During the last decade, criminal organizations have been taking advantage of the new digital environments to achieve part of their objectives, such as recruiting young audiences (through a media establishment of the so-called “narcoculture” presented as an attractive way of life), transmitting communications to the political sector, sending threatening messages to other organizations, demonstrating power and territorial control, among others.
On the other hand, many Latin American defense and security organizations have not yet managed to incorporate – within their doctrines, planning, and activities – these new trends that go hand in hand with the development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and that impacts the daily lives of millions of citizens. Consequently, the government sector should carry out cultural and institutional transformations that allow them not only to have a better and greater approach to this new space of confrontation (such as big data), but also to take advantage of it to establish solid public policies focused on democratic values.
In this article, the author analyzes the double dimension of the role that communication fulfills in the context of hybrid conflicts, presents some uses of social networks by criminal organizations (such as the Nuevo Jalisco Cartel), and raises the need to adapt the doctrines and activities of public bodies to virtual, social, and technological practices.
Towards a new paradigm of the use of communication
Before the emergence of COVID-19, millions of citizens were already part of virtual environments where they developed their daily social practices. However, this trend deepened even more due to the pandemic, so any type of threat to defense and security will be enhanced through the internet and social networks. However, although it will not replace traditional practices, it will have a greater impact on the definition of social and political agendas, as well as on the construction of meaning and frames of reference for the interpretation and subsequent action of those who consume its contents. This situation will develop the capacity to generate new worldviews in large social sectors, although not necessarily in the current areas of influence of many criminal organizations.
According to the above, it can be affirmed that whoever controls the new information and communication spaces (today already public through social networks and internet pages), as well as their corresponding management, will gain power over a good part of the ideological system and emotional citizens. In other words, ICTs are beginning to take on a new role in issues related to hybrid conflicts between countries and non-state actors (organized crime organizations, drug trafficking, subversive movements, criminal organizations, among others), which try to undermine the values system and governmental and institutional credibility, in addition to creating new legitimation systems. It is in this scenario where communication becomes multidimensional and holistic, and can be approached in two ways1:
- As a cultural dimension, made up of all kinds of expressions, both verbal and non-verbal, which is reflected through the thoughts, narratives and actions of the members of an organization and / or community. In this sense, this dimension can and should be considered within strategic planning, either to seek a way both to influence the making of certain decisions, and to consolidate or change them, among other possible variables.
- As a process within planning, where information and communication (verbal and non-verbal) are used as instruments of power to generate different effects on audiences considered “objectives”, such as mobilizing them, achieving alliances, building legitimacy, among others. The main purpose is to generate resources and capacities from the creation of new specialized institutional spaces that facilitate the realization of the global and holistic project. For example, NATO incorporated the doctrine called “Stratcom” into its strategic planning and subsequently adapted its internal structure to ensure its proper functioning. Communication is conceived as strategic, since it is located at the highest level of decision-making in the organization, its use is planned, coordinated, and integrated to all resources and capacities, as well as serving as support to achieve strategic objectives. It can be used as a power factor that is used as a multiplier element of force and, in turn, as a facilitating and supporting element for decisions and policies that are carried out in all possible scenarios.
Taking these postulates to more concrete events at the threat level, more global organizations, such as ISIS, had a great spread and impact on international public opinion through a wide propaganda apparatus in order to achieve greater international repercussion. This propaganda facilitates the recruitment of a large number of people. In Latin America, the “Jalisco Nueva Generación” Cartel or the “Nueva Familia Michoacana” Cartel are clear examples of how the dissemination of their actions took on a public dimension through the incorporation of the media – mainly the internet – within their strategic planning.
Currently, the narcoculture – especially Mexican – is visible among young people through social networks (for example: Tik Tok), being a rising social phenomenon that exposes both symbols of economic power (money, exotic animals, mansions, luxurious cars , weapons, etc.) as violent methods they use to sustain and expand their businesses. Unfortunately, the narcoculture has been highly attractive for some youth groups.
These practices are not new, they have been going on for almost a decade, but the rise of television series related to criminal organizations, advertisements and messages for specific purposes created by the cartels are a new threat that many states are unable to detect in time, or effectively counteract once the communication was made public.
The construction of a new narrative in defense and security
Within the context of the information and communication society, where a large part of the citizens is linked through the internet, the discursive aspects and the world of the image have a leading role in the construction of new social and political paradigms; above all, in the face of conflicts of a hybrid nature.
