John P. Sullivan
November 16, 2010

Mexico’s cartels are increasingly using refined information operations (info ops) to wage their war against each other and the Mexican state, as noted in a recent post “Mexican narcos step up their information war” here at MountainRunner. These info ops include the calculated use of instrumental and symbolic violence to shape the conflict environment. The result: attacks on media outlets, and kidnappings and assassinations of journalists by narco-cartels to obscure operations and silence critics. Editors and journalists turn to self-censorship to protect themselves; others have become virtual mouthpieces for the gangs and cartels, only publishing materials the cartels approve. Cartels are now beginning to issue press releases to control the information space–through censorship and cartel co-option of reportage. Finally, the public, government and even cartels are increasingly using new media (horizontal means of mass self-communication) to influence and understand the raging criminal insurgencies.


Mexico is in the midst of a significant conflict between drug cartels and the state. This war for control of illicit economic space (transnational drug trafficking and the criminal economy) is also a battle for legitimacy, turf, and power. As part of this contest for control of the plazas (drug transshipment nodes), cartels and gangs are seeking to remove the control or interference of the state so they can freely operate. Since 2006 when President Calderón declared war on the cartels, over 30,000 persons have been killed in the brutal drug wars. An increasingly significant component of this violence has been directed against journalists and media outlets in an effort to silence the media so the cartels can operate with impunity. Television stations (such as Televisa in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León) have been attacked with grenades, journalists assassinated, kidnapped or disappeared. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 30 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico in the past four years, and 11 have been killed this year alone. A detailed map tracking violence against Mexican journalists has been developed by The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas, Austin. See Google Maps/Knight Center Map of Threats Against Journalists in Mexico.

Censoring the News

In an important post “Analysis: A PR department for Mexico’s narcos” at GlobalPost, Mike O’Connor notes that newspapers in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas are running press releases for the Zetas. This development, occurring in the midst of a battle for supremacy among the Los Zetas and their former allies the Cartel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel), seeks to shape public perception and intimidate adversaries. Essentially, it is a battle for legitimacy–to determine who rules. Zetas promote stories of military human rights abuses to turn the public against Federal intervention and stories about police prowess to support co-opted police allied to their cartel. As O’Connor noted, “Cartel control is growing across Mexico, and the press is often one of the cartels’ first targets. Their objective is to keep the public ignorant of their actions.”

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Not only do the cartels seek silence and impunity, they increasingly seek to influence perception, using a type of “narco-propaganda.” This strategy employs a range of tools. These include both violent means–beheadings, levantóns (kidnappings), assassinations, bombings and grenade attacks–and informational means–narcomantas (banners), narcobloqueos (blockades), manifestacións (orchestrated demonstrations), and narcocorridos (or folk songs extolling cartel virtues). Simple methods such as graffiti and roadside signs are now amplified with digital media. As a consequence, the cartels employ a virtual “public relations” or “information operations” branch to further their economic and increasingly tangible political goals.

President Felipe Calderón warned that this interference or manipulation has become a threat to democracy and press freedom as cartels seek to impose their will and challenge the state and civil society. According to Calderón, “Now the great threat to freedom of expression in our country, and in other parts of the world without a doubt is organized crime.”

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As Tracy Wilkinson reported in the Los Angeles Times, journalists are under siege, causing reporters to “practice a profound form of self-censorship, or censorship imposed by the narcos.” As a result, social media, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs–such as El Blog del Narco–are taking the place of traditional media.

A New Communication Space

As a consequence of the battle to control information, journalists, the public, and the cartels themselves have embraced “new media” technologies (i.e., social networking sites, Twitter, blogs, and other forms of horizontal self-communication). This situation amounts to one where a range of social actors are engaged in what Manuel Castells calls a “power-counter-power” conflict where communication and power relationships are shaping a new communication space within the network society.

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