Calling to End the Killing of the Clergy: Information Operations of the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación
Daniel Weisz Argomedo
The assassination of two Jesuit priests in the state of Chihuahua led to calls by the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) to protect priests, teachers, and doctors. I argue that this video is simply another form of information operations utilized to portray the cartel in a favorable light. Information operations are incredibly diverse within Mexico’s organized crime system and can include: digital campaigns to make specific cartels look better, narcocorridos (narco-ballads) to construct mythological personas for cartel members, extreme forms of violence like beheadings to communicate to rivals and the local population, food pantries to win over the local population, and even dispute resolution services to become de facto governors, etc.
“As a result of events against the Jesuit priests in #Chihuahua;The Jalisco New Generation Cartel " #CJNG " calls for not attacking teachers, nurses, doctors and priests or anyone who is dedicated to religion.” La Voz Del Pueblo (Oficial). Twitter. 7 July 2020,Tweet includes video of CJNG embedded communiqué, https://twitter.com/LPueblo2/status/1545266295263879168?s=20&t=ganGaa6TGstJawjezZJicA.
John P. Sullivan describes cartel propaganda and information operations in Mexico as “influence operations.” This idea of influence is important because information operations are built to communicate with the population and influence their views and opinions regarding a particular cartel or the State.
Sullivan has provided valuable insights into the evolution of information operations. He has noted how the killings and intimidation of journalists have created a form of censorship that forms a major component of information operations in Mexico. He also explains how these information operations have moved into new fields such as “new media” technologies that have allowed them to weaponize these new virtual spaces to wage their information operations. Sullivan conceptualizes these information operations as “contests for communication power.” The Cartels and the State continue to escalate this contest for power over one another and the fight for citizens’ hearts and minds is taking an increasingly important role in the war on drugs.
According to Sullivan, this contest over communication aims to gain legitimacy and ‘social/cultural supremacy.’ Narcocultura is a key component of these information operations as it forms a community around drug trafficking and forms a positive connotation behind the activities conducted under the drug trade. Music and violent videos are used by Cartels to promote their lifestyle and legitimize themselves. Through these videos and music, violence and the illicit activities surrounding drug trafficking are normalized and portrayed as something to be desired.
The major rival of the CJNG is the Sinaloa Cartel. In my previous article on this issue, I discuss how the Sinaloa Cartel is heavily invested in information operations and has become adept at utilizing social media as a new medium to wage information operations. These operations have now become another battlefield in which cartels and the state compete for people’s hearts and minds. The CJNG has also invested heavily in their information operations to compete against the Sinaloa Cartel and the State as is evidenced by their carefully designed propaganda videos. Similar to how a country constructs a particular version of history with heroes and villains, cartels can mimic this process through narcocorridos and other forms of propaganda. In this article I will analyze, through the lens of information operations, the publication of a video on behalf of the CJNG leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes “El Mencho” calling for the protection of teachers, doctors, nurses, priests and anyone dedicated to religion.
The video produced by the CJNG is a carefully crafted piece of propaganda. Howard Campbell describes the propaganda being produced by cartels as forms of political discourse as criminal organizations have expanded their control and power over vast regions and have even taken on functions of the State. Like political campaigns, cartels can also utilize their money to buy provisions to gain favor among local populations. For a long period the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) held power in Mexico from the conclusion of the Mexican Revolution to 2000. The PRI would utilize baskets filled with provisions to gain popularity and remain in power. A specific example of using provisions to gain favor occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic, where Alejandrina (a daughter of Joaquin “El Chapo" Guzman) was recorded doling out aid packages plastered with her father's face. These information operations are crucial for cartels looking to recruit, get protection from local populations, and try to show how their organization is better for the locality than some other criminal organization or government. These operations are also crucial because the cartels are responsible for significant violence. The longer they are in conflict with one another, the likelier it is that local populations will turn on them as they are directly affected by increased violence.
