Things That Matter

Former Drug Cartel Members Share Why The Drug War Will Continue To Fail And What Is Needed Instead

The strategy that the Mexican government has employed during the past 13 years, since then incumbent president Felipe Calderon Hinojosa basically declared national war against the global trafficking organizations operating out of Mexico, has been nothing short of catastrophic. More than 200,000 people have died and at least 60,000 have disappeared. Whole communities have fled their lands, other crimes such as sex trafficking and illegal organ harvesting, as well as kidnapping and financial fraud, have increased and morale is low in many regions of the country. 

We often get the government’s perspective in the media. Reports also focus on the effect that cartel violence has had in the individual and collective wellbeing of victims. However, save a few notable examples such as Everardo Gonzalez’ poignant documentary “La libertad del diablo”, the view of current or former sicarios is rarely shared. The Spanish newspaper El Pais has just published the doctoral findings of Karina Garcia Reyes, a woman from Northern Mexico whose city has lived dantesque levels of violence and who did a postgraduate degree overseas to find out what was the rationale behind cartel members’ actions and lifestyle. She is currently a Professor in Bristol, United Kingdom. 

Garcia Reyes interviewed 33 former cartel members and wrote their biographies.

Credit: El Pais

Garcia Reyes interviewed former cartel members in both sides of the border. Some belonges to the biggest criminal organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas Cartel or the Gulf Cartel, although the majority used to belong to independent cartels. This speaks of the probable fear that former cartel members might experience and their reluctance to speak out. 

This is the first academic study that includes interviews with real narcos, in which they talked about their early years.

The study is extremely relevant and innovative, as Garcia Reyes did not make suppositions on what these men think or feel: she actually got them talking about drugs, alcohol, street violence and their entry into the criminal underworld. Chief among the findings is how narcos perceive themselves: there is a lack of self esteem that can lead to a life of violence and illicit livelihood. 

The study revealed that narcos do not see themselves as “victims” and that the “no other option” narrative is misleading.

One of the prevalent reasons given to the rise of cartel violence is the lack of opportunities and socioeconomic vulnerability. Media narratives indicate that young men are lured into the narco world because that is their only chance to make a living. The subjects interviewed by Garcia Reyes claim that, contrary to popular belief, they are not victims and they were making ends meet in the informal economy. They just wanted “more”. They wanted tu pursue a lifestyle that an everyday job would not give them. 

They feel they are “disposable” and that their life has little value, and that death is “a relief” sometimes.

Credit: J Bustamante / Reuters

According to the researcher, former cartel members don’t see themselves as monsters and reject the media depiction of them as bloodthirsty bad hombres. Instead, they see themselves as free agents whose life is dispensable.Sometimes, they said, death is a relief. 

Poverty is a constant trigger for cartel activity and a “survival of the fittest” mentality.

Through her 33 respondents, the researcher found that there is an Us vs. Them mentality among former cartel members when it comes to social class. As one of the participants argued: “I knew that I would live and die in poverty and I asked God ‘Why does it have to be me?’’. Poverty is seen as something that cannot be avoided and that determines your fate for life. A respondent called Rigoleto said: “I knew I was all alone, if I wanted something I would need to get it myself”. 

Gangs are seen as the only way to survive the streets and that is why the government is losing the war.

Credit: Alfredo Estrada / Getty

According to the men interviewed, there is a sense of inevitability when it comes to being a male in poverty-stricken Mexico. You will become an addict and you will be a victim of street violence. That is unless you become a gang member yourself. Gangs are seen as the only way to survive in a “kill or be killed” type of environment. 

Former cartel members believe they will die tragically so they want to live each day as if it was the last.

An overdose or a bullet, plain and simple. That is how former cartel members thought their lives would end and there was no other alternative. Because they have this pessimistic view of life, many cartel members want to live a life of excess and luxury. 

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Smugglers Are Tagging U.S.-Bound Migrants With Color Coded Wristbands And Here’s Why

Things That Matter

Smugglers Are Tagging U.S.-Bound Migrants With Color Coded Wristbands And Here’s Why

WENDELL ESCOTO/AFP via Getty Images

As the United States experiences a so-called surge of people attempting to enter the U.S., human traffickers and smugglers are working double time as they try to capitalize on the increased movements.