To try to tackle this new problem, it is essential to analyze and understand the dynamism of the new environments (technological, economic, communicative, social and political) that condition the evolution of current and future events. Subsequently, it is necessary to place in it the projects and tactics of the intervening actors (from criminal groups to official organizations), in order to see the social and media positioning of each one, the human perceptions and behaviors (desirable and expected) of the senders and receivers of the messages, the channels and contents that they will use to guarantee the circulation of their messages, among other variables.
The purpose of this methodology, briefly presented, is to design and execute integrated, flexible and agile actions both in function of the governmental institutional project and in the fight against criminal organizations. In that sense, below are two key aspects to consider:
- From the organizations dedicated to defense and security, once the institutional conditions that will address this issue have been created, a coherent narrative must be built with the values that the State defends and promotes. In this framework, the narrative is understood as the set of messages that are defined at the highest political level in relation to security, detaching from it, different messages and content according to the interests and objectives sought among the actors and their audiences2. It is necessary to emphasize that these communications will become part of the identity and reputation of the institutions, so they must be transparent, truthful and be developed around positive values and images.
- Within the communication planning process, the audiences with which it is necessary to communicate should be studied in depth (whether for specific or global missions), both the best language and the channel to reach them should be evaluated and, from there, the possible effects that can occur after the interpretation of content and the ability to transform them into specific reflective and critical actions. For example, if one seeks to avoid disinformation processes in social networks, in the first place, citizens should have the ability to identify the different disinformation phenomena (fake news, trolls, bolts, others), preventing their spread. A similar situation occurs with the advertising of criminal organizations, where not always government agencies can detect their production and dissemination, but they can build new interpretive frameworks and practices among recipients (such as using official channels for reporting, avoiding intentionally promoting them, among others ), as well as establishing inter-sectoral agreements and with communications companies to limit criminal actions in their spaces, while consolidating democratic values and positive institutional images.
The pandemic: an opportunity to build an image close to the public
With the emergence and development of the pandemic generated by COVID-19, several armed forces around the world have gained greater prominence due to new actions associated with logistical support and assistance, guaranteeing – in many situations – compliance with other public policies, such as social and / or health, within a national geographic space not thought or planned.
Latin America was not the exception, which is why it has been operating in an unconventional terrain to the expected conflicts. Beyond the numerous questions that are present in the same organizations and in civil society about whether this new role will remain stable or transitory over time, these conditions are adequate to knowing, understanding, building and / or strengthening a new paradigm focused on the security – citizenship – ICT relationship, in the same national space.
With the development of virtual environments, threats are already installed in homes through any mobile device with connectivity. Added to this is the lack of control mechanisms for the content that is published, as well as the low costs and global reach that more than one criminal organization has been able to take advantage of to achieve its objectives.
Consequently, the new paradigms of defense and security establishments must consider these new conflict and confrontation scenarios where the main target or target audience is the citizens themselves. For this, they should develop institutional spaces, doctrines, policies and specific actions that try, for example: 1) detect communication strategies and projects based on the analysis of the media and content disseminated by criminal organizations -the audiences to which it is addressed and the goals they aspire to achieve- in such a way that points of vulnerability can be identified and act according to that analysis, 2) build and / or strengthen citizen awareness regarding the creation, reception, consumption and dissemination of messages and information that go against democratic values and, in turn, that are translated into actions aimed at preventing criminal actions.
The scenarios and criminal activities have been changing in the light of information and communication technologies, defense and security organizations cannot stay away from this reality, so a proactive attitude is expected in the face of these new spaces of power dispute.
- María Ana Leal, Conflictos políticos, poder y comunicación (Argentine: EdiUC, 2019), 129-130.
- Ibíd., 155.
- El Litoral, “Redes sociales: la nueva “ventana” del narcotráfico mexicano,” El Litoral (Santa Fe: December 17, 2020), https://www.ellitoral.com/index.php/id_um/273706-redes-sociales-la-nueva-ventana-del-narcotrafico-mexicano-cartel-tiktok-informacion-general.html
- Infobae, “El terror del narco alcanzó las redes sociales: las campañas digitales de los cárteles para mostrar su poderío,” Infobae (Mexico: December 8, 2019), https://www.infobae.com/america/mexico/2019/12/08/el-terror-del-narco-alcanzo-las-redes-sociales-las-campanas-digitales-de-los-carteles-para-mostrar-su-poderio/
- Oscar López, “Los cárteles mexicanos invaden Tik Tok,” The New York Times (New York: November 28, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/es/2020/11/28/espanol/america-latina/cartel-tiktok.html