The concept of social banditry is also vital to sustaining these propaganda efforts by the cartels. Eric Hobsbawm describes the bandit figure as an “outsider and rebel, a poor man who refuses to accept the normal rules of poverty… this draws him close to the poor: he is one of them… At the same time, the bandit is, inevitably, drawn into the web of wealth and power.” The concept of the social bandit is powerful in Mexico, where 43.9 percent of the population lives in poverty. These cartel leaders emerge from poverty, gaining power and wealth and are perceived as robin hood figures giving back to the community. Sullivan explains how “bandits form an essential narrative in the power-counterpower discourse of Mexican struggles with the drug lords and narcos.” The bandit then becomes a critical component in the composition of a positive image of cartels. They represent a challenger not only to the state, but also to social inequality as they are seen to represent the poor. That is why simple acts like providing provisions to those in need during COVID are symbolically crucial, as they reinforce the Robin Hood social bandit image.
Cartels and the Church
For these information operations to be successful, the cartels must deeply understand the population. Thus, they need to know what is unacceptable in society and try to present themselves as benevolent guardians, while running their illicit businesses. The increased violence has resulted in the killings of several clergy members in Mexico.
The Catholic Church is significant in Mexico. Mexico has the world's second-largest number of Catholics. Historically and culturally, clergy members and the Church are well respected and valued in Mexico. A recent survey of Mexicans found they see the institution of the Catholic Church as one of the most trusted institutions in Mexico. In a series of surveys conducted from 2002 to 2012 the trust Mexicans have for the Catholic Church remained high, ranging from 67 to 82 percent. In Mexico the Pope maintained a positive opinion among 64 percent of Mexicans while at the same time the president Felipe Calderón held a 15 percent of overall positive opinions when negative opinions were subtracted from positive opinions. A survey conducted by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informatica (INEGI – National Institute of Statistics and Geography) in 2020 asking citizens about their religious preferences found that 77 percent of Mexicans consider themselves Catholic. These surveys show the high levels of trust and followers the Catholic Church has in Mexico as well as its popularity even when compared to political figures.
Another essential facet is that the Catholic Church was used during the colonial period (1700s) as a tool to secure the empire under Spain. This securement meant that in many rural areas, the only formal institution was the Church and not the state. For several decades the Catholic Church in Mexico was responsible for education and keeping records of births, deaths, and marriages. Eventually, with the independence movement (1810–1821), the Mexican state began to reclaim power from the Church, and Mexico split into two camps. The liberals wanted to see less Church power, and the conservatives allied with the Church seeking monarchical rule. President Benito Juárez would establish the separation of the Church and the state in Mexico, consolidating the liberal's victory after a failed takeover by the French monarchy (1864–1867). During the revolution (1910–1917), the Church took the side of dictator Porfirio Díaz. As the Revolution concluded with the rebels victorious, the leaders of the Revolution saw the Church as the last obstacle between Mexico and modernity. The revolutionary leaders passed harsh laws that took over Churches to turn them into public schools, prohibited priests and nuns from dressing in religious attire in public, and other laws that restricted freedom of religion. The Church was upset and some organized a rebellion known as the Cristero Rebellion (1926–1929). Many of the people who fought with the Church came from rural areas, particularly the state of Michoacán. The conflict would result in a stalemate after hundreds of thousands were killed, and the Church and the state came to a compromise.
The Church would remain essential in Mexican society and politics and still maintain a strong presence in rural Mexico. A survey conducted in Mexico found that most Catholics that are most attached to the official position of the Catholic Church live in a small urban region or in a rural community. More interestingly 26 percent of Mexicans living in rural areas compared to 16 percent living in urban areas take the opinion of the clergy to decide who to vote for in elections showcasing the importance of the Church in rural areas. Another important factor of Catholicism is that in localities with inhabitants ranging from 1,000 to 99,000 (generally rural population) the percentage of Catholics is 2.3 percent higher than the national average. These statistics present us with a basic profile of a rural Catholic compared to that of an urban Catholic. The rural are generally more Catholic, more attached to the formal position of the Church’s hierarchy, and are more likely to vote based on their priest’s opinions than urban Catholics. It is also important to mention that the CJNG operates and is fighting over some of the most Catholic states and areas of the country (Guanajuato, Jalisco and Michoacán are all located in the top five most Catholic states in Mexico).
In many ways, the state has become incapable of reaching rural communities and helping protect citizens from the violence caused by organized crime. This lack of protection has left Churches and their clergy members as the only source of help to many in rural areas living under cartel violence. A specific example of this occurred in El Aguaje in Michoacan, which has been terrorized by violence and seen a city of 1,200 people turn into a community of around fifty. In this rural area, clergy members were the only ones able to supply the remaining population with water and provisions.
