Small Wars Journal

Organized Crime Groups and their Discourse in Mexico

Sun, 02/18/2024 - 1:30am

Organized Crime Groups and their Discourse in Mexico

Chase Whitehouse

Nearly 400,000 people have died or gone missing since the outbreak of the Mexican drug war in 2006.[1] That number makes this war one of the deadliest in the history of modern Mexico, competing closely for the top spot with the Mexican Revolutionary War, but no number can do this conflict justice. The very fabric of Mexican society has suffered greatly; the state's attempt at quashing the violence has left them humiliated again and again. Right under the international community's nose, one of the most consequential asymmetric conflicts of the postwar era is taking place. In the increasingly complex world order, conflicts such as these are often disregarded and considered insignificant. To many without appropriate context, Mexico’s present fight against organized crime actors may just seem to be a particularly messy conflict against a primitive enemy—a conflict in which the Mexican state has made many mistakes but will inevitably succeed by virtue of being a modern state. One may believe those partaking in organized crime are mere criminals whose only motivation is profit. Yet, this is not an issue the international community hasn’t seen before when understood with this clouded lens.

Jesús Malverde

Figure of Mexican folk hero Jesús Malverde by Batianismo, 2006 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed)

Within this conflict, there have been fascinating narratives (or tropes) distinctive from the milktoast criminal enterprise, that being one solely motivated by monetary ambition. Various groups are directly opposing the Mexican state and exhibiting traits typical of sub-state actors with intentions to undermine the state's survival. It is this discourse from the OCGs that this research will examine. The crimes committed by these groups are horrifically exploitative and violent. This is clear to the Mexican people, who are subject to them. Despite this, there exists a vibrant discourse of complicity with these groups serving as the main institutions in the lives of many as a direct substitute for the state. Sub-state actors in Mexico have often proved themselves to be a persistent agitator to the legitimacy of the central government since Mexico's conception out of the ashes of the Spanish Empire. This is true from the outset of the uprisings of the priests in the Cristero War of 1926 to 1929. This uprising came as a result of perceived overreach by the central government. In it, the new secularist forces from Mexico City implemented reforms that would repress the Catholic Church’s influence in Mexico.[2]

The Cristero War, among other rebellions of the rural peoples of Mexico, can have several systemic escalating factors. One such factor, as pondered by former Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda Gutman, is geography. Mexico is vast and mountainous, and, as a result, many people in the shadows of these mountains feel a disconnect from the ideas and control of Mexico City.[3] The drift between Mexico City and rural populations is further illustrated by the Mexican Dirty War and the continued existence of rural guerrilla groups such as the Zapatistas, who control large swaths of southern Mexico to this day. The moral of the story throughout is this, the fracture between Mexico City and the makeup of rural Mexico has been devastating to attempts at centralization.

It’s this broad historical, cultural, and geographic disconnect from the central government that perpetuates the criminality and subsequent popularity of the aforementioned organized crime groups. This is supported by thinkers such as Eric Hobsbawm in his theory of social banditry, who posit that due to a feeling of isolation from the central government that populations feel a closer loyalty to more localized institutions; this can include criminal groups and regionalist factions alike.[4] These characteristics and attitudes are too commonly seen and documented today as well. The Washington Post reports that a declassified Central Intelligence Agency report states that up to 20% of Mexican territory is controlled by groups with “a level of organization, firepower, and territorial control comparable to what armed political groups have had in other places.”[5]

This leads this paper to ask the following question: how do organized crime groups (OCG) in Mexico use state-succeeding discourse to legitimize themselves and their actions, and what kind of identity does this discourse produce?

These narratives, having made themselves present throughout the history of post-independence Mexico, are what this research will analyze. By adhering to the later established methodological framework and using the novel context of the crisis understood as a Mexican issue, this research’s outcome will hold serious implications for policy makers and academia. Understanding this discourse is central to how the governments with an interest in the conflict react to the growth of novel tropes within the groups within it.

