Car­tels are com­pet­ing not just for drug money and ter­ri­tory, but for so­cial me­dia fol­low­ers

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - INTERNATIONAL REPORT -

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

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