Terrorism in Mexico, Misperceptions and Misconceptions

AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills
By Mauricio Meschoulam

“How can you actually live there?” an American PhD student colleague asked me just a month ago. “Aren’t they shooting each other in the streets all the time?” “Watch out, you might be killed for what you’re writing about”. If outside of Mexico the general perception about the country is like this, inside of our borders the situation is not very different. A recent survey revealed that most people believe that more civilians than cartel members have been killed in the drug war, which is very far from the truth. 

It also demonstrates that participants broadly identify a much higher number of deaths than the actual numbers. The residents of Mérida, in the state of Yucatán, one of the most secure areas in the country, show similar levels of pessimism and distress, as those areas situated much closer to the violent events. It is evident that we are under two very different phenomena.

On one front, the war against organized crime is being fought in several regions to regain control and the monopoly of force by the state. The efficiency of the strategies being used has been largely questioned, but this is not the manifestation, which is being referred to in this article. This first topic relates to the direct victims of violence. These are not small numbers of people, and they should be regarded with the priority that is required. On another front, however, a very different type of war is being fought by cartels: the psychological one. This may be, in some specific instances, called terrorism.

The word terrorism, although not a neutral term, is in essence a description for what has been employed by the criminal organizations as a communication tool. In a terrorist attack, violence is specifically addressed to civilians or non-combatants, not with the military purpose of physically damaging that population, but with the definite purpose of propagating terror and panic among a much wider population. Collective stress is usually transmitted and reproduced by the mass media (and now by non-traditional media, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or a blog). According to most authors, this manifestation seeks for psychological, not necessarily mortal victims. It is used as an instrument to change attitudes, opinions and behavior in broad masses of public. This description explains many of the directed events we are witnessing, and the alteration of the social perception about what precisely is going on.

Mexican cartels, however, do not operate exactly as other well-known organizations in the world. Sometimes an attack such as a car bomb, is targeted towards a particular police headquarter. In some instances, the purpose of the attack is to kill certain police officers. In other events, the objective is to convey a broad message. In any case, the psycho-social impacts towards the large population which have access to the mass media, or to a YouTube video, are very similar. These types of manifestations remain broadly unstudied in Mexico. In order to understand more accurately what is taking place, we have had to use studies from different places. We have also had to employ “invented” terms, such as proto-terrorism or quasi-terrorism to describe incidents in which the violence was not specifically directed towards civilians, but which have had similar effects in the society at large.

Pursuant to the complex combination of factors, the level of pessimism has increased in the last six months to numbers that we had not seen in many decades. People in general, sense that President Felipe Calderón is losing this war. That is precisely what this communication strategy looks for. There is a theater of operations, there is a stage, there is an audience and finally there is a message: we, cartels, are in control, not your government. The war strategies can be correct or incorrect, that is not the point. Our opinions about them are being psychologically manipulated. That is the issue. Fighting not only against the criminal organizations, but also against the psycho-social impact that the war is producing becomes, therefore, a national priority.    


Mauricio Meschoulam is a Professor in International Relations and History at the Ibero-American University in Mexico. His research interests include terrorism, peace-building and mediation. He is also an Invited Columnist for the Mexican Newspaper El Universal, and a Member of the Research and Teaching Centre for Latin America and the Middle East (CIDAM).


29 December 2010


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills