Organised crime and terrorism Part IV: Setting examples: Violence as communication in Mexico’s Cartel War

This is the fourth, and final, piece in Strife’s four-part series exploring the relationship between organised crime and terrorism in a 21st century security environment. The first, second, and third parts can be found herehere, and here, respectively.

By: Joe Atkins

Fire engulfs a casino in Monterrey, killing 52 people. Source: BBC News.

Too often, some conflicts attract attention only when something abnormally brutal happens. This occurred in Nigeria, when the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls on 14 April 2014, shocking international audiences. This happened also, some months later, in Mexico. There, in the state of Guerrero, 43 students were kidnapped on 20 September 2014. Two weeks later, local police forces found a mass grave, with the charred and tortured bodies of 28 of them. Mexico’s Attorney General claimed that the former mayor of the town of Iguala ordered the massacre, in cooperation with the local cartel, Guerreros Unidos. A year after the fact, however, an international committee, appointed by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, expressed serious concerns regarding the Attorney General’s account of the event[1]. This sparked doubts about the reliability of this version, which affirms that members of the Guerreros Unidos killed the students, took them to a dump, and burned their bodies. Reports about the federal police’s monitoring activity of the students casted a shadow on this episode of brutality[2].

The massacre of the 43 students of Guerrero was a particularly notorious case, even for crime-ridden Mexico. It attracted international attention, constituting a major embarrassment for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government. Outside observers, however, face a daunting task when they try to make sense of Mexico’s highly intense violence, made even more difficult given the complexity of the conflict itself. It is no surprise that some commentators simply dismiss violence as devoid of any rational meaning. Actually, the intricate character of the conflict is a problem also for cartels and state authorities themselves. Blurred allegiances and conflicting attributions of blame make communication very difficult. In this context, violence has become a tool to convey information and propaganda.

The Mexico drug war has been going on since 2006 and has caused among 30 and 60 per cent of the 120.000 homicides that occurred in the country between 2006 and 2013[3]. During the last ten years, eight cartels have been competing with each other for the control of the trade routes for cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine. Simultaneously, they have confronted the Mexican state, by corrupting or intimidating police and judiciary officials, by scaring local mayors, and by influencing elections. To add confusion to this already complex situation, allegiances and power relations have been very fluid. Local gangs, in fact, often switch loyalty, while some cartels have been effectively defeated, only to have rivals and offshoots rising in their place. Moreover, several anti-crime forces have been operating, including the Mexican Army and Navy, with various degrees of effectiveness and collusion. Local citizens, finally, have conjured up their own vigilante forces, which have often demonstrated as much brutality as the drug trafficking organisations[4].

In this complicated context, it is often difficult to know who is ruling in a particular area. Thus, cartels and gangs have often decided to make their presence felt by way of cruelty and terror. This already happened during the outburst of drug-related violence in the 1990s, when beheadings became a frequent method to send messages to rival cartels. The new era of “high-intensity crime”, however, has renewed and expanded this function of violence.

Now, messages conveyed by violence reach multiple audiences. Politicians are the recipients, as well as police officers, journalists, the armed forces, and the public at large[5]. Violence has become a major communication tool, and its effect is different depending on the receiver. Cartels target members of particular categories to push them to cooperate or to make them neutral; violence, however, hits common citizens as well, sowing confusion among them and paralysing any attempt to revert the drug traffickers’ grip on society. Moreover, violence has become so widespread that it is actually possible to identify different types of violence, each of which conveys a particular message from drug trafficking organisations.

