Home / Mexico & Central America / A Narco-Trafficking Reality : Transcending the Mexican Press

A Narco-Trafficking Reality : Transcending the Mexican Press

Mexico & Central America

Nota Roja making the headlines, downtown Culiacan – December 6, 2014 – AB / Noria Research ©

– Los Tigres del Norte

In Mexico there exists a no more convincing manifestation of the close relationship between the police, criminals and journalists than in the sector dominated by the so-called “nota roja”, “nota policiaca” o “crónica roja”1 . The evolution of this sector, historically classic to Mexican journalism, into a topic of greater public interest requires that we question the contemporaneous role of the written press in zones of violence2 that are highly influenced by organized crime. In this article, we propose to analyze the challenges to the transformations in the written press’ stance towards an intimate subject, “narco-trafficking” in Sinaloa.

 “Narco from Sinaloa” in the press, an “appellation d’origine contrôlée”

In Mexico, during the Porfiriato era (1876-1911), the appearance of the “nota roja” was tightly linked to the criminalization of the consumption and sale of alcohol – especially the consumption of pulque3 by the lowest social classes. At the beginning of the 20th century the prohibition of  drugs4 and the criminalization of marijuana and opium continued to stigmatize the use of such narcotics by the lowest classes and some groups of foreigners. Thus, in the early 40s in the Southern part of the Sinaloa, the media’s handling of the “police notes” focused primarily on the Asian population – credited for the introduction of opium to the State. Later, in contrast to the despised and stigmatized Asian population, the image of the native Sinaloa countryman of the hilly areas emerged. Wearing sandals and a hat, he was associated directly with the harvesting and exploitation of the poppy and marijuana. Over time, this figure would ostentatiously display his “success” through his manner of dress: boots, embroidered sandals and belts, silk shirts and golden accessories. Nowadays, although the media continues to reference men and women exhibiting an appearance known as “buchón”5, as stigmatic figures associated with drug trafficking, it has simultaneously become a label to which many young men and women aspire.

“Narco-trafficking”, the “narco-trafficker” and “the war against the “narco” are constant features of the current “nota roja”. These words and phrases have moved beyond the inner pages of newspapers and magazines to the front pages of newspapers such as Proceso, as well as weekly magazines such as Zeta from Tijuana and Río Doce from Culiacán. To understand this new semantic use of the “nota roja” in the press we must understand that it impacts many spheres of society, with cultural and ‘artistic’ repercussions that in many occasions generate profit and even fame to those who see in the prefix narco a profitable vein of expression that wafts between the morbid, the fictional and the reality.

Today, the prefix narco has become a fickle linguistic element that deforms rather than enhances; the prefix fails to explain but rather stigmatizes by putting to use a new but confusing definition of narco. The term can be manipulated with such ease that any transformation is accepted in the social, artistic and, above all, media contexts: narco-messages, narco-satanist, narco-entrepreneur, narco-politicians, narco-academics, narco-stores, narco-pets, narco-police officers, narco-journalists, narco-graves, narco-violence, narco-government, narco-war, narco-guerrilla, narco-museum and so on. The narco glossary might as well continue indefinitely since anything can be attached to this magnifying, sensationalist and vulgarizing prefix. Therefore, journalistic and academic articles and literary or artistic expression acquire an added value that guarantees readers, audience and even admirers if attached to the prevailing golden prefix: narco.

Fully understanding the phenomenon of narco-trafficking is like trying to remove make-up from a face, whose superficial image has been designed and colored by music, literature and other expressions. If the concept of “appellation d’origine contrôlée” is based on a geographical precedence and attempts to designate prestige from the high quality and reputation of its products, then the case of Sinaloa, however “good reputation” is not be found, invites us to look to other dimensions of the alleged Sinaloan particularism.

Considered as the crib and cradle of “narco-trafficking”6 in Mexico, it is well-known in Sinaloa that this economic phenomenon must be understood by way of its cultural expressions, in addition to its more complex historical and social implications. In what appears to be a reverse trend, it becomes clear upon qualifying and making visible the local social realities, that they without exception must be linked to the prefix narco. Which, from a marketing perspective sells, from a cultural perspective, entertains, and from a practical scenario, kills. Unsurprisingly, in Sinaloa products unrelated to drugs, such as music, religious items, literature, movies, art, crafts and an entire lifestyle connected to narco-trafficking have emerged. Such items acquire noteworthy national and international value by the label “100% Sinaloense origin” alone.

