Armed Hostilities

The Terrorist Aspects of Narcoterrorism


The presented project utilizes two cases from Mexico to discuss the terrorist aspects of narcoterrorism. Given the ongoing concerns regarding the appropriateness of the term, a contribution to this discussion was deemed useful. In addition, the gravity of the issue and the limited effectiveness of the currently deployed countermeasures justified the analysis of the phenomenon. The purpose of the project was to investigate the features of narcoterrorism that could qualify or disqualify it as a form of terrorism.

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Specifically, the project was meant to review two specific cases of narcoterrorism in accordance with the variables that are associated with terrorism (violence, motivation, agenda, and targets) to determine the specifics of narcoterrorism and the implications that they might have. The methodology was identified as a qualitative case study that involved the comparative method and was guided by the framework of substantive grounded theory (specifically, the comparative approach to it).

The project employed the highest-quality sources that it could encounter, including academic ones, as well as newspaper articles, governmental reports, and the reports of non-governmental organizations. The project’s limitations included the small number of cases, the specifics of their selection (cases with apparently terrorist features), and sources (no access to police reports was granted). The anticipated outcome consisted of establishing both similarities and differences between narcoterrorism and regular terrorism, which would imply the need to approach the issue with customized methods. The findings justify this hypothesis, and their analysis suggests that a review of approaches to countering narcoterrorism needs to consider its unique nature.


Mexico has been fighting the issue of narcoterrorism since the middle of the previous century, and the problem has been affecting other countries as well, especially the United States (US). However, the research related to narcoterrorism has not been very vast. A minor but promising trend in the literature on the topic is to compare the features of narcoterrorism to those of terrorism.1 The goal of that action is to discuss the validity of this term2 and to determine the interventions that might be appropriate for combating the phenomenon.3

The latter outcome is especially significant because of the amount of violence that is associated with narcoterrorism. Indeed, this phenomenon has been causing dramatic increases in the number of homicides in Mexico. The number of murders that were associated with narcoterrorism amounted to more than 33,000 in the previous year.4

This figure is the result of an almost 50% growth since 2011.5 Given the insufficient effectiveness of the currently employed countermeasures,6 the investigation of narcoterrorism is very important for the safety of Mexico, as well as other countries that its cartels have been involving in the drug trade. As a result, this project intends to respond to the question of what are the terrorist features of narcoterrorism attacks in Mexico, and what are their implications for security efforts, as shown through the comparison of two relevant cases?

Theory and Methodology

Theoretical Framework

The presented work uses a specific theoretical framework, and it will also contribute some information that may be used in the debate that is concerned with the concept of narcoterrorism. From the perspective of the framework, a form of grounded theory is utilized to guide the project. Specifically, the comparative substantive theory is the approach that assists in structuring the collection and analysis of the project’s data. From the perspective of this framework, theoretical propositions are generated through the comparative analysis of substantive evidence.7 This process results in distinguishing patterns that can be used to make potential suggestions about the character of the studied phenomenon.

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In the presented project, the data were collected to describe certain features of two narcoterrorism events, which were compared to determine the similarities and differences between them. The features of interest, which are described below, had been selected based on a literature review of narcoterrorism specifics. The theoretical work was aimed at determining the presence or absence of terrorism features, which, in turn, were used to answer the research question.

The selected number of cases (two) is an inherent limitation given the suggested theoretical framework.8 The similarities and differences within just two cases are not enough to make definitive claims about narcoterrorism as a whole.9 This issue will remain important while evaluating the results of the project, but it is justified since the small sample size enabled an in-depth investigation of each event, which was required for the presented methodology.


This project can be described as a qualitative multiple-case study that is based on the comparative method. The specifics of the studied phenomenon, the project’s intent and question, and the benefits of the approach determined the presented methodology. Indeed, the question that is stated above could only be explored through the methods that enable qualitative analysis,10 and it also required the comparison of different cases. The ability of the comparative method to produce findings that might be used for a substantive theory on narcoterrorism features is similarly helpful.11 The comparison of particular cases through their in-depth review can be achieved through a multiple-case study as well.12 Therefore, the methodology is sufficiently connected to the research question and consists of well-aligned elements, including its theoretical framework.

Regarding the more specific methods, the data for the case studies were collected from available resources that discussed narcoterrorism cases, including newspaper articles, governmental reports, the reports non-governmental organizations, and academic literature. The following variables have been introduced. Motivation refers to the reason for an act of terrorism (or narcoterrorism attack).13 It can be directly stated by the perpetrators or inferred to indicate the likely intention.

