USA TODAY International Edition
Mexican drug cartels are using TikTok to entice young people
In a one- minute TikTok video last fall, drug traffickers on a rigid inflatable boat yelled to the pilot to speed up as a Customs Surveillance Service vessel of Spain took chase. The viral video, which got more than 1 million views, looked like a scene from the Netflix “Narcos” series. But it was a real, high- speed chase in the cartel drug wars.
Cartels have long used social media to shock and intimidate their enemies, said Howard Campbell, anthropologist and drug expert at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“It has proven to be an effective strategy,” he said. “The use of TikTok is just the latest phase of this phenomenon.”
But their organized crime strategy has shifted somewhat.
Viewers no longer see bodies hanging from bridges, disembodied heads
on display, or highly produced videos with messages to their enemies.
At least not on TikTok, the popular video- sharing app.
“TikTok is being used mainly to promote a lifestyle,” said David Saucedo, a Mexico City- based security analyst. “( To) generate a picture of luxury and glamour, to show the ‘ benefits’ of joining the criminal activities.”
According to Saucedo, the promotion of these videos is to entice young men who might be interested in joining the cartel with images of endless cash, parties, military- grade weapons and exotic pets such as tiger cubs.
“I’ve seen a few criminal messages, ( but) what I’ve seen the most, it’s a message to encourage people to join the organized crime,” he said.
Typing # CartelTikTok in the social media search bar brings up thousands of videos, most of them from people promoting a “cartel culture” – videos with narcocorridos, or the Mexican ballads about drug trafficking as soundtracks, and presumed members bragging about money, fancy cars and a luxury lifestyle.
Cartels do practice forced recruitment. A new UNICEF survey says gang recruitment is driving families to flee their homes and seek asylum in other
countries. About 35,000 children and adolescents have been recruited by criminal gangs in Mexico, participating in illegal activities that risk their lives, according to the Child Rights Network in Mexico.
But experts say they’ll try any avenue to entice more people to join.
“The cartels are going to do whatever they need to do to build up their multibillion- dollar business,” said Derek Maltz, former agent in charge of Drug Enforcement Agency’s Special Operations Division. “The use of social media is very attractive. It’s very utilized by the younger culture, especially TikTok, and so 100% it’s a recruitment tool.”
A search of the # CartelTikTok community and its related accounts shows people are responding. Public comments from users such as “Y’all hiring?” “Yall let gringos join?” “I need an application,” or “can I be a mule? My kids need Christmas presents,” are on some of the videos.
One of the accounts related to this cartel community publicly answered: “Of course, hay trabajo para todos,” “I’ll send the application ASAP.” “How much is the pound in your city?” “Follow me on Instagram to talk.” The post, showing two men with $ 100 bills and alcohol, had more than a hundred comments.
“We know that the Mexican cartels are producing the most incredible amounts of methamphetamine,” Maltz said. “So business is booming. They’re going to continue to build up their business, so the recruitment of new employees will be critical. They want to be cool, and they use these platforms to continue their business.
“The people that are promoting the Mexican cartels are operating like global terrorists. They’re promoting a terrorist organization so anybody that’s involved in following or promoting Mexican cartels, they’re involved with the most devastating violence.
“They’re killing not only Americans, but they’re killing Mexicans at record levels.”
Experts said with just one like on one of these videos, you’d end up in the # CartelTikTok’s world due to the algorithm; therefore, millions of TikTok users glorify the cartel culture by liking, promoting and watching this content.
The surge of cartel lifestyle videos on TikTok hasn’t diminished the presence of hardcore cartel content on Twitter and Facebook. In July 2020, a Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación video that went viral on Twitter in the United States and Mexico showed an army of cartel soldiers driving tanks and firing military guns, showing off its high- level firepower.
Cartels continue to use these platforms to communicate their messages to their enemies. But the potential recruitment strategy on TikTok could reach millions of younger Americans who are fascinated by these organizations.
“I’m pretty sure that cartels would have success by promoting their products on TikTok,” Saucedo, the security analyst, said. “No doubts, TikTok would have this ability to penetrate areas in the white population that they haven’t reached before.”
Cybercrime authorities are supposed to watch for unusual activities, but it’s unclear if they’re investigating the new marketing recruitment tool by cartels on TikTok. The Courier Journal reached out to DEA officials for comment, but they did not immediately respond.
“My experience is that there are U. S. authorities that are looking at those issues of social media... but I don’t think they have enough resources to do an adequate job,” said Victor Manjarrez Jr., associate director at the Center for Law & Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Maltz said parents need to be more educated about the situation with the Mexican cartels.
“There’s obviously a lack of knowledge around the United States, especially on the dangerous connectivity between the Mexican cartels and terrorist groups like Hezbollah and others. At the end of the day, it’s a dangerous culture to follow.”
TikTok has removed many of the # CartelTikTok videos, but with millions of users sharing this content, it’s easy to continue finding these viral videos on the platform.
When asked about the company’s efforts to regulate the content, a TikTok spokesperson said, “the company is committed to working with law enforcement to combat organized criminal activity. In line with our community guidelines, we remove content and accounts that promote illegal activity and regulated goods as we work to keep our community safe.”
“It seems to me that unfortunately, TikTok, it’s encouraging the wishes of recruitment from cartels and at the same time, the fascination of young men by the cartel’s world,” Saucedo said.
But the combination of these two factors could be as lethal for America as it has been for Mexico.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic and the border shutdowns, cartels have found a way to continue sending drugs to America. Murder rates in Mexico are growing, and so is the drug overdose crisis in the United States.
However, what cartels are showing on TikTok is a masked reality to bring in more people; in fact, it’s the opposite of what a young new member would have to do once he joins the Mexican cartels.
“The new soldiers inside the criminal organization are recruited to be dealers, informants, or hit men,” Saucedo said. “The risk is tremendously high because these organizations have to face the authorities and other enemies.
“Their life in the organization is usually extremely short.”