By “El Huaso” for Borderland Beat
|“Lead soldiers and straw federal police – this is the territory of Arturo Beltran” |
In this article I aim to explain the phenomenon of narco communication and propaganda in Mexico and offer my view that it is worthwhile to study and necessary to confront.
At 9:00 PM est on 9/21/23, I will be speaking about messaging and propaganda by criminal groups in Mexico on the OSINT-TV LIVE Broadcast hosted by Michael Bond, with journalist Luis Chaparro, open source researchers All Source News, cyber__what, exit266, and jekubi.
You can watch live or after the event on either YouTube (below) or Twitter/X (click).
- What are narco communications / propaganda?
- Why do criminal groups in Mexico communicate publicly?
- What is the risk of allowing narco propaganda to go unchallenged?
– Philippe Joseph-Salazar
When we think of criminals, we often imagine shadowy figures, operating in the dark away from government scrutiny and public view as they steal, rob, and kill. What we see in the Mexican organized crime landscape overturns this idea, as Mexican criminal groups are obsessed with public communication with the government, civilians, and other criminal groups. Rather than hide their true actions, they disguise them with layers of misinformation and misdirection, communicated through public messages. They use these messages to influence how they are perceived, threaten, and coerce the government, and accuse rivals of heinous acts. They generally function as the public relations of criminal organizations.
Translation: “The Operations Group Los Zetas wants you, military or ex military. We offer a good salary, food, and will take care of your family. You will no longer be mistreated and will no longer go hungry. We won’t give you Maruchan (packaged noodles) to eat.”
These communications take many forms (outlined later) from physical poster messages to scripted press conference videos. For the purposes of this paper, we will collectively refer to messaging from groups in all its forms as “narco propaganda”.
Propaganda – “Persuasive mass communication that filters and frames the issues of the day in a way that strongly favours particular interests; usually those of a government or corporation. Also, the intentional manipulation of public opinion through lies, half-truths, and the selective re-telling of history.”
The effort and quality of narco propaganda varies by group, criminal cell, and region. Some messages are quickly scrawled on paper and left next to bodies. Others are professionally formatted with coherent themes and stock phrases before being printed and placed around different points of a region.
While there are a few scattered examples of narco messaging prior to 2007, it seems that criminal groups began using narco messages on a large scale in the late 2000s. Over time, videos were used in addition to the physical messages. The number of messages deployed annually exploded in the following years, reaching at least 1,400 communications released each year by 2012. Since then, narco propaganda has been employed by countless criminal groups in all Mexican states, who attempt to dominate and control the flow of information according to their varied interests and conflicts.
The Mexican government has struggled to counter the narco propaganda onslaught, which threatens the state’s ability to fully combat organized crime. The former Mexican President Felipe Calderón was a critic of news coverage of organized crime and their messages, arguing that they would charge millions of pesos to any corporation or the government to advertise on their networks, but provided coverage of criminal messaging for free. Facing criticism from civil society, the government, as well as pressure from criminal groups, in 2011, 715 news organizations signed an agreement to coordinate and moderate their coverage of organized crime in Mexico. The agreement, organized by media giants Televisa and TV Azteca, included commitments to avoid becoming “accidental narco spokespersons” and alter the tone of coverage to condemn criminals.
This was the last major acknowledgement of the power of criminal messaging from the Mexican government. The topic has been largely avoided by following presidential administrations.
Shunned and sidestepped by the mainstream media and government, the study of narco messaging is therefore pushed into the murky purview of the unofficial media, including the narco blogs, Twitter journalists, and nota roja crime pages. Here, the narco media is shared and circulated widely, where the internet acts as a force multiplier, allowing a simple paper message to reach thousands.
While the many physical narco messages first make their appearance hanging on bridges or left on streets next to bodies, crime journalists, police, and sometimes even members of the criminal organization take photos and amplify their reach by uploading them to community WhatsApp groups, Telegram groups, and other social media sites such as Twitter/X and Facebook.