Similarly, agenda refers to the goal that may be directly stated or inferred based on the specifics of the attack.14 The targets of an act are the people who were directly attacked during an act of terrorism; their reporting was rather straightforward.15 Violence refers to the characteristic of an attack that is associated with the damage that it causes, as well as its brutality; it was determined by recounting relevant details.16

Terror attacks tend to share commonalities with respect to these characteristics, which are often used to define the term directly. From this perspective, the implications of terrorist and non-terrorist features are connected to whether or not it is reasonable to treat drug organizations and narcoterrorism as terrorist organizations and acts of terrorism.17

For this project, the motivation, agenda, targets, and violence of two narcoterrorism cases were determined and connected to the features that are typically ascribed to terrorist acts. The features were then compared (comparative method)18 and used to make conclusions about their similarities and differences and the implications of these patterns.19 The anticipated hypothesis was that the similarities of the cases would demonstrate some terrorism features while also indicating differences, which would be of importance to preventative and other measures in Mexico and abroad.

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Literature Review


Due to the ongoing debates associated with the term “narcoterrorism,” as well as the general lack of recent academic sources that would look into it, the topic needs to be further investigated. In this section, a literature review will be conducted for a project that intends to examine the terrorism features of narcoterrorism in Mexico and its implications for national and international security. The aim of the literature review consists of providing a summary of the key knowledge on the topic as related to the project’s variables (terrorism features) and key term (narcoterrorism).

Furthermore, the theoretical framework will be described and explained; since the project intends to draw conclusions from the comparison of terrorism features in two cases, the comparative substantive theory will be employed. The review will demonstrate the validity of the topic, justifying its study through the demonstration of knowledge gaps, and provide the context for the case analysis that will follow.

A Summary of the Current State of Knowledge

Background: Narcoterrorism as an International Threat and Actions Aimed at Reducing It

An important concern associated with narcoterrorism, including that from Mexico, is that it has the potential of becoming an international threat. This fact is associated both with the violence of drug cartels and the dangers of their usual operations, which consist of the production and distribution of various harmful and addictive substances.20 While this information is difficult to verify, some evidence suggests that depending on the drug type, up to 90% of the drugs that are currently used by the US citizens may have been trafficked into the country through Mexico.21 Both Mexico and the US have been attempting to reduce the problem by reinforcing border security and cooperating in other instances, for example, through the development of counter-drug and counter-terrorism initiatives. 22

In addition, Mexico is a part of international initiatives on counterterrorism; this fact demonstrates the viability of supranational efforts directed at reducing narcoterrorism.23 Given the potential and current negative outcomes of Mexican narcoterrorism, the consideration of its implications from the international perspective that is proposed in this research is justified.

Narcoterrorism in Mexico; A History of Countermeasures

The history of narcoterrorism in Mexico is worth exploring since its key features are associated with certain historical events. In Mexico, smuggling operations across the country’s border with the US had been formed by the 1950s; however, they used to be relatively peaceful.24 In particular, violent acts like kidnapping or murders were rare, and the politically oriented actions were limited to bribery. The situation started changing due to the War on Drugs in the US, which resulted in a reduced supply but increased demand for drugs, as well as some changes in the safety of drug trafficking.25

Internal events also had an impact on the nature of trafficking; specifically, after the arrest of Miguel Gallardo, who used to control most of the drug trafficking in the country until 1987, multiple drug cartels appeared, and they started competing for power.26

These competitions became increasingly violent because the North American Free Trade Agreement facilitated trade and trafficking in 1994, and the corrupt political party that used to support and control drug cartels (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) was removed from power in 1997.27 All these factors contributed to the increased violence performed by drug cartels with respect to each other’s members (in the course of competition and fight for territory that can also be termed as drug wars), as well as law enforcement and civilians.28

These days, the connection between drugs and crime is prominently displayed in the behavior of some of its largest crime syndicates. It can be claimed that this version of organized crime is responsible for a large portion of violent incidents in the country, and there appears to be an increase in such events, especially as related to homicides. For example, the number of drug-related homicides in 2007 for Mexico was 2,826 people, but in 2011, it amounted to 16,700.29 Reports of the number exceeding 33,000 in 2018 have been encountered as well.30 Currently, nine major drug-based criminal organizations can be found in Mexico.31

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Since the beginning of the 2000s, active steps were made to reduce corruption in the country and fight drug cartels, which resulted in increased incarceration and contraband seizures. These actions prompted the retaliation of the cartels with further increased violence.32 In response to that, the increased militarization of the country was initiated, and it had some positive effects, but it was constrained by corruption and the lack of specific skills and training that would enable the members of the military to address the issue of narcoterrorism.33

In addition, it has been demonstrated that the strategy of arresting the heads of cartels may be associated with a spike in violence both within cartels and with respect to the general population.34In other words, the problem of narcoterrorism in Mexico has not been resolved yet, and the strategies of its solution appear to have had unforeseen negative consequences. This issue may be at least partially attributable to non-specific solutions that did not take into account the specifics of narcoterrorism, including its terrorist features. From this perspective, the investigation of the latter is required.

