Propaganda in the Mexican Drug War
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During the ongoing Mexican drug war, drug cartels use propaganda through media and scare tactics to gain more control of its people and in many cases corrupting the government. The main goals are to glorify actions of the drug cartels and their lifestyle, gain control of the Mexican society to the highest extent possible, and to recruit new, educated, high class members to increase their power even further. These drug cartels use of propaganda and scare tactics are used in precise, complex and clever ways to get the most out of every action, resulting in their enormous power.
The cartels have adopted the word “narco” to pertain to anything relating to the cartels, and it has spread to be a part of everyday Mexican slang. Narcocultura is the criminal culture of the drug cartels. There are music, television shows, literature, beverages, food, and architecture that all have been branded "narco". Narcorridos are Mexican country songs glorifying the lifestyles of drug lords. They are typically produced by artists working with or being paid by Mexican drug lords. Cartels hang narco-banners up around cities to advertise themselves and threaten rival cartels. They also distribute narco-flyers, used for the same purposes as the narco-banners, by handing them out to people, scattering and posting them around cities, and leaving them near the bodies of homicide victims. A brand of beer, Malverde Beer, was named after a Mexican folklore character revered by drug traffickers, and the patron saint of drug trafficking.
The drug cartels’ use of propaganda through new media has increased significantly as the primary source of connection with the people. It’s seen as a war tactic against the Mexican government, taking its people and putting them against themselves. Many times cartels use bribery or threats against journalists and publications to report the cartels in a good light. They also bribe or threaten members of the local law enforcement to look the other way when drug trafficking crimes are committed. Blog Del Narco was a blog that reported the true violence and nature of the drug war and drug cartels. It would report news often censored from other publications. It was shut down by the government after threats were made by cartels in the form of a message left on the bodies of two unidentified homicide victims.
There is activism against the influence of the drug cartels. Anti-narcocorrido music is songs that denounce drug lords and drug trafficking. The anti-narcocorridos consist of modern music styles with heavy synthesizing, which makes it very different from the narcocorridos sound. Local police and the country’s military work actively to prevent drug trafficking, discouraging recruits into drug cartels.
The drug war has become rich with examples of propaganda and other means of psychological warfare. Cartels use high impact, often dramatic communication methods to threaten opponents, announce new policies, and, most importantly, to seek grassroot support. Through fear mongering, they have established themselves as dangerous to those speak out against them. They provide simple public services to citizens and act as protectors from the government while covering their true motives. Deceased drug gangsters have often been honored with tombs of ivory with elaborate paintings to illustrate their contribution and alliance to a particular cartel.
Cartels have seeped into everyday life as civilians pass by walls of graffiti and road signs with digital media employing cartel public relations. There is now a “narco” vocabulary describing cartel related music, literature, and daily television shows. In addition, there are narcocastillos (castles) and even narcocerveza (beer). One particular brewery in Guadalajara created Malverde Beer, which was named after the patron saint of drug traffickers, Jesus Malverde. Smugglers (or mules) have been known to carry a picture of the saint with them during their operations. Although the Mexican brewery stated it was not meant to glamorize cartels, many have criticized it and Walmarts in Mexico refuse to distribute it. Some of the narcoliterature include books such as "El Amante de Janis Joplin", and "Nostalgia de la Sobra." In addition, there are narcomantas, narcoblockades, narcomanifestaciones (demonstrations) and narcocorridos.
Narcocorridos are a type of music that glamourizes the lifestyle of drug lords. It is country style music usually including instruments such as tubas and accordions. The music and music videos are widely popular. The music video, El Movimiento alterado, describing the Sinaloa cartel’s drug violence, received three million hits on YouTube.
- Sample Lyrics:
"Con un cuerno de chivo / y bazuka en la nuca / volando cabezas / al que se atraviesa" (With an AK / and a bazooka taking aim / blowing off the heads / of whoever gets in the way)
The Grammy nominated group, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, has now been banned from the Tijuana state for having a close relationship with a drug cartel. Their songs contain lyrics such as:
"With an R-15 in hand / and a satchel of grenades / a pistol on each leg / and a bulletproof vest / dressed in black / ready for battle"
In a song titled, "La Familia Michoacana" lyrics are as follows:
"siguen duro trabajando/ no hay poder que los detenga/ si los siguen provocando pagaran las consecuencias/ ya les han dejado claro que sus plazas se respetan" (continue working hard/ no power to stop them/if still pay the consequences resulting/ and they have made clear that their places are respected)
Examples of narcocorridos from artist Mario “El Chachorro” Delgado include:
“Su cartel ya lo conocen / le llaman La Vecindad / los contrarios por envidia / lo han querido asesinar / pero el ’8′ no está solo / su gente sabe trozar” (His cartel is well-known / it’s called La Vecindad / His jealous enemies / want to take him out / but “8″ isn’t alone / his people are killers, too)
The song titled, "El Mercenario", have the following lyrics:
"Con la camisa bien puesta/ del jefe Ismael y don Joaquin Guzman/ defendere el monasterio/ el legado, el imperio, que lograron crear/ R con R cigarro/ soy un Mercenario a la hora de pelear" (With the shirt on straight/ Chief Don Joaquin Guzman and Ismael/ will defend the monastery, the legacy, the empire, who managed to create/ R with R cigar/ I'm a mercenary, time to fight)
These are a few examples of the narco-corridos.
