Mexican Drug Cartels Love Social Media
Above: “Broly”, an alleged member of the Knights Templar Cartel, posing for a selfie with his handgun. (All images courtesy of Antoine Nouvet / Open Empowerment Initiative.)
Members of Mexico’s drug cartels are really starting to harness the power of the internet, using it to run positive PR campaigns, post selfies with their pistols, and hunt down targets by tracking their movements on social media.
Antoine Nouvet from the SecDev Foundation, a Canadian research organization, has been working with drug policy think-tank the Igarapé Institute on a project called the Open Empowerment Initiative. The project looks into “how cyberspace is empowering individuals and rewiring relations in Latin America” and has uncovered a wealth of information about how cartels are using the internet to their own nefarious ends.
Some gold weapons posted on a cartel member’s Facebook page.
The first point Antoine touched on was how cartels have utilized cyberspace in much the same way as a TV company’s PR department might: “They advertise their activities, they conduct public relations initiatives, and they have basically turned themselves into their own media company,” he explained. “Colombia’s cartel groups or drug traffickers in Myanmar in the 1990s were very sophisticated at public relations, but they didn’t have this massive broadcasting platform.”
The Last-Ever Interview with the Leaders of Peru’s Shining Path Guerrilla Army
This August, newspapers in Peru splashed headlines across their front pages about the huge blow the government had dealt to what is left of the infamous Shining Path—a brutal Maoist guerrilla group who have spent the last 20 years hanging out in the jungle slaughtering peasants and smuggling coke. The headlines announced to the world thatComrade Alipio, the group’s military leader, had been killed.
Alipio’s death was as cartoonish as it was emphatic. A cocaine trafficker who had links to the Shining Path, but who’d turned informant for the police, lured an armed column of rebels towards a hut that he owned. Most of the fighters stayed outside, guarding the building while Comrade Alipio and two other Shining Path bigwigs, Comrades Gabriel and Alfonso, went into what was meant to be a safe house, expecting to meet some ladies of the night that the drug trafficker had organized for them.
Crucially, what Alipio and company didn’t know was that the army had rigged the house with ANFO explosives. As soon as the three rebels had made themselves comfortable, the whole hut went up in one big blast. The charred bodies had to be identified through DNA tests.
As soon as news of the killing came out, my phone wouldn’t stop ringing: I have the arguable privilege of being the only journalist to have met Comrade Alipio, and the local media were desperate for a soundbite.
Back in September 2010, I received a call on behalf of the leadership of the Shining Path, who had agreed to meet me if I travelled, unaccompanied, to Peru’s Valley of the Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro rivers, known by the acronym VRAEM. It’s a jungle region that routinely serves as the battleground between armed forces and drug lords. The Shining Path contacted me after I sent them a message while I was reporting in the area, tailing some anti-narcotics police patrols a few months prior.
Anabel Hernandez Thinks the Mexican Government Is Behind the Country’s Drug War
On January 19, 2001, the head of Mexico’s largest drug cartel escaped from his maximum security prison. According to Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloas cartel, was escorted through the prison dressed as a government official—accompanied by conspiring government officers—and out to a helicopter that whisked him away to sweet, sweet freedom. The official government report, however, claims that El Chapo escaped in a laundry bin, which—given he’s only 5 foot 5 inches and looks like Super Mario—seems plausible, albeit slightly unlikely.
If what Hernandez found while researching Guzmán’s escape is true, it’s pretty much the pinnacle of the government corruption that she alleges has aided Mexico’s drug cartels throughout their long and bloody grip over the country.
Hernandez was looking into El Chapo’s escape as part of the research for her new book,Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, which investigates the Mexican government and business elite’s ties to the country’s drug cartels. In the book, she claims that ex-president Vicente Fox started the war between Mexico’s cartels, and that—since El Chapo’s release—the government has continued to conspire with the Sinaloa cartel, allowing the web of corruption that keeps Mexico’s cartels thriving to keep on growing.
We spoke to Anabel earlier this year after another discovery led to the Mexican chief of police allegedly instructing his men to make her disappear by any means necessary. Now that her book has had its English-language release, I thought I’d get in touch again to talk about the discoveries Anabel made while investigating the Mexican government’s complicity in their country’s drug trade.
Ex-Mexican president Vicente Fox. (Photo via)
VICE: Hi, Anabel. How would you describe the Mexican government’s war on drugs?
Anabel Hernandez: Ever since the 1960s in Mexico, the war on drugs has been fake—it has never existed. In the 60s, the federal government provided protection to all the cartels, letting them grow and continue their business while they paid money to the government. It wasn’t a bribe, it was like a tax; the Mexican government used that money for government projects. So, in the 80s and 90s, these medium-sized drug cartels and criminal organizations started to grow with money from cocaine. Mexico started to increase the scale of the cocaine that came from Colombia, then the Mexican cartels moved that drug into the USA.