Literature Review

To understand these groups and their state-succeeding characteristics, most scholars begin by arguing definitions with widely varying interpretations from many different lenses. Sylvia Longmire and John Longmire argue that certain OCGs should be classified as “narco-terrorist” on the basis of their tactical means that may or may not inform a broader goal.[6] This understanding drifts from the consensus of the majority of scholars, such as Dr. Phil Williams. Many, like Williams, disagree with Longmire, seeing the use of terrorism as completely inapplicable because criminal groups’ sole motivation must be purely monetary gains; they utilize classic motifs of the generic criminal without a Mexican context.[7]

Scholars such as Dr. John P. Sullivan and Dr. Robert Bunker stand out, as their faction generally disavows criminal and terrorist stereotypes while acknowledging the novel, and often, bizarre characteristics present in the actions of these groups. This includes the formation of quasi-cults of personality that accompany OCGs distribution of goods as a sort of social service to the people falling within their territory, among other unique characteristics. Bunker and Sullivan’s 1998 theory of “cartel phases” illustrates this. Here, they assert the criminal state successor is “a consequence of unremitting corruption and co-option of state institutions.”[8] Sullivan and Bunker later use language that alludes to state failure as an advanced form of “warlordism and social banditry.”[9] This is further amplified by Correa-Cabrera, Keck, and Nava; they note that the Mexican government has failed to uphold a cornerstone of the modern state, securing a monopoly on the legitimate use of focus. They see this lack of consolidation as essential to the growth of OCGs into a more legitimate state successor.[10] Sullivan elaborates on the unique state formation characteristics of OCGs later. “Using social services and infrastructure protection as levers in rural areas and small towns, these non-state actors are building a social base.”[11] These modifications of social dynamics amplify these theoretical understandings. OCGs are creating a powerful, and convincing, alternative. Sullivan quotes a narcocorrido which expounds on this further,

He’s a friend of those who are friends and an enemy of those who are enemies...” The song continues (as paraphrased by Guillermoprieto) “he controls a great deal of territory and it is an all-around good thing!”[12]

As mentioned briefly in the introduction, Mexico has an ample history of hostilities among the self-labeled forgotten population. This, of course, has colonial roots. François-Xavier Guerra was dismissed by his peers but, from a contemporary perspective and with a broader understanding of postcolonial thinking, his work stands out. This is especially true in regard to his understanding of aggressions by the indigenous peoples of modern Mexico in addition to the general rebelling class of rural peoples of Mexico's past—a rejection of what Arjji Ouweneel calls modernity. Guerra, among others, continues to argue the agrarian nature of early Mexican internal conflicts. Ouweneel counters Guerra’s binary interpretation of modernity as opposed to tradition through a socio-economic understanding. Ouweneel grasps the conflicts of the early Mexican states as rejections of poor socio-economic realities rather than romantic ‘mentalité’ and the desperate hangings on institutions such as the church and rural or tribal loyalties.[13] Campbell argues something similar, in the context of OCGs, when he says that the behavior of these groups is a reaction, or the revenge, of those who feel that Mexican society does not account for them. The marginalized hold the strength of cartels as a bitter rejection of what Campbell calls, “the new regime of neoliberal globalization and free trade.”[14] This fits within the economic context that Ouweneel and Guerra are arguing.

These two scholars are representative of a larger, more active, discourse surrounding these internal conflicts from Mexico's past. The previously mentioned Sullivan and Bunker fall within a modest proportion of academics. Their understanding of state-succeeding characteristics is not shared by many, and the connections they drew between the work of Marxist thinker Eric Hobsbawm and this phenomenon remain mostly unconsidered by a majority of academia.[15] Hobsbawm fits neatly into the debate outlined above between Gurrea and Ouweeneel, as Hobsbawm's theories of social banditry are theoretically similar to the understandings of both Ouweeneel and Guerra. Representing a meeting of the two disputing academic sects, Hobsbawm argues that social banditry is a nationalistic reaction to the economic interference of outsiders. He also notes how social bandits utilize existing biases as an instrument of manipulation against the population in which the social bandit has infiltrated.[16] Sullivan and Bunker, in citing Hobsbawm, may have established the framework needed to achieve what the historian Ouweeneel outlined, “to 'flirt' with in-depth studies of collective consciousness and rural village politics could lead to a better marriage of socio-economic and political history in the outlining of a new theory of peasant revolt.” This new theory of peasant revolt may be present within the discourse of the groups this research will analyze.[17]

This research will use Sullivan and Bunker’s theories and frameworks to analyze the discourse displayed by these organized crime groups. Their “phases” theory issues a framing necessary to understand how this behavior fits into a greater, more menacing social movement.[18]

In applying this research's findings to the above-mentioned theoretical frameworks, a better academic and policy understanding will be achieved. The present crisis facing the Mexican state is delicate and highly dangerous, and there are serious gaps in the academia surrounding it. The academic literature uses language more appropriate for the war on religious terror, deemphasizes Mexico's unique history and nature as a state, and broadly dismisses these issues as common criminality not worthy of the time of academia and the United States government.