A music scene, similar to the early underground gangsta-rap scene, has emerged in northeastern Mexico (Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Coahuila), where the musical phenomenon of hip-hop is being co-opted by the influence of organized crime and the drug war in the region.
However, unlike the corridos, which relate to rural regions of the Mexican Pacific (and which are generally linked to the Sinaloa cartel) the narco-rap emerged in the urban area of Tamaulipas, in the border with Texas, a turf currently under armed dispute between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.
Derived from the constant presence of "halcones" ("hawks", cartel spies) and cartel-convoys circulating the streets of the region, young people have been involved in the local narcoculture, and narco-raps express the reality of life on the streets, of those cities under the drug cartels rule.
The drug cartels have been successful at influencing and manipulating the information environment by issuing their own press releases, controlling the content released about them and violence associated, and threatening journalists. They have managed to control who their audiences are, how they are perceived to them, and ultimately their actions or omission of actions. They have purchased several newspapers and recruited reporters within which they can control. In addition to influencing indegineous reporting, United States’ reporters have stopped covering the drug war and cartel violence as well. U.S. news directors and editors discourage their reporters to cover certain drug related stories. In September 2011, at least sixty undocumented migrants, including children were kidnapped in Veracruz.
The cartels have had to adjust to the challenges in dominating the information environment in a time when the internet and advanced computer networks have been used against them. Some cartels have “hired operational security specialist (narcohackers) to cope with the enhanced digital surveillance of their activities.” As websites or social media have attempted to shine light on their activities, the cartels respond by threatening execution found on their social post or tweets. They also have been using websites to spread disinformation about their rivals and government officials.
Propaganda by cartel
Narcomantas were placed attempting to antagonize U.S. government agencies around Juarez. The threats included using vehicle IEDs against the U.S. consulates which would be carried out by La Linea, Juarez's cartel enforcer group. However, it is possible “that a rival group deliberately misattributed these threats to La Linea in an effort to incite U.S. reprisal."
The Knights Templar cartel cast themselves as defenders of the people, blaming federal and local authorities for drug violence casualties because of their lack of protection for the citizens especially from Knights Templar’s rival, Los Zetas. Each member is required to carry a “code of conduct” booklet stating what they are fighting: poverty, injustice, and tyranny. It also states that members are prohibited from killing for money or drugs, nor do members use drugs, and all are mandated to have drug tests. The booklet states the group will “begin a challenging ideological battle to defend the values of a society based on ethics.” It emphasizes loyalty to families and the country and respect for women and children. The cover of their booklet is a knight sitting atop a horse while holding a shield and sword, exemplifying the Knights Templar cartel and its members are more like warriors and heroes rather than a drug cartel.
In addition to their booklet, they use posters, banners, and emblems which all have a religious tone. They have members hand out propaganda material on public transportation which frequently contains Bible verses and quotes. They also distribute flyers discrediting the federal authority and asking them to stop abusing and murder innocent civilians. They organize public demonstrations in which they hand out free T-shirts with anti-police slogans for each protestors.[not in citation given] They said “they would stand down its own operations if the government secured the state; so the government could no longer use it as a pretext for abusing residents.” When the pope went to visit in 2011, the Knights Templar made hand painted, clothe narcobanners asking the violence to cease while he visited.
The Knights Templar propaganda is especially successful with its religious posture since most of Mexicans are Roman Catholic. Their propaganda is widespread and most effective in areas where cartel violence is dense and police protection and resources are weak. These are the areas the Knight Templar exploit, saying they will take justice into their own hands.
Knights Templar propaganda maintains a soft tone to civilians, however when they murder gang rivals, they use a much more aggressive approach. Right before the Pope was scheduled his 2011 visit, eight people were found killed with narcomantas placed upon them warning rivals to stay out of their territory while the Pope was visiting.
Los Zetas have utilized the Internet and media to spread most of their propaganda and to glorify their lifestyle. There have been numerous YouTube videos of assassinations, torture scenes, and interrogations. Although these posts are quickly taken down, most of them are likely to have been seen and reposted somewhere else. When they discover individuals, blogs, or media speaking out against them on the Internet, they retaliate with violence. In September 2011, two people were found hanging from a bridge with a huge narcromanta containing the words “Internet Snitches.” The banner was addressed to two particular blog sites that were being used to report uncensored stories about cartel violence. In addition, the administrator of the chat site, Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, which is used to share safety and security information, was killed and decapitated.