The Existing Sources

The scarcity of relevant sources makes their quick overview a possibility; this section will help to establish the gaps within the gathered information. This review will focus on recent academic publications that consider narcoterrorism. The sources that study the terrorism aspect of this issue are a priority since they are directly relevant to the project. From this perspective, the most valuable articles are those by Mowell, Phillips, and Salt. Salt directly addresses the complex nature of the term “narcoterrorism,” investigating the features that might turn a drug organization into a terrorist one.35

Phillips dedicates an article to exploring the employment of terrorism tactics by Mexican cartels and other criminal organizations.36 Mowell does not focus on the terrorism aspects of narcoterrorism, but the author does mention them. In addition, this source provides a very extensive overview of Mexican narcoterrorism and an analysis of its specifics from the perspective of its national and international aspects.37

Additional data can be gathered from two38 articles39 by Trejo and Ley that present an analysis of the Mexican drug war. The authors use multiple methods, including interviews and the data that describe intercartel murders, as well as the murders of officials and politicians that have been connected to cartels. These sources offer a lot of evidence to the violent nature of narcoterrorism, even though the authors do not use that term.

Other helpful sources include the article by Kukreja,40 which provides an overview of narcoterrorism in Pakistan. It does not mention Mexico, but it can be used for a better understanding of narcoterrorism. Also, Ramirez and Muñiz41 analyze narcoterrorism in terms of its coverage by the media, and Ramirez, Madero, and Muñiz42 conducted interviews to investigate the impact that narcoterrorism has on human resource management, especially as related to adapting to dangerous environments. These articles are less connected to the topic of the project, but they are still concerned with narcoterrorism, which makes them valuable.

In summary, the number of recent academic sources that are fully or partially applicable to the project is not very large. Sources that discuss terrorism on its own,43 as well as drug-related crimes, may be easier to obtain, but since the information from them is generally also present within the more topic-specific articles and books, their contribution to this review will be relatively modest. As a result, the presented review is constrained by the scarcity of sources, but it will still be able to identify the project’s variables and terms.


From the perspective of the research question, the key terms that require consideration are terrorism and drug trafficking organizations. The latter one refers to a form of organized crime in which drug-related operations are carried out by large, often transnational organizations.44 The former is more difficult to define, but it can be viewed as a type of crime that is politically or religiously motivated, selective in its targets, and focused on violence and threats that are meant to achieve a particular agenda.45 While rather broad, this definition also incorporates the key variables that will be used for the analysis of the cases.46

Thus, in order to respond to the questions about the terrorist features of an event, the project will employ the variables of violence, motivation, targets, and agenda. The variables and common themes from the relevant literature will be discussed below.

Narcoterrorism: The Defining the Controversial Term

The main term that is being investigated is narcoterrorism, and it has been causing some controversy.47 Generally, narcoterrorism refers to the violent actions, as well as threats, that are performed by drug syndicates.48 Basically, it occurs when criminal organizations or individual criminals that are related to drug production or trafficking participate in terrorism.49 Given the controversy that is related to its terrorism-like features, as well as its specific features that distinguish it from terrorism, narcoterrorism was not always an accepted term. The Mexican government appeared to subscribe to the position that drug-related crimes cannot be terrorism-associated for many years.50 However, the idea that particularly violent cartels could indeed be considered terrorist organizations was expressed by it eventually.51

The primary motivation for this shift in perspective, as well as for the term in general, was that the drug organizations which cause significant destabilization of peace and order, disrespect human rights, and lead extremely violent acts that aim to terrorize,52 are similar in their motivations and actions to terrorist groups.53 Their terrorist features need to be discussed in detail to address the project’s variables.


Motivation, which refers to the reasons for committing acts of terror, is one of the most controversial features of narcoterrorism. Indeed, drug-related crime is usually economically motivated, but terrorism is associated with political or religious factors.54 It should be noted that finance-related terror attacks have been recorded, including, for example, the targeting of corporations or robberies, but the commonly accepted view is that terrorism is predominantly associated with politics or religion.55 This issue is the primary reason for Salt, for example, to highlight the importance of avoiding the application of the term “terrorism” to drug-related organizations.56

However, the author also notes that in the case of narcoterrorism, multiple motivations can be involved, which makes the term more valid. These complex motivations remain a feature that simultaneously connects narcoterrorism to terrorism and makes the two different.