Then what happened?
[The cartels] said, “Well, we don’t want to make an arrangement with the government—we don’t like the government telling us what we can do and what we can’t.” So, instead, they paid bribes to members of the government and the government started to lose control over the cartels. The cartels started to buy judges and congressmen, started to buy governors, police chiefs, and generals, and started to create their own world, on their terms.
Dealing Drugs in Saudi Arabia Is Stressful
“Abdullah” sounds nervous over the phone. He nearly didn’t want to talk to me in the first place, even though I’m not using his real name in this article. His paranoia stems from the fact that a close friend was recently arrested for possessing some of the hash Abdullah had sold him, and now he believes the authorities are “out to get” him, too. Which is why he’s recently shut down his Facebook, deactivated his email account and gone into hiding from the mutawa—the country’s religious police.
I’ve been an expat in Saudi Arabia for almost 15 years, so I’m well accustomed to how frustrating its hardline Islamic restrictions can be for secular people trying to live their lives. However, this doesn’t compare to the dangers of doing what Abudllah does and illegally importing or selling drugs or booze, crimes for which perpertrators can be thrown in jail, lashed, or even publicly executed. Increasingly, the mutawa are the ones responsible for finding and catching those deemed guilty of these crimes against Sharia.
Regardless of the law and the heavy penalties for breaking it, liquor and many other illicit substances are available in Saudi Arabia—it’s just a question of knowing where to look. A rare study on the topic, published by the World Health Organization in 1998, found that 24 percent of patients at a hospital in Riyadh had abused alcohol. More recently,WikiLeaks exposed the royal family’s wild parties, which include liquor, cocaine, and prostitutes.
The Trickle-Down Economics of Nicaragua’s Drug Trade
Bluefields, the largest port on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, is in many ways a typical small coastal Central American city—bustling but poor, a natural center for all kinds of commerce, legal and illegal. If you hang out by the bay you’ll see cargo ships come in and passenger boats ferry people to and from the surrounding towns, some of which aren’t reachable by overland routes. By day, the streets are filled with garishly decorated taxis, starving stray dogs, and people selling mangos and pineapples. At night, a few downtown bars stay open late to serve beer and play reggae, bachata, and country music.
The majority of the men who aren’t cops or store owners work on boats, while women often turn their living rooms into sit-down restaurants or sell grilled meat and tortillas outside their homes. There aren’t many more options for the mostly black and indigenous population of 90,000—there’s no highway connecting Bluefields with the wealthier western part of the country, and without infrastructure there’s little prospect of outside investment.
Just about the only industry that’s pumped outside money into the local economy is drug trafficking.
Who Protects New Yorkers from the NYPD?
Nicholas Heyward is a haunted man. He is one of many New Yorkers who have lost loved ones to the police. Nineteen years ago, Heyward’s son was playing with a toy gun in the stairwell of a Boerum Hill housing project in Brooklyn, New York, when he was fatally shot by an NYPD officer. Nicholas Jr. was 13 years old when he was killed.
"I heard Nick say, ‘We’re playing,’ and then I heard a boom," Katrell Fowler, a friend of Nick Jr.’s told the New York Times shortly after the incident. Yet blame was placed on the boy’s toy rifle, instead of officer Brian George, who fired his very real revolver into the child’s abdomen.
The tragedy Heyward suffered has turned him into an activist. These days he spends much of his time calling for the Justice Department to review cases of alleged abuse committed by the NYPD, including that of his son’s. Heyward claims he had a deposition taken by his attorney in which officer George contradicts reasons cited by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes—currently up for reelection and the subject of a new reality show on CBS—for closing the case.
“Hynes said the stairwell was dimly lit, it was not. Hynes said George was responding to a 911 call, he was not.” Heyward has written several letters to Hynes over the years, he said, without receiving a response. In 2001, he was granted a meeting with the Brooklyn DA, after confronting him at a press conference. Heyward pleaded his case in Hynes’s office but nothing came of it. The DA’s office declined to comment on Heyward’s allegations when I called them yesterday, saying that since the case is more than ten years old, the office did not have the case’s file on hand. But for Heyward, the the pain of the slaying of his 13-year-old boy are still very fresh.
“I want the officer who murdered my son to go to jail,” he said to me, dressed all in black and holding a school-portrait photograph of his son over his heart at a protest last Friday in front of the Federal Court building in Manhattan’s Foley Square to demand the Justice Department appoint an independent prosecutor to scrutinize the death of his son and those of other’s killed by the NYPD.
