Mexican Drug Cartels Love Social Media
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.
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.”
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.
The Godfather of Mexican Drug Trafficking Has Disappeared
On Friday, August 9, at the unseemly hour of two o’clock in the morning, the main gate of Puente Grande prison opened, and a godfather in the Mexican narcotics trade walked out into the darkness a free man. By then, Rafael Caro Quintero, former founder and leader of the Guadalajara Cartel, had served 28 years of a 40-year prison sentence for drug trafficking and the audacious 1985 murder of a DEA agent named Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena.
The order for Caro’s release was given by a three-judge appeals panel in his home state of Jalisco,overturning the murder conviction on a technicality. The court decided that Caro should have been tried in a state and not federal court at the time because Kiki Camarena—who worked undercover—was not officially in the US’s diplomatic corps in Mexico. With that, judges reduced his prison sentence to 15 years. Having already served 28, he was free to go.
The release of the most historically powerful and connected drug lord in modern Mexican history—a still potent symbol for US antidrug agencies—immediately aroused suspicions, and led to the Mexican attorney general to issue a warrant for a “provisional detention” after receiving a request from the United States on Wednesday of last week.
Mexico’s Female Wrestlers Do It for the Love
At this point lucha libre, Mexico’s version of professional wrestling, is famous the world over—the superheroesque masks, the muscled men preening and acting out storylines in the ring, the acrobatic aerial maneuvers. But what’s not as well-known is that the sport isn’t exclusive to dudes. Luchadoras, masked female competitors, are becoming more and more prominent in Mexico, and not just as sexy sideshows. Journalist Marta Franco followed a handful of these women through Mexico City’s pro wrestling scene and used the material she gathered to create her graduate-school thesis, “Las Luchadoras,” a series of videos that documents and celebrates these women’s role in lucha libre as well as their difficulties acheiving the same recognition as men.
Mexican women have been invovled in pro wrestling since the 1940s, but they were barred from competing in the county’s capital until 1986. At first, many entered the ring as eye candy (they were there to “blow kisses and show off” to the crowd, one luchadora told Marta) rather than actual competitors. It’s only recently that the sport has allowed women to fight men. Yet there’s still widespread discrimination despite the efforts of luchadoras and their fans. I recently sat down with Marta in San Francisco to talk about her project and what place women occupy in lucha libre.
VICE: Where did you get the idea to do this story?
Marta Franco: I’m from Spain, and we don’t have lucha libre or anything like that. Everybody knows the aesthetics—the masks—but it’s not something I’d seen until I moved to San Francisco, to the Mission District, two years ago. A Mexican friend of mine told me there was a lucha libre show in the neighborhood, we went, and I loved it. At another wrestling event, I heard a woman in line telling some people about her friend, who was a wrestler and a woman. That’s where I started thinking, A woman? Who are these women? Where are they? How do they fit in something that, at first sight, looks like such a macho world?’
My Girlfriend and I Found the Real Hannibal Lecter for Thomas Harris
Diego Enrique Osorno is a prominent Mexican author and poet. He has written six books, primarily focusing on the country’s drug cartels, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León, where the real-life Hannibal Lecter was imprisoned.
Last week horror fans discovered that one of the genre’s most notorious villains, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, was based on a real doctor imprisoned in Mexico, whom the author met while visiting the prison as a young man to interview another inmate named Dykes Askew Simmons. Last spring, through my editor, I received a message from Harris, who wanted me to find and identify someone who had been a prisoner in the Nuevo Leon State Prison during the 50s and 60s. For a few moments I thought I’d wind up sustaining an epistolary exchange with Harris like Hannibal held with some of his patients. As I read the note, however, it became clear that I was only needed as a sort of hired detective. His note read [sic]:
Is the Zetas’ Leader’s Arrest Really Such a Good Thing? We Asked an Expert
VICE: Is the capture of Z-40 really “a major victory in the battle against drug cartels”?
Steven Dudley: I don’t know what a “major victory” is for the war on drugs, to be honest. But it certainly is an important step in slowing the type of hyper-violence that this group—and this individual, in particular—promoted. Whether it will slow the flow of drugs, I don’t know.
Is violence actually going to decrease?
In many ways, Z-40 was the last stich that held the Zetas together. His capture may cause a spasm of violence within an organization that is highly prone to violent acts, and with him gone it just throws everything up in the air again. Some individuals may attempt to control the organization and step into the power void, and then you will also have rival organizations looking to take advantage.
If you were a member of one of those rival cartels, what would you be planning right now?
I think that there’s no question that the epicenter of what comes next in Mexico is going to happen in Nuevo Laredo, the most important commercial crossing point between the US and Mexico. Around 10,000 to 12,000 trucks cross every day, making it the crown jewel in terms of trafficking, as it provides such an easy way to camouflage merchandise going north and weapons and money going south. This is where you’ll find other criminal organizations gearing up to make a move. It’s an area that’s been held by the Zetas for the past ten years.
The Leader of One of Mexico’s Largest Drug Cartels Has Been Arrested
Nuevo Laredo is a border city in northeastern Mexico, surrounded by hills and earth burned by the sun. Thousands of trucks ride its main highway, delivering legal and illegal merchandise to the United States. Although not as well-known as Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo is one of the busiest land ports in all of Latin America. Its formal economy is wedded to Texas, although its black market is linked directly to New York City, where most of the cocaine that moves through Nuevo Laredo winds up.