Indeed, the term “narcoterrorism” was coined to describe acts that might be viewed as politically motivated. The origins of the word can be traced back to the 1980s, and it was initially used to define the violent attacks that targeted the anti-drug forces of Peru.57 An attack on the government’s forces would fit the criminal and economic agenda of cartels, but it cannot be considered apolitical. Similarly, the attempts to intimidate criminal and non-criminal organizations, as well as the public, into being complacent with cartel activities can be viewed as political. Finally, cartels often support insurgent movements, which makes them explicitly political in such instances.58

In the end, drug cartels fight for political power, and this pattern can manifest itself in their attempts to affect the political landscape of a country.59 Therefore, political motivations are not uncommon for drug organizations, which means that at least some of their activities may resemble terror attacks from the perspective of the motivation variable. In any case, since motivation is60 very61 frequently62 mentioned63 in relation to terrorism definitions, it makes sense to include this variable and analyze the project’s cases with respect to it.

Targets and Agenda

One of the key aspects of terrorism is that it has a particular goal or agenda64 that is supposed to be achieved through violence-related coercion. As a factor that is connected to motivation, it is an additional variable that can be used either on its own or to explain the potential motivations when they are not fully clear. The targets of terrorism are determined by the agenda, and they tend to consist of civilians, as well as governmental agents, including police and officials.65 From this perspective, narcoterrorism is not too different from regular terrorism; their targets are common in that both government-related individuals66 and civilians can be targeted.67

The goal of both terrorism and narcoterrorism is usually to instill fear, which can be used for coercive reasons to advance a political agenda; for narcoterrorism, the advancement of economic interests might also be relevant.68 It should also be noted that drug cartels may target their current or former members, as well as the members of other cartels, in which case the goal may be to terrorize the associated organization or prevent cartel members from disobeying.69 Therefore, the targets of narcoterrorism can be viewed as a terrorism feature, and its agendas may also be terrorism-like, which justifies the introduction of both variables, but some variation can be found.


Violence is a characteristic that unites terrorism and narcoterrorism.70 Among other things, the acts of narcoterrorism involve murders, bombing, and threatening messages, and any combinations of these elements.71 From the perspective of their impact on the infrastructure and morale of civilians, narcoterrorism acts can have the effects of regular terrorism.72

In other words, violence is one of the most terrorism-like features of narcoterrorism, which justifies its inclusion in the list of variables. It might also be helpful to note that the goal of intimidation and demoralization of the target is typical for narcoterrorism groups, and violence is the method of attaining this goal, which is associated with the group’s motivation and agenda.73 Thus, all the presented variables appear to be interconnected, which also explains their placement within terrorism definitions and justifies their consideration as the characteristic features that define the terrorism aspect of narcoterrorism.74

The Implications of the Variables for the Terminology

The non-specific analysis of the literature that covers the stated variables demonstrates that while drug organizations and their actions are different from terrorist ones, they are still exhibiting some very similar features. As suggested by Salt, it may not be helpful to label drug-related criminal organizations as terrorist organizations, but the term of “narcoterrorism” has its value in defining a form of crime that is connected to drugs and has the features of terrorism.75 Indeed, it has been long observed that terrorism and crime, including drug trafficking, tend to be interrelated.76 Therefore, narcoterrorism is a violent, harmful, damaging form of criminal activity, which makes it a threat to national and international security and justifies its investigation.


The cases that were chosen for the project exhibit at least some features of terror attacks. Both events were extremely violent; two mutilated bodies were found in 2011, and nine bodies were hanged on display in 2019 with ten more bodies associated with the same murders. Furthermore, in both cases, the aim to terrorize people was apparent in that banners with threats were placed near the bodies.77 Therefore, it will be possible to prove that the two cases have terrorist features. The primary implication that follows is that it would make sense to treat such cases as acts of terror. However, a more detailed investigation will show if there are significant factors that make the events differ from terrorism, modifying the steps that can be taken to respond to and prevent similar crimes.

Summary and Gaps in the Literature

The literature from this review covers the topics of narcoterrorism in general and in Mexico, including the history of cartel activities, their evaluation, and the countermeasures deployed against it. Some sources consider the value of terrorism feature analysis for narcoterrorism, and the debate associated with the term is covered well enough for the terrorism-like features of narcoterrorism to receive some definitions. Therefore, the presented literature allows identifying and operationalizing the project’s variables.

It should also be noted that the methodologies of the presented articles are helpful for the project. Thus, the majority of the narcoterrorism articles employed archival data and information about various narcoterrorism incidents from news outlets. Furthermore, Phillips and Salt investigated individual cases of narcoterrorism and analyzed them for terrorism and non-terrorism features, after which their comparison was performed. From this perspective, the articles can be used to guide the project’s methodology, including its theoretical framework.