Case Study: CJNG Responds to Clergy Killings
Recently, the death of two Jesuit priests in the state of Chihuahua in a city called Urique at the hands of a Sinaloa Cartel member has caused outrage within Mexico and internationally. José Noriel Portillo Gil, known as "El Chueco” chased a local tourist guide into the Church after a baseball game. It is reported that a fight broke after a baseball match in which Gil got into an argument with two men that resulted in shootings, a burnt house, and two kidnapped brothers. Gil shot the tourist guide Pedro Palma, alerting the two priests, Javier Campos and Joaquín Mora, who returned from the mountains to the Church to investigate what was happening. When the priests returned, they found Gil over the victim, and when one of the priests began to give the wounded man his last rites, Gil opened fire and killed them both. A third priest arrived, and Gil confessed his sins to him and left with the bodies in a pickup truck.
Dozens of people gathered to participate in a minute of silence in remembrance of the two murdered priests in one of Mexico City’s main streets known as Paseo de la Reforma. Pope Francis denounced the high number of homicides in the country and demanded the government review its security strategy. This case highlights a growing trend as Rafael Luévano notes how in the last 15 years, around 45-50 priests have been murdered in Mexico due to narco violence. The Centro Católico Multimedia (Multimedia Catholic Center) released a report on violence by cartels against clergy members in Mexico. The report highlighted over 850 reports of extortion over the past few years, and it notes that 80 percent of the murders of clergy members remain unsolved.
Violence against clergy members is unpopular in Mexico and threatens to portray cartel members in a negative light. It is thus unsurprising that in response to the murder of the two Jesuit priests in Chihuahua, the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) released a video. In the video, the cartel asks other cartels not to “mess” with clergy members and invites them to fight against the CJNG instead. In the video, El Mencho (the leader of the CJNG) states that priests deserve special respect as they are dedicated to preaching the word of god and helping those in need. He also declares that his cartel (the CJNG) does not target priests and stresses the importance of “not messing” with medical personnel or educators. The video also stipulates that the CJNG does not bother any religion and he finishes the video by stating the CJNG cartel are composed of people for the people. This finishing remark shows the Cartel’s desire to be seen as a Cartel by the people and for the people. It reads like a political slogan and is telling of the Cartels objectives with these information operations.
The video is a clear example of information operations as the CJNG seeks to portray itself as “better” than the Sinaloa cartel, which is allegedly responsible for the murder of the two priests in Chihuahua. Vanda Felbab-Brown conducted fieldwork in Mexico that allowed her to highlight the key differences between the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel. The author states that much of the power the CJNG has come from aggressive propaganda. Interestingly the author explicitly mentions teachers, doctors, and priests as competitors over influence with these cartels and says that although the Sinaloa Cartel has mostly bought these professionals off with donations, the CJNG has resorted to intimidation. The Sinaloa Cartel is the CJNG’s biggest competitor in the drug market, so being able to portray it in a negative light is beneficial for the CJNG. The Sinaloa Cartel “invests” money in having good relations with the Church to propel its image among the community.
This context makes the use of this tragedy by the CJNG more symbolically powerful as it seeks to place the responsibility for the killings on its rivals and positions itself as the guardian of these professionals. The propaganda war among cartels is similar to the black legends England and Spain used during the colonial period to portray each other as worse than the other. The reality is that the CJNG is no different than the Sinaloa Cartel and has also been responsible for targeting priests. Felbab-Brown explains how the CJNG has dictated that teachers and priests should not preach opposition or organizing against the CJNG. Take the example of Father Carlos Aurelio Ramírez Moreno, in the state of Michoacán, whose town is under siege by the CJNG. He encouraged his followers to take up arms and defend their city because the government would not come to their aid. The cartel did not like this and placed spies to surveille him, and at the beginning of July 2022 gunman fired on his vehicle; fortunately, he escaped unharmed.
Another interesting facet of the video is the call to protect doctors and teachers. To understand this call, it is vital to place it within the context of Mexican society. A survey in Mexico shows that the most respected professions in Mexico are related to medicine or education. The top four professions in order of respectability are nurses, researchers, doctors, and teachers. The CJNG is thus simply using the high respectability doctors, teachers, and clergy members in Mexico to try and make it look better. At the same time, it can portray its main competitors (The Sinaloa Cartel) as killers that do not respect the population. John P. Sullivan explains these cartel information operations help these criminals solidify their governance and territorial control as they compete with other cartels and the state.
