Abstract: This paper explores the role a specific kind of entertainment product may have on higher acceptance of violence and of ‘hard line’ security policies to combat it; the author analyses so-called narcoseries through a review of communication concepts within cultivation theory, and explains how they use narrative to create empathy for violent protagonists, thus affecting attitudes and behaviors towards violence and efforts to curb it. This paper also presents new possible avenues for related research and discusses possible policy implications with relevance in security circles.
Bottom-line-up-front: Narcoseries can increase tolerance for both violence and ‘hard line’ security policies, creating skewed incentives that could prevent actual violence reductions; additionally, further research is needed to determine how violent groups or governments may use this type of narratives to promote their agendas.
Problem statement: How is it possible to explain popular support towards the militarization of public security in Mexico, especially in the light of increased Human Rights violations that do not yield better results?
In recent decades, Mexico has been deeply affected by drug trafficking, the violence it spurs, and the ongoing efforts of the government to curb it; and the Western Hemisphere has been battling a wide range of issues regarding extreme violence produced by transnational criminal activity. Moreover, while different countries label Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) either as public security, internal security or national security threat for varying legal aspects, the reality the Western Hemisphere in general, and Latin America in particular, faces is one of growing violence and reduced state capacity to cope with the effects of that violence.
In the Mexican case, billions of dollars have been spent by the Mexican government, as well as the US government and international organizations through a host of international aid mechanisms, such as the Merida Initiative. Many question the Mexican government’s strategy and results. In fact, although overall violence – especially murder rates – has increased in recent years, spending as a percentage of GDP has, in average, remained at the same level between 2009 and 2019 This juxtaposed logic is further complicated by the militarization of public security in Mexico. From 2019 onward, the National Guard, a branch specially created within the Mexican Army and Air Force, has assumed responsibility for all public security tasks – including combating TCOs – at the federal level.
This last militarization measure was not implemented without controversy. The Army/Air Force and the Navy have been participating in public security strategies since the late 1990s; over different presidential administrations, the logic has been relatively unchanged: they perform public security tasks because civilian police forces are ill-prepared to do it. Though there was a brief period of civilian police institution building, the Armed Forces were never withdrawn from the public security arena. While some argue that their continued participation was needed because civilian forces could not handle criminal violence on their own, others point that it was precisely their participation that contributed to spiralling violence and growing Human Rights violations. Many of such Human Rights violations include high-profile cases such as the killing of a major drug kingpin during his arrest, the extra-judicial execution in Tlatlaya, and, most infamously, the unknown extent of Armed Forces participation in the disappearance of 43 students from Guerrero state (widely known as the Ayotzinapa case).
The Army/Air Force and the Navy have been participating in public security strategies since the late 1990s; over different presidential administrations, the logic has been relatively unchanged: they perform public security tasks because civilian police forces are ill-prepared to do it.
In this context, the creation of the National Guard is decried by specialists and commentators as the Mexican State’s tacit acceptance of civilian failure, and relinquishment of most of the internal security to the Armed Forces (with the implications to civil-military relations, transparency and democratic consolidation in Mexico that require further exploring). Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that when the idea was first presented and pushed through legislative bodies, over 70% of Mexican citizens supported it. Additionally, the vast majority of the budget allocated to security is allotted towards the Armed Forces efforts to support public security with little-to-none oversight.
These conflicting attitudes towards the Armed Forces and the militarization of public security point towards the need to explore other attitudinal and behavioral factors that can account for supporting ‘hard line’ policies to address violence, including under-examined factors like entertainment: around the same time that the problem of TCO violence arose, Latin-American societies, but particularly Mexican society, have been continuously exposed to a specific form of entertainment programming, colloquially referred to as ‘narcoseries,’ with drug traffickers and other violent TCO members as protagonists.