The gaps in the studied literature are predominantly associated with its scarcity. Indeed, few articles and other types of reliable sources consider narcoterrorism in Mexico or topics that are closely connected to it. Three academic sources have been found that considered applying terrorism features to narcoterrorism, and only two of them went into significant detail in that analysis. They also have certain limitations, including the focus on news outlets as their sources (rather than primary sources, for instance, police reports). Also, Phillips directly states that certain cases of terrorism could have been overlooked and not included due to their invisibility to the press.78 Therefore, the relevant sources are scarce and may not be all-encompassing.

In addition, both these articles recommend future research; Salt directly suggests the continued investigation of the “dual nature” of narcoterrorism and its impact or implications,79 and Phillips proposes a continued analysis of terrorist features (or tactics) in organized crime.80 Therefore, the gap in research is definitely present. At the same time, the presented evidence demonstrates that narcoterrorism is indeed exhibiting rather specific features; some of them make it similar to terrorism, and other ones distinguish it in meaningful ways.81 Therefore, filling the identified gap may be most helpful for narcoterrorism-related security measures.

In addition, the term “narcoterrorism” remains contentious, which may be one of the causes of the scarcity of recent articles dedicated to it. The analysis of the terrorist features of narcoterrorism may provide some evidence to the relevance of the term and either support or discourage its use.82 This issue might not be a gap in knowledge, but since it is a contentious point in the related debate, the fact that the proposed project can contribute to its solution is notable.

Substantive Theory

The method and type of inquiry of this project are associated with comparison. Specifically, it is intended to use a comparative analysis of two cases to investigate terrorism features in narcoterrorism events and consider their implications, especially for the security of Mexico and other countries. This approach can be applied to social phenomena, and it is also commonly performed within qualitative studies, which fits the purpose of this project.83 From this perspective, the methodology is associated with a comparative approach to substantive theory, which is a part of the grounded theory methods.

The grounded theory refers to the development of theories from the data that are available at the time.84 The substantive theory is a type of grounded theory that emerges from empiric data and is related to a substantive (or empiric) subject.85 When compared to a formal theory, which deals with conceptual theorizing, a substantive theory is less generalizable but also more specific. Consequently, it is better suited for describing a particular topic that is being studied. A substantive theory might still be transferrable to similar contexts and cases, and it is supposed to be a step toward the development of formal grounded theories.86

Given the specifics of the project’s inquiry, it will be employing the comparative approach to substantive theory, which can be termed as comparative theory.87 The comparative analysis is used to generate substantive theory rather often.88 The process involves accumulating a sufficient amount of data for comparative analysis, which is then used to determine similarities, differences, and any other patterns in the studied cases. With a suitable number of cases, these patterns may become the ground for a substantive theory about the studied phenomenon.89

To summarize, the comparative theory provides the described project with a framework that will guide its processes. It links and orders the methods that have been chosen, including the comparative analysis, and demonstrates the way in which this approach should be used to answer the question. This theory is also suitable for qualitative research,90 which is the intended methodology of this project. Therefore, the comparative theory is appropriate for the project and will facilitate its completion.

Literature Overview

Few recent sources investigated the application of substantive comparative theory; this term is rarely mentioned. As an example, Klimek used the approach to investigate similarities and differences in food industries, which is a field of study that is not connected to the present project.91 However, the literature that covers grounded theory, as well as different approaches to it, is not difficult to obtain. Glaser and Strauss, for instance, offer a very extensive overview of this framework, and their book has been used for this project.92

Other than that, Beck’s study of revolutions was employed to observe the comparative method in practice,93 and for case study theory, Yin’s source was studied.94 Overall, the existing literature covers this project’s methodological approaches, and some of the sources apply it to qualitative projects. There is no research on narcoterrorism that would explicitly comment on using similar methods, but the two primary95 articles96 of the project employ comparisons. Therefore, the existing literature supports the presented approach.


This section introduced an overview of the current state of knowledge related to narcoterrorism and narcoterrorism in Mexico, which will be required for the analysis of individual cases. The project’s variables, including the features of terrorism, have been identified and defined with the help of academic sources, which will facilitate their investigation. The gaps in the knowledge, which are related to its general scarcity and the contentious nature of the main term, will become the focus of the project because it will consider the terrorism aspects of narcoterrorism, thus offering some evidence to the usefulness of the term.

Finally, the review helped to define the substantive theory that will guide the rest of the project; in particular, the comparative approach to grounded theory can be the framework that ties together the entirety of its methodology and procedures.

Analysis and Findings


Available Sources and Case Selection

The project sought cases that would exhibit some terrorism features and serve as examples of some common patterns within narcoterrorism. From this perspective, the sample selection was purposeful, and the findings will be affected by this choice. However, this method was also helpful in that it allowed showcasing the reasons for labeling narcoterrorism as terrorism. Furthermore, the project focused on the events that had the most data about them coming from reputable sources, especially academic ones. The search failed to obtain governmental documents or police reports that were published in Mexico, but governmental reports from the United97 States,98 as well as those by non-governmental organizations,99 were located.

