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The Narco Spectacle Can End

Romain Le Cour Grandmaison

Culiacán, Sinaloa. Two mythological words in the lexicon of drug traffickers in Mexico and around the world. If we add in the last name “Guzmán”, then things start to look like a caricature.

Thursday, October 17, 2019, in the state capital. It is 3:00 p.m. Time for people to have lunch, move around the city, get out of school, work, stroll around. The Federal Government of Mexico decided that it was a good time to launch a military operation aimed at capturing Ovidio Guzmán, the son of “you-know-who,” in the middle of the city. The tactical and strategic results were disastrous.

It is not the aim of this essay to discuss the efficacy of this operation, but rather to analyze the form in which it was transformed into a massive “spectacle” (for those people living outside of Culiacán), in the context of the “war on drugs.” The fact is that in Mexico, public stories of violence increasingly follow a pattern in which the spectacle is passively accepted, due to “its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.” [1] This essay asks questions about the spectacles of violence in Mexico, in particular, when they are created by non-state actors, setting aside the State’s role for a different essay.

First, a spectacle needs an adequate stage, both on a social and geographical level. It has been demonstrated, through several tragic events throughout 2020, that not all municipalities, or all the people who have died in Mexico, have the right to the same media-political coverage, and empathy varies a great deal according to the place, social standing, and ethnicity of the victims.

Second, the spectacle needs abundant, attractive material. It is not enough to convey the events in writing. The ideal thing is to be able to tell the story through a sizable number of videos produced by direct witnesses, locals, public safety forces, or security cameras, in addition to the protagonists themselves. Here is where smartphones and social media offer a continuous source of production and dissemination, which, by the way, is accepted and reproduced as a source for analysis or for informative purposes, with no critical distance, in most cases.

In the case of a city like Culiacán, on that Thursday at 3:00 p.m., we are dealing with a greater opportunity for spectacle. In fact, as soon as the news went live, social media took it upon themselves to broadcast, minute by minute, the gunfire, the deployment of armed men throughout the city, the testimonies of residents who were trapped inside, and the analysis of the situation by experts, most of whom were outside of Culiacán and of the State of Sinaloa entirely. Within a few hours, the date of October 17 was fetishized in the recent history of violence in Mexico.

This was amplified during the following days. Thus, the frenzied coverage did not stop until several days later, when the very last drops had been squeezed from the event. The important thing was for people to demonstrate that they “were in” Culiacán, in the heart of an event that, nonetheless, had already ended; providing “evidence” that these people were familiar with the city and its residents, primarily through “local sources” and, by extension, they were able to tell the story with all the legitimacy of Culiacán natives, without actually giving space to those voices. This is fundamental in the global information age.

Third, you need captivating actors, simple explanations, and definitive conclusions. A narco boss is the best. If you are in Culiacán with men whose last name is Guzmán, fantastic. This will make it possible to make use of the entire mythology of the narco, to do the “branding” for the event. In this case, it was branded as “The Battle of Culiacán,” along with some of its best subtitles: “A Real Life Netflix Show”; “Scenes of Violence that Look Like Syria”; or “The Victory of the Narcos.” A thousand metaphors to reach the conclusion imposed by the spectacle, one that we will have to stick with: the Mexican State has been defeated by the narcos. Culiacán was going to define a watershed moment in the history of violence in Mexico, establishing the “before” and “after” for the entire nation. Nothing would be the same after this.

This is where the metanarrative comes into play—the grand explanation. In Mexico, it is simple: “The Narcos vs. the State.” This is how it all begins and ends. It’s a tired old argument, but an incredibly powerful one: it makes it possible to give a recurring explanation to any violent event, without making even minimum levels of analysis of the circumstances. Thus, the paradigm of a war between the government and the drug traffickers connects professional fields with almost no variation, including journalists, analysts, academics, and, obviously, the communication services of the governments to come.

The ingredients of this narrative are well-known. The State and the criminals are ontologically opposed to one another. In order to exist, one of them must annihilate the other, in a perfectly black-and-white world. The theory is a dominant one, and difficult to criticize. Even in academia, the political science and criminology emerging from the United States (or inspired by said country) continues to produce studies that exist in a Weberian caricature of the State as the guaranteed holder of a monopoly of violence in its territory.

Far from this perspective, in Mexico, the State never disappears. In addition, it manages to consolidate itself as the central political space, in spite of, by means of, and against violence, legitimate or otherwise. The important thing is to understand that the organization of violence and its rules of usage are a co-creation: they are permanently negotiated, in more or less violent ways, between various public and private protagonists.

Nonetheless, the cause of this theory—beyond academic disputes—is important. An official history of violence is imposed. A story, filled with myths of drug traffickers, a profoundly ideological one, which explains Mexican society based on a separation between one part which is “healthy” and another that is “infected.” Crime, then—and, in particular, the “organized” form of it—represents an internal threat to the body of society, an anomaly that causes weakness and failure, and which must, as a result, be annihilated.

