The Mexican drug cartels' terrible marketing skills.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 14 2009 3:31 PM

Meet the Narcos

Mexico's drug cartels have terrible marketing skills. The government hopes it stays that way.

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After Gallardo was imprisoned in 1989, El Chapo's own smuggling career began to take off. He masterminded ingenious smuggling tactics, from tunnels burrowed beneath the U.S. border to cocaine-filled compartments in his vehicles.

Two events in May 1993 would end Guzmán's run of good luck: the seizure of a big cocaine stash in Baja California and the assassination of a Catholic cardinal at Guadalajara airport—a hit that may have been aimed at Guzmán. After being apprehended on the way to Guatemala, Guzmán served a number of years in prison. In 2001, he escaped from Puente Grande, one of Mexico's highest-security prisons, allegedly by bribing his way into a laundry truck to freedom.

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Prior to Felipe Calderón's election in 2006, drug cartels were accustomed to dealing with more docile governments that preferred to negotiate with them. Calderón's deployment of around 45,000 troops has not tamed the drug-smuggling beast; some observers argue that it has only stirred up a hornet's nest. Reprisals once principally took the lives of rival smugglers. Today, victims include these rivals, but also soldiers, policemen, and many innocent bystanders.

Infiltration by the cartels in all levels of government continues to pose a threat to Mexico's stability. In November 2008, no less an anti-drug figure than Noé Ramirez, the boss of the Mexican government's anti-narcotics operations, was detained for alleged links to drug-trafficking and for accepting a bribe of $450,000 to leak information to a drug cartel.

Yet for all the blood-drenched spectacle of new drug violence, there are signs that the newest wave of drug bosses are being groomed to operate under the radar, adopting quieter lifestyles and a lot less bling.

In Sinaloa, the narcos are not contributing as much as they once did toward the construction of schools, roads, cemetery walls, or for scholarships. "Before, when things were quieter, they had more time for philanthropy," says Valdez of Riodoce. "Today they are more worried—there are military operatives there now." Many are now on the run or fighting rival cartels with an unprecedented fervor, and the distraction of the military presence limits their direct contact with local people, Valdez says.

Weakened by the mounting death toll, some cartel leaders in Sinaloa have agreed to call a temporary truce, according to some drug experts. That theory is backed up by government figures showing a 49 percent drop in drug killings in Sinaloa in the first quarter of this year compared with the fourth quarter of 2008. "With the war [against rival cartels and the government], the cartels realized they were losing money, and while they were busy fighting each other, other smaller groups were taking advantage, making profits, and working on their own," Valdez says. "So this is a new kind of thinking, a very corporate, decision. … It is a business after all."

Alfredo Corchado, a Nieman fellow at Harvard University on leave from his job as Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, agrees. "The narco ideology is making money. With money, they can buy and manipulate the public through threats. They can threaten the press or the public through terroristlike acts, scaring people into staying home. … All this takes money."

Each year, Mexican cartels make as much as $40 billion, Corchado says. "That's a lot of money that's eventually laundered into running their operations: co-opting officials or investing in projects. Their financial influence is vast. For that reason, cartels are still holding out for a possible truce with the government," he says. "The question remains: What does success look like for the Mexican government? That's what Mexicans are debating as the bodies pile up."

"Chapo has yet to bomb airliners out of the sky, so there is no comparison to Pablo Escobar," the notorious Colombian drug lord, Corchado adds. "But in terms of swaying locals, the two men are similar. Chapo seeks protection not just by corrupting key Mexican officials, he also needs the admiration of locals who will serve as his eyes and ears against government forces."

Few Mexicans can claim to have spotted the elusive Chapo. Four years ago, I missed this privilege by a few days, according to a waitress who served me at El Rancho, a packed establishment just outside the northern city of Nuevo Laredo. Apparently, had I visited two days earlier, I would have been one of hundreds of diners to drop their forks and gape as El Chapo and a phalanx of bodyguards swept into the restaurant. The diners were allegedly ordered to hand over their cell phones and refused permission to leave while El Chapo feasted on a leisurely lunch.

When El Chapo departed, the bodyguards were said to have returned the phones to the bewildered patrons, who then discovered that their bills had been paid. The Mexican government is lucky the drug lords haven't thought of giving out more free lunches; it would be a great PR move.

Susana Seijas is a freelance journalist in Mexico City. Previously she was a Knight International Journalism Fellow at Televisa and a producer for BBC News. Susana is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and can be reached at susana.seijas@gmail.com. This article was produced with support from the New America Foundation.

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