegetarianism. Or even to much complaint with industrialized killing. This got me thinking; the nota roja brings exposure to violence to anyone passing by a newsstand. Have I underestimated the desensitizing, normalizing effect of rags like Extra.

Finally, not long before I returned to Mexico, the arresting image of Óscar and Valeria Martínez, drowned on the U.S.-Mexico border, was reproduced again and again across media outlets and feeds. Outraged commentary claimed that such an image would force action, that finally people would see the truth about U.S. migration policy. Other commentary noted the limits to the galvanizing force of such images, and that the circulation of the image could be more dehumanizing than compassion-provoking.

So this is one of my current research missions. Read the nota roja every damn day (but never over lunch). Don’t try to exclude it from my study of the media as something grotesque but unimportant. Don’t pretend to understand violence without looking carefully at one of the primary ways that violence is mediated and circulated here.

Uuuurgh.

The deaths behind the data

I had not thought death had undone so many.

T.S.Eliot

For the first three months of my field research, I pored over online newspaper archives, adding data to a growing spreadsheet of narco-messages (narcomensajes or narcomantas). I developed a habit, and spent two hours almost every morning adding data points, before returning for at least another hour in the afternoon. Having located a few excellent sources of data, this routine saw the database grow and grow. This type of research isn’t exactly glamorous; there are no sudden revelations, just the slow and steady agglomeration of stories, trends and patterns.

The online archives of the magazine Proceso must have yielded close to one thousand entries for the database, and as I sorted these into the spreadsheet, it was encouraging to see a lot of concurrence across sources. Once I had finished with the swell of data from Proceso, I switched to Noroeste – a newspaper local to Sinaloa state, with a big reputation for courageous reporting. I wondered if there would be many new data points to find. The local focus of Noroeste, in fact, brought many more new data points. There has been a lot of violence, and accompanying messages, in Sinaloa – enough that other papers don’t bother to report on most of it. What had looked like a relatively complete database, with multiple confirming sources for many points, was suddenly studded with new events. The spreadsheet grew longer and longer, until it reached 4,000 messages.

Noroeste is by no means the biggest contributor to my database, but it was among the new data points from Sinaloa state that I began to feel daunted by the magnitude of the thing (whatever it is) that I am trying to study. Not just the messages themselves, but also and especially the violence, the dead to whom these messages often refer.

In the early days of charting out this project, a number of professors warned me about the confronting nature of the material that I would be dealing with. They were referring, by and large, to sites such as El Blog del Narco, which publish images of crime scenes, and violent videos filmed by gangs. It turns out, however, that these sites aren’t great sources for my database, largely because they don’t maintain readily searchable archives, and often don’t report contextual details of messages. Instead, I have been trawling newspaper archives that generally contain only the text (and not the gorey accompanying images) of reporting. Nevertheless, by the time I started working on the Noroeste archive, the feeling was strong: of the relentlessness of the violence that I am studying. Of how quickly the dead become anonymous, mere asides in newspaper articles, mere numbers in my spreadsheet. Of how fast those numbers multiply.

And lurking behind the tallies of the dead that do make it into my database, and the threats of more killing to come that are contained in some messages, is a more disturbing reality still: the vast majority of the victims of violence are not found with a message, if they are found at all.

The perfect source, and its difficulties

A core part of my research involves the collection of data on the narcomensajes that have been appearing in Mexico since about 2006. Ideally, that data includes information about where and when the messages appear, contextual information such as whether the messages appear at a crime scene, and a full transcription of each message. There are numerous sources from which I can draw for the data collection, from national magazines, to local papers, to social media sites and narco blogs. The difficulty of data collection is not with the volume of sources, but with finding sources that can do what I need them to do: that are reliably searchable, have comprehensive archives, and that report the level of detail that I am looking for.

When I first started this project, conducting a preliminary investigation and working with the sources that I knew best, it would take me at least an hour to collect data on ten messages.

Before returning to my research this semester, I conducted a more comprehensive survey of media sources. This is how I found El Norte, a paper based in Monterrey, and part of the Reforma group of publications. El Norte had it all: an archive that dates back to 2006, a reliable search function, stories that cover all of Mexico, and reporting that includes all of the details that I am searching for (plus a lot more), presented in a succinct style. I had found close to my perfect source. When I started searching, I added about 30 data points in an hour.

Narcomensajes began appearing in Mexico in 2006, but at the time were a rare occurrence. With each passing year, however, the messages became more frequent. Searching the El Norte database, I could see certain patterns appear and disappear within the larger trend of messages, and I could watch certain cities or municipalities – Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, Acapulco, Cuernavaca – being festooned with messages.

But then, searching the archives for the year 2011, that began to change. The violence that had mostly occurred in other parts of the country came to Monterrey and its surrounding municipalities.

El Norte was now reporting on violence taking place in the streets and neighbourhoods – sometimes literally on the doorsteps – of its core readership. The content of the newspaper articles began to change. Less transcriptions of messages were printed, and in their place vague allusions and paraphrasing were offered. Usually this amounted to generic lines such as “the message spoke of rivalry between criminal groups.” Reading between the lines, it is not hard to see that the paper was facing state pressure not to transmit the message of purported criminal groups. Very likely, the paper also faced pressure from rival criminal groups.

The reporting in El Norte also becomes much less outward looking at this time. Instead of setting the scene with the state and municipality within which a message appeared, stories start with a cross street or local landmark in greater Monterrey. For local readers, such detail provide a crucial sense of certainty, a better grasp of exactly what is happening around them. For the very distance researcher, unfortunately it means more searching for less results.

Even with this shift, El Norte has proven an invaluable source for my research. Thanks to the paper, and the efforts of its staff, I am going to have a halfway decent database. The difficulties encountered by the paper are also a reminder of just how dynamic of a research topic violence is. Violence can’t be reduced to an input or output. It changes everything it touches. That includes academics; we may be more removed than our sources, but we need to reflect on what we’re doing, and what our research is doing to us.