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Fog of War: The Challenges of Reporting on Narco-Violence in Mexico

Beheadings. Hanging bodies. Torture. More torture. Shootouts. Shootout aftermath. Twitter. Telegram. Instagram. Facebook. Reddit. This is what it feels like to watch drug-related violence unfold online. A constant, brutal stream of propaganda, terror, and horror, all unfolding before your eyes in real-time – part of the constant scroll. 

This is particularly apparent in Mexico, which is one of the most violent countries in the world, with paramilitary-like drug trafficking groups clashing among themselves, with state forces, and attacking civilians. Before social media, this violence would be unseen. Think, for example, of the drug violence in Colombia during the era of Pablo Escobar – its visualisation exists solely in post-mortem news reports and Netflix dramatisations. 

 

Narco-propaganda and the new media ecology

Cartels use social media wisely and strategically. Falko Ernst, a Senior Analyst on Mexico at the Crisis Group, told TalkingDrugs: “Social media platforms have become somewhat of a multi-tool for criminal groups, used to spread propaganda, get their hands on fresh recruits, gather intelligence on enemy groups, and coordinate violence.” This culminates in the creation of ‘narco-propaganda,’ which academic Howard Campbell defines as “a form of psychological warfare and terrorism, designed to intimidate, dehumani[s]e and dominate.”

Cartels’ ability to expand and consolidate their reputations took off thanks to the rise of digital platforms and access to cheap phones. Matthew Ford and Anthony Hoskins write in their book Radical War, “People can now produce, publish and consume media on the same device”, which has “redefined the information infrastructures of the last century.”

Mexico’s drug war, like many conflicts in the 21st century, exists both in reality and in cyberspace – with the distinction blurring more and more each day. Philosopher Paul Virilio, reflecting on the rise of new technologies, explained that “what was previously out of sight [is now] on display.” Speaking to TalkingDrugs on this issue, academic César Albarrán Tores said that cartel social media has “offered an undoctored, brutal, shocking window into the everyday life of regions ravaged by cartel violence. It has provided imagery for what usually is just statistics. It has shown how shocking violence has been.”

Every violent event follows an asynchronous online timeline before it becomes virtual dust, replaced by the next shootout or beheading footage. Usually, it is through Telegram or Whatsapp that images and videos are circulated. They are then shared, liked, and reshared en masse. Spinning in a content vortex, their spread is followed by speculation about the actors involved. Open-source researchers attempt to piece together an impossible puzzle, often before and in conjunction with an ‘official’ narrative from state sources. 

 

The longstanding relationship between violence and mass media

This new media ecology in Mexico, has a powerful effect that goes both ways: we now have an unparallel view into how cartels work, but we are also consuming the spectacle of violence and power that they put out. 

As Gulnara Akhundova and Emma Lygnerud Boberg note in their reflection on terrorism and the media, which draws parallels to the violence of Mexican cartels, “there is an inherent tension or contradiction between the journalist and the terrorist: the journalist wants the story out and the terrorist wants the publicity and to instil fear.”

There has long been a controversial relationship between terror and mass media. The purpose of terror is to instil fear in a population; and while the news reports on newsworthy events that people should know, it in turns promotes and propagates that fear.

Cartel conduct actions for multiple purposes: to highlight their power and control of certain locations, to demonstrate greater capabilities compared to rival criminal groups, and to create fear amongst the public, other criminal groups, and state authorities. This all centres around reputation building, with the greatest acts of terror creating the most fear and reputation. 

These images and videos can be potentially informative for those studying the Mexican criminal landscape. For example, researchers have used this footage to identify weapons used, or cartel locations. Yet, these videos remain actively shared and consumed as cartel propaganda to general audiences. Albarrán Torres told TalkingDrugs that while social media offers “a more truthful, undoctored picture of what goes on in Mexico,” the reposting of footage can be “damaging, because it amplifies cartel violence.” Likewise, Ernst told TalkingDrugs that social media has “provided deeper insights into an undeniable reality of everyday conflict in many parts of the country, but also added to the normalisation of the related violence.”

This relationship between the media and reporting on cartel violence was so problematic in the past that in 2011, Mexico’s Ministry of Governance proposed the Agreement on Media Coverage of Violence. This was a document signed by over 700 news outlets to limit reporting on the brutal violence by drug-trafficking organisations, hoping that if they received less attention and publicly, the amount of violent attacks would decrease. 

A study on the media’s effects on public brutality in Mexico revealed that “criminals tend to exhibit more brutality when the media has covered similar crimes in the past.” This did not necessarily mean that the crime rate increased, but rather the rate of brutality in crimes increased if past crimes had been covered prominently in the media. Violent tactics can then spread from group to group, as each group seeks to escalate and construct a greater reputation compared to the other, informed by the brutal visualisation of past acts. 

There may be, then, a mimetic spread of violence, as groups copy and develop the violent tactics seen elsewhere. Mimetic, in this context, refers to the imitation of violence, with each violent act not occurring as a sovereign act but as a result of external influences. 

 

The battlefield of digital spectacle

The new media ecology has also created new information actors. Along with the cartel members who post themselves, narco-bloggers, who are mostly civilian journalists, curate feeds of violent images and videos disseminated by organised criminal groups. Traditionally, media coverage of cartel violence was often limited to the aftermath – the post-mortem shot and its description. Whereas narco-bloggers, due to the immediacy of modern digital technology, can now share videos and images the moment they are ‘out’. 

Narco-bloggers face the same challenge that mass media organisations faced before. The digital spectacle around narco-violence continues to benefit the cartel’s reputation-building; but at the same time, this unprecedented level of access has helped our understanding of cartel behaviours and practices. Inside Mexico’s fog of war, some people are piercing through the mist to unearth information key to understand Mexico’s violent criminal landscape. But this may be playing into cartels’ initial intentions.

Ernst told TalkingDrugs that the role of narco-bloggers and civilian journalists “cuts both ways.” “On one hand,” he explained, “they have provided an echo for criminal groups and added to their reach. On the other hand, they have also made valuable information more accessible to a wider population.”

There is no silver bullet to this contradiction. To intentionally ignore these tragedies goes against the mission of journalists of reporting on events and informing the public. Perhaps, then, the solution lies in establishing best practices, such as limiting the type of violence shown, as well as moratoriums on particularly violent or politically influenced events. 

The digital spectacle is a battlefield: both journalists and cartels battle for media space and the attention of the average consumer. The reality of their interdependent relationship needs to be confronted to make sure we are not enhancing the power of violent actors – be they the state or criminal groups.

 

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