Narco”: a topic that ‘kills’ and ‘sells’

It cannot be certain that “marketing logics” are the only or main motivation for the use of nota roja in the headlines and front pages of journalism in Mexico. Particularly journalism in Sinaloa home to one of the most consolidated drug cartels in the world. However, marketing logics do represent an important factor in the evolution of the treatment of information. Researcher Arturo Santamaria notes the case of the weekly magazine Rio Doce from Culiacan, Sinaloa. The magazine’s directors acknowledged that when a topic related to narco is not published on the front page, sales fall by up to 50%. Moreover, Daniel Hallin7 notes that the weekly magazine Zeta, is specialized in highlighting the activities of drug cartels related to the power lobbies in Baja California. He critique lies mainly in that despite the fact that crime is a result of multiple factors, it is difficult to find explanations, such as unemployment or working conditions of agricultural communities.

In review of the covers and content of Proceso magazine8 of the years 2000, 2006 and 2012 (a period in which the “war against the narco” was conceived and developed in Mexico), we analyzed the evolution of the use of the narco topic, including “derivate topics” such as violence, money laundering and corruption connected to narco-trafficking.

Over a period of twelve years such topics progressed from secondary topics to front-page headlines. In the first year (2000), 77% of 52 publications did not display the narco topic in both the front cover and inside pages. Meanwhile, only 3.8% included narco as a front-page headline. By 2006, 49% of 53 publications did not mention the topic, either on the front or the inside pages, and only 1.9% published narco-trafficking or any of its derivates as a front-page topic. In 2012, out of the 52 publications of the magazine Proceso, only 3.9% were without the topic while 34.6% of the total publications of that year presented narco and any of its derivates as a front-page topic. To summarize, during the period of 2000-2012, narco-trafficking and the phenomena’s derivates went from 23% appearance in Proceso to taking one of the leading roles representing 95% of the publications’ subjects.9

Throughout the 2000-2012 period, Proceso drew on information from the country’s most violent zones, of those it featured prominently from the northern border of Mexico. The general perception was that journalists from the northern border and other troubled areas of the country put their lives in harms way when carrying out ‘detective’ work as investigators to murder cases related to drug trafficking and while conducting investigative journalism that uncovers official corruption.

Therefore, as of August 2005, the most important newspapers of the northern border regions of Mexico made public the decision to no longer investigate stories related to narco-trafficking and to publish exclusively official information about the topic. Jesus Blancornelas10, a journalist at Zeta magazine in Tijuana, was one of spokespeople of the decision, citing an agreement between journalists from Hermosillo, Los Mochis, Nuevo Laredo, Mexicali and Tijuana. Blancornelas mentioned, without specifying, once exception to the agreement. It can be assumed that the exception refers to the Sinaloa weekly magazine Río Doce in Culiacán, distinguished by its extensive and continuing coverage issues of narco-trafficking topics since its establishment in 2003  11

Sinaloa asserted its exceptionalism by not stopping to cover narco-topics. It would have broken a prominent tradition since the fifties of narrating gun fights among citizens, armed robberies, suicides, traffic accidents and following famous ‘outlaws’ of the time12. The day following the arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán demonstrated the relevance of such press coverage. Indeed, on February 22, 2014, newspapers sales doubled according to testimonies from local newspaper vendors. Moreover, on subsequent days some regional newspapers tripled their print run. The owner of one of the most famous newspaper stands in the port of Mazatlán said, “the more violent the front cover, the better a newspaper sells and if it is about narco, even better are the sales”.

The Paradoxical risk of “narco” coverage in Culiacán

A survey conducted with 92 journalists out of a sample of 106, including press directors and radio, television and internet news anchors, who cover police and local issues in Culiacan we found that 42.9% feel it is better to “to be based in and to publish official information when the topic is related to organized crime”. This implies avoiding investigating on one’s own and publishing the information presented in bulletins issued by governmental press offices at the local, state and Federal level. In a clear contradiction, 79.3% of the same journalists disagree with the statement “for safety reasons, journalists working on police cases should abide solely to press bulletins”. However, this discrepancy in the journalists’ answers to very similar situations regarding the use of information brings us to an interest in the impact of wording of the questions presented. Within the first question, the mention of “organized crime” suggests a justification for a lack of authentic investigative journalism. In the second case, the use of the term “press bulletins” instead of “official information” denotes the impact of “boletinero”, a pejorative title in journalistic jargon representing one who does not investigate and mainly relies on official information.

Journalist ethics and corruption are rarely discussed topics in the Sinaloan public sphere. However, bribery through money or gifts and preferential treatment, known as ‘el sobre’, ‘el chayote’ and ‘la charola’, is considered as an element of denigration to journalism and not as an issue of public debate. In the same study, only 20.6% reported believing that journalists in Culiacan work in adherence to the codes of ethics of journalism. There is even a significant fraction (34.8%) of journalists who consider that they have colleagues included on the narco-traffickers’ payroll (47.8% refrained from expressing an opinion on the topic). It is important to note, given the violence experienced by those who live in the region, for some the interviewees the narco-trafficker needs not employ direct threats to influence what is published in the press given that the journalists themselves – exceptional cases aside – would rather distance themselves from certain issues for reasons of personal safety. However, in other cases this silence is generated by complicity with narco-traffickers themselves that provide economic “aid” to some journalists.