This research will fill these gaps with the work of scholars such as Sullivan, Bunker, and others. This undertaking will build on this existing academia and apply the discourse output of these organized crime groups while keeping Mexican realities and identities at the forefront. This research, with the assistance of the existing academia, will answer the question of how organized crime groups in Mexico use state-succeeding discourse to legitimize themselves and their actions and what kind of identity the discourse produces. By analyzing their published behavior through literature, propaganda, and activity within their communities, academia will have a better grasp of a potentially disastrous social movement brewing in Mexico.

Methodological Plan

This research employs a dialectic-relational approach to conducting a discourse analysis, focusing on the narratives generated by OCGs operating in Mexico. The examination of these discourses within the framework of established analytical tools enhances the comprehension of the identified traits. The multifaceted nature of Mexican OCGs’ communication strategies involves diverse dissemination methods for this discourse, contributing to a nuanced understanding of their messaging and operational dynamics.

One of the primary vehicles for discourse is through social media. This comes in the form of social media marketing for their nefarious enterprises, messages to law enforcement and rival gangs, and general promotion of their lifestyle.

To assist in the analysis of social media discourse, this research will reference blogs such as Blog del Narco and Borderland Beat. These are blogs and forums moderated by anonymous actors throughout Mexico covering the conflicts surrounding these criminal entities. Additionally, social media accounts will be examined though information will be considered as there is less credibility in the bravado and want for attention common in this realm of social media activity.

By analyzing these specific means of first-hand information, a better grasp of the bottom-up perspective will be obtained. While not an entirely reliable account of information, these sources provide invaluable insight into the psychology and motivations of these groups, as what they are offering in these sources is how they wish to be perceived and legitimized. In doing so, conclusions can be drawn on just that, how they are using online discourse to legitimize themselves as legitimate actors in Mexican society. If this is true, in that they are using social media to legitimize themselves, then what kind of identity is this creating? Using the established theoretical framework, an understanding of this identity and its consequences on state succession can be had. There is also a rich and lauded world of journalism covering the topic of these organizations in Mexico. This research will utilize the tireless work of these journalists for a more reliable and polished source of information. In doing so, this research will cite the works of award-winning writers such as Steven Dudley and his team at Insight Crime as well as the hundreds of Mexican journalists who do esteemed work despite a

tremendously present risk to their own life. This data will come in the form of interviews, quantitative studies, and more. The work of Ioan Grillo is also highly acclaimed. His book, “El Narco is one of the most extolled pieces of narco-journalism.[19] While the work of renowned journalists such as Dudley and Grillo is valuable, this research will make an effort to make use of the wealth of highly qualified Mexican journalists to avoid the pollution of knowledge from biases. Much of the discourse around this topic, as discussed previously in the literature review, is coded in previously existing academia and media without a Mexican context. These works by the journalists of contemporary Mexico will provide a wealth of information and insights, both qualitative and quantitative, that first-hand social media accounts cannot.

As mentioned previously, this dialectic-relational analysis will apply the ideas found in the above-mentioned sources to a theoretical framework theorized by John Sullivan and Robert Bunker starting in 1998 and 2002. This will be achieved through interpreting the discourse output by the organized crime groups as either state-succeeding characteristics with goals beyond simple criminality and material gain or just that, a tactic by criminals to expand their wealth of material and power. Neither would be unprecedented, as is illustrated in Sullivan and Bunker's theoretical framework. Criminal entities, such as Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, famously distributed their enormous stash of wealth to obtain the favor of the local population to dissuade any collaborative attitudes with law enforcement.[20]

To understand the difference between both breeds of organizations, these characteristics being investigated must fit within the framework of “phase three.” Sullivan and Bunker explain the qualifying metrics include “ruling a physical or virtual lawless zone.”[21] A characteristic these groups typically display is that of the hostile takeover of territory. Opposition does not go unpunished, and a relationship is cultivated over time. A pattern Sullivan and Bunker note as “La Familia” is a vigilante movement that was born in the 1980s. This phenomenon originated as a group assigned to protect the poor and desperate from violent criminals. These criminals were made up of drug dealers and soldiers of the prominent cartels of the time. In more recent years, this concept has been co-opted by the same very type of criminals. These groups have adopted the role of “La Familia” and assigned themselves as the protector from vagrants and criminals they deem lesser than themselves.[22] This can be a vehicle to purge other gangs from their territory while masking such violence as a public good, winning over the support of the local population.