While some have expressed their concern about possible harmful effects of such types of programming on Mexican society for being ‘apologia of violence,’ others purport that they will be produced as long as they are lucrative, and that they will likely be produced because they reflect a version of the national reality general audiences easily identify. This paper reflects upon the possible impacts of individual attitudes and behaviors towards, as well as in the acceptance or rejection of security policies in general in accordance with tenets of cultivation theory.
Cultivation Theory, Mean World Syndrome and Fear of Crime
Cultivation theory proposes that mass media, especially television, deliver consistent messages to society that, through constant consumption, influence thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes and other cognitive structures of television viewers, thus shaping their conceptions of social reality. The main analytic dimensions of this theory are: i) institutional, which describe the forces (processes, limits, interests and pressures) that determine the contents produced by the media; ii) message system, referring to the patterns in the sum of messages in mass media; and iii) cultivation, describing the results of the influence exerted from exposure to the media. The understanding of cultivation entails observing the dynamics – continuity and change – in the widespread messages of the media to understand their function in the message-driven world of interrelated stories (entertainment and news).
Although cultivation theory originally proposed only macro-level analysis of aggregated messages as valid, over time it has added micro-level analysis, which has allowed researchers to gain insights into the effects of messaging in specific shows, genres, or even media types (like video games).
After decades of research regarding cultivation theory, more elements have been added to refine it, like perceived realism and transportability. The former refers to a content quality that allows consumers to regard it as plausible in real life; the latter points toward a consumer quality that allows individuals to involve themselves with the content to a greater degree.
One of the most observed effects by cultivation theorists was the mean world syndrome, which states that constant exposure to violence in the media makes consumers believe real life is more violent than it is. According to cultivation proponents, this syndrome cultivates a heightened fear of crime and victimization, which, in turn, favors political inclination toward ‘hard line’ measures against crime.
In support of cultivation theory, Jamieson and Romer analyzed popular US criminal drama television shows between 1972 and 2010 to find that exposure to television fictional violence directly impacts fear of crime, but not the perception of criminal incidence. Their findings are explained by transportability, showing that fear of crime results from that fictional world.
Elements that Foster Cultivation
Communication scholars have studied different elements regarding the involvement of audiences with media content in order to understand how cultivation works. Relevant to this study are transportability, para-social interaction, and identification, particularly related to fictional (or fictionalized) narratives, and the effects that these different factors, and the messages of their respective content, have on media consumers.
For Oatley, fiction is defined as an involving type of narrative that conveys the vicissitudes a protagonist faces in attaining a goal, including the emotions experienced in the process. A characteristic of fiction is that readers tend to experience those same emotions. Emotions are relevant in fiction because they become a center of attention that stress issues and concerns of either general or individual concern, thus making the texts the spaces in which the reader can more comfortably explore relations between emotions and ideas (like goals or values), and actions. In this sense, fiction grants readers an opportunity for insight.
Fiction also allows for easy cognition and, because of its polysemic nature, permits each individual to make an individual interpretation of every text. Regardless of factual veridicality, assertions in fiction tend to be accepted, especially by readers who do not have prior knowledge of the presented topic or situation. Narrative, particularly fiction, is therefore uncritically accepted and hooks readers by eliciting emotions that relate to themselves or that point them toward particular insights.
Emotions are relevant in fiction because they become a center of attention that stress issues and concerns of either general or individual concern, thus making the texts the spaces in which the reader can more comfortably explore relations between emotions and ideas, and actions.
Green and Brock explain transportation as the potential belief-changing mental process by which a reader is immersed in a fictional or non-fictional narrative world. This immersion triggers emotional reactions and mental imagery and decreases the reader’s ability to access real-life facts. The effect of this immersion enables the reader to accept the author’s proposed narrative world. The idea at the core of transportability is not only the ability to have a heightened experience of the text but also the possibility that the associated ‘travel’ to the narrative world has the potential to have the ‘traveler’ return to its original world a changed individual. This process allows the reader to get emotionally and psychologically involved with the overall story or its characters.