It is worth noting that the period corresponding to the “war against the narco”, waged by the Federal government in Mexico, could be considered the golden era of Sinaloan narco-trafficking. During this golden era the union of journalists of Sinaloa, compared to those from other states of the republic, suffered ‘few casualties’. To use the terminology of war, two victims were reported, despite working in an area with the most powerful Mexican capos. In contrast, Veracruz, with the highest number of murdered journalists in Mexico today (10 victims over the 2006-2012 period and one journalist killed in 2014), is considered by the Committee to Protect Journalists as a  battlefield between organized criminal groups like Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel. For this reason Veracruz is considered one of the most dangerous states for journalists in Mexico13.

Culiacán is known as the birthplace of narco-trafficking in Mexico. This article analyses the various effects on regional press of the local hegemony of the Sinaloa cartel. Likewise, it is difficult to differentiate between imposed censorship and self-censorship. In other words, how can one tell whether the silence of the journalist, the lack of investigative journalism or ‘official’ journalism on issues of narco-trafficking correspond to intimidation or corruption14?

If we are to acknowledge that, just as it was described, Mexico experienced a period of “war against narco-trafficking” in which 9,390 people were killed from 2006 to 2012 in Sinaloa alone15, what we are witnessing is the adaptation of Sinaloan journalism historically accustomed scenes of violence, political corruption and drug trafficking. The dynamics of the negotiation of a narrator’s positionality to scenes of violence and death invite us to question the relationship between the journalist and a new type of “war journalism”16. Perhaps, with the distinction from “classical war journalism” to this new categorization might find its relevance by introducing the relationship between intimacy and its respective “threat”.

Considering the difficulties in qualifying its “official” character and the meaning of “ censorship/self-censorship”, is becomes important to question if and how journalism in Sinaloa has succeeded in bringing to a minimum “damages” and “casualties”. In this regard, it is important not to detract from the central role in its “narco-approach” which not only maximizes the “collateral benefits”, but also dramatically aggravates the “collateral damages”. In contrast to the central role of the old nota roja, which opened a public space to expose murders in 20th century Mexico17, today the sensationalist prefix “narco” renders null or minimizes the role of the press as a “discursive field” for justice, impunity, victims’ rights and obligations of the state. As such, the prefix deforms and makes invisible these social realities.