Cartels and human traffickers have long run their smuggling operations like a legitimate business but they’ve only got more advanced in how they move people across the border region and one key tool: color-coded bracelets. These bracelets almost act as passports for migrants to safely cross a cartel’s territory without interference or threats of violence. But what do these bracelets mean and how are they fueling the problem of human trafficking?

Plastic bracelets are being used by cartels to identify migrants in their territory. 

U.S. border agents carried out nearly 100,000 apprehensions or rapid expulsions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in February, which is the highest monthly total since mid-2019. With the increase in people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, cartels are managing this migration of people over their territory and trying to make money off the humanitarian crisis. 

Many cartels have implemented a color-coded bracelet system that identifies those migrants who have paid for permission to cross their territory. In the Rio Grande Valley sector, Border Patrol agents have recently encountered immigrants wearing the bracelets during several apprehensions, Matthew Dyman, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told Reuters.

The “information on the bracelets represents a multitude of data that is used by smuggling organizations, such as payment status or affiliation with smuggling groups,” Dyman said.

The color-coded system isn’t totally understood.

Credit: ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

Migrants can pay thousands of dollars for the journey to the United States and human smugglers have to pay off drug cartels to move people through parts of Mexico. This is a money-making operation and cartels want to pay close attention to who has paid. The bracelets may just be a new way to keep track.

Criminal groups operating in northern Mexico, however, have long used systems to log which migrants have already paid for the right to be in gang-controlled territory, as well as for the right to cross the border into the United States, according to migration experts. In fact, in 2019, smugglers kept tabs on rapidly arriving Central American migrants by double checking the names and IDs of migrants before they got off the bus to make sure they had paid. 

One man, a migrant in Reynosa – across the border from McAllen, Texas – who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation, showed Reuters a picture of a purple wristband he was wearing. He told them that he had paid $500 to a criminal group in the city after he arrived from Honduras to ensure that he wasn’t kidnapped or extorted. He said once migrants or their smugglers have paid for the right to cross the river, which is also controlled by criminal groups, they receive another bracelet.

“This way we’re not in danger, neither us nor the ‘coyote,’” he told Reuters.

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Lifestyles Of The Rich And Dangerous: Cartels Are Using TikTok To Lure Young People

Things That Matter

Lifestyles Of The Rich And Dangerous: Cartels Are Using TikTok To Lure Young People

Alfredo Estrada / Getty Images

If you’ve ever wondered what someone with a bulletproof vest and an AR-15 would look like flossing — the dance, not the method of dental hygiene — apparently the answer to that question can be found on TikTok.

Unfortunately, it’s not as a part of some absurdist sketch comedy or surreal video art installation. Instead, it’s part of a growing trend of drug cartels in Mexico using TikTok as a marketing tool. Nevermind the fact that Mexico broke grim records last year for the number of homicides and cartel violence, the cartels have found an audience on TikTok and that’s a serious cause for concern.

Mexican cartels are using TikTok to gain power and new recruits.

Just a couple of months ago, a TikTok video showing a legit high-speed chase between police and drug traffickers went viral. Although it looked like a scene from Netflix’s Narcos series, this was a very real chase in the drug cartel wars and it was viewed by more than a million people.

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, and presumed members bragging about money, fancy cars and a luxury lifestyle.

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 platform is being used mainly to promote a lifestyle and to generate a picture of luxury and glamour, to show the ‘benefits’ of joining the criminal activities.

According to security officials, 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 like tiger cubs.

Cartels have long used social media to shock and intimidate their enemies.

And using social media to promote themselves has long been an effective strategy. But with Mexico yet again shattering murder records, experts on organized crime say Cartel TikTok is just the latest propaganda campaign designed to mask the blood bath and use the promise of infinite wealth to attract expendable young recruits.

“It’s narco-marketing,” said Alejandra León Olvera, an anthropologist at Spain’s University of Murcia, in a statement to the New York Times. The cartels “use these kinds of platforms for publicity, but of course it’s hedonistic publicity.”

Mexico used to be ground zero for this kind of activity, where researchers created a new discipline out of studying these narco posts. Now, gangs in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, and the United States are also involved.

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.

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