Mass killings are one of these types. If we look deeper into Mexico’s most dangerous states we can find other massacres like the one in Iguala. In most of them, survivor reports, CCTV videos, or victims’ reports pointed out at the Los Zetas cartel, formed by ex-members of Mexico’s Special Forces. In 2010, in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, Los Zetas affiliates killed 72 immigrants from Central and South America, after their refusal to join the cartel or pay extra fees to enter the United States[6]. In 2011, in the same area, Zetas hijacked several passenger buses, raping the women and forcing the able-bodied men to fight among themselves, awarding the survivors with cartel membership[7]; in total, 193 people died. Only some months later, in Monterrey, Nuevo Léon state, a Los Zetas commando fired indiscriminately on customers in a casino, and then started a fire that destroyed the building, killing 52 people in total [8]. In the same area, the year later, 49 bodies were found dumped by a roadside on the Mexican Federal Highway 40[9]. The Los Zetas cartel seems to be responsible for all the mass killings above. The heightened rivalry between Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel over cocaine routes in North-Eastern Mexico is the most likely explanation of this series of indiscriminate violence. Massacres, however, are also a means to maintain the Zetas’ reputation as cold-blooded murderers with a taste for bloodshed[10]. It is a tool of psychological warfare. In an environment where violence is everywhere, the need to make its effect felt is even more pressing.

Violence as a communication tool, then, is the by-product of the rivalry among several cartels. This rivalry engenders a “competitive escalation of increasingly extreme and creatively violent acts”[11]. Most of this escalation, for now, resulted in the murder of single persons or of little groups. At its core, the murder in itself is always a message, as its perpetrators usually present it as a punishment, an act of justice. Since the beginning of the conflict, however, it has lost its symbolic strength, simply because there are too many of them[12]. Beheadings were an early method to convey a more forceful message and stun the audience, by showing that cartel members were capable of anything[13]. Even decapitations, however, have become increasingly commonplace, since a group of members of La Familia Michoacana threw five severed heads on a nightclub dance floor to publicise their “divine justice”[14]. With time, then, a whole set of forms of drug-related killing and treatment of corpses has formed, with its own lexicon. These words are quite common among different Mexican cartels and in the media coverage of the drug war.  For example, enteipados are bodies wrapped in duct tape; descuartizados are bodies that have been quartered (as the victims of the 2012 Nuevo Leon massacre); encajuelados are bodies left in the trunk of a car; entambados are bodies crammed in barrels; encobijados are bodies wrapped in blankets. In addition, cutting off fingers means that the dead person was a snitch; cutting hands means that the dead was a thief; cutting the tongue means the dead was a police or rival cartel informer, while cutting the foot means the dead was a defector[15]. Finally, bodies are generally left on roadsides, usually half or wholly naked. This happens most often for women, as a means to deprive them of their honour, but also for men, in an attempt to demote their manhood[16]. In Mexico, drug-related murders are seldom a hidden act. On the contrary, narcos leave the bodies in public places, where everyone can see and read the messages on the corpse.

Actual violence, then, has evolved from simple murder, by differentiating into different types, according to quantity, treatment of the body, and ritualized display of it. Another dimension, however, is particularly important in the current inter-cartel war: the broadcasting of violence. Brutal acts committed by cartel members, in fact, are not only important as a local display of strength. With the diffusion of Internet, in fact, their reproduction has become as much a tool of psychological warfare as an integral part of the narcocultura. In the past, cartels had also profited from traditional channels, by devoting attention to timing to guarantee that specific time slots of local television news cover the murders.[17] The online presence of drug trafficking organisations, however, is increasingly important. The Internet has become a major battlefield in the information war, with its own offensives and counter-offensives[18], and cartels and vigilante groups have become its major actors, with the Mexican state present in a lesser degree[19].

Cartels, however, still do not have a vertically organised propaganda strategy, with a coherent graphic style, formalised structures and technical sophistication[20]. Most of the output consists in self-proclaimed cartel members and, in large part, in young men attracted by drug trafficking myths. Cartel online presence, then, is scattered, grassroots, and spontaneous. It is, thus, also more difficult to tackle. This is particularly true for social networks, with reports of cartel activity on Myspace, Youtube[21] and Facebook[22]. Cartel members have used all these online channels to convey threats of violence or pictures and videos of murders and massacres. Apart from mainstream social networks and media sites, moreover, cartel-specific news sites have sprung up, to avoid the self-imposed censorship of local newspapers and to capitalise on narcocultura’s increasing success. The foremost example is, which, since its inception in 2010, has become one of Mexico’s most visited sites. Blog del Narco broadcasts gruesome pictures of murders and, most famously, videos of interrogations, usually featuring the torture and homicide of the hostage[23]. In this way, cartel members humiliate the victim, as well as the rival cartels; they spread fear among their affiliates and show how the government is weak, if the victim is a police officer.