Individual proclivities are relevant to the degree of transportability and to the type of text and genres that favor transportability. Situational elements, as well as the quality of the text, may also influence someone’s transportability. Taken as a whole, transportability has three main consequences: reduced negative response (counterargument, disbelief); increased experience of real-likeness of the narrative world; and enhanced liking of characters and acceptance of their beliefs and experiences. These elements entail that transported individuals are less likely to critically experience the text at hand, and be more susceptible to belief-change due to the involvement with the story or the characters.
Taken as a whole, transportability has three main consequences: reduced negative response (counterargument, disbelief); increased experience of real-likeness of the narrative world; and enhanced liking of characters and acceptance of their beliefs and experiences.
Another relevant aspect of transportation is its focus on narrative rather than rhetoric. Rhetoric is a frame-focused form of communication that tends to make the speaker’s intent explicit, in which source credibility has an important role in the persuasive outcome. Conversely, narrative conveys messages through stories, which are often presented as entertainment, held to a different standard of truth, and although these can include belief-relevant elements, they do not state them explicitly. This, in turn, enables the narrative to have less explicit triggers for critical experiencing.
A different element of involvement is parasocial interaction or relationship, which refers to a reader's perception of having a relationship with a public persona derived from media consumption. This relationship is not ‘real’ “because there is no corresponding self-disclosure from the viewer [reader] to the person on the screen [in the narrative world]”, but where the public persona, through the narrative, does engage in a form of mediated self-disclosure, which may trigger in some the perception of a real-life interpersonal relationship. Some of the elements that facilitate parasocial interaction include: the amount of media consumption; affinity for media consumption; tendency to perceive media narratives and characters as real; and perception of homophily. Also relevant to parasocial relationships is attachment; Adams-Price and Greene have found that parasocial attachment may impact how an adolescent’s self-concept is developed.
Identification is the process of social influence by which an individual interiorizes and adopts the attitudes, beliefs, values and even behaviors of a person or group (object of identification) as a means of attaining a sense of self-definition, especially when there is a perception of shared interests (homophily). When the object of identification is a public persona, the homophily leads to the adoption of the message (attitudes, values, beliefs and behavior) put forth by that persona (whether a real person or a fictional character).
When related to media consumption, identification is thought to be a temporary one, meaning it occurs while consuming media products. However, the repetition of the identification can produce long-term effects, as in the long-term adoption of attitudes, beliefs, values and behavior.
Media Portrayals of Narcos
It is difficult to pinpoint an exact year in which the Mexican government’s fight against TCOs started, but it dates back at least four decades. Yet, it was highly visible in the mid-2000s. The illicit drug business shifted significantly as a result of the Colombian government’s efforts against drug cartels, and the US government ‘sealing’ its territory after 9/11 and a growing American illicit drug market. Mexican drug cartels were then better positioned to have a larger participation in the illicit drug trade. With their growth, also came inter and intra-organizational shifts that resulted in disputed territories and routes. As a result, many drug cartels began relying upon ‘hired enforcers’ to protect their claimed territories and routes, and violence increased notably.
The illicit drug business shifted significantly as a result of the Colombian government’s efforts against drug cartels, and the US government ‘sealing’ its territory after 9/11 and a growing American illicit drug market. Mexican drug cartels were then better positioned to have a larger participation in the illicit drug trade.
In 2006, the newly elected government started frontal combat of the illicit drug trade. Its strategy included both action against TCOs and the strengthening of civilian police forces so that, allegedly, the Armed Forces could be faced out of the public security actions they had already been involved in for decades. Governmental pressure on criminal organizations derived from unprecedented violence that has since spiraled out of control. From 2006 to 20012, Mexican news was flooded with pieces related to drug cartels, governmental actions against them, deaths, special operations, deteriorating respect to Human Rights, et cetera. It was during this time that ‘narcoseries’ started to move from niche audiences into mainstream entertainment.