Cartels engage in information operations as they seek to gain control and influence over the state and other competitors in Mexico. The latest killing of two priests triggered outrage from Mexican society that the CJNG capitalized on. Knowing that a rival cartel was responsible for the attack also motivated the CJNG to make a public statement on the killings and portray itself as better than its rivals. The call to also protect doctors and educators reflects the cartel’s ability to read Mexican society and use respectable professions in society to frame themselves as protectors. The reality is that this is simply another piece of propaganda as the CJNG targets priests, doctors, and teachers that directly oppose or speak out against them. The aggressive violence conducted by the CJNG against innocent bystanders in their bid for power and wealth shows the true nature of this criminal organization.
The unique position that the Church, educators, and health workers occupy in Mexican society offers a possible venue to build peace and find compromises with all actors involved in drug war violence. Sullivan points to several examples of humanitarian diplomacy in Latin America and the importance of dialogue in armed conflict. Dialogue can help humanitarian actors access besieged regions and open venues for police commanders and cartel leaders to moderate violence. Institutions, like the Church, teachers’ unions, or medical groups could help moderate dialogue between the government and the cartels. The dialogue could open new opportunities to provide immediate relief to communities caught in elevated cycles of violence. This dialogue could be a valuable venue to help citizens under cartel control get some essential services and protections that the government has not been able to provide.
 John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations.” Small Wars Journal. 3 December 2012, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/criminal-insurgency-narcocultura-social-banditry-and-information-operations.
 John P. Sullivan, “Attacks on Journalists and ‘New Media’ in Mexico's Drug War.” Small Wars Journal. 9 April 2011, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/attacks-on-journalists-and-new-media-in-mexicos-drug-war.
 John P. Sullivan, “Cartel Info Ops: Power and Counter-power in Mexico’s Drug War.” Mountain Runner. 15 November 2010, https://mountainrunner.us/2010/11/cartel_info_ops_power_and_counter-power_in_mexico_drug_war/.
 Op. Cit., Sullivan at Note 1.
 Daniel Weisz Argomedo, “Information Warfare in Mexico’s Drug war: the Dámaso López (‘El Licenciado’) Case Study.” Small Wars Journal. 1 April 2022, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/information-warfare-mexicos-drug-war-damaso-lopez-el-licenciado-case-study.
 Daniel Weisz Argomedo, “The Propaganda War of the CJNG and AMLO.” Small Wars Journal. 22 April 2021, https://smallwarsjournal.com/index.php/jrnl/art/propaganda-war-cjng-and-amlo.
 Howard Campbell, “Narco-Propaganda in the Mexican ‘Drug War’ An Anthropological Perspective.” Latin American Perspectives. Vol. 41 no: 2: pp. 60–77, 2014, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0094582X12443519.
 Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 29: An Overview of Cartel Activities Related to COVID-19 Humanitarian Response.” Small Wars Journal. 8 May 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/index.php/jrnl/art/mexican-cartel-strategic-note-no-29-overview-cartel-activities-related-covid-19.
 Eric Hobsbawm, “Social Bandits: Reply.” Comparative Studies in Society and History. Vol. 14, no. 4, 1972: pp. 503-505, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/178040.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Acf1a1a6bfb2d09cf8a6c0ec328114187&ab_segments=&origin=&acceptTC=1
 Carlos Serrano and Juan José Ling, “Mexico | 3.8 million more poor and 2.1 million more in extreme poverty between 2018-2020.” BBVA Research. 10 August 2021, https://www.bbvaresearch.com/en/publicaciones/mexico-38-million-more-poor-and-21-million-more-in-extreme-poverty-between-2018-2020/.
 Op. Cit., Sullivan at Note 1.
 “Encuesta católica refleja la crisis actual de las iglesias en México.” Observatorio Eclesial. 29 September 2014, https://observatorioeclesial.org.mx/2014/09/29/encuesta-catolica-refleja-la-crisis-actual-de-las-iglesias-en-mexico/.
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 “Censo de Población y Vivienda 2020.” Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI). 2020, https://www.inegi.org.mx/rnm/index.php/catalog/632.
 José Merino and Jessica Zarkin, “Católicos mexicanos: esos laicos conservadores.” Animal Politico. 12 February 2014, https://www.animalpolitico.com/salir-de-dudas/catolicos-mexicanos-esos-laicos-conservadores/.
