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    This Is What Mexico's Cartel Land-Grab Saga Looks Like

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    Aside from horrific beheading photos, tales of Pablo Escobar’s glory days, and daily reminders of the ingenious smuggle tech of Sinaloa cartel capo Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, it can be difficult to truly grasp the evolution of Mexican crime syndicates’ conquest of America’s southern neighbor. How did a handful—and then an even smaller handful—of drug cartels come to run so much of the show on both sides of the US border? Thanks to a new data visualization project by Harvard PhD candidate Viridiana Rios, the epic, rapid-fire turfs wars that have shaped Mexico’s narco saga just got a lot clearer.

    Rios and her research partner, Michele Coscia, created an automated search algorithm that performs blanket searches for stories and reports on cartels in Google’s news aggregator. Using “unambiguous query terms” to extract “indexed reliable sources” like blogs and online news dailies—one of the program’s perks, Rios explains, is this very exploitation of public information that’d otherwise drown in the deluge of narco press—this tool, according to their abstract, allows them to obtain “quantitative information” on the movements and motives of criminal groups. It’s about leveraging information that by any other metric requires massive (and expensive) intelligence efforts to make sense of.

    “If lack of data was once a research problem,” Rios told Efe, “now there are so many sources…both digital and analog, that reading, classifying, filtering and navigating through this massive quantity of data is a problem.”

    With this tool, a mere two people are able to flag everything published on seven cartels—Tijuana, Gulf, Zetas, Familia, Juarez, Sinaloa, and Beltran Leyva—from 1990 to the present. You can check out Rios’ full abstract here (.pptx). Business Insider_ has a nice breakdown of some of the land grabs that have defined Mexico’s criminal power structure throughout the roughly two-decade stretch highlighted in the Harvard study.

    Here’s the full visualization, in .gif, courtesy Motherboard contributor Dan Stuckey. (Key – Blue: Tijuana; Sea-foam Green, Gulf; Grey, Zetas; Yellow, Familia; Violet, Juarez; Red, Sinaloa; and Green, Beltran Leyva.)

    Time will tell, of course, how those structures will evolve further. Colorado and Washington just legalized marijuana for recreational use, moves that could, in theory, spur more states toward ending prohibition, effectively shutting down the cartels overnight. Then again, Mexico’s top crime syndicate investigator just stepped down over—you guessed it—allegations of being closely linked to crime syndicates.

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    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson