A narco-list of narco-fied narco-words

Last year, I assembled a database of narco-messages. Towards the end of this process, while I was poring over articles from a Guadalajara-based newspaper, I decided to keep track of the narco-fied terms that I came across. These articles were from the early years of the war on narco-trafficking (which started in December 2006), when it seemed like everything was being narco-fied.

Most of these narco-fications didn’t recur with any regularity; they were tested out, but didn’t become regular parlance. I kept track of the terms more for the range of terms than for their repetition. Narcomensaje or narco-message did, however, become a standard term, along with the closely related narcomanta (narco-blanket or narco-banner). There are a lot of forms that a message can take, but a narco-message has a characteristic form: mainly black text with some red letters or words for accent; orthographic errors and/or colloquial expressions; text printed on a portable, removable surface. This form helped settle the name, but the name also helped fix the form.

I kept this list out of sense of the absurdity of this trend of narco-fying the world, but this process also does work in the world. It changes perceptions and shapes understanding. Adding narco- to the front of words like this creates the idea of a totally separate narco-world; an underworld in which everything in the non-criminal world has its glamorous, dangerous, narco double. It inflates the threat of the “narco,” while at the same time setting it elsewhere.

In part, this list is absurd to me because there is no separate world; crime and all things narco are very much a part of this world. Crime is not the product of some different or distant underworld, it is the result of processes and practices taking place here and now, in the society that is our society, in the world that is our world.

  • Narco-agent
  • Narco-assassination
  • Narco-associate
  • Narco-band
  • Narco-bandit
  • Narco-blockade
  • Narco-bride
  • Narco-broker
  • Narco-campaign
  • Narco-canvas
  • Narco-cell
  • Narco-charge (as in toll or fee)
  • Narco-commando
  • Narco-connection
  • Narco-convoy
  • Narco-covering
  • Narco-crime
  • Narco-dialogue
  • Narco-dispatch
  • Narco-dispute
  • Narco-dollar
  • Narco-emissary
  • Narco-execution
  • Narco-government
  • Narco-grave
  • Narco-gunman
  • Narco-house
  • Narco-judge
  • Narco-junior
  • Narco-laboratory
  • Narco-message (another way of saying this; one way is not enough)
  • Narco-minstrel
  • Narco-official
  • Narco-pact
  • Narco-paramilitary
  • Narco-party
  • Narco-pilgrimmage
  • Narco-police
  • Narco-politics
  • Narco-postmodernity (because one prefix is never enough)
  • Narco-ranch
  • Narco-refuge
  • Narco-relative (as in familial relations)
  • Narco-shootout
  • Narco-shrapnel
  • Narco-star (like the star shape, yep)
  • Narco-summit
  • Narco-tailoring
  • Narco-text
  • Narco-video
  • Narco-war
  • Narco-warning
  • Narco-zone

Violence as a message / Violence plus a message

I study a phenomenon that, according to the prevailing paradigm in scholarship on violence, really shouldn’t exist. The huge volume of work that seeks to identify logics underpinning seemingly random or inexplicably brutal acts of violence very often explain these excesses in terms of their communicative value. Perpetrating violence is a costly signal; perpetrating grotesquely brutal violence is a costlier signal; perpetrating self-destructive violence is the costliest signal of all. Underlying all of this is the idea that the more extreme the violence, the clearer the message that it sends.

Reading De Leon’s fantastic book, The Land of Open Graves, I stumbled upon a particularly striking formulation of this paradigm…

You don’t have to speak Spanish to understand the message intended when someone rolls a bag of severed heads onto the dance floor in a Michoacán nightclub: “Do not test us, because our violence knows no bounds.”

There is a common formula within this passage: violence speaks louder than words. You don’t need to speak Spanish, because the meaning of brutal violence is common sense. Violence is unambiguous, it speaks for itself.

The striking thing about this quote is that, in the event that De Leon mentions, the violence was accompanied by a written message (one that you would have to speak at least some Spanish to understand). The message carries a similarly threatening tone to the one that De Leon assumes, but the content of the written message is very different…

The family doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocents. Only those that deserve to die will. All the people should know: this is divine justice.

Contrary to De Leon’s interpretation, the people that rolled five severed heads onto a dance floor wanted to send a message that their violence actually does know some clearly-specified bounds.

This phenomenon – displaying written messages in addition to violence, sometimes displaying written messages instead of violence – suggests that there is a limit to the prevailing scholarly paradigm. If violence usually speaks for itself, under some conditions it ceases to do so. These conditions began to obtain in Mexico in 2004, as narco-messages first appeared in the northeast of the country.

It could also be that violence just doesn’t speak for itself. Arendt thought violence was a sort of antithesis to language and meaning. Thinking along this line, perhaps scholars of violence have mistaken the fact that violence almost always has an effect, for the assumption that violence sends a clear message. The former possibility emphasises that people almost inevitably react to and try to understand violence. The latter possibility assumes that violence accurately transmits some intention on the part of the perpetrator.