By applying this framework, it serves as an important guide in understanding the motivations of these organizations. This represents these groups as taking the role of the state in the lives of the Mexicans which they physically dominate. This dialectic-relational research will examine the discourse of these groups and see if this specific trend, as an example, represents a broader, ominous threat to Mexican state legitimacy. Sullivan and Bunker say as much,

“For many citizens of Mexico, living under La Familia or similar criminal-state rule may be no better or no worse than that of living in the Mexican federal zones. Without political reforms, the Mexican governmental system remains corrupt, and its legitimacy threatened.”[23]

Discourse Analysis

To understand Mexican OCGs as they exist today, one must come to terms with the difficulty of holistically comprehending any trend. These groups are aggressive, volatile, fractured, and, according to the American intelligence community, immensely powerful. However, the current Mexican government disputes these findings that OCGs are as powerful as the United States claims.[24] Nevertheless, even the most powerful OCGs operate with a non-linear structure, making what information came from whom something not always clear. However, this discourse analysis will examine the broader trends of discourse.

First, an understanding of the mood of the Mexican people is important. This section will employ polling data from a variety of sources to take the temperature of the population and assess the attitudes towards the many combatting institutions of Mexican society and the state. Second, is an analysis of OCGs role in their communities, some serving as the de facto enforcer of the peace. Third, will be the concept of social banditry with an emphasis on the social goods these groups can supply. The discourse analysis will conclude with an understanding of “narcocultura,” and the many layers therein. Throughout, these pieces will be tied together, better explaining how OCGs legitimize themselves and the theoretical implications of these attempts.

Public Perception

These factors combined breed chaos and a public lack of confidence in an already struggling Mexican state. The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) reports that 44% of Mexicans believe corruption has increased [25] with statistics from before the Covid pandemic indicate upwards of 90% of Mexicans believe their institutions to be deeply corrupt [26]. Though some improvement has been shown, many Mexicans are still deeply unhappy with the role the government plays in their lives. Just as one example, less than 44% of Mexicans in urban areas feel satisfied with the quality of basic public services [27]. While this is data from urban populations, historic neglect of the rural populations of Mexico leads one to logically conclude that such perceptions would be equally—if not more— negative among rural citizens.

It is a characteristic of OCGs to be mostly active in rural areas; this allows them to more easily skirt the central government. The lack of control that the Mexican state can project into these regions is exemplified by the consistent deployment of the Mexican armed forces to areas under OCG control. These areas, according to the United States government in 2018, consist of 20% of Mexican territory.[28]

It is this disillusionment with the services the government provides along with the constant struggle for the monopoly on force in the broader Mexican population, yet mainly in the rural population, that allows OCGs to feed their discourse. That discourse being, the state is weak and should be replaced by OCGs as the primary institution of trust. Establishing this level of trust and support within a community is essential within the theoretical guidelines established by previous scholarship. British Historian Eric Hobsbawm was keen on the notion that a social bandit is a criminal who wishes to use discourse to cultivate an image of themselves as righteous in their opposition to the state.[29] Creating this alternative, where, rather than seeking the help of the courts in a land dispute, you contact your local “narco,” is a very dangerous narrative that is all too present in reports of rural Mexican communities.

The local “narco’s” role as the institution that solves the problems of the community is concerning. However, a trend that rings especially worrying is the narrative in which OCGs manipulate the strong cultural bond to the family structure. In the same polls mentioned above regarding satisfaction with public amenities, 86.7% of Mexicans say that their family is the institution that inspires the most trust.[30]

“La Familia” and “Narcos” as Enforcers of the Peace

The family is, by far, the most trusted institution in the country.[31] OCGs know this and use this truth to their advantage. OCGs are skilled at using familial discourse to convince their communities to trust them and accept their actions as acceptable and justified. This can be achieved through various means; OCGs often recruit young local men as “sicarios”, or hitmen, to carry out violent actions against competitors, the government, and dissenters. OCGs also brand themselves “La Familia.” They assign themselves as community watchdogs and protectors of the peace, replacing the state while also qualifying themselves to the people as de-facto family members to clamp down on criminal competition.[32] This narrative indicates OCGs understanding of institutional structures and displays a desire to play into them in pursuit of gaining public trust.

