Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

28% Of Narco Messages In 2021 Were Directed Towards The Mexican Government

"Narcomappingmx" for Borderland Beat

Criminal organizations in Mexico expend an enormous amount of effort in controlling and disrupting the flow of information related to their activities. From frequent murders and threats of violence against journalists to interview-style videos detailing their motives and accusing rivals, organized crime groups have many methods of fighting the information war.

"Here the street sweeper continues taking down the snitches and filthy traitors. Sincerely, La Mera Verga"

A message found on the person of a CJNG member in Tijuana, Mexico. Messages like these are often left by the corpses of slain rivals or traitors. 

The principal method of communication is the narcomensaje, or “narco message” in English. These narco messages range from threats angrily scrawled on cardboard scraps left at crime scenes to printed plastic banners hung from highway bridges. The purpose of these messages varies, but they are often used to threaten rivals and the government. In 2021, over 250 groups left 915 of these narco messages in Mexico.

A recent analysis of Borderland Beat’s archive of narco messages from 2021 found that 28% of narco messages were directed at government entities, including police officers, federal prosecutors, and politicians. This data set was collected from open sources, including government press releases, nota roja pages, and news sites. The data was then categorized by several different characteristics, including the location the message was found, the date it was found, and the contents of the message.

While 28% of narco messages in 2021 were directed at the government, a far greater number were directed towards rival criminal groups, at 301, equaling just under 50%. Other smaller percentages were directed towards licit businesses (6.4%), and messages related to vigilantism (9.9%). 

It is important to note that the contents of narco messages cannot always be taken at face value. They are the communications of criminal organizations whose entire existence depends on deception. However, time and time again, many of them have proven to be actionable. 

For example, in early November 2021, banners allegedly signed by “La Familia Michoacána”, a criminal group in Central Mexico, threatened the promoters and artists of an upcoming music festival in Metepec, State of Mexico. The next day, the tour bus of the band La Adictiva was shot at while driving from a gig to their hotel. 

Narco banner allegedly left by La Familia Michoacána threatening entertainers at the Feria de Metepec.

Despite these issues with credibility, narco messages are considered important for understanding the criminal landscape. Numerous studies have examined their role in deciphering the chaos of the drug war, from how they relate to violence to their effects on those who read them.

Narco messages are considered to be directed towards the government if they mention government functionaries, are left outside government offices, or are accompanied by dead government employees. Of the 915 narco messages found in Mexico in 2021, I was able to identify the contents or target of 606 of them. The 309 that were indiscernible had their contents censored by authorities or the press, a common tactic intended to diminish the impact of these messages. Of these 606 messages from which we can discern a target, 168 of them were directed towards the government, totaling 27.7%.

It is important to note that of these messages directed towards the government, not all explicitly threatened the government. Some addressed the government by asking for help, accused the government of collusion with rival groups, or offered information about rivals to the government. This highlights the complex relationship between criminal groups and security forces in Mexico.

The majority of these messages towards the government were directed towards Mexico’s security forces, but politicians, municipal authorities, government energy employees, and even Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) were mentioned in the messages found in 2021.

100 of these messages were directed specifically towards police officers, which includes National Guard, Municipal, Federal, and Ministerial Police. There were a handful of messages directed towards the Mexican Army. Many of these communications were intended to intimidate law enforcement into ceasing their efforts. A prime example of this was found on May 16, when a banner alleging to be from El Ruso, a criminal leader operating a cell out of Mexicali, Baja California, threatened federal security forces for arresting a criminal cell under his command. According to Francisco Gutiérrez Rodríguez, a mental health expert consulted by the newspaper Zeta Tijuana, these messages directed towards police officers are effective in causing psychological terror.

This significant focus found in cartel messaging is in harmony with an increase in physical violence and murders against functionaries of the Mexican government. Causa en Comun, a Mexican think tank dedicated to studying threats against police, reported that in 2021, 401 police officers were slain. This is a vast jump from the 156 officers killed in 2013 as recorded by the Mexican statistics agency INEGI.

48 banners mentioned other members of the government. These included currently elected political figures, political candidates, state prosecutors, government informants, and employees of the government electricity company.

All of the six instances where narco messages mentioned Mexico’s President AMLO were requests for government support against criminal organizations. For example, on May 17, several banners appeared around Acapulco, Guerrero asking for AMLO to investigate alleged corruption between the governor of the state, Héctor Astudillo Flores, and locally organized crime groups. These banners are important as they don’t fit within the commonly-held narrative that narco messages are only used to threaten others, as these read as requests for help. 

Banner found in Acapulco, Guerrero on May 17 alleging a pact between local government officials and criminal groups.

In 2021, there were even two messages directed toward the United States government. One, found in Ciudad Juarez hung from a bridge, threatened American Customs and Border Patrol agents, ordering them not to interfere with human smuggling operations. The other message, found in Chihuahua, was directed to US Attorney General William Barr, blaming a criminal group for a massacre of American citizens in 2019.

A significant portion of these threats were directed towards political candidates and election workers. A total of 42 banners were related to the 2021 midterm election cycle, which saw stunning violence with high totals of homicides and injuries against candidates. Mexican security analysis firm Etellekt found over 1066 acts of violence related to the election, 102 of which were assassinations. In total, 36 electoral candidates were killed. These too were dismissed by the Mexican government, with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador insisting that during the bloody election cycle, there was “peace and tranquility”.

These messages, especially those related to Mexico’s election cycle, further solidify understanding of criminal groups as organizations with complex political aspirations, who are deeply involved in Mexico's criminal process for criminal ends.

Sources: Infobae, Howard Campbell 2012, Borderland Beat, Zeta Tijuana, Causa en Comun, Inegi Police Killings Data, Proceso, Border Report, Diario, Etellekt, El Universal



  1. Great article, narcomap.

    I have found that narco messages are the best (and sometimes only) way to find out which politicians and police officers are allegedly on a cartel's payroll. Especially when it comes to less prominent positions like the municipal police director of a small town.

    I know some readers find articles on narcomanta translations to be repetitive and boring (which is fair), but it's really helpful reference to have when a massive gunfight goes down and you're trying to figure out why.

    1. Yes I think there is a lot of value in tracking them. Even when they lie, they tell a truth.

  2. Extremely interesting information. One gets general impressions but I had no idea that the percentage directed towards the government was that high.

    1. Yes its quite a shocking figure. I read a study by Laura Atuesta of CIDE who found that the rate of government directed messages was around 17% in the late 2000s, meaning the percentage has almost doubled. However her study used a slightly different definition and data set, so I excluded it from the article.

    2. I must be stuck in the past because that would be about the rate I would have guessed. Great job bringing this all up, it is definitely worth noting.

  3. @ Itzli. If the data is taken after 2010 I don't think it's as surprising as it sounds as they aren't necessarily "cartels" attacking the State in their mantas, even though they have to be classified (like mantas where a new group threatens a local official but that group is never heard from again). Its what I would expect from official protection for the drug trade being less centralised.


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