The search for newspapers yielded the most data,100 and journal articles and books also contained some information. Certain sources that are presented in this report are not very recent, but since one of the described events is not recent either, this feature is indicative of the sources’ ability to represent the described cases.

Case Data

Two specific cases that were illustrative of wider problems were selected. In 2011, the body of María Elizabeth Macías, who had been 39 years old, was found along with a note which stated that the reason for her murder was her posting information about crime in social media.101 The woman had been beheaded, and both her head and body were deliberately displayed;102 headphones and a keyboard were left next to her body along with the message.103 This murder was one of many incidents that involved cartels focusing on journalists.104

In 2016, a 33-year-old politician Gisela Mota, who had been elected the day prior as the mayor of her town, was accosted at home by four (or more) men and shot multiple times in front of her family, including children.105 She was dedicated to the idea of fighting crime, including narcoterrorism, and it was assumed that she might have been targeted for her political position.106 The case was connected to drug cartel operations; specifically, the organization Los Rojos was suspected of the act.107 The targeting of political figures is also a pattern for narcoterrorism.108



Any murder is a violent crime,109 but one of the specifics of Mexican narcoterrorism110 is brutality.111 Dismembering is a specific violence tactic employed by Mexican cartels; for such cases, the term of “organized-crime style” was introduced.112 Phillips also notes the tendency of terrorist and criminal groups to employ “communicative violence,” and the first case is a clear example of this feature.113 In the second case, the presence of communicative violence is questionable since no direct statements about the reasons for the mayor’s death were given.114 However, the event can be considered a high-profile killing, and the fact that the woman was shot multiple times in front of her family remains a factor that can be used to instill fear in other politicians.115 Thus, the presence of terrorism-like violence in both cases is undeniable.


It is apparent that the targets of both cases were chosen deliberately. For the first case, a media person was targeted because of her coverage of cartel crimes. She was one of the multiple journalists and social media victims who were murdered by cartels over the years;116 cartels also proceed to target the representatives of this occupation,117 which makes Mexico dangerous for them.118 For the second case, a politician was chosen, which is also a rather common behavior for Mexican drug organizations119 that has remained prevalent over the years.120 Thus, the targets of the two cases are different, but they are indicative of similarly persistent patterns in narcoterrorism. It is also noteworthy that both of the victims were women, which is somewhat unusual for drug organizations.121

As pointed out by Phillips, the attitudes of traditional terrorists toward media are usually less hostile, although the notorious Charlie Hebdo event can be noted as an exception.122 On the other hand, targeting politicians is logical for a terrorist organization, which likens the second event to terrorist activities.123

In fact, Trejo and Ley claim that high-profile murders are not a common decision for a criminal organization since such events attract the sort of governmental and law enforcement attention that they would try to avoid.124 From this perspective, narcoterrorism murders are an outlier when compared to other criminal activity but not when viewed from the perspective of terrorists, who directly attempt to attract attention.125 Thus, the investigation of the targets yields different results; one of the cases is relatively atypical for terrorism, and the other one is atypical for organized criminal activity that is not terrorism.

Motivation and Agenda

In the first case, it is inferred126 by multiple127 sources128 that the goal of cartels was to shut down the different methods of informing the population about narcoterrorism and other crimes of drug-related organizations. Regarding the agenda of the second case, the alleged aim of the murder consisted of removing an inconvenient political figure, which is not uncommon for narcoterrorism.129 Both these agendas are associated with the overarching aim of control, which is very typical for narcoterrorism.130

Indeed, the inability of the media, including social media, to cover the activities of cartels is convenient for them due to the population and law enforcement learning less about them.131 As a result, drug cartels may try to infiltrate and otherwise compromise news outlets and control the type of information that they produce.132 In addition, this motivation is directly connected to the cartel’s criminal interests, which are related to their ability to perform illegal operations and receive profit. However, few criminal organizations attempt to control the media. In fact, this approach has caused the relationship between the cartels and the government to be likened to a war, which is not a common descriptor.133

The attempts to control media are not exactly common for terrorist organizations either, although they do try to attract the attention of media and receive coverage of their activities.134 Therefore, the motivation of the first case is rather complex and not entirely terrorist; rather, it is a specific feature of narcoterrorism’s attempts to render a country vulnerable by reducing its access to information.

As for the motivation of the second case, it can only be inferred, but the research that has been conducted on this issue may be helpful in this regard. Thus, it is generally135 assumed136 that the assassinations of political figures are an attempt to facilitate narcoterrorists’ control over particular areas. This motivation is simultaneously political and economic;137 while the control and infiltration of governmental structures is inherently a political activity, its end goal is to facilitate drug-related operations, which are performed for the sake of profit. However, due to the attempts to usurp power, this tactic became one of the reasons for terming narcoterrorism organizations and activities as insurgent.138

As a result, the motivations and agenda of both cases illustrate the rather specific relationships between narcoterrorism organizations and their government, which are not entirely common for either terrorism or general organized crime.