A recent example of this phenomenon was the address by the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel), helmed by Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, that declared the state of Michoacán as under their protection. In this address, heavily armed members of the group accused rival OCGs of extorting the population. Oseguera’s men explained that they had entered Michoacán out of a desire to “achieve peace” and “achieve the tranquility that the citizens of the state of Michoacán desire so much.” They went on to inform any government officials that “this conflict is not against you” painting an increasingly ominous picture of the relationship between sub-state actors and the state.[33] It appears that, in the case of Michoacán at least, the Mexican government does not possess a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

Further, OCGs have made a point to protect said institutions. This includes public reprimand of violence against protected social actors such as clergy, doctors, school teachers and, “anyone who is dedicated to religion.” This discourse frames OCGs as the protectors of Mexico’s most sacred social classes.[34] The mention of priests and school teachers plays directly into the attitudes of most Mexicans as the previously cited polling suggests.

This is one way OCGs in Mexico use discourse to legitimize themselves. This creates a discourse in which they are the primary institution in the lives of the Mexican people under their control, subverting the state's authority in the realm of security.

Social Banditry and the Distribution of Goods and Services

Another example of these traits is the distribution of social services among desperate populations under OCG control. This was a catalyst for much of the academic interest in this field. Videos and images of OCG members distributing childrens toys are familiar on forums.[35]. There are also reports of the distribution of medication, food, loans, and other public services.[36]

These communities are subjected to the brutal violence that accompanies turf wars, disputes over payments to OCGs, and government resistance. Accounts of goods distribution serve as the antithesis of the incredible violence faced by local communities at the hands of OCGs. Criminal groups appear to be attempting to garner public support and or justification for their violent campaigns while making an effort to step in where there is a perception that the government is failing to do so. This is maybe best exemplified by recorded mobilization against the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic by way of the distribution of humanitarian aid to affected communities under OCG control.[37]

Again, by the theoretical observations of Hobsbawm, Bunker, and Sullivan, this is accounted for. Hobsbawm wrote that “social bandits” would manipulate the discourse of so-called “Robin Hoodism” to play into anti-authority sentiment among populations. These OCGs project themselves by presenting as actors stealing from the wealthy and returning the wealth to their homes and families. These acts are done in the face of a society that is seen as deeply flawed and corrupt, justifying this activity as well as their respected and or feared status.[38]

The use of “Narcocultra” as a Vehicle of Discourse

The phenomenon of “Narcocultura'' venerates these individual actors and organizations to construct narratives in which “narcos” are portrayed as folk heroes and understood to be righteous even in violence. These cultural portrayals are understood to be deeply intentional. A powerful exemplar of this reality is that of Edgar Quintero in the acclaimed documentary Narco Cultura. In it, Edgar, a member of the narcocorrido band Bukanas de Culiacán, is seen praying at an altar to Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death. The icon of Santa Muerte is draped in American currency. The audience sees Edgar perform his ballads, singing of the great exploits of the OCGs. Following these disturbing expressions of spirituality and reverence for the groups doing untold damage to his communities, the audience sees that Edgar is a jovial young man. He has two kids, a beautiful wife, and parents who deeply care for him. In the end, Edgar says his dream is to buy his parents a house.[39] This particular case serves as a fascinating intersection of all of the societal concepts that this research has explored and will continue to explore. Edgar is a deeply spiritual man; his house being decorated with icons of Catholicism. He is family-oriented. From what this research has explored, he seems to fit well within the societal framework established. Edgar also displays a true passionate dislike, or at least contempt, for the government, in his music and in his daily life. He operates outside of the law, being paid in cash, by criminals for whom he performs. His music accuses the government as being the aggressor when they and the OCGs come to blows.[40]

Edgar Quintero serves as a microcosm of a much larger discourse. His typical disposition, being a devout Catholic, loving father, and caring son, makes the dichotomy of the discourse he produces, one glamorizing violence, all the more unsettling.

Spirituality Discourse

Narcocultura” is maybe best exemplified by Jesús Malverde, a folk-saint particularly popular in Sinaloa, Mexico. Malverde is credited by devotees as the patron saint of bandits, narcos, and the poor. He has been called “the generous bandit,” [41], which displays vibrant parallels with existing robin-hood discourse surrounding Mexican OCGs. Malverde can be attributed to multiple facets of the discourse. He represents a nationalistic masculinity, a champion of the poor, and a chaotic challenger to the increased authoritarian climate of his period of origin, that being the early twentieth-century. Jesús Malverde is even often given the likeness of beloved Mexican actor Pedro Infante.[42] His popularity can also be attributed to economic insecurity, which in the past could be explained as fear of industrialization, and translated in the present to anxieties regarding globalization.

