April 11, 2009

Mexican Cartel War Spreads To Internet

The warring drug cartels along Mexico's border region have begun spreading their violence from the streets to the internet, as drug bosses post brags, threats and gruesome videos to chat rooms and websites.

With modern-looking new videos posted on YouTube and Mexican-based websites, drug cartels seek to intimidate enemies and recruit new members, praising the "virtues" of their leaders amidst upbeat music and images of bullet-riddled bodies, says Scott Stewart, VP of tactical intelligence for a Texas-based intelligence company. 

Howard Campbell, an anthropologist with the University of Texas at San Antonio, specializes in border-related cultural issues.  He believes that the videos represent a shift in how the cartels view themselves; they began as purely money-oriented organizations and are now attempting to transition into more sophisticated social apparatuses with defined political agendas.

In a YouTube video posted on behalf of the Sinaloa Cartel, the sentence "this is what happens to all of my enemies" first flashes across the screen before the video dives into a photo collage of dead police officers, weapons paraphernalia and the numerous bodies of slain civilians.  Throughout the video, the pulsing rhythm of a fast-tempo Mexican pop song plays in the background.

Though YouTube representatives refuse to comment on the specific content of cartel-related videos, head of policy at the company, Victoria Grand, reemphasized the company's general policy of removing violent videos that have been flagged by users and lack any educational purpose.  "If the video is clearly violent and the purpose is to shock or disgust, we will remove it," she says.  In addition, YouTube officials have handed over any videos depicting criminal activity to law enforcement agencies for further investigation.

Kent Paterson, editor for New Mexico's online news service, Frontera Norte Sur, has followed the cartel videos since their emergence in 2005 and says that the videos starting appearing shortly after the first execution videos from terrorist groups in Iraq made their way into the media.  In fact, the earliest cartel videos seemed to mimic the jihadist techniques, Paterson said.  They often showing bound prisoners surrounded by guards, one of whom read a statement before carrying out the execution "“ which was frequently by beheading.

As videos of the brutal executions were quickly removed from YouTube, the cartels shifted to the use of more sophisticated tactics, embedding their messages in more advanced production techniques.

DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney says that the videos have "really changed...how we target the cartels," explaining that the Federal agency now pays close attention to these videos and is always on the look-out for leads in investigations or evidence to use in the courtroom.

The newly elected Obama administration has also promised to help Mexico fight growing cartel-related violence in the border areas.  Mexican officials claim that the cartels were responsible for more than 6,000 deaths throughout Mexico in 2008 and have already killed more than a thousand people in the first two months of 2009.

Like the DEA, Mexican law-enforcement agencies also study the videos and peruse the chat rooms looking for clues about future crimes, says Sergio Belmonte Almeida, spokesman for the border town Ciudad Juarez.

Almeida tells of an online argument between two rival cartels in a Mexican chat room in December.  A supporter of the Juarez Cartel posted the warning: "Wait for the little gift we're going to leave for you tomorrow morning."  The following day, he says, two severed human heads were found in a cooking pot outside the city of Juarez.


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