These communications take many forms such as:
Narco messages (usually written on paper / cardboard)
Narco banners (printed or written on large blankets or plastic sheets)
Scripted press conference style videos
Torture, death, or interrogation videos
Mass diffused paper leaflets
Food/gift handouts, sponsoring of community development
Vlog style behind-the-scenes videos
Body messaging or animal symbology (pigs heads to signify a dirty police officer)
Narco corridos? (music – ballads about traffickers)
Other narco media? (TV shows, movies, games)
Some key purposes or categories of narco communications
Threaten rivals or government
Accuse rivals or government of an anti social action
Communicate with general public – eg. establish curfews
Pose as a beneficial force
Control narratives and gain public support
Recruit new members
Narco propaganda is important to understand if we want to understand the interests of Mexican organized crime. While the messages likely do not tell the truth, they tell us what the criminal group wants us to believe is the truth, which is also a valuable insight. They can also tell us about criminal markets, key figures, group structure, and strategy.
The severe cost of swallowing narco propaganda whole
On September 20, 2011, around 5:00 p.m35 dead bodies were left by armed men in the middle of a highway in Boca del Rio, Veracruz next to a banner threatening the Zetas, a criminal group operating in the region at the time. The bodies of 23 men and 12 women, including two children, many with “Por Z” (For being a Zeta) written on their bodies, were alleged to be Zeta members and collaborators. 
35 bodies dumped in the middle of Boca del Rio, Veracruz. Image: El Pais.
Several large narco banners were left at the scene however, no known photos show them completely enough to be legible. One of the more legible banners read: “This will happen to all the shitty Zetas who stay in Veracruz, the plaza has a new owner…G.N. Here is El Ferras and his royal court.” Photos of the event showing parts of other banners reveal complaints about the Zetas extortion and mistreatment of locals.
A day later, Veracruz state Attorney General Reynaldo Escobar Pérez would announce that all of the victims were related to organized crime, and had prior arrests for crimes including kidnapping, vehicle theft, extortion, and homicide. Javier Duarte de Ochoa, Veracruz’ governor wrote on his Twitter account “the killing of 35 people is deplorable, but it’s even more deplorable the same victims chose to extort, kidnap and kill”.
Thus the state government’s initial response was to minimize the violence by claiming the victims deserved it.
|Reynaldo Escobar Pérez would resign one month later, citing “personal reasons”.|
Except that was not the case. Months later, deputy Attorney General José Cuitláhuac Salinas Martínez reported that following the full investigation, the victims were found to be “not of organized crime” and most lacked criminal records. The real identities of the victims were regular citizens, including “housewives, students, and a highly decorated police officer”. They were not members of the Zetas, but civilians used as props in an elaborate propaganda message which society and the government fell for.
Why did this propaganda work?
There are at least three reasons.
1. For months, the Mata Zetas had engaged in a high-level, strategic propaganda campaign which portrayed them as defenders of the people and generally as a vigilante force. This included kidnapping corrupt officials to interrogate them on video before killing them and diffusing messages identifying themselves as normal Mexicans fed up with crime.
2. The Zetas were hated for their use of extreme violence which in many ways escalated the intensity of organized crime conflict.
3. Mexico’s government at the time assured society that most of the deaths of the recently launched drug war were organized crime members, and the average Mexican was less at risk. It is possible the Veracruz state government accepted the Mata Zetas’ narrative because it fit with this idea.
Failing to interrogate and challenge the Mata Zetas’ propaganda allowed them to assert their fictional narrative upon reality, gaining public support by depicting 35 civilians as members of a criminal group – justifying their killing.
 W Radio Mexico. “Encuentran Narco Mensaje Contra “La Barbie” En Morelos.” W Radio México, 29 Dec. 2009, wradio.com.mx/radio/2009/12/29/judicial/1262146920_930955.html.
 La Nacion. “Narcos Ofrecen Casa Y Carro a Militares.” La Nación, La Nación, 18 Apr. 2008, www.nacion.com/el-mundo/narcos-ofrecen-casa-y-carro-a-militares/H2LB3UOPJJBHXNRU5MLMFVVDVE/story/.