Beyond its main highway and asphalt avenues, Nuevo Laredo is also surrounded by labyrinths of cracked, Western-flick-looking roads that go nowhere, old rancher routes where shadows also roam. In the early hours of Monday morning, according to official accounts, Miguel Angel Treviño traveled on one of these. He was accompanied only by a bodyguard, eight firearms, and $2 million in cash. Something went wrong this time because neither the weapons nor the cash — in a region where both are essential for survival — prevented the arrest of the man known as the leader of the Zetas.
Treviño’s detention at the hands of Mexico’s Navy was immediately heralded by the government as a blow to organized crime in Mexico, and as a ‘win’ notch for President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose government hadn’t nabbed any significant bad guys since it assumed power last December. The arrest was also met with a symbolic pat on the back by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which said in a brief statement posted Tuesday that Treviño, or code-name “Z–40,” was now among the “most significant Mexican cartel leaders to be apprehended in several years.”
The Zetas organization formed in 2000 by 32 soldiers who deserted Mexico’s Army, with the blessing and financing of the then-leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cardenas Guillen. Between 2004 and 2009, during their rapid ascent in the criminal world, the Zetas surprised observers with their dynamic horizontal structure, the cruelty of their attacks, and their capacity of organized resistance against the Sinaloa Cartel, the oldest and most powerful cartel in Mexico. Their ascent seemed limitless until an alleged deal was struck between the DEA and Cardenas Guillen of the Gulf gang, and by 2010, when a series of official and non-official armed groups began moving into their territory, the Zetas’ hold on power in eastern and northeastern Mexico began to decline.
The Mexico City Barrio Giuliani Couldn’t Tame
Ten years ago Rudy Giuliani rolled through the Tepito barrio in Mexico City with a caravan of 300 security agents and a helicopter soaring above. The hood is internationally known for its dominating presence of informal vendors, known as ambulantes, and the many athletes and pop celebrities who were born there. But despite the well-off, famous people from Tepito, it is still one of Mexico City’s roughest barrios, which is why Giuliani’s specific expertise in urban cleansing was requested. He came to Mexico City in 2003 at the invitation of multibillionaire Carlos Slim and then-mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with the goal of supporting the “rescue” of the city’s “crime infested” historic center.
It’s not hard to see why Slim and the mayor asked for Giuliani by name. During his time as mayor of New York, his implementation of the broken-windows theory and “quality of life” policing was very successful in pushing “undesirables” to the margins of the outer boroughs of the city. He even turned Times Square, which used tobe like this, into a lit-up carnival of Disneyland wonder by welcoming corporate investment with open arms. Could he do the same in Mexico City?
A decade after his visit and the set of 146 recommendations that came along with it—which cost the private local firm (Slim and others) who had agreed to pick up the tab $4.3 million—his policy advice has borne some fruit. Now you can walk the streets of the Historic Center at night and find trendy bars inhabited byturistas, hipsters, and local chilangos alike. Streets like Moneda are still home to hundreds of vendors who engage in a daily cat-and-mouse game with the cops, but mostly the ambulantes have been pushed out of the capital’s shiny new center. Still, head about a mile northwest of Zocalo, the central square, and you’ll find yourself in the calloused sore thumb of the city’s glorious plans, Tepito.
Deportee Purgatory – Tijuana’s El Bordo Is Home to Thousands of Heroin Addicted Mexican Deportees
Each year, more than 30 million people flow between the US and Mexico through the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest land-border crossing in the world. Situated between San Diego and Tijuana, at one time the area around San Ysidro was a prime spot to cross illegally into the US. But in 1994, Operation Gatekeeper expanded the border wall and increased the number of checkpoints. With the more recent addition of unmanned drone patrols along the border, Tijuana has become one of the most fortified border points in the Americas. Border crossers have been forced to turn to alternative sites of crossing, such as the Sonoran Desert, where hundreds of people die each year.
About 40 percent of Mexican immigrants deported from the US are sent back through Tijuana. Many of the deported border crossers have established a makeshift shantytown inside a dry, concrete riverbed where the Tijuana River once flowed—called El Bordo.
In years past, local nonprofits and shelters offered humanitarian aid to immigrants attempting to cross into the US, but today they primarily care for the deportees who have been booted back to Mexico. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (better known as ICE) reported a record 409,849 immigrants deported from the States in 2012, and a recent report published by Social Scientists on Immigration Policy states that, based on the current rates of deportation, more than two million people will have been deported by the Obama administration by 2014, more than under any president in American history.
El Bordo roughly translates as “the border” or, more grimly, “the ditch.” In the 1960s, the area around the Tijuana River was a frontier town where would-be immigrants would congregate to meet polleros (“human smugglers”), who would transport them into the US for a fee.
Micaela Saucedo runs the Casa Refugio Elvira shelter, located a block away from the dry river, and has assisted border crossers and deportees for more than 30 years. “In the 60s, it was very easy to cross. In those years, it was a different world.” Micaela led me to a public square where several hundred homeless deportees were milling about, waiting for the free meal that local humanitarian organizations dish out every day. “The deportees stay here [in Tijuana] because they think crossing again will be easy,” Micaela said, “but they don’t realize that the border is now completely secured. It’s very hard to cross.”
Later Micaela gave me a tour of El Bordo—an inhospitable concrete embankment filled with a sea of tents. The elegant Las Americas mall in San Diego is visible just over the border fence.
“Gallo!” Micaela shouted. A man emerged from a hole, crowing like a rooster. Delfino Lopez, a.k.a. El Gallo, a man in his early 30s who wore a hat with a fighting cock embroidered on it, is one of the estimated 3,000 people who reside in El Bordo year-round. Like many of his fellow inhabitants, Gallo previously resided in the US. He crossed the border illegally in 2005 and worked in construction for six years, sending most of his money to his wife and kids in Puebla.