Heyward is not alone in his suspicion of foul play in Hynes executions of justice. The DA has recently come under great scrutiny for spending years refusing to review convictions that he and his predecessor obtained through working with a homicide detective of such dubious repute. Last week, the Hynes office was forced to reopen 50 cases in which NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella was involved, after the Times uncovered that he obtained false confessions, lied, and relied on testimony from a single, crack-addicted prostitute to obtain a number of convictions. While families of those convicted through Scarlla’s police plan to start bird-dogging Hynes, others, like Heyward, have vowed to win justice for those they will never see again.
Prisons Punish Families Too
When I read articles like this one in the New York Times about how prison makes people poor and destroys families, I have mixed emotions. I think it’s admirable that this high-and-mighty mainstream paper is examining the effects of the nation’s prison population explosion over the past 40 years. The author, John Tierney, tells the story of Carl Harris, a guy from DC who used to sell crack until he beat up some of his customers who robbed him and got 20 years on a trumped-up charge because the cops thought he was some big-time drug dealer. Sounds like Carl is doing better now, and I’m real happy he’s gotten to the point where he can enjoy life. Sadly, I ain’t exactly there yet—the drug statutes of New York State are continuing to butt pump my unlucky rump, even though I’m out of prison.
I could repeatedly point out injustices I believe I’ve incurred over the past eight years, however, I’m trying to stop that train of thought and get back to basics. I’ve been beating off to my old Susan Powter videos like it’s ’94 again and thanking whatever there is to thank up there that I didn’t get 20 years for beating up crackheads. As that Times article demonstrates through Carl and his family’s story, some prison terms are WAY too long, and excessive sentences unnecessarily handicap communities already in dire straits. Basically, prison is responsible for more chaos than anything else. But if it took the Times writing about it for you to get that, you’re probably a simpleton who needs some help eating solid food.
I didn’t go to Harvard or Yale and by many peoples’ accounts I’m dumber than dookie-dipped dewdrops drying on a dildo, yet I know prisons better than the front of my dick. While the clink-clink blows balls on a number of levels, the one aspect of doing time that, at least in my experience, isn’t that bad is the one the media plays up the most, and that’s the actual physical doing-time part. Movies and shows depict prisons as full of bloody dicks and shivs, and no doubt, dirt gets done in prison. But actually, most motherfuzzies in jail deal with a lot iller shit in the streets. The prisons I’ve been to were all pretty much chillin’. It’s basically summer camp minus the baby beavers. Lots of us bitch and moan, but we play cards and sports, watch TV, eat free food, have people clean up after us, lift weights, listen to music all day, take profucive naps, read and write a lot, and get money (masturbate) till the cows come home. The best part is you taxpayers pay for it all!
SILENT BUT DEADLY: SCHOOL COPS ARREST STUDENTS FOR TALKING TOO LOUDLY, GRAFFITI, AND… FARTING
Fourteen-year old Kaleb Winston was wearing a “graffiti-patterned backpack” when the Salt Lake City police’s gang unit rounded him and more than a dozen other students up one December school day in 2010. The bi-racial freshman, who at the time held down jobs in the school cafeteria and as a basketball referee, was questioned and then photographed holding a sign reading: “My name is Kaleb Winston and I am a gang tagger.” Found guilty of nothing, the students’ personal information was nonetheless added to a “gang database.”
The National Rifle Association’s call to place armed police officers in schools nationwide in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre has been derided as “revolting, tone-deaf” (Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy) and even a “completely dumbass idea” (Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter). It is all of those things. But what most reports neglect to mention is the fact that armed police are already present in many schools.
"I agree that the NRA’s suggestion is absurd" says Aaron Kupchik, a University of Delaware sociologist whose 2010 book Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear examines the now-commonplace presence of armed police in schools nationwide. “The public is missing the point that we’ve already made schools more into police zones over the past 20 years.”
More than a third of American sheriffs’ departments and nearly half of all police departments have officers assigned to local schools, according to Department of Justice statistics from early last decade. Students today are arrested in school for offenses that include talking back to a police officer, doodling on a desk with an erasable marker, farting, and being an eight-year old throwing a temper tantrum. In other words: criminalizing childhood misbehavior.
In 2011, Southeastern Washington high school students were told to leave class so that a dog could smell their backpacks to see if they had drugs. This far-from-atypical search did not, according to the ACLU, uncover any dangerous drug dealers, nor was it based on any reasonable suspicion that students were using drugs: of two students singled out for a “more invasive search and questioning,” one had, apparently, a marijuana pipe; the other was drug-free. No other drugs were found. And even if they had been…Eviscerating fundamental civil liberties seems like a high price to pay in order to track down a pot-smoking teenager.