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

Thursday, September 21, 2023

A Look at Narco Messaging and Propaganda - And Why It Must be Contested

By "El Huaso" for Borderland Beat

"Lead soldiers and straw federal police - this is the territory of Arturo Beltran" [1]

In this article I aim to explain the phenomenon of narco communication and propaganda in Mexico and offer my view that it is worthwhile to study and necessary to confront. 

At 9:00 PM est on 9/21/23, I will be speaking about messaging and propaganda by criminal groups in Mexico on the OSINT-TV LIVE Broadcast hosted by Michael Bond, with journalist Luis Chaparro, open source researchers All Source News, cyber__what, exit266, and jekubi.

You can watch live or after the event on either YouTube (below) or Twitter/X (click).

This post will serve as a fact sheet or briefing, as well as a repository for sources and events I will discuss. Some of the issues I hope to cover are:
  • What are narco communications / propaganda?
  • Why do criminal groups in Mexico communicate publicly?
  • What is the risk of allowing narco propaganda to go unchallenged?
Key points:

Alongside physical weapons such as AK-47s and AR-15s, criminal groups in Mexico make extensive use of propaganda through the deployment of communications such as narco messages and videos.

This propaganda enables them to influence how the public, government, and rival groups think, empowering their criminal enterprise.

In order to combat propaganda, we must first acknowledge it's role in empowering criminal groups.

"Cedant arma togae. This is the byword of many a pacifist illusion: that words yield to weapons. But it is an optical illusion. Weapons love words. With words they make new weapons."

- Philippe Joseph-Salazar

When we think of criminals, we often imagine shadowy figures, operating in the dark away from government scrutiny and public view as they steal, rob, and kill. What we see in the Mexican organized crime landscape overturns this idea, as Mexican criminal groups are obsessed with public communication with the government, civilians, and other criminal groups. Rather than hide their true actions, they disguise them with layers of misinformation and misdirection, communicated through public messages. They use these messages to influence how they are perceived, threaten, and coerce the government, and accuse rivals of heinous acts. They generally function as the public relations of criminal organizations.

A Zetas narco-banner hung over a bridge in Reynosa, Tamaulipas in April 2008. [2]
Translation: “The Operations Group Los Zetas wants you, military or ex military. We offer a good salary, food, and will take care of your family. You will no longer be mistreated and will no longer go hungry. We won’t give you Maruchan (packaged noodles) to eat.”

These communications take many forms (outlined later) from physical poster messages to scripted press conference videos. For the purposes of this paper, we will collectively refer to messaging from groups in all its forms as "narco propaganda".

Propaganda - "Persuasive mass communication that filters and frames the issues of the day in a way that strongly favours particular interests; usually those of a government or corporation. Also, the intentional manipulation of public opinion through lies, half-truths, and the selective re-telling of history."

- Oxford Reference

The effort and quality of narco propaganda varies by group, criminal cell, and region. Some messages are quickly scrawled on paper and left next to bodies. Others are professionally formatted with coherent themes and stock phrases before being printed and placed around different points of a region.

While there are a few scattered examples of narco messaging prior to 2007, it seems that criminal groups began using narco messages on a large scale in the late 2000s. Over time, videos were used in addition to the physical messages. The number of messages deployed annually exploded in the following years, reaching at least 1,400 communications released each year by 2012.[3][4] Since then, narco propaganda has been employed by countless criminal groups in all Mexican states, who attempt to dominate and control the flow of information according to their varied interests and conflicts.

The Mexican government has struggled to counter the narco propaganda onslaught, which threatens the state’s ability to fully combat organized crime. The former Mexican President Felipe Calderón was a critic of news coverage of organized crime and their messages, arguing that they would charge millions of pesos to any corporation or the government to advertise on their networks, but provided coverage of criminal messaging for free. Facing criticism from civil society, the government, as well as pressure from criminal groups, in 2011, 715 news organizations signed an agreement to coordinate and moderate their coverage of organized crime in Mexico. The agreement, organized by media giants Televisa and TV Azteca, included commitments to avoid becoming “accidental narco spokespersons” and alter the tone of coverage to condemn criminals.[5]

This was the last major acknowledgement of the power of criminal messaging from the Mexican government. The topic has been largely avoided by following presidential administrations.