In 2002, Boyd found that drug lords were typically shown in mass media as cruel, greedy and sadistic Mexicans who are evil, immoral outsiders, guilty of breaking the law and social harm, and that the entertainment industry traditionally celebrated law enforcement agents that go to great lengths to apprehend criminals, thus shaping, and even defining, public images of law enforcement and the justice system. Later, in 2006, Meraz Garcia found that narcocorridos are a form of storytelling that, though not always fact-based, that relay real events and provide people with a glimpse into the mindset of a drug trafficker. Garcia further argues that the success of ‘narcoseries’ lies in their propensity for ever-popular ‘rags-to-riches’ stories, as they present drug dealers as individuals with personal aspirations and strong family values and as heroes that provide for their communities, who, many times, are opposed by corrupt government officials or undesirable rivals. He also explains that drug traffickers can be analyzed as a distinctive group with characteristic values through narcocorridos, such as a desire for material wealth, power, respect, a sense of belonging, pride, and security. These propositions of the distinctive elements of a ‘narcocorrido’ are particularly relevant as they coincide with the elements previously presented that foster cultivation in readers -transportability, identification and homophily.
In 2014, using three famous television series –La Reina del Sur, Breaking Bad and Weeds, Jaramillo analyzed the narrative links between the narcocorrido and audiovisual forms of storytelling. She found that the shift from broadcast to cable television has allowed for entertainment content that ranges from the prosocial to the antisocial, resulting in criminal protagonists. The storylines regarding drug trafficking have an undeniable link to the narrative structure of the narcocorrido.
In 2017, López de Alba Gómez found abundant elements to conclude El Señor de los Cielos -an extremely popular, Spanish language ‘narcoseries’ – is a televised form of a narcocorrido and has cultivation effects, which means the underlying messages are being assimilated by viewers. This example shows that facilitated by a fictionalized narrative, El Señor de los Cielos presents a criminal protagonist that engages in antisocial attitudes and behaviors, like drug trafficking, murder, violence, and confrontation with law enforcement, in a fashion that does not provoke rejection from viewers. Because of transportation, parasocial interaction, and identification with the main character, these attitudes and behaviors may be cultivated as desirable and admirable, even as they show the protagonist's cruel side.
Discussion, further Research and Policy Implications
The presence of the anti-hero in current-day media could generate a parallel effect of cultivation of the mean world syndrome that, regardless of the perception of the degree of violence in the real world, allows viewers to accept violence as normal or justifiable as a natural derivate of the antisocial behavior these shows portray. Traditionally, procedural television-show plots have law enforcement and justice officials as protagonists that overcome challenges to apprehend criminals. In the anti-hero prototype, this narrative is inverted to have criminal protagonists – mostly violent ones – with whom the viewer connects. In this context, the identification and parasocial interaction is directed towards a criminal. With transportation and less critical fiction viewership, violent criminal protagonists increase the chance of assimilation of antisocial attitudes and behaviors, which include a normalization of the occurrence of violence.
Traditionally, procedural television-show plots have law enforcement and justice officials as protagonists that overcome challenges to apprehend criminals. In the anti-hero prototype, this narrative is inverted to have criminal protagonists – mostly violent ones – with whom the viewer connects.
As Meraz Garcia shows, this form of storytelling, which has been around for generations, has also served as an indirect way of recruiting because it presents drug traffickers’ characteristics as desirable or respectable ones. These, when exposed to vulnerable, disenfranchised groups, allure them towards this form of life. Yet, they may also appeal to individuals from more economically stable and educated backgrounds, especially when drug dealers are depicted as heroes at times when the government fails to provide basic necessities. When extrapolated to larger audiences through ‘narcoseries’ in mainstream media, the overall effects of cultivation in the audience and their attitudes towards violence and security policies should be more pressing.