The Zetas have launched public relations campaigns through local media outlets. They determine what stories are run and threaten those who do not comply. Many reporters have been murdered and threatened, as a result the Zetas threats are taken seriously. Members of the cartel also write their own stories which are published in the papers. Their stories of disinformation include ones that discredit the Mexican army, spreading rumors about human rights abuses and exaggerating any misdemeanors by the government forces. “Demands to run propaganda will increase and content more extreme, and newspapers that run stories will go from being silent on the matter of organized crime control to being agents of disinformation helping organized crime strengthen its control over the reign." They do, however, write positive stories about local police forces, most of which are working with the Zetas in some fashion. The Zetas have infiltrated local government by bribing officers, controlling how local authorities are perceived by civilians within Zeta territory. They keep the public ignorant therefore most people trust the officers who are actually working side-by-side with the cartel.
Adding and maintaining membership is key to winning the drug war. As a result of this, cartels rely on propaganda and other psychological warfare tactics to gain support and recruit new members. Cartels are extremely good at targeting high-value individuals such as police officers and border agents. These recruits are important to narco operations for they provide knowledge on vulnerabilities within the system, personnel and they are usually well trained in weapons and some even trained in torture techniques. “They are the protective shields for drug lords and neutralizing any real government action.” Cartels benefit particularly from American recruits so they devote much of their resources to US officials. Americans blend well, speak perfect English, are familiar the terrain, roads and local customs. One border agent that can turn away from an operation can have significant long-term effects.
Cartels also recruit "straw buyers", individuals that do not have prior criminal records to buy weapons from licensed dealers. Some buyers are housewives, mothers, cousins, kids, elderly and any families that are less suspicious. They are usually paid $100 a weapon or more.
As a new method of recruiting smugglers, cartels in Tijuana have been tricking citizens into working for them. They post "help wanted" posters throughout the city and ads in the classified section of newspapers asking for help with a small errand of driving a car to California to serve an important business organization. The drivers are usually unaware that they are smuggling drugs hidden in the car. Even if the job seems suspicious, the ad respondents follow simple instructions for a quick payment of about $500.
One of the cartels most pressed targets are the young; they can take a poor, undereducated kid and give them power and money. Cartels attack the education system and its inability to produce role models, idols, or opportunities for young adults. Cartels provide an alternative for the kids by joining the narcoculture and protracting it as life of money, power, respect, expensive cars, and exciting lifestyle. They advertise entry-level positions, paying $500 a week. These positions are filled by people that are on average 16 years old. Kids are “cheap and expendable" to the cartels. They use them as “mules” to carry drugs over the border and act as look-outs during operations. If caught, minors who are detained receive significantly shorter sentences than adults and are likely to return to the cartels after being released.
Los Zetas give kids an additional opportunity. Being a cartel with experience in paramilitary operations, they give young recruits the opportunity to join a training program much like a military boot camp. The recruits can start with operational training in surveillance and then can move up to an assassination training program. Kids that sign up are taught weaponry, martial arts, hand-to-hand combat techniques and precision targeting. They even encourage the trainees to enter paintballing contests and tournaments, asking them to report their scores. They are taught SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) methods, torture techniques and how to withstand torture, and aggressive vehicle driving skills including how to escape and drive while limiting collateral damage.
There are websites aimed at children, some specifically at American kids coming out of middle school. They advertise their training camps throughout Mexico and along the US border. In addition, cartels have offered college scholarships to students who wish to study criminal justice, law degrees, encouraging students to become judges and go into law enforcement. They also encourage computer science or other technological related disciplines. Because of this recruitment success, “cartels are now more professionalized, hiring highly educated individuals who serve as public relations officers that recruit help of other professionals, including accountants, businessmen to land money, law enforcement officers, doctors, and lawyers.” 
Although journalists are being attacked and threaten for reporting, those that do report were asked to censor their stories so as to not popularize the cartel violence. Media outlets have agreed to follow measures to “avoid turning criminals into heroes or victims, as this helps build support with the populations.” Journalist were urged to do anything in their power to not become an avenue or an inadvertent spokesperson for the cartels. Because of this, violence and cartel activities were being ignored so independent sources took it upon themselves to report on the drug war. These “cybervigilantes” use online media such as Twitter, blogs, and YouTube which have become powerful tools to spread information about the narcoculture. In 2012 the Anonymous group starting unveiling names of cartel members and sympathizers but the effort quickly faded away. El Blog Del Narco and Mundo Narco were popular uncensored sites tracking cartel violence, gang uniforms, expansions and movements, tactics, and weapons of choice. Other sites include Diario del Narco and La Policiaca.