Comparisons and Results

Thus, the presented cases differ in targets, direct agendas, and levels of violence. Furthermore, the motivations for the cases are technically different, but they are also interconnected. Both cases demonstrate the tendency of narcoterrorism to engage in a power struggle with the government. Research suggests that such activities, especially in terms of violence against media and politicians, are uncommon for terrorism and organized crime (respectively).

In addition, while the direct agendas and motivations of the cases appear to be political, the literature draws attention to the economic outcomes of cartels gaining power over media (information) and political or geographic regions. Therefore, while there are surface differences between the cases, they are also very similar in that they serve the same general goal (control and related profit), which is atypical for terrorism.


This project is limited by its design, case selection, and data sources. As a case study that aimed to compare the features of two cases of narcoterrorism, the project cannot be used to represent narcoterrorism or even Mexican narcoterrorism at large reliably. This approach was justified by the intent to study the events in detail, which is appropriate for a case study,139 but it is an important limiting factor that remains significant even in qualitative research.140 The issues that stem from the small sample size are also compounded by the sampling method; the project searched for the events that appeared to qualify for terrorism. Therefore, the presented cases are exemplary events of narcoterrorism; other incidents might be less evidently terrorist in nature.

It should be pointed out that both cases are direct examples of wider problems. Both of them were individual events among a number of similar events, which both justifies their choice and also lends some legitimacy to using them as examples of narcoterrorism. However, they are still individual cases, and excessive generalizations are not appropriate for a project that uses the methodology of a case study.

Finally, the fact that the data were not taken from what could be considered primary sources (specifically, police reports) should be mentioned. In this regard, the project was constrained by the lack of access to Mexican police departments. This issue was managed by searching for the events that were well-studied and by introducing multiple sources of data. While the fact that less-studied events were not considered is another limitation that restricted the number of available cases, these precautions should have improved the quality of the findings by improving the quality of the sources. To summarize, certain issues that prevent this investigation from delivering generalizable results are noteworthy, but they are mostly justified and have been balanced to allow the project to contribute some information on the topic of narcoterrorism.


A search for credible sources allowed locating the data about the events that could be classified as narcoterrorism. The analysis of their features (as arranged in accordance with the variables that are associated with terrorism) demonstrates that they are simultaneously similar to terrorism and different from it. Moreover, sufficient differences were found between terrorism, organized crime, and narcoterrorism to justify viewing the latter as a very specific phenomenon.


This project aimed to test the hypothesis of the presence of some terrorist features within narcoterrorism cases, and it also intended to determine the related implications of the findings for the term and the strategies of combating the phenomenon. As can be seen from the comparative analysis of the two cases within the context of the general knowledge on terrorism and organized crime, the events that are commonly labeled as narcoterrorism have mixed features.

The aspects that could be considered very terror-like are violence and the political motivations that have been identified for both cases. Indeed, the described targets are a testimony to the narcoterrorism’s struggle for control, and the direct agendas of shutting down the media and removing an inconvenient political figure are political in nature. Since terrorism is a political or religious type of crime,141 the similarities between the cases and instances of terrorism can be found.

However, those political motivations are still rather different from general terrorism motivations. These differences are the reason for terming the relationships between narcoterrorism organizations and governments as war-like142 or insurgent-like.143 Indeed, while policy changes are a common feature of terrorist activities, the goal of controlling the media and political landscape of a country appears to be a narcoterrorism feature. In addition, the underlying economic motivation remained visible for both cases; for narcoterrorism, control is ultimately associated with profit. Thus, while there exist similarities between terrorism and narcoterrorism, certain crucial differences are also found.

The project also uncovered differences between narcoterrorism and general crime. While it was not the original intent, the fact that one of the cases (specifically, high-profile murdering) is atypical for the common organized crime activities is significant.144 On the other hand, the other case is relatively atypical for terrorism activities; journalists are generally not directly targeted by terrorists for murder because they are journalists.145 However, both terrorism and narcoterrorism demonstrate an interest in the media, even though the latter appears to show greater intent to control them.

To summarize, the fact that narcoterrorism demonstrates patterns that are not characteristic of either terrorism or other types of organized crime appears to justify the existence of the term, as well as the development of specific, narcoterrorism-focused solutions. Evidence demonstrates that the activities which are generally efficient with usual organized crime (for instance, the removal of leaders) are not very effective with narcoterrorism.146

Therefore, this project implies it is reasonable to reevaluate anti-narcoterrorism activities based on their terrorism and non-terrorism features. In addition, the results do support the initial hypothesis that there are some terrorist features in narcoterrorism cases combined with significant differences between the two.