 Laura H. Atuesta (2017) Narcomessages as a way to analyse the evolution of organised crime in Mexico, Global Crime, 18:2, 100-121, DOI: 10.1080/17440572.2016.1248556
 El Huaso. “1,400 Narco Messages Are Left by Criminal Groups across Mexico Each Year.” Borderlandbeat.com, 2013, www.borderlandbeat.com/2023/08/how-many-narco-messages-are-left-by.html.
 “La Jornada: Medios de Comunicación Firmarán Pacto Sobre Cobertura de La Violencia Del Narco.” La Jornada, 24 Mar. 2011, www.jornada.com.mx/2011/03/24/politica/012n1pol#:~:text=Una%20treintena%20de%20medios%20de,convertirse%20en%20voceros%20involuntarios%20del.
 “La Jornada: Arrojan Sicarios 35 Cadáveres En Zona Comercial de Boca Del Río.” La Jornada, La Jornada, 21 Sept. 2011, www.jornada.com.mx/2011/09/21/politica/005n1pol.
 “La Policía Mexicana Encuentra 35 Cadáveres Abandonados En Veracruz.” El País, 21 Sept. 2011, Elpais.com/internacional/2011/09/21/actualidad/1316556003_850215.html.
 Deibert, M. (2015). In the shadow of saint death: The gulf cartel and the price of America’s Drug War in Mexico. LP Lyons Press, An Imprint of Rowman & Littlefield.
 Zepeda, M. “Escobar Renuncia a Procuraduría de Veracruz “Por Motivos Personales.”” Animalpolitico.com, Animal Politico, 7 Oct. 2011, www.animalpolitico.com/2011/10/escobar-renuncia-a-procuraduria-de-veracruz-por-motivos-personales.
 Fox, Edward. “Bodies of Innocents Used as Props in Mexico’s Drug War.” InSight Crime, 19 July 2012, insightcrime.org/news/analysis/bodies-of-innocents-used-as-props-in-mexicos-drug-war/.
Other suggested reading:
Phillips, Brian J., and Viridiana Ríos. “Narco-Messages: Competition and Public Communication by Criminal Groups.” Latin American Politics and Society, vol. 62, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–24., doi:10.1017/lap.2019.43.
Alvarado, Ignacio. “Mensajes Macabros, La Nueva Herramienta de Los Capos En México.” U.S., 25 June 2008, www.reuters.com/article/latinoamerica-delito-mexico-narcotrafico-idLTAN2526171320080625.
Luke Johnson, Philip. “CPW 10/3/18 – Johnson on Narco-Messages and the Legibility of Violence – Political Science | the Graduate Center, CUNY.” Political Science | the Graduate Center, CUNY, 3 Oct. 2018, politicalscience.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2018/10/03/cpw-10-3-18-johnson-on-narco-messages-and-the-legibility-of-violence/.
Laura H. Atuesta (2017) Narcomessages as a way to analyse the evolution of organised crime in Mexico, Global Crime, 18:2, 100-121, DOI: 10.1080/17440572.2016.1248556
Rios, V. Why did Mexico become so violent? A self-reinforcing violent equilibrium caused by competition and enforcement. Trends Organ Crim 16, 138–155 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-012-9175-z
Pachico, Elyssa. “Tracking the Steady Rise of Beheadings in Mexico.” InSight Crime, 27 Mar. 2017, insightcrime.org/news/analysis/tracking-the-steady-rise-of-beheadings-in-mexico/#:~:text=According%20to%20Mexico’s%20Attorney%20General’s,war%20between%20the%20country’s%20cartels.
Carlos Martin (2012) Categorization of Narcomessages in Mexico: An Appraisal of the Attempts to Influence Public Perception and Policy Actions, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 35:1, 76-93, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2012.631459
Phillips, B., & Ríos, V. (2020). Narco-Messages: Competition and Public Communication by Criminal Groups. Latin American Politics and Society, 62(1), 1-24. doi:10.1017/lap.2019.43
Maihold, Günther. Las Comunicaciones Criminales: El Caso De Las Narcomantas. : Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia, 2012.
InSight Crime. “Severed Pig Heads – Widespread Cartel Threats against Mexican Police.” InSight Crime, 3 Sept. 2021, insightcrime.org/news/severed-pig-heads-widespread-cartel-threats-against-mexican-police/.