If cultivation theorists have correctly proposed that cultivating fear of crime makes for a larger acceptance of authoritarian policies and actions, cultivating larger acceptance of criminals, their lifestyle, and their violence as a common practice could result in rejection of policies to combat them. Shows like The Sopranos, Dexter, and Weeds in the United States, and La Reina del Sur, El Cartel, El Patron del Mal, and El Señor de los Cielos in Latin America, with their violent criminal protagonists and antagonistic portrayals of law enforcement and justice officials as villainous, may be of concern, especially in places like Mexico where public disillusionment with authorities is already high because of a constant flow of unpopular security policies, corruption scandals and general distrust in security and justice institutions. These circumstances, as previously discussed, along with disenfranchisement, indirectly facilitate recruitment by a criminal organization or perception of criminal lifestyle as aspirational, as recent testimonies of demobilized youths show.
Another possibility is that fostering the mean world syndrome, hence furthering the acceptance of authoritarian policies, together with the normalization of perceived violence (which may also imply acceptance of increased violence), could result in increased tolerance for coexisting violence and authoritarian policies, creating a more generalized cycle where criminal violence and ‘hard line’ security strategies continually reinforce each other, promoting conditions that neither demand nor lead to the effective reduction of violence, nor reject increased policing or militarization in security policies. If present at a larger scale in the message system, these possible effects could have deep social and political consequences in any society.
The media, including entertainment media, are a reflection of the society in which they exist; these new narrative forms “speak of fragmentation, desperation and violence … [where] the domestic scene is refashioned to conceal a flow of alternative capital: weapons, crime trophies and cash”. Therefore, further analysis is needed regarding the ethical issues of the media’s role in cultivating attitudes and behaviors, especially antisocial ones; thus, targeted research in Mexico in particular, and in Latin America in general, is needed to understand the impact of cultivation in the public and public policies.
Additionally, ‘narcoseries’ as a part of a larger discourse system present incomplete information. They may relay parts of an event but exclude others; this implies that the audience needs prior knowledge of the events to detect the ‘editorialization’ - even if only through the already editorialized mediated space of media news. If prior knowledge is needed, ignorance makes the audience primed for taking stories at face value, thus believing in the possibility of criminals as heroes, contributing to the overall cultivation effect.
Remaining Research Gaps
Regarding the Mexican case, further research is needed to include broader aspects of the impact of cultivation in its society and political system. In Mexico, security policies to combat violence have increasingly militarized public security and have been regarded as a regression on democratic consolidation and respect for Human Rights.
In this context, a cycle that fosters acceptance of violence, violent attitudes and behaviors, and a mean world syndrome that enables ‘hard line’ policies could generate perverse institutional incentives for actual violence reduction. In this scenario, the continuance of violence – whether real, as a mediated narrative, or both – enables authoritative measures, along with increased budgetary discretion and executive powers. These, in themselves, have profound societal and political impacts, which could continue feeding national rhetoric, narrative, and the cultivation cycle.
In this context, a cycle that fosters acceptance of violence, violent attitudes and behaviors, and a mean world syndrome that enables ‘hard line’ policies could generate perverse institutional incentives for actual violence reduction.
Finally, there is a need for further research regarding the financing or sponsorship – whether official or unofficial – of these entertainment products to ascertain the level at which a particular narrative is pushed into the message system either by governments (or governmental agencies) or TCOs themselves to tell the side of the story that best advance their agendas. While there is little to no evidence of drug cartel financing of audiovisual content, it has been reported that many drug-lords pay to have their ‘narcocorridos’ made. Additionally, while there are recorded instances of governmental agencies financing fictionalized audiovisual content to improve public perception of law enforcement, there is no evidence related to their financing of other types of fictionalized content. Regardless of the vehicles, both criminals and the government are already consciously influencing the larger message system. In the context of widespread corruption and institutional difficulty to stem money-laundering in Mexico, as well as well-known criminal financing of numerous enterprises, it is an especially relevant line of research to prevent further cultivation and perverse incentives for continued violence. In a larger context, and considering other forms of violence – like extremist violence –, this aspect could have international policy relevance to be better prepared to identify and limit narratives that, disguised as entertainment, further noxious rhetoric, promote ‘othering’, foster agitation, and produce violence, be it sustained or in outbursts.
