Marketing Violence in Mexico’s Drug War

June 30, 2011

When Mexican president Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, the country was in the grip of deep and multifaceted social debates. In January the Zapatistas had launched the Other Campaign, touring the country and calling for a nationwide anti-electoral organizing effort to peacefully overthrow the government and uproot a political system based on exploitation, repression, and corruption. Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s presidential campaign called for using the nation’s wealth to redress endemic economic disparity. Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz’s crackdown on a strike by the state teachers union led to an almost six-month-long unarmed uprising that brought national attention to entrenched cacique power and the continued violent repression of protest. Major political scandals also wracked the state in 2006, including allegations of electoral fraud in the July presidential election, provoking a huge protest movement that paralyzed downtown Mexico City for almost two months.


Now, more than four years into Calderón’s presidency and his self-proclaimed war on drug traffickers, more than 40,000 people have been killed, and news of executions, massacres, and gun battles dominate the headlines. Ruinous drug war violence has left national debate of social issues mute. Whereas the defining images of Mexico in 2006 were of plazas and streets filled with protesters, those since December 2006 have been of execution scenes and masked soldiers in the streets.


The ubiquitous fact of death appears in the news media as if in a vacuum. A whole backdrop of facts is held out of focus in the media coverage: that millions of people consume illegal drugs. That the shipping industry for illegal drugs generates billions of dollars in cash annually. That high-level state officials in every country where drugs are moved, bought, and sold participate in the trade. That murder has become the arbitration method of choice in this transnational multibillion-dollar illegal industry. That a century of prohibition policies and interdiction efforts has failed like no other military misadventure in the 20th century. Indeed, drug-trafficking organizations continue to move their commodities across borders and countries to consumers in record amounts. Each drug war execution takes place within the context of this history of absolute political failure.


The media also ignore a key aspect of Calderón’s drug war: its class nature. Those falling dead and those assumed to have killed them are overwhelmingly youth from the politically and economically marginalized classes. Their number grows every day, but aside from the fact of death, the media coverage strips everything else away. The body lies in the dirt, hangs from a bridge, or floats in a canal. Homicide detectives arrive to the crime scene, trod over the evidence, remove the body, and through their incompetence, feigned or genuine, they render a true investigation impossible. Photographers capture the isolated image and send it out on the wire. State officials blame the dead for their own demise. Only death itself remains.


The stripping away begins with the killing: The human body is broken and twisted into an anonymous mass of death. But the violence is also an act of speech; it is a message. The killers in this war zone serve as public relations officers with all their hideous and careful theatrics of slaughter. The media’s description of the executions, not to mention the photographs, function as a press release for the killers announcing their reach and control. The stripping away continues at the killing ground. All the crime scene investigations I witnessed in 2010 and 2011 in Acapulco, Ciudad Juárez, and Culiacán lasted only a few minutes and resembled shoddy janitorial work. At one scene on the outskirts of Acapulco, a young man’s body was found in a dusty field about 70 feet from the roadside. Lying face down, his hands were bound in twine behind his back, his wallet carefully placed next to his hands. His head had been smashed with stones the size of grapefruits and basketballs. In fewer than 10 minutes, state forensics officials jotted notes about the body’s position, snapped a few digital photographs, and took the body away. They left four bloody stones—murder weapons, one supposes—lying uninspected in the dirt.


The Mexican federal government investigates less than 5% of drug war executions.1 Yet Calderón has said that some 90% of homicides “belong, precisely, to a struggle of some cartels against others” and that “innocent civilians” amount to “the least” number of cases.2 Such statements continue the stripping away with a postmortem death sentence. After the slaying of six people (20 were wounded) at a nightclub in Mazatlán on March 8, the Sinaloa State director of public safety, Francisco Córdova Celaya, told a group of reporters: “It is impossible to assign a police officer to every little narco [narquito] someone wants to kill. It’s the truth. We have to protect the good men and women of Sinaloa, those who have no reason to be afraid out in the street, those who have no reason to go around being afraid of anyone. Those are the people we must protect first of all.”


Guaranteeing impunity becomes the first step in marketing the violence. In the drug war logic, if you are dead, you are guilty; you are a “little narco” caught in a “struggle of some cartels against others.” Government officials, including the president, preemptively dismiss the need to investigate, much less seek justice, with their sweeping pronouncements of presumed guilt. Confronted with the fact of a dead body while systematically refusing to investigate homicides, the authorities are forced to answer all the questions that follow—important questions like Who did this? and Why? and sometimes even basic questions like Who is this?—not with evidence but speculation.