Whether violence has a fundamental meaning and sometimes loses it, or whether violence always degrades meaning, as scholars we need to be careful not to speak on behalf of perpetrators or victims, when we claim that violence speaks for itself. We should probably always be suspicious of claims that anything is self-evident, even if that makes it harder for us to find the logic or instrumentality in brutal violence. In the case of narco-messages in Mexico, the authors of these messages seem to be reminding us that violence is no easy thing to comprehend.

Wrapping up field work (for now)

The months of field work passed in a flash, and before I knew it I was back in the immigration line at JFK, crumpled documents in hand. After half a year in the endless spring of Mexico City, arriving back in New York during the swampiest month of the year was something of a shock. And of course, I felt that I was really just getting started in Mexico.

Perhaps I was just getting started, but I did return with a full database. Maybe even a complete one (how do you know when a database is complete enough?). Whether or not the base grows further, it swelled out to 6,180 messages over the course of my field work. Those many messages came from one national newspaper and nine regional ones, along with data from a leaked government dataset. There are a lot of holes in the data – I would like to track down more complete message transcriptions – but even as things are, I have plenty to analyse. The database is bigger, and was easier to assemble, than I had expected. I gave it three hours a day, every day while I was in Mexico.

Those three hours per day were an effective routine for building a database, but they do raise the question of what else I was doing with my time in Mexico. I certainly wasn’t conducting many interviews, although not for lack of wanting to. I arrived in Mexico City expecting at any moment an email stating that I had IRB approval to conduct interviews. While I waited, I got on with building the database. Six weeks later, and in response to a very belated and very timid email on my part, I learned that my IRB application had been lost in the bureaucratic interstices of my university the whole time. No on had read it. No one even knew that it had been submitted (or rather, the one person that knew left their job and didn’t pass the work on to anyone else). It took a further six weeks to finally get that long overdue approval email. Three months in the field had already passed.

This left me scrambling to recruit interviewees as Mexico was building up to a general election. Most of the journalists that I reached out to were busy, and none of the state officials were in the mood to talk. The activists I reached out to were, by contrast, ever ready for a chat. Still, most of my interviews were crammed into the weeks after the election and before my departure (Mexico’s elimination from the World Cup might have helped too).

That still leaves unanswered the question of what else I was doing, with all those hours not spent interviewing or databasing. I read a lot of newspapers – although I quickly learned not to read the nota roja over lunch – but these didn’t occupy that much of my time.

I did visit Mercado Medellín almost every day, buying up plants for my dinky patio and pots for my dinky kitchen. I hovered around the quesadilla stand on the corner outside the market, working my way through the entire unprinted menu. I sat in cafes without a Macbook in sight, sipping steaming glasses of cafe con leche, or tiny cappuccinos (at least compared to their voluminous cousins in the U.S.). I met old friends and made news ones over bulky caguamas of beer and clinking glasses of mescal. I lost all those hours in the ephemera, the daily life that doesn’t appear in research write-ups. The little gestures and routines that come to define a place, and through which you stop merely observing, and start living and loving.

Where to begin?

When I defended my dissertation proposal, I set a rather familiar and somewhat arbitrary start date for the database that I wanted to build. Violence in Mexico is generally understood to have spiked sharply with the start of Felipe Calderón’s presidency, and his declaration of war against organized crime in December 2006. During the proposal process I was more concerned with fixing an end date for the data base, than with questioning this start point.

As I began trawling media archives, however, it became apparent that the phenomenon that I am trying to understand has antecedents prior to 2006. The term narcomensaje first turns up in El Norte newspaper in 1999, and returns in 2001, and again in 2005. These, however, seemed isolated occurrences; as I worked through media source after media source, my database grew a little in 2006 and 2007, and a lot for the years after those. When I talked about my data, I hedged by saying that the base started in 2006, but but would incorporate the earliest examples of messages.

In fact, my approach to data collection prevented me from getting to grips with the beginning of the phenomenon of narcomensajes. My main search terms in online media archives were variations on narcomensaje and narcomanta (narco-mensaje, narco_mensaje, narcomensajes, etc. etc. etc…), and a few less-common terms like narcopropaganda. Such terms, however, only came into use once the phenomenon that they describe was relatively well-know to the readers and writers of media accounts. These terms have become so ubiquitous that they yield thousands of hits when searched for, but the terms couldn’t tell me how the pattern of messages first arose.

A note attached to one of the earliest points in my database mentioned that a guy known as Barbie (Edgar Valdez Villareal – stay tuned for the Hollywood biopic) had left other messages in northern Mexico before 2006. I thus took a pause from scouring new media sources to return to one of my tried and tested sources, and to change my search terms. Searching for “Barbie” brought me information on some messages from 2005, and a couple from 2004 (it also had me wading through pages and pages of results about the famous doll, and the many celebrities that have been likened to her). More importantly, this searched turned me on to the fact that Valdez’s main rivals, the Zetas, were more prolific message-displayers, and that they passed this tactic on to another group, the Familia Michoacana, who used it even more frequently. Perhaps more importantly still, this slow trawling of early records – and it was very slow work, between new data points – revealed that before narcomensaje stuck as the most common term for this phenomenon, newspapers tended to use a different term entirely: recado. This term can still be translated as message, but is less commonly used. This makes it a particularly handy way to search for early examples of this phenomenon.