While there is little to no evidence of drug cartel financing of audiovisual content, it has been reported that many drug-lords pay to have their ‘narcocorridos’ made.
Alejandra López de Alba Gómez has a degree in History from Mexico’s National Autonomous University, an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University and an MA in Communication from The Johns Hopkins University. She is interested in researching the many intersections of communication and security –including violence-producing rhetoric, disinformation, and the impact of rhetoric and narrative in security policies. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.
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 Michael Morgan, James Shanahan and Nancy Signorielli, “Yesterday's New Cultivation, Tomorrow,” Mass Communication and Society 18 no. 5 (2015); W. James Potter, “A Critical Analysis of Cultivation Theory,” Journal of Communication 64 (2014).
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 W James Potter, Op. Cit.
 Michael Morgan and James Shanahan, Op. Cit; Michael Morgan, James Shanahan and Nancy Signorielli, Op. Cit.
 Patrick E Jameson and Daniel Roemer, “Prime Time TV Dramas and the Cultivation of Fear: A Time Series Analysis,” Media and Communication, 2 no2. (2014).
 Fear of crime is the negative feeling related to the idea that any person is at constat risk of criminal victimization; perceptionof criminal incidence is what any given person estimates the crime rate to be.
 Keith Oatley, “Why fiction may be twice as true as fact: fiction as a cognitive and emotional stimulation,” Review of General Psychology 3 no2. (1999).
 For the purposes of this essay, the concept of “readers” is selected because of their relation to a text, but not limited to written text; it relates to all forms of narrative texts (as found in television motion pictures, video games, music, digital media, social media, etcetera).
 Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock, “The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79 no5 (2000).
 For the purposes of this essay, the concept of text is not limited to written text; it relates to all forms of narrative texts (as found in television motion pictures, video games, music, digital media, social media, etcetera).
 William J. Brown, “Examining four processes of audience involvement with media personae: transportation, parasocial interaction, identification, and worship”, Communication Theory 25 (2015)
 Edward Schiappa, M. Allen and P.B. Gregg. “Parasocial relationships and television: a meta-analysis of the effects,” in Mass Media Effects Research. Advances through Meta-Analysis, eds. R. W. Preiss, B. M. Gayle, N Burrell, M. Allen, and J. Bryant (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013); Brown, Ibid.
 Schiappa, Allen and Gregg, Ibid, 302.
 The homophily concept is used to explain how media role models are more likely to be mimicked when the media model is viewed as someone like you, especially in terms of similar human emotions and values, regardless of the types of actions they spark.
 Carolyn Adams-Price and A.L. Green, “Secondary Attachments and Adolescent Self-Concept,” Sex Roles 22 (1990).
 Brown, Op. Cit.
 Alejandra López de Alba Gómez, “Soldados BuscaN clientes: Outsourcing de la violencia criminal en México,” Anuario de la Unión de Revistas de Estudiantes de Derecho (2015), https://issuu.com/fuzzmx/docs/anuario_unred/6.
 Susan Boyd, “Media constructions of illegal drugs, users, and sellers: a closer look at Traffic,” International Journal of Drug Policy 13 (2002).
 Martín Meraz García, “‘Narcoballads’: the psychology and recruitment process of the ‘Narco’,” Global Crime 7 no2 (2006).
 Deborah L. Jaramillo, “Narcocorridos and newbie drug dealers: the changing image of Mexican Narco on US television,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 37 no9 (2014).
 Alejandra López de Alba Gómez, “The impact of narcoseries in contemporary Mexico: a micro-level cultivation analysis of El Señor de los Cielos” (The Johns Hopkin’s University, 2017) In possession of the author.
 Anne Larabee, “Editorial: the new television anti-hero,” The Journal of Popular Culture 46 no6 (2013); Deborah L. Jaramillo, Op. Cit.
 Martín Meraz García, Op. Cit.
 Patrick E Jamieson and Daniel Roemer, Op. Cit.
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