Visualising 40 years of organised crime in Mexico: NarcoData

Narco Data
How has Mexico moved from 2 cartels in the 1970s to 9 cartels today? That is the question the Mexican website Animal Político wanted to answer when in January 2015 they started to work on NarcoData, a data journalism project that shows the evolution of 40 years of drug dealing in Mexico, home to the most violent cartels in the world. Carla Pedret reports.

The origin of the project was a document Animal Político journalist Tania Montalvo obtained in October 2014 from the country’s Attorney General’s Office, after a request under the Mexican Freedom of Information law

The document contained a table with the active cartels, the criminal groups associated and the states of Mexico where they are active.

Table of active cartels

Animal Político asked the Attorney General’s Office for more information.

In a interview via Skype NarcoData coordinator Dulce Ramos explains that the team didn’t want to just publish what the document explained: they also wanted to fill the information gaps the document showed.

“The document was our starting point, but we wanted to explain how and why Mexico has today 9 cartels in the vast majority of the states with a huge amount of small criminal groups that harass and extort the citizens.”

The challenge of NarcoData

Part of the data used in NarcoData is not new, but nobody had shown before the evolution of organised crime in Mexico on a digital and interactive platform.

Chronology of cartels in Mexico

The main difficulty was to complete the chronology for the years prior to 2000. Mexico has had a Freedom of Information Law since 2002 but, says Ramos:

“The institutions don’t have the obligation to report information about previous years.”

To overcome this difficulty, NarcoData contacted three experts in the field and transformed some of the best books about the Mexican cartels into databases.

All the databases and the documents used in the project can be downloaded.


A map is not always the best choice

Once all the information was in spreadsheets, the challenge was how to visualise it.

The states of Mexico have different sizes and population so “Visualizing the presence of the cartels in the country in a map would have been misleading” says Ramos.

Instead of a map, NarcoData create what they call “the donut”, where the states and the cartels have the same graphic representation and weight.


International success but no government reaction

Media from all over the world and websites specialising in journalism and open data have published reviews about the project.




Despite the evident relevance of the project, however, no one in the Mexican government has made any statement.

“The Mexican government has failed to inform the citizens in a transparent and systematic way about the fight against drug dealing. NarcoData is doing what the authorities didn’t want to do: filling the information gap.”

According to Dulce Ramos, the authorities are ashamed to accept that there hasn’t been any successful strategy against organised crime, as shown by the increase in the number of cartels and criminal groups.

How is NarcoData funded?

Since Animal Politico is a small team, it joined forces with the Chilean website Poderopedia, a data journalism project that maps the relationships between companies and politicians.

“Animal Político took advantage of the code Poderopedía was using, but instead of mapping the relationship between companies, we mapped the connections between cartels.”

NarcoData took 10 months to be completed and cost around 25.000 dollars, funded by the Argentinian organisation Hacklab, the Dutch organisation Hivos, Avina Foundation and the ICFJ.

The future of the project

The first phase of NarcoData has finished, but Animal Político is already thinking about a second part, analysing the anti-cartel strategy of the current president Enrique Peña Nieto at the end of his term.


For Dulce Ramos one thing is clear:

“NarcoData will exist as long as drug dealing continues in Mexico.”

1 thought on “Visualising 40 years of organised crime in Mexico: NarcoData

  1. Pingback: NarcoData, quarant’anni di crimine organizzato in Messico | magzine

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