Jesús Malverde’s saint status among his followers opens the discourse towards religiosity among OCGs. The Catholic Church has a loud presence within the lives of most Mexicans and OCGs are keen to use this to their advantage. Religiosity is especially popular among the elderly and the poor—two key groups in furthering goals of legitimization.[43] It is here you can see the dichotomy within the discourse. On one hand, OCGs wish to influence the elderly, especially women, who are more inclined to hold traditional beliefs such as the importance of family and religion,[44] while also targeting the poor, usually male citizens, with promises of monetary success and power within their communities.

Further, figures such as Jesús Malverde serve as the exemplar, the icon for which the people are to admire and aspire to be. His masculinity, rebelliousness, dedication to faith and family, are all key characteristics of the discourse OCGs wish to disperse.

The Use of Visible Violence

The use of violent communication, through the display of desecrated corpses displaying messages targeted to the state and rivals, is a frequent issue for Mexican authorities. These messages often include notes regarding the corruption of the state and the righteousness of the violence against “criminals.” Such messages are often painted on cloth banners called “narcomantas,” ‘manta’ meaning blanket. A recent alarming example of such a “narcomanta” was found in the municipality of San Pedro Garza García, within the state of Nuevo León. Often considered one of the safest areas of the country, these banners warned local criminals against turning traitors against whichever OCG hung the banner in question. They also ordered local businesses to halt all “floor rights” payments while criticizing local officials for allowing the area to fall under the control of an outside OCG. Such abrasive and authoritative language in what used to be considered by locals a haven against crime displays a flagrant disregard for any governmental legitimacy in the region.

This builds upon existing discourse of the state being an untrustworthy institution and permeates an understanding that violence against it, and all outliers, is justified and to be expected.[45] Naturally, this sort of violence is shocking to anyone who witnesses it, but as an alternative to complete chaos, loyalty to a gang that can keep your community in order may be seen as a worthwhile exchange.

As previously mentioned, these are people the local populations recognize, OCGs often recruit young men and the existing members are from similar backgrounds from the lower rungs of society. OCGs serve in contrast to the distant and disliked politicians that head the government. These tropes can be understood as an attempt to create an identity in which actors within OCGs are consolidating the trust of the people in substitution of political leaders and their parties; polls indicating that political parties are one of the least trusted institutions within Mexican society.[46]

It’s the broad conception of the state as untrustworthy and corrupt that allows this discourse to be commonplace and spread among the disillusioned. This discourse creates a culture where violence is an acceptable rebellious act against the corrupt state actors and the lower criminals, usually just rival OCGs. This not only justifies this violence in the eyes of some of the population but also among the individual actors operating within and adjacent to the OCGs.

All of these tropes, assert that the state not being capable of projecting force within their own country, as well as the general lack of satisfaction with the job the government has done in sustaining and improving life among Mexicans leads to worry over whether or not these groups are feeding a state-succeeding discourse.


With the OCG crisis acting as a specter over Mexican society, the serious study of this problem is as pertinent now as ever. The effect OCGs have on Mexican society, their tropes, and the discourses as well as identities created hold massive implications for Mexico and the region. For well over a decade the Mexican government has been steadily losing the confidence of foreign governments and its own people as this crisis has only gotten worse.

There are systemic and historical issues with the modern Mexican state and the discourse surrounding it. This discourse is not novel but the new discourse projected by the OCGs is compounding and becoming dangerous to the survival of the state. This discourse is creating an identity in which OCGs are seen as a viable alternative to the state in numerous arenas of life such as the distribution of goods and services as well as security and communal pride. The motivation for the projection of this discourse varies. Some surely are only distributing such discourse through the narratives outlined here for the purpose of casting a negative public perception on their rivals, in other words solely for financial gains, but understanding these concepts opens up different understandings of OCGs and their discourse.