 Renée de la Torre, “La Iglesia Católica en el México contemporáneo.” L’Ordinaire des Amériques. 2008, https://journals.openedition.org/orda/2616#quotation.
 Alejandro Díaz Domínguez, “¿Qué nos dice el Censo 2020 sobre religión en México?” Nexos. 1 February 2021, https://datos.nexos.com.mx/que-nos-dice-el-censo-2020-sobre-religion-en-mexico/.
 Francisco Valenzuela, “En El Aguaje ya no queda nadie: padre José Segura.” El Sol De Morelia. 22 April 2021, https://www.elsoldemorelia.com.mx/local/municipios/en-el-aguaje-ya-no-queda-nadie-padre-jose-segura-6626627.html.
 “Por qué mataron a los sacerdotes jesuitas en Chihuhua.” Aldiadallas. 23 June 2022, https://www.dallasnews.com/espanol/al-dia/mexico/2022/06/23/sacerdotes-jesuitas-chueco-narco-beisbol/.
 Steve Fisher, “Death of two Jesuit priests shines spotlight on growing threat in Mexico.” The Guardian. 8 July 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/08/mexico-jesuit-priests-killed-sinaloa-cartel.
 “Dedican minute de silencio a sacerdotes asesinados en México.” Los Angeles Times. 10 July 2022, https://www.latimes.com/espanol/mexico/articulo/2022-07-11/dedican-minuto-de-silencio-a-sacerdotes-asesinados-en-mexico.
 Rafael Luévano, “Why Priests Keep Getting Murdered in Mexico.” America. 23 June 2022, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/06/23/mexico-priest-killings-narcos-243231.
 Adyr Corral and Graciela Olvera, “Sacerdotes temen por amenazas del 'narco'; van tres asesinados en este sexenio.” Milenio. 25 July 2021, https://www.milenio.com/estados/sacerdotes-temen-por-amenazas-del-narco.
 Gloria Reza, “"El Mencho", líder del CJNG, pide a cárteles no meterse con sacerdotes, médicos ni maestros.” Proceso. 8 July 2022, https://www.proceso.com.mx/nacional/estados/2022/7/8/el-mencho-lider-del-cjng-pide-carteles-no-meterse-con-sacerdotes-medicos-ni-maestros-video-289215.html.
 Adry Torres, “Mexican cartel 'leader' tells rival organizations to wage war on his group instead of targeting priests and civilian workers following attacks that left two clergymen dead and another injured.” Daily Mail. 13 July 2022, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11010699/Mexican-cartel-leader-orders-rival-organizations-not-target-priests-civilian-workers.html.
 Op. Cit, Fisher at Note 15.
 Op. Cit, Torres at Note 20.
 Vanda Felbab-Brown, “How Mexico’s Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación rules.” Brookings. 29 May 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/how-mexicos-cartel-jalisco-nueva-generacion-rules/.
 Op. Cit, Fisher at Note 15.
 Ana Karen Garcia, “Profesiones más respetadas en México.” El Economista. 5 November 2018, https://www.eleconomista.com.mx/amp/empresas/Profesiones-mas-respetadas-en-Mexico--20181105-0040.html.
 John P. Sullivan, “Humanitarian Diplomacy for Protecting Vulnerable Persons and Humanitarian Aid Workers in Civil Strife and Non-International Armed Conflict in Mexico and Central America's Northern Triangle.” Vortex Working Papers, No. 52. 2000, https://bit.ly/3ClRxRI.
Howard Campbell, “Narco-Propaganda in the Mexican 'Drug War’ An Anthropological Perspective.” Latin American Perspectives. Vol. 41 no: 2: pp. 60–77, 2014. 30 April 2012.
John P. Sullivan, “Attacks on Journalists and ‘New Media’ in Mexico's Drug War.” Small Wars Journal. 9 April 2011.
John P. Sullivan, “Cartel Info Ops: Power and Counter-power in Mexico’s Drug War.” Mountain Runner. 15 November 2010.
Daniel Weisz Argomedo, “Information Warfare in Mexico’s Drug war: the Dámaso López (‘El Licenciado’) Case Study.” Small Wars Journal. 1 April 2022.
Daniel Weisz Argomedo, “The Propaganda War of the CJNG and AMLO.” Small Wars Journal. 22 April 2021.