Murder and impunity: These two facts set the coordinates for all media representations of the so-called drug war. Images and headlines present the barest pictures of the dead, leaving most questions unasked, and are endlessly repeated. Many newspapers across Mexico profit from a kind of murder pornography, running daily, full-color images of execution scenes on the front page. Mexican and international journalists draw on leaked government documents, interviews with officials, court transcripts, and anonymous sources to produce a wealth of state-sanctioned information about the supposed upper echelons of drug-trafficking organizations. The reports retain a high level of abstraction, often as a security measure, and provide the names of quasi-mythical drug barons and their families. Much of this information serves to reinforce a soap opera view of drug traffickers’ lives. While perceived as more culturally refined than the barrage of execution porn, these reports also protect the anonymity of victims, both living and dead, and the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators.


Furthermore, through these reports we learn about the major trafficking routes and production zones across Mexico, as well as the disputed turf and predominant trafficking groups in each region. But once the drugs cross the border, the story ends. How are drugs distributed in the United States? What are the U.S. trafficking routes? What U.S. territories are in dispute? It would seem as if the thousands of pounds of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana trafficked into the United States either stay in the hands of the Mexican cartels or simply teleport into millions of noses, veins, and lungs across the nation. The U.S. press follows the murder and the high drama of the Mexican drug-trafficking organizations and the government’s proclaimed war against them while ignoring the existence of any such organizations in the United States, home to the world’s largest illegal-drug market.


Most U.S. media coverage of Mexico follows only the trail of blood, the Mexican government’s press releases, and leaks, reproducing the government’s logic of presumed guilt. Three major types of drug war events make it into the main U.S. media market: the most spectacular executions and massacres (constantly eclipsed by horrors more spectacular), major government operations, and any violence affecting U.S. citizens. Despite the media’s obsession with the latter, there is no corresponding interest in U.S. citizens similarly killed within the United States. In Mexico, thanks mostly to Mexican media outlets, we know about how many people are executed each year in the context of the drug war. In the United States, apparently no one keeps count. There is no corresponding national consciousness of drug war murder, no January headline announcing the previous year’s death toll. While the U.S. press shies away from the most explicit photographs—the United States has a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry built on crafted images of fictional death—the repetition of headlines announcing massacres, beheadings, mass graves, and daily slayings without social and historical context produces a vague impression of Mexico as an inherently violent place.


The constant succession of media representations of murder and atrocity stripped of facts and extracted from historical and political contexts serves the drug warriors in both the United States and Mexico as propaganda to justify military and police deployments. Drug war violence becomes a kind of insidious marketing campaign for the very policy regime of prohibition that unleashes the violence.




Mexican journalists face the climate of impunity head on. During Calderón’s drug war, Mexico has become the most dangerous country in the world for reporters. Between 2007 and 2010, 39 journalists were murdered in Mexico. Hundreds more have been threatened or attacked. Most media outlets choose some degree of self-censorship. Still, a generation of Mexican journalists has risen to the task of resisting the seduction of drug war violence and its murder-impunity complex. Their work tells the stories that return the anonymous dead back to the world of the living, where people have names and families and where impunity can be fought, quixotic or even impossible though such a fight may seem.


Those doing important work chronicling the brutality and insanity of the drug war include the publications Ríodoce in Culiacán and Zeta in Tijuana, and reporters like Sandra Rodríguez, Luz del Carmen Sosa, and Rocío Gallegos at El Diario Juárez, Marcela Turati at Proceso and in her book Fuego cruzado, and Diego Osorno in Milenio and Gatopardo. In September 2009, someone threw a grenade at Ríodoce’s office. No one was injured. The attack, like most, went uninvestigated and unpunished. I asked Javier Valdez, a veteran Sinaloan reporter who writes for the weekly newspaper, how one could resist sensationalism and do a good job of reporting the drug-trafficking beat.


“Don’t come here and count the dead,” he said. “Anyone can do that. Tell the stories of life. Profile the fear, which is another death that no one covers. It is an encroaching death, and it is the worst.”



John Gibler writes from Mexico and California. He is the author of Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt and To Die in Mexico: Dispatches From Inside the Drug War, published in 2009 and 2011, respectively, by City Lights Books.



1. Silvia Otero, “No investigan 95% de muertes en ‘guerra,’ ” El Universal (Mexico City), June 21, 2010.


2. Jorge Ramos, “Muertes de civiles son las menos: FCH,” El Universal, April 16, 2010.






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