Outside commentators often define violence in the Mexican cartel war as “meaningless”. This assertion, as we have seen, is hardly true. Violence, first, serves as a way of settling disputes and punishing. This is not its only function, though. From the cartel’s perspective, violence is most effective when rival cartels, government forces, and the local population get to know that cartel justice has stricken. The communication of violence, thus, is an essential part of the act of kidnapping, torturing, or killing. As drug trafficking organisations lack the communication strategy and hierarchy that terrorist groups retain, every affiliate or group of affiliates participates in the larger information war, by acting, by leaving messages, and by broadcasting them via television or the Internet. The combined effect of this phenomenon is to sow confusion among those who fight the cartels and to establish a climate of constant, ever-lasting fear among a paralysed population.


Joe Atkins is an MA student in Latin American Studies. His interest in the Mexican drug war stems from an older fascination for Mexican culture and literature. He is also studying welfare and politics in the Central American countries.



[1] Paulina Villegas, Experts Reject Official Account of How 43 Mexican Students Were Killed, New York Times, Sep. 6, 2015. Available on, accessed on February 4, 2016.

[2] Ed Vulliamy, One year ago, 43 Mexican students were killed. Still, there are no answers for their family, The Guardian, Sep. 20, 2015. Available on, accessed on February 4, 2016.

[3] Brianna Lee, Mexico’s Drug War, Council for Foreign Relations, March 5, 2014. Available on, accessed on February 4, 2016.

[4] George W. Grayson, Threat Posed by Mounting Vigilantism in Mexico, Carlisle Barracks, PA, U.S. Army War College – Strategic Studies Institute, Sep. 2011.

[5] Howard Campbell, Narco-Propaganda in the Mexican “Drug War”. An Anthropological Perspective, Latin American Perspectives, Issue 195, Vol. 41 No. 2, March 2014, p. 64.

[6] Randal C. Archibold, Victims of Massacre in Mexico Said to Be Migrants, New York Times, Aug. 25, 2010. Available on, accessed on February 4, 2016.

[7] Adam C. Estes, Mexico’s Tales of Bus Passengers Forced to Fight to Death, The Wire, Jun. 14, 2011. Available on, accessed on February 4, 2016.

[8] Simon Rogers, Mexico’s drug war visualized, The Guardian, Jan 31, 2012. Available on, accessed on February 5, 2016.

[9] BBC News, Mexico violence: Monterrey police find 49 bodies, 13 May 2012. Available on, accessed on February 5, 2016.

[10] Ioan Grillo, Special Report – Mexico’s Zetas rewrite drug war in blood, May 23, 2012. Available on, accessed on February 5, 2016.

[11] Campbell, p. 64.

[12] A facilitating condition of the increase in cartel-related deaths has been the diminishing costs of killers-to-hire. Estimates of a killer’s pay for a single murder in 2001 were in the range of $12.000; in 2011, cartels paid from $500 to $650 per month for indeterminate killings and other acts of violence. Paul Rextor Kan, Cartels at War, Washington, D.C., Potomac Books, 2012, p. 26.

[13] Kan, p. 29.

[14] BBC News, Human heads dumped in Mexico bar, 7 September 2006. Available on, accessed on February 5, 2016.

[15] America Y. Guevara, Propaganda in Mexico’s Drug War, Journal of Strategic Security, 6, no. 3, 2013, p. 138.

[16] Campbell, pp. 65-66.

[17] Campbell, p. 65.

[18] Robert J. Bunker, The Growing Mexican Cartel and Vigilante War in Cyberspace, Small Wars Journal, Nov. 2011, pp. 1-4.

[19] Guevara, p. 150.

[20] Sarah Womer, Robert J. Bunker, Sureños gangs and Mexican cartel use of social networking sites, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 21:1, 2010, pp. 91-92.

[21] Womer, Bunker, pp. 86-89.

[22] Juan-Camilo Castilo, The Mexican Cartels’ employment of Inform and Influence Activities (IIA) as tools of Asymmetrical Warfare, University of Kwazulu-Natal, 2014, p. 4.

[23] Campbell, pp. 68-70.

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