In addition, the narco-narrative is particularly fruitful because it is simultaneously fed by stories of actors who are extremely deviant, socially speaking—the “others”—and who are, at the same time, fascinating. This paradox is one of the glues that hold the narrative together, and is the key of its efficacy. It is based on an attraction to narcos, rifles, the aesthetic of war, and its masculine attributes: seductive violence, which participates in a form of voyeurism, and feeds into an endless supply of books, reports, documentaries, and fictional movies.

As it turns out, war sells. And when there are drug traffickers involved, even more so. The depiction of violence is a domestic and international business that several professional sectors depend on. The problem is when the war becomes something routine. The dead pile up, and explanations cannot be reinvented. The public, now driven away, grows tired and stops paying attention. They get used to horrific details. They are no longer excited or scandalized by anything. The result of this is the need to produce spectacles several times a year. Key moments, which need to be sold as a total, definitive rupture, in order to capture the public’s attention for days on end.

To this end, we need events that can pave the way to “wartime coverage.” Daily, chronic violence, even massacres that take place far away from the large centers of public attention, are no longer going to cut it. In contrast, the events of October 17 in Culiacán, the attack on the Undersecretary of Public Safety in Mexico City in June 2020, or the series of videos which have apparently been produced by criminal groups to show the assistance they offer in the time of Covid—or to show the world their weapons and armored vehicles—are the shoehorn of the science of violentology.

I would like to conclude, here, with two ideas that I believe are related to each other, but seldom analyzed. First, a sociological change of the international media, accompanied by a disciplinary and thematic development within academia, and finally, the consolidation of the sector of consultancy and expertise related to violence in Mexico.

First, several of the international correspondents—primarily from the United States—who currently cover Mexico have previously worked in the context of civil wars in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. This entails workplace habits—for instance, the heavy use of “fixers” to establish the scene—as well as a vocabulary and analytical framework that has been imported from areas of armed conflict. Second, there are increasingly more experts, NGO members, and academics who have been trained in “War Studies” and “Conflict Studies” in the United States or the United Kingdom, which is reflected in the increasingly larger importance given to “security analysts” in Mexico, a position which did not exist up to ten years ago.

This entails the increasingly common use of vocabulary inspired by war—insurgency, armed groups, armed conflict, and other more or less refined labels—as well as concepts such as a “weak” or “failed State.” This, as in the case of the media in relation to their respective public and the need to consolidate their audience, has a great deal to do with the struggle to convince donors that the situation in Mexico merits investing resources. If the violence is of a social nature, if it turns out to be the product of complex historical dynamics, if it is not the stuff of spectacle, is not a threat for healthy social order, then the donors will not be convinced of the sense of urgency. The strength of the drug war narrative cannot be understood outside of the need to feed threats in order to ensure financing.

This development has concrete effects on the social and political reality in Mexico. The paradox here, as we research in the Noria Program for Mexico and Central America, is that a broad sector that seeks to critique the war on drugs disregards the structural dynamics—be they social, economic, political, or cultural—in order to give increasing focus to a “positivist” view of the violence. As if violence existed in and of itself. As if it grew on trees. As if every violent event had to be an unprecedented spectacle in order to be interesting. This, as with the example of Culiacán, ends up paving the way for repressive security policies. In arguing that violence is the product of weakness, it is generally deduced that the solution lies in greater strength, which eventually translates into more policies of the iron fist and militarization.

It should be noted that the authorities play a crucial role in all this. Building stories of enemies and internal threats is a classic task in the formation of States, a topic that we will discuss in a later essay. It turns out, for several sectors that already make their living from violence, exactly the same thing occurs. Binary explanations, and capitalization on events of spectacle, make it possible to keep growing, and keep selling. If the spectacle ends, the business dries up as well.

That is why Culiacán was so perfect. And it does not matter whether the “watershed moment” that was predicted never came to pass, whether the State failed to disappear and the narcos, whoever they are, have not taken control of Mexico by now. Meanwhile, the daily nature of violence, whose analysis requires more time and attention, is being made increasingly more invisible.


Romain Le Cour Grandmaison holds a Doctorate of Political Science from the University of Sorbonne. He is Co-founder of Noria Research and coordinator of the Mexico and Central America program, and a Fellow at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

[1] DEBORD, Guy, La sociedad del espectáculo [The Society of the Spectacle], Ediciones Naufragio, 1995

This project is a joint effort between the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, the Noria Mexico-Central America program, and Revista Espejo.

La versión en español se encuentra aquí

Click here for a PDF version of this project in English. Para el PDF en español da click aquí

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