It should be noted that this project has the important limitations of a small sample that was chosen purposefully to represent the events that are associated with terrorism. In addition, the differences between the two cases imply that different types of narcoterrorism might be found, but the small sample size prevents this project from making conclusions in this regard. Still, given the prevalence of narcoterrorism events, including the ones that are very similar to the chosen cases, the project can contribute some information to the current debate. The presented data can be used both to support (or contest) the validity of the currently used terminology and to advocate for a change in the way narcoterrorism is currently treated.


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Calderón, Laura Y. An Analysis of Mayoral Assassinations in Mexico, 2000-17. San Diego: Justice in Mexico, 2018.

Calderón, Laura Y., Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk. “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico: Analysis through 2018.” Justice in Mexico Project.

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Cook, Colleen W. “Mexico’s Drug Cartels.” Congressional Research Service. 2007.

Creswell, John, and David Creswell. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2017.

Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Klimek, Bjørn. “Macro-qualitative Comparisons: Grounded Theory and the Comparative Case of Norwegian and Danish Food Industries since the 1990s Transformations.Comparative Sociology 18, no. 3 (2019): 386-411.

Kukreja, Veena. “The Menace of Narco Power in Pakistan.Indian Journal of Public Administration 62, no. 2 (2016): 260-269.

Lakhani, Nina. “Young, Idealistic – and Dead: The Mexican Mayor Gunned down on Her Second Day.The Guardian. 2016.

Molzahn, Cory, Octavio Rodriguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk. “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis through 2012.” Justice in Mexico Project. 2013. Web.

Mowell, Barry. “Domestic and Transnational Dimensions of Counterterrorism Policy in Mexico.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Policy, edited by Scott Nicholas Romaniuk et al, 223-43. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2017.

Phillips, Brian J. “Terrorist Tactics by Criminal Organizations: The Mexican Case in Context.” Perspectives on Terrorism 12, no. 1 (2018): 46-63.

Ramirez, Jacobo, and Carlos Muñiz. “Framing Organized Crime and Entrepreneurs’ Reactions in Mexico: Variations in the International Press.Trends in Organized Crime 21, no. 1 (2018): 24-41.

Ramirez, Jacobo, Sergio Madero, and Carlos Muñiz. “The Impact of Narcoterrorism on HRM Systems.The International Journal of Human Resource Management 27, no. 19 (2016): 2202-2232.

Salt, Alexander. “Blurred Lines: Mexican Cartels and the Narco-Terrorism Debate.” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 18, no. 1 (2017): 166-188.

Shanahan, Timothy. “The Definition of Terrorism.” In Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies, edited by Richard Jackson, 103-13. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Trejo, Guillermo, and Sandra Ley. “High-Profile Criminal Violence: Why Drug Cartels Murder Government Officials and Party Candidates in Mexico.British Journal of Political Science: 1-27.

Trejo, Guillermo, and Sandra Ley. “Why Did Drug Cartels Go to War in Mexico? Subnational Party Alternation, the Breakdown of Criminal Protection, and the Onset of Large-Scale Violence.Comparative Political Studies 51, no. 7 (2018): 900-37.

UNESCO Press. “Director-General Condemns Murder of Mexican Journalist María Elizabeth Macías Urging Measures to End Killings.” UNESCO Press. 2011. Web.

Woodman, Stephen. “Terrorising the Truth: Journalists on the US Border Are Too Intimidated by Drug Cartels to Report What Is Happening.” Index on Censorship 48, no. 1 (2019): 11-13. Web.

Yin, Robert. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods. 6th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2017.


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  12. Robert Yin, Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods, 6th ed. (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2017), 15-16.
  13. Phillips, “Terrorist Tactics,” 46-7.
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  28. Congressional Research Service, “Mexico.”
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  31. Congressional Research Service, “Mexico.”
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  33. Mowell, “Domestic and Transnational Dimensions,” 236.
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  40. Kukreja, “The Menace,” 264-267.
  41. Jacobo Ramirez and Carlos Muñiz, “Framing Organized Crime and Entrepreneurs’ Reactions in Mexico: Variations in the International Press,” Trends in Organized Crime 21, no. 1 (2018): 24-5. Web.
  42. Ramirez, Madero and Muñiz, “The Impact of Narcoterrorism,” 2207.
  43. Timothy Shanahan, “The Definition of Terrorism,” in Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies, edited by Richard Jackson (New York: Routledge, 2016), 106-10.
  44. Congressional Research Service, “Mexico.”
  45. Mowell, “Domestic and Transnational Dimensions,” 228.
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