Cartels are competing not just for drug money and territory, but for social media followers
By far the greatest online champions of this #narcolifestyle are the two sons of Joaquín Guzmán, aka El Chapo, the billionaire head of the Sinaloa cartel and Mexico’s most famous outlaw. Born into wealth and power, Iván, 32, and Alfredo, 29, have hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, and treat their Facebook followers to photos of every narco-cliché imaginable: pet lions and cheetahs, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces, mansions and private planes. There are also buxom bikini babes on quad bikes and countless stacks of $100 bills. Other prominent narco juniors include Serafín, Vicente and Ismael Zambada, whose father heads the Sinaloa cartel with El Chapo; and Vicente Carrillo Leyva, the son of Juárez cartel founder Amado ‘Lord of the Skies’.
Regular gang members are also not immune to the narcissistic pastime. One member of the Knights Templar cartel, who calls himself ‘Broly Banderas’, recently made headlines after posting of cash and even cars stuffed full of drugs. Members of Los Ántrax share photos on Instagram of gold-plated machine guns and exotic cars – all while sporting the group’s trademark skull signet ring. Before he was arrested in 2014, a hit-squad cartel boss known as ‘El Chino Ántrax’ regularly posted shots of his Christian Louboutin shoes, Lamborghini and Bentley cars, and even an Instagram photo of him posing with Paris Hilton.
‘Many narcos of the new generation grew up in mansions, accustomed to power and wealth,’ says Dr Tomás Guevara, of the Autonomous University of Sinaloa and the author of two books about violence in the state. He says the previous generation of cartel leaders was raised on the land in poverty – as a child, El Chapo sold oranges to make ends meet, before moving on to more lucrative produce. But the ostentation of narco juniors on social media is the product of a new generation, born into the spoils of a booming drug business.
It’s hard to overstate the pervasiveness of drug cartels in Mexico today. From the 1980s until the early 2000s, the Mexican government took a relatively passive approach to cartel violence. But that changed in late 2006, with the election of Felipe Calderón as president. He enlisted the Mexican army and navy in an aggressive campaign against the cartels – generally viewed as the starting point of the Mexican Drug War.
Figures released by the Mexican government last year showed that more than 164 000 people were murdered from 2007 to 2014, with 27 000 people killed in 2011 alone. That’s about 60 000 more than government an estimated $240 billion (about R3.5 trillion) a year, or roughly 10% of the country’s GDP.
the cartels pull in $85 billion (about R1.2 trillion) a year, with Forbes featuring El Chapo in past billionaire and ‘Most Powerful’ lists. The New Yorker claims he may be responsible for as much as half of all US drug imports.
Social media isn’t the only technology cartels are utilising. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports the Mexican enlisted specialists to build sophisticated communications networks. But this tech has come at a high price. ‘They may be engaging young computer scientists in Mexico and giving them a good salary, but if they still require a skill, they just kidnap someone who has it,’ Antoine, who works with technology think-tank The SecDev Foundation, told Vice magazine. ‘As of 2012, we had at least 36 cases of engineers who were snatched by the cartels, including an IBM employee, never to be seen again.’
The cartels’ social media accounts are not all tiger cubs and golden guns, either. Like a large corporation, social media offers the cartels a powerful public relations tool. In 2013, the Gulf Cartel posted a YouTube video of them distributing aid after a hurricane hit Mexico. A speech by the leader of the Knights Templar currently has 2.4 million views on the video-sharing site. According to some reports, the Knights Templar at one point ran a Facebook page as a ‘small business’ that garnered more than 10 000 likes before it was shut down.
Images of guns and bling can also be a strong recruitment tool, particularly for the 46% of Mexicans who live in poverty. A well-known proverb among Mexico’s drug world is: ‘Better to be a prince for a year than a donkey for life.’ voice,’ Antoine says. ‘Content like these Twitter accounts resonates with the hundreds of thousands of online narcocultura fans. It can provide an image of social mobility, hope and opportunity to the young poor who otherwise have few prospects.’
Tomás says that this glamorous image can also attract women, like Claudia. ‘It’s not new for mothers or spouses to take over the business after a man’s downfall,’ he says. ‘As in all sectors of society, women are forced into new roles to provide for their families. But the immense majority of women involved in cartels do it to have access to luxury that would be unavailable to them otherwise.’
With 98% of homicides in Mexico going unsolved, prospective cartel members also have little worry they will be caught. Instead, the real danger comes from within. A DEA report in 2012 revealed that cartels were using social media not only to recruit new members, but to spy on existing ones – obtaining personal information and details of
The narco juniors have also embraced social media for chilling purposes. Shocking photos and footage – of decapitations, mutilations, torture and killings – are becoming common, invariably posted with warnings for others. In 2013, Facebook caused uproar when it refused to remove a video of a woman being beheaded by the Zeta cartel; the