Shunned and sidestepped by the mainstream media and government, the study of narco messaging is therefore pushed into the murky purview of the unofficial media, including the narco blogs, Twitter journalists, and nota roja crime pages. Here, the narco media is shared and circulated widely, where the internet acts as a force multiplier, allowing a simple paper message to reach thousands.

While the many physical narco messages first make their appearance hanging on bridges or left on streets next to bodies, crime journalists, police, and sometimes even members of the criminal organization take photos and amplify their reach by uploading them to community WhatsApp groups, Telegram groups, and other social media sites such as Twitter/X and Facebook.

These communications take many forms such as:

  • Narco messages (usually written on paper / cardboard)

  • Narco banners (printed or written on large blankets or plastic sheets)

  • Scripted press conference style videos

  • Torture, death, or interrogation videos

  • Mass diffused paper leaflets

  • Graffiti

  • Food/gift handouts, sponsoring of community development

  • Vlog style behind-the-scenes videos

  • Body messaging or animal symbology (pigs heads to signify a dirty police officer)

  • Narco corridos? (music - ballads about traffickers)

  • Other narco media? (TV shows, movies, games)

In July 2023, a criminal group left a severed pig head in an ice chest along with a narco message threatening local police in Guanajuato. Pig heads are often used alongside threats against security forces in Mexico. Borderland Beat Archives.

Some key purposes or categories of narco communications

  • Threaten rivals or government 

  • Accuse rivals or government of an anti social action

  • Communicate with general public - eg. establish curfews

  • Pose as a beneficial force

  • Control narratives and gain public support

  • Recruit new members

        Narco propaganda is important to understand if we want to understand the interests of Mexican organized crime. While the messages likely do not tell the truth, they tell us what the criminal group wants us to believe is the truth, which is also a valuable insight. They can also tell us about criminal markets, key figures, group structure, and strategy.

The severe cost of swallowing narco propaganda whole

        On September 20, 2011, around 5:00 p.m35 dead bodies were left by armed men in the middle of a highway in Boca del Rio, Veracruz next to a banner threatening the Zetas, a criminal group operating in the region at the time. The bodies of 23 men and 12 women, including two children, many with “Por Z” (For being a Zeta) written on their bodies, were alleged to be Zeta members and collaborators. [6]

35 bodies dumped in the middle of Boca del Rio, Veracruz. Image: El Pais.[7]

        Several large narco banners were left at the scene however, no known photos show them completely enough to be legible. One of the more legible banners read: “This will happen to all the shitty Zetas who stay in Veracruz, the plaza has a new owner…G.N. Here is El Ferras and his royal court.” Photos of the event showing parts of other banners reveal complaints about the Zetas extortion and mistreatment of locals. 

        A day later, Veracruz state Attorney General Reynaldo Escobar Pérez would announce that all of the victims were related to organized crime, and had prior arrests for crimes including kidnapping, vehicle theft, extortion, and homicide. Javier Duarte de Ochoa, Veracruz’ governor wrote on his Twitter account “the killing of 35 people is deplorable, but it’s even more deplorable the same victims chose to extort, kidnap and kill”.[8]

Thus the state government's initial response was to minimize the violence by claiming the victims deserved it.

Reynaldo Escobar Pérez would resign one month later, citing "personal reasons".
Image: Animal Politico [9]

        Except that was not the case. Months later, deputy Attorney General José Cuitláhuac Salinas Martínez reported that following the full investigation, the victims were found to be “not of organized crime” and most lacked criminal records. The real identities of the victims were regular citizens, including “housewives, students, and a highly decorated police officer". They were not members of the Zetas, but civilians used as props in an elaborate propaganda message which society and the government fell for.[10]

Why did this propaganda work? 