  1. “Yellow journalism” is called “la nota roja” or “the red news” in Mexico. It focuses mainly on stories related to crimes, homicides and violence in general. ↩︎
  2. Homicide rates indicate that the cities of Mazatlan and Culiacan in Sinaloa are among the 15 most violent cities in the world, only surpassed in Mexico by Ciudad Juarez, Acapulco, Torreon, Chihuahua and Durango. Figures are presented by the City Council for Public and Penal Justice Security, Civil Society. Available at http://www.seguridadjusticiaypaz.org.mx/biblioteca/finish/5-prensa/145-san-pedro-sula-honduras-la-ciudad-mas-violenta-del-mundo-juarez-la-segunda/0 ↩︎
  3. Pulque is a traditional alcoholic beverage made out of fermented agave sap. ↩︎
  4. Let us remember that the Mexican government aligned, in 1926, with the American directives that since 1914, through the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, forbade the use of narcotics with the exception of medicinal purposes. ↩︎
  5. The appearance of the term“buchón” often recurs in the current “nota roja”. Despite this, its evolution over the years is a poorly researched cultural phenomenon in Sinaloa. Initially referring to the image of the countryman from the hills, today “el buchón” is a social figure associated with criminality based on the way in which he speaks and dresses (beard, cap, polo shirt, running shoes and jeans).  These features, in contrast, could be considered as representative of the common Sinaloan. ↩︎
  6. “We Sinaloans, take the shame of being the state or origin, birthplace and school of narco-trafficking”. This quote ‘officialized’ the brand that historically followed Sinaloa and very particularly Culiacán. In January 2001 former Governor Juan S. Millán pronounced it barely eleven days before President Vicente Fox Quesada announced in Culiacán the National crusade against narco-trafficking and organized crime. See URL: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/primera/4584.html ↩︎
  7. Hallin, Daniel C. (2000), “La nota roja: periodismo popular y transición a al democracia en México”, América Latina Hoy, No. 25, pp. 35-43 ↩︎
  8. Proceso is the most influential magazine in México and the most prestigious as a critical voice, especially in the political area. It was born from censorship and the expulsion of a group of journalists led by Julio Scherer from Excélsior on July 8, 1975. See URL: http://www.proceso.com.mx/?page_id=7 ↩︎
  9. In the area of specialized magazines Proceso is the most widely read in México. In 2002 with a weekly circulation of 98,784 Proceso remained well above other magazines such as Milenio Semanal (46.725) and Newsweek en Español (30,000). See URL: http://sic.conaculta.gob.mx/centrodoc_documentos/457.pdf. In 2010 the magazine maintained its leadership with a circulation of 75.878 units, whereas Milenio Semanal reported a circulation of 35.964 copies. See URL: http://blogs.eluniversal.com.mx/wweblogs_detalle.php?p_fecha=2011-05-12&p_id_blog=28&p_id_tema=13897 ↩︎
  10. In 1997, journalist Jesús Blancornelas, co-founder of Zeta de Tijuana, survived an assassination attempt that left him seriously wounded. Years before, in 1988, Héctor Félix Miranda, his colleague and also co-founder of the weekly magazine was murdered. The publications and accusations made by the newspaper about the situation of narco-trafficking in the border zone were declared as motives for both cases. See URL: http://zetatijuana.com/ ↩︎
  11. Some media, especially foreign sources, consider that Río Doce is one of the few Mexican newspapers that seriously ‘investigates’ violence related to narco-trafficking. BUSINESS WEEK (April 26, 2012) “Alone, ‘Riodoce’ Covers the Mexican Drug Cartel Beat”. Available on URL: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-04-26/riodoce-covers-the-drug-cartel-beat ↩︎
  12. This statement is made from the hemerographic revision of the newspaper El Sol de Sinaloa identified as the oldest still in circulation in the Sinaloan capital. The selected newspapers were published over the first and second trimester of 1958 and the first trimester of 1959. ↩︎
  13. According to reports by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) 51 journalists were killed in the aforementioned period. In 16 states in Mexico, no murders were recorded, while in 15 states and the DF at least one murder was reported. Five states in Mexico account for 62.7% of the total with 32 murders (Veracruz, 10; Guerrero, 8; Michoacán, 5; Chihuahua, 5; and Oaxaca, 4). In so far as Sinaloa, with two cases, represents 3.9% of the total. RSF reported 32 murders of journalists in Mexico in 2006-2012, while the CPJ reported 48 cases, of which only 17 are classified as “motive confirmed” meaning “reasonably certain that a journalist was killed in direct reprisal for their work.” In the case of Sinaloa the CPJ classifies the two murders of journalists during the aforementioned period as “not confirmed” as it was not possible to ensure that the two murders were a result of journalistic performance. Sources: CPJ (available at URL https://cpj.org/) and RSF (available at URL http://www.rsf-es.org/) ↩︎
  14. The case of journalist Humberto Millán killed in Culiacan in August 2011, the only case recognized by Reporters Without Borders, was linked to political censorship. In his own words, he felt threatened, referring to “politicians, those who order killings”. In another case, the social activist Atilano Román, killed in a radio cabin while hosting his show in Mazatlan in October 2014 – was also referred by RSF.These cases  demonstrate the lack of space for denouncing political corruption in Sinaloa, where journalists have a tendency to make invisible such cases of corruption, addressing with a certain margin of comfort and saftey, issues of  violence and drug trafficking. ↩︎
  15. Statistics available at URL http://www.pgjesin.gob.mx/index.php/acciones-y-avances/incidencia-delictiva/alto-impacto-por-mes1 ↩︎
  16. Since 1942, journalist Byron Price – director of the Office of Censorship created during times of war by the government of the United States – warned that the word ‘censorship’ has always been despised and even rejected because of its limitations on a journalist’s competence. However, he defends censorship as ‘necessary’, to a certain degree, in wartime and argues that a ‘censorship process’ keeps the ‘enemy’ from knowing about the strategies carried out by the group to which the journalist belongs. Moreover, censorship allows for knowledge on what the ‘enemy’ is doing. See Price, Byron (Oct., 1942). “Governmental Censorship in War-Time”, The American Political Science Review, vol. 36 No. 5 pp. 837-849. American Political Science Association. Available on URL: http://ww.jstor.org/stable/1949286. In a more recent reference about “war journalism” the duty of the journalist is to serve their sense of national identity with an ethical practice even greater that would be displayed in times of peace. While at the same time warning about the risk of depending on unreliable official information, censored and characterized by government propaganda. See Allan, Stuart & Zeiizer, Barbie (2004). Reporting war. Journalism in wartime. Taylor & Francis Group, New York. ↩︎
  17. Piccato, Pablo (May-August, 2008). El significado politico del homicidio en México en el siglo XX. Cuicuilco, Vol. 15, No. 43, pp. 57-80 ↩︎