Cartel Info Ops: Power and Counter-power in Mexico’s Drug War

By John P. Sullivan

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.”

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.”

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.

This new informational space includes efforts by cartels to cast themselves in the mantle of community protector or social bandit.  For example, La Familia Michoacana burst on the scene in September 2006 storming the Sol y Sombra nightclub in Uruapan, firing shots into the air and tossing six bloody, severed heads onto the dance floor.  They also left a cardboard placard stating their ethos: “The family doesn’t kill for money.  It doesn’t kill for women.  It doesn’t kill innocent people, only those who deserve to die.  Know that this is divine justice.” These themes have reverberated ever since.

A few weeks later, they announced their intent and bourgeoning autonomy, claiming the goal of helping families and fighting the Zeta’s “destructive power” by sending out hundreds of flyers and purchasing ad space in two daily newspapers, La Voz de Michoacán and El Sol de Morelia.  They essentially claimed the mantle of social bandit by proclaiming their motivation was divine justice and protection of Michoacán’s citizens.

Following that template, La Familia proclaimed on 10 November 2010 that it would abandon its assault on the state and disband if the Mexican Federal government would enhance security in their home state.  The 500-word "offer” was disseminated in a series of narcomantas (cloth banners) and printed flyers. The manifesto lashed out at the Federal government, claiming it was abusive, murdered the innocents, and used invested judicial pretexts to trample human rights. Then it said it would stand down its own operations if the government secured the state; so the government could no longer use it as a pretext for abusing residents of Michoacán.  Clearly, this recent messaging is a demonstration of "info ops.” La Familia is involved in an effort toward shaping public perception with narco-propaganda.


Information operations are a key component of any war or conflict.  This is equally true in Mexico’s drug wars waged by criminal netwarriors.  Propaganda, social modification, and communication are essential attributes of the cartels’ operations to co-opt government officials, control the plazas, territory, and increasingly political processes to operate with impunity.  These "political" dimensions make the threat to the state posed by cartels–which are operating as para-states-seeking to control criminal enclaves–much more than simple high intensity crime.  This information dimension illustrates the cartels’ "insurgent" potential to erode states and wage "criminal insurgencies" that may potentially alter the nature of sovereignty among future network states

Countering these potentials–especially the threats to journalists–makes it necessary to invest in building state security capacity and transparency in governance.  Cartels and gangs are networks of criminal actors that compete with the state and erode security. Efforts to combat these networks must reinforce both the rule of law and civil society in order to de-legitimize the cartels’ attempt at information dominance. 

In addition to intelligence, security (including military efforts) and policing (including community policing, eradication of chronic corruption, and intense counter-cartel law enforcement), these efforts will require public diplomacy and the articulation of a narrative that supports the culture of democracy rather than the cartels’ criminal culture of violence.  This narrative must be sustained by action at all levels of the Mexican state and supported by the Global community of nations and civil society networks.  First, we obviously need to protect journalists and contain the violence.  Next we need to build and reinforce state and civil capacity.  The contest for communication power must be recognized as a key element of this challenge.

John P. Sullivan is a senior research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism. His current research focus is the impact of transnational organized crime on sovereignty in Mexico and elsewhere.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.

4 thoughts on “Cartel Info Ops: Power and Counter-power in Mexico’s Drug War

  1. While I pretty much agree with everything you said, one must take into account that what the F.M. claims the federal police has done (grabbing random people and charging them with being drug dealers and what not) is not really new. I’ve heard these stories even back in the late 90’s. I also know for sure that my brother was once planted with pot by the municipal cops in Guadalajara and forced to give them money or be charged (this was quite a few years back).Just saying. I think it’s a good food for thought to know that mexican citizens aren’t just concerned about narcos and sicarios. We also need to look out for the police. And now, it seems, the military.

  2. Excellent short overview of the info ops/psyops taking place in Mexico with the cartels. The media censorship and the threat this represents can not be understated. Concern of course exists that such censorship is also taking place via the Mexican military and law enforcement– which of course is the case. Besides these issues we have the need for better Mexican government use of counter-info ops/psyops and of course their own offensive information operations. These should include those on web to combat cartel propaganda, recruitment and the glorification of the narco lifestyle.

  3. This is an excellent point D Vazquez. The government must act in a way that supports their own narrative and not that of the cartels. The best information activity is one supported by actions (words and deeds). Any counter information campaign will have to include reigning in government officials and training them to act in ways that are planned, coordinated, and corroborative of the government’s own attempts to shape perceptions and behaviors.

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