There are at least three reasons.

1. For months, the Mata Zetas had engaged in a high-level, strategic propaganda campaign which portrayed them as defenders of the people and generally as a vigilante force. This included kidnapping corrupt officials to interrogate them on video before killing them and diffusing messages identifying themselves as normal Mexicans fed up with crime.

2. The Zetas were hated for their use of extreme violence which in many ways escalated the intensity of organized crime conflict.

3. Mexico's government at the time assured society that most of the deaths of the recently launched drug war were organized crime members, and the average Mexican was less at risk. It is possible the Veracruz state government accepted the Mata Zetas' narrative because it fit with this idea.

Failing to interrogate and challenge the Mata Zetas' propaganda allowed them to assert their fictional narrative upon reality, gaining public support by depicting 35 civilians as members of a criminal group - justifying their killing.


[1] W Radio Mexico. “Encuentran Narco Mensaje Contra “La Barbie” En Morelos.” W Radio México, 29 Dec. 2009,

[2] La Nacion. “Narcos Ofrecen Casa Y Carro a Militares.” La Nación, La Nación, 18 Apr. 2008,

[3] Laura H. Atuesta (2017) Narcomessages as a way to analyse the evolution of organised crime in Mexico, Global Crime, 18:2, 100-121, DOI: 10.1080/17440572.2016.1248556

[4] El Huaso. “1,400 Narco Messages Are Left by Criminal Groups across Mexico Each Year.”, 2013,

[5] “La Jornada: Medios de Comunicación Firmarán Pacto Sobre Cobertura de La Violencia Del Narco.” La Jornada, 24 Mar. 2011,,convertirse%20en%20voceros%20involuntarios%20del.

[6] “La Jornada: Arrojan Sicarios 35 Cadáveres En Zona Comercial de Boca Del Río.” La Jornada, La Jornada, 21 Sept. 2011, ‌

[7] “La Policía Mexicana Encuentra 35 Cadáveres Abandonados En Veracruz.” El País, 21 Sept. 2011,

[8] Deibert, M. (2015). In the shadow of saint death: The gulf cartel and the price of America’s Drug War in Mexico. LP Lyons Press, An Imprint of Rowman & Littlefield.

[9] Zepeda, M. “Escobar Renuncia a Procuraduría de Veracruz “Por Motivos Personales.””, Animal Politico, 7 Oct. 2011, ‌

[‌10] Fox, Edward. “Bodies of Innocents Used as Props in Mexico’s Drug War.” InSight Crime, 19 July 2012, ‌

Other suggested reading:

Phillips, Brian J., and Viridiana Ríos. “Narco-Messages: Competition and Public Communication by Criminal Groups.” Latin American Politics and Society, vol. 62, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–24., doi:10.1017/lap.2019.43.

Alvarado, Ignacio. “Mensajes Macabros, La Nueva Herramienta de Los Capos En México.” U.S., 25 June 2008, ‌

Luke Johnson, Philip. “CPW 10/3/18 - Johnson on Narco-Messages and the Legibility of Violence - Political Science | the Graduate Center, CUNY.” Political Science | the Graduate Center, CUNY, 3 Oct. 2018, ‌

Laura H. Atuesta (2017) Narcomessages as a way to analyse the evolution of organised crime in Mexico, Global Crime, 18:2, 100-121, DOI: 10.1080/17440572.2016.1248556

Rios, V. Why did Mexico become so violent? A self-reinforcing violent equilibrium caused by competition and enforcement. Trends Organ Crim 16, 138–155 (2013).

Pachico, Elyssa. “Tracking the Steady Rise of Beheadings in Mexico.” InSight Crime, 27 Mar. 2017,’s%20Attorney%20General’s,war%20between%20the%20country’s%20cartels.