The implications of motivation are massively important. How these groups see themselves and how members of the citizenry see them should certainly influence how the government understands them. This calls on discourse regarding terrorism, political motivation as opposed to monetary motivation and gangland goals. Whether or not the discourse outlined here constitutes any sort of political motivation, qualifying their actions as terrorism, is a theoretical question that academia must address without prejudice. The work surrounding this concept is highly coded in the language of the war on terror, notably outside of the Mexican context. This research proposes that such academic discourse should account for Sullivan and Bunker's interpretation of Hobsbawm’s theories on social banditry.

A hugely important concept to understand is that no two OCGs are the same. This research includes intentionally vague language to discuss broad narratives and understand the accompanying discourse. This practice can allow a broader audience to understand findings and apply them to the most realms of study and policy possible. These are society wide Mexican issues. There is no one group to concern yourself with like there may have been in the past. Coming to a broad understanding of tropes can assist policymakers and the public in comprehending such a large-scale crisis. This is why the work of Sullivan, Bunker, and the reportage of numerous contemporary journalists, scholars, writers, and more is so important. In the context of this research, Sullivan and Bunker are particularly pertinent. Their work presents a fresh lens to examine other regions and conflicts. Bunker and Sullivan’s interpretations have revitalized the link between social movements and criminality in countless different contexts. Using theoretical frameworks like this allows academia and government to work within common understandings and come to more nuanced conclusions. One potential avenue to further investigate could be the operational methodology of OCGs and their use of new media in supplying discourse.

Using that theoretical framework to come to a conclusion this research finds that OCGs do not presently reach the threshold established by Sullivan and Bunker. The renderings this paper discusses do not lead the author to believe these groups have met the standards established; while a trajectory to further state subverting activity is present as these groups amass power, it is not found that this crisis and its effects are irreversible. With investments in social services and infrastructure along with international cooperation to root out the most dangerous cells, a real solution to this problem can be found. Removing the most problematic and subversive actors while replacing their role within communities with a stronger, more present central government, will correct the discourse leading to a real solution.

Further, it is crucial to note the importance of the Mexican citizens caught up in this struggle between state and sub-state actors. These individuals and communities need a louder voice in the central government. This, as the research has led the author to believe, is at the heart of all conflicts of this nature. Lifting up the voices of the people who feel that for centuries they have been left behind is of the utmost importance.


[1] José Luis Pardo Veiras and Íñigo Arredondo,“Una guerra inventada y 350,000 muertos en México.” Washington Post. 14 June 2021, otrafico-calderon-homicidios-desaparecidos/.

[2] Julia Young, “The Revolution is Afraid.” Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University. 3 January 2020, and-sinarquistas-in-mexico-and-the-united-states-1926-1950.

[3] Jorge Castañeda, participation in “Mañana Forever, C-SPAN, webinar, sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 10 July 2011, video,

[4] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits. New York: Pantheon Books,1981.

[5] Mary Beth Sheridan, “Mexico’s Government Control Threatened by Criminal Groups.” Washington Post. 29 October 2020, co-violence-drug-cartels-zacatecas/.

[6] Sylvia Longmire and John Longmire, “Redefining Terrorism: Why Mexican Drug Trafficking is More than Just Organized Crime.” Journal of Strategic Security. Vol. 1, no. 1, 2008: pp. 50–51,

[7] Phil Williams, “The Terrorism Debate Over Mexican Drug Trafficking Violence.” Terrorism and Political Violence. Vol. 24, no. 2. 2012: pp. 259-278,

[8] See Robert Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Cartel Evolution: Potentials and Consequences.” Transnational Organized Crime. Vol. 4, no. 2, Summer 1998, pp. 55–74: and Robert Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Cartel evolution revisited: third phase cartel potentials and alternative futures in Mexico.” Small Wars & Insurgencies. 12 March 2010: pp. 31–46,

[9] See John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Drug Cartels, Street Gangs, and Warlords,” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 13, no. 2, 2002, pp. 40–53:; John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Rethinking insurgency: criminality, and societal warfare in the Americas.” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 22, no. 5, 2011,; and Robert J. Bunker, “Criminal (Cartel & Gang) Insurgencies in Mexico and the Americas: What you need to know, not what you want to hear. Has Merida Evolved? Part One: The Evolution of Drug Cartels and the Threat to Mexico’s Governance”. Congressional testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. Washington, DC. 13 September 2011, pp.1–25,

[10] Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Michelle Keck, and Jose Nava, “Losing the Monopoly of Violence: The State, a Drug War and the Paramilitarization of Organized Crime in Mexico.” State Crime Journal. 2006: pp. 77–95,