Following these various clues, jumping from search term to search term, has given me a much clearer answer to the question of where my database begins. The pattern of public messages starts in 2005, and becomes significantly more frequent in mid-2006, with the rise of the Familia Michoacana. The term narcomensaje begins to appear with any regularity in 2006, becoming increasinglye common throughout 2007.

This discovery also furnishes me with a new facet to my dissertation. In the broadest terms, I want to understand why narcomensajes appear, and what they actually do. One way in which I can address this in my dissertation is by tracing out the historical (very recent historical) origins of the messages. Starting with this would allow me to better situate closer case studies of the emergence of messages in specific cities, municipalities, or states.

Finally, this discovery can speak back to my comparison of my database to the other main narcomensaje database. This other database covers December 2006 until the end of 2011,  but doesn’t record its first message until March 2007. This can give the impression that narcomensajes do indeed emerge after the uptick in violence after Calderón declared war on crime. The new, early points in my database, however, demonstrate that the phenomena we think of a characterizes Calderón’s Mexico is actually part of a longer continuity of practices.

Comparing databases (and discovering just how far I have to go)

Since arriving in Mexico I have been steadily building a database of narcomensajes.  Over the course of several months, and working with different media sources, that base has grown by the thousands. It was never very clear, however, just how many messages I could expect to find. By one very rough estimate, I thought I should be able to find at least 3,500 messages from between 2006 and 2013. When my database passed 4,000 messages, I figured it was time to pause, and to try to get some sense of the real size of the phenomenon I am studying.

To do so, I planned to cross-check my database with another. One of the few previous studies of narcomensajes uses government-compiled crime data for the period 2006-2011, which was leaked to CIDE (a local university). That base only includes messages left at the scene of a homicide, whereas my database includes other types of messages as well. Still, I figured the government would have unparalleled access to data, and thus that by comparing my collection of messages left at crime scenes to this other collection of messages, I would gain some sense of how well my data collection was going. Furthermore, this other database is the only one I know of that isn’t compiled from media sources – which means that it is the only way I can peer outside of whatever biases creep into my data, based on the source material. The overall results of the comparison are as follows.

Cross-check results
Entries in my DB: 2,817
Entries in CIDE DB: 2,642
Matches: 915
Unique to my DB: 237
Unique to my DB (ineligible for CIDE DB): 1,660
Unique to CIDE DB: 1,727

At first glance, these results are a little dispiriting. There’s a huge number of messages that my data collection approach isn’t capturing – far bigger than I expected. A fairly comprehensive database of messages for the time period that I am covering should probably contain more than 6,000 messages, which means growing my current base by another 50%. While I can do much of this by importing the data from the other base, the CIDE base contains only sparse information – no message transcriptions, and almost no contextual details. Importing the data will be a start, but I need to dig deeper into the media archives.

There are a couple of other unexpected and more interesting  stories within the comparison results. First, the CIDE database officially starts in December 2006, but the first narco-message doesn’t appear until March 2007. This is the year for which my database has the highest relative number of messages that ought to be in the CIDE base. This tells me that the people compiling the data took a while to pick up on the emerging phenomenon of messages – quite a while longer than journalists. The earliest use of the term narcomensaje that I have found in the media dates back to 1999, and the term became more common – became something of a phenomenon – throughout 2006.

Related to this, with every year the gap between points unique to the CIDE base, and points unique to my base (that would be eligible for the CIDE one) grows. This tells me that over time, government security officials not only get a better sense of the emerging phenomenon, but also increase their ability to control the public perception of it. There are all sorts of reasons why messages might not make it into the press, but the overall trend is that the government officials are capturing and recording a greater portion of the messages – and also preventing journalists from doing the same. This accords with the newspaper reports that I have been reading, which over time become more dependent on official government accounts of the contents of messages.

Looking more carefully at the points that should be but aren’t in the CIDE base, I suspect that what is left out is not just a matter of what government officials accidentally overlooked. Some states, such as Sinaloa and Guerrero, have very high levels of violence, with even higher spikes of violence. It is unsurprising to see that a good number of the points unique to my database come from these states. Something strange happens, however, in the state of Nuevo León. This state saw relatively few messages until a massive increase in 2011. At the same time, however, the number of data points from NL that are unique to my base also spikes. State officials weren’t capturing the increase, despite the fact that it was highly public, widely reported, and came at the time of the state’s greatest control over the dissemination of these messages. It almost looks like this surge in messages is being kept out of the government data, so anomalous is the discrepancy.

Overall, the comparison shows that I have a lot of work still to do. My database can stand to grow a lot, and to add much richer data – I want as many of those message transcriptions as possible. The comparison also shows, however, that the CIDE database is less perfect than expected. I had assumed that this base would capture pretty much every message displayed, but clearly there are limits to even this expansive collection.