Carlos Martin (2012) Categorization of Narcomessages in Mexico: An Appraisal of the Attempts to Influence Public Perception and Policy Actions, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 35:1, 76-93, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2012.631459

Phillips, B., & Ríos, V. (2020). Narco-Messages: Competition and Public Communication by Criminal Groups. Latin American Politics and Society, 62(1), 1-24. doi:10.1017/lap.2019.43

Maihold, Günther. Las Comunicaciones Criminales: El Caso De Las Narcomantas. : Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia, 2012.

InSight Crime. “Severed Pig Heads - Widespread Cartel Threats against Mexican Police.” InSight Crime, 3 Sept. 2021,


  1. Honestly in just my opinion I feel like the CJNG is by far the most propagandist cartel out there

    1. I agree. I am working on a paper on this now

    2. Can't wait to read it huaso. Keep up the good work . Been a reader on here for over a decade

    3. Thanks for your message! Really appreciate it

    4. They're a close 2nd if you take into account CDS and the start of the movimiento alterado that sent propaganda into overdrive.

    5. 4:29 that is true cds set the thread with the corridos like you said but CJNG has taken to another level with their little tik tok videos and they also push a lot of their propaganda through social media

    6. Awesome read. Best one yet. Wasn’t Mencho in Matazetas? He’s heavy on that propaganda.

  2. Wouldn’t the translation be “lead soldiers and jerk off federales”?

    1. That's interesting, but I think "straw" makes sense since "lead" is used to describe soldiers. Which I take to mean toy soldiers.

      So toy soldiers and straw police. A way to signal their uselessness

  3. Incredible work Huaso, I'll listen.

  4. Good work Huaso. You are 100% correct.

  5. Soldaditos de plomo and federales de paja means that they weren't unbeatable it was a message to el chapo and el mayo from arturo beltran that he was not scare of Anybody and that he was gonna fight even the federal forces for his honor. it was well known that el chapo y el mayo paid a billion dollar to get him killed

  6. In culiacan arturo is known as the man of los 150 corridos

    1. He has way more than a 150 corridos now . The best one is la muerte de Arturo Beltran by grupo perfil

    2. El JT has the most corridos

    3. Not even close score is Arturo 180 to maybe like 20 between el ondeado and el jt

    4. I don't know which is worse, the ones he paid for like a dude ordering his own valentines cards, or the ones written after he was hunted down and assassinated. The first are embarrassing for him, the second for the people who bought into the Scarface myth, or cynically wrote it for kids who buy into his Scarface myth!

  7. There’s no way to contest it without cameras everywhere and heightened security… which they claim they are now implementing?

    1. @8.36 Cameras everywhere doesn't really help if the people doing it control who operates the cameras, and what happens to the footage. It doesn't matter if it gets taken down again, as long as a couple of journalists who've been tipped off, or threatened if they don't get down there quick and show it to the world get a photo and share it. The assumption is that these things- bodies on roadsides and the propaganda that goes with it- are less likely to happen the more security forces are sent to deter it, but the exact opposite is true. They mushroom disproportionately, which should make people ask different questions.

  8. Arturo “El de Culiacán”

  9. Los chilangos de la nueva se la rifan con los vídeos con su coreografía y mostrando sus armas de alto poder.

  10. Brilliant stuff Huaso, thanks. Narco messages also became a tool for the authorities; during conflicts between Federal and State or local police for example (or a dozen other interested players) who were protecting or controlling rival gangs for bigger organised criminal groups. The aim is to sow confusion with the messages to the point that nobody has a clue what is really going on, and to strip language of meaning, and it's power to mobilise public opinion or dissent.
    You should write a book- "Narcomantas, A History: from Toy Soldiers to My Balls Are So Big They Practically Drag Along the Ground". That's a working title...

    1. I'm @3.29. Just to clarify, when I said above that narco-messages became a tool for the authorities I was referring specifically to mantas or blankets written by them and left in public places, alleging they were written by this or that criminal group, in order to mislead. Cheers!


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