[11] John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations.” Small Wars Journal, 3 December 2012, and John P. Sullivan, “From Drug Wars to Criminal Insurgency: Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Criminal Insurgency in Mexico and Central America. Implications for Global Security.” Working Paper No9. Paris: Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme (June 2011/April 2012), For a later review, see John P. Sullivan and Nathan P. Jones, “Bandits, Urban Guerrillas, and Criminal Insurgents: Crime and Resistance in Latin America,” Chapter 6 in Pablo A. Baisotti, Ed., Problems and Alternatives in the Modern Americas. New York: Routledge, 2021,

[12] Ibid. In addition, see Alma Guillermoprieto, “The Narcovirus,” Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies, Spring, pp. 2-9:

[13] Arji Ouweneel, “What was Behind Mexico’s Peasant Revolution.” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Vol. 48. June 1990: pp.99-112,

[14] Howard Campbell, “Narco-Propaganda in the Mexican ‘Drug War’: An Anthropological Perspective.” Latin American Perspectives. Vol. 41, no. 2: 2014: pp. 60–74,

[15] Op. cit., Sullivan and Bunker, ““Rethinking insurgency” at Note 9.

[16] Eric Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1959.

[17] Op. cit., Arji Ouweneel, “What was Behind Mexico’s Peasant Revolution” at Note 13.

[18] Op. cit., Sullivan and Bunker, ““Rethinking insurgency” at Note 9.

[19] Ioan Grillo, El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012.

[20] Jenna Bowley, “Robin Hood or Villain.” Thesis, Honors College 109, The University of Maine, 2013: pp. 6–46,

[21] Op. cit., Sullivan and Bunker, ““Rethinking insurgency” at Note 9.

[22] Op cit. Bunker and Sullivan “Cartel Evolution” at Note 8.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Mexican President Disputes DEA Estimates of Cartel Strength.” Reuters. 28 July 2023, s-cartel-strength-2023-07-28/.

[25] See “Global Corruption Barometer: Latin America and the Caribbean.” Transparency International, 2019, and Global Study on Homicide, Vienna: UNDOC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). 2019,

[26]  “Encuesta Nacional de Calidad e Impacto Gubernamental.” Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI). 2019, pales_resultados.pdf.

[27] “Encuesta Nacional de Calidad e Impacto Gubernamental.” Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI). 2021, pales_resultados.pdf.

[28] Op. cit., Sheridan, “Mexico’s Government Control Threatened by Criminal Groups” at Note 5.

[29] Op. cit., Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels at Note 16.

[30] Op. cit., INEGI at Note 26.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Op. cit., Sullivan and Bunker, ““Rethinking insurgency” at Note 9.

[33] Sol Prendido, “Mencho Oseguera Video Message to Citizens of Michoacán.” Borderland Beat. 3 June 2023,

[34] Daniel Weisz Argomedo, “Calling to End the Killing of the Clergy: Information Operations of the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación.” Small Wars Journal. 20 August 2022,

[35] Op. cit., Prendido, ““Mencho Oseguera Video” at Note 32.

[36] John P. Sullivan, “Skullduggery or Social Banditry? Cartel Humanitarian Aid.” Small Wars Journal. 25 November 2013, ry-or-social-banditry-cartel-humanitarian-aid.

[37] Op. cit., Sullivan and Bunker, “Rethinking insurgency” at Note 9.

[38] Op. cit., Hobsbawm, Bandits at Note 4.

[39] Narco Cultura. Directed by Shaul Schwarz. New York: Docurama Films, 2013. See also, John P. Sullivan, Khirin A. Bunker, and Robert J. Bunker, “Film Review: Narco Cultura – A Tale of Three Cities. Small Wars Journal. 20 December 2013,

[40] Ibid.

[41] William Calvo-Quirós, Jesús Malverde: A Saint of the People, for the People' Undocumented Saints: The Politics of Migrating Devotions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

[42] Ibid.

[43] “Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region.” Pew Research Center. 2014,

[44] Ibid.

[45] Arturo Angel, “Mexico Narco Messages Reflect Weakness of State Institutions.” InSight Crime. 1 May 2017,

[46] Op. cit., INEGI at Note 26.  

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Chase Whitehouse is an undergraduate student at American University in Washington, DC. He is pursuing a bachelor's degree in International Relations and aspires to attain a PhD in Political Science. He is currently a fellow at the Pericles Institute and a reviewer for Clocks and Clouds, American University’s Journal on National and Global Affairs.