In addition, officials have tried to eliminate the word “narco” trying to keep it out of everyday life. The government also came out with anti-narco comics and songs directed at kids. The Mexican government sponsored a ten episode comic series. They depicted teams of federal officers, military men, and government personnel bringing peace to Mexico by taking down the drug gangs. Each comic attempted to tackle a myth or disinformation spread about the federal government. One episode featured a father leaving the cartel and reuniting with his wife and son. They included themes to strengthen government authority by showing how government officials do not negotiate with criminals and murderers. The Mexican government uses these comics to send a message to the youths that “only through strong institutions will Mexico achieve a true and lasting security.”
The Catholic Church, which is the majority religion in Mexico, also tried to help with the drug war by denouncing consumption and sale of drugs as a “capital sin.” In March 2012, Pope Benedict, went to Mexico and spoke to crowds of people:
- “It is the responsibility of the Church to educate consciences, to teach moral responsibility and to unmask the evil, to unmask this idolatry of money which enslaves man, to unmask the false promises, the lies, the fraud that is behind drugs.”
In response to the increase of newspaper job announcements and help wanted posters, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement bought up Mexican newspaper ad space to warn civilians about the announcements. The warnings appear in the classified sections and in block black letters say, "Warning! Drug traffickers are announcing jobs for drivers to go to the United States. Don't fall victim to this trap."
In addition to newspaper ads, border partrols stream radio announcements deterring smuggling. Other counter propaganda campaigns include public service announcements, anti-narcocorridos, and short documentaries about importance of rule of law and democracy.
During the Mexican Drug War, the Mexican government did all they could to show what was happening by using Propaganda. One example of how they used propaganda was by using technology and the media and making online animated propaganda to reach to the people and help them understand the organized crimes. The comics are said to be “a new space for communication”. The propaganda is a big success and it has a strong support from the public. It is a comprehensive strategy where they use the public force.
Other means of psychological warfare
Drug Cartels use of propaganda also takes a psychological toll on the people of Mexico, including the Mexican culture and their society as a whole. Fear has permeated into the daily life of an entire country through the use of scare tactics, murders, their symbolism, and bombings. Threats are one of the drug cartels' most effective tools and the credibility behind them. When they threaten someone, they usually carry it through. These threats are a form of psychological warfare because either through coercion or scare tactics they are influencing their targets perceptions, attitudes, and behavior. The violence includes everything from beheadings, kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, and grenades. Many of the dead found show signs of torture, such as their hands tied behind their back and being set on fire. Some individuals have been daubed with axle grease and stuffed into a tank or oil drum and then set to fire. Another popular tactic is dropping victims in homemade acid. Bodies are often found dumped along the road or in mass graves. Many killings and the use of dead bodies as symbols often happen during social events when the victim least expects it. Cartels use extreme violence on bodies to portray a certain message. For example, decapitations often are supposed to show that the victim did not fulfill their job or was part of two sides of the conflict.
Some types of psychological warfare include closing of public establishments, roadblocks and threats to public officials. Society is always aware of the drug cartels presence, in places where many Americans may feel safe like in schools and medical clinics. Another way used to put fear into the Mexican people are unexpected roadblocks. It stops people like the military and the police from taking control of traffic that may as well be controlled by drug cartels. The fear that is put into the Mexican people leads to a decreased amount of people putting effort into stopping the drug cartels, since most are too scared to do so. The people living through the Mexican drug war are living through constant insecurity, causing significant psychological toll on these individuals. Another part of the psychological toll on the people is the lack of freedom of speech. If an individual expresses themselves in a way that drug cartels would not appreciate, as for example writing about their secret actions, their life and the life of all their loved ones will be at risk. The ways of the Mexican people are extremely affected by this issue since its a big part of everyday life. The culture changes significantly as well since many Mexicans live in constant fear, unable to operate some customs that was previously the way of life.
Maybe the actions that most damage the minds of the Mexican people are attacks on public properties with large human occupations. Other than the physical damage, even more people are frightened and damaged psychologically. The goal of these different types of psychological attacks, is to limit discussion of the drug cartels in mainstream society, make people fear them, and finally to decrease citizens time outside the home.
Naturally, the cartels most targeted group - journalists, have been influenced by sheer fear. In 2008, 95 journalists were attacked, 28 killed, 8 missing, and dozens threatened.
Cartels also use bribes and extortion as a means to keeping their business running. They use the motto “plata o plomo” meaning silver or lead. Give them money and protection or face death. Kidnappings have become an extortion scheme. Many cartels charge a war tax within their territory and if someone can’t or won’t pay the tax, they or a family member is kidnapped until they can pay.
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