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.

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. Click image to expand.
Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán

Severed heads rolled into a packed nightclub. A headless body found hanging from a bridge. An army general tortured and killed. An anti-kidnapping expert kidnapped. Banners on highway overpasses threatening assassination of police officers. Dissolved bodies discovered in vats of acid. Women and children killed in shootouts. This is not exactly the best way to capture the hearts and minds of a nation that is making international headlines because of its gruesome drug violence.

Last year, drug-related violence in Mexico claimed an unprecedented 6,200 lives—more than double the previous annual death count—and the power and wealth of the cartels are raising anxieties on both sides of the border. But at least for now, the Mexican government and U.S. law-enforcement agencies are dealing with an enemy hobbled by terrible marketing skills. Things could get far worse if the cartels ever develop a sense of media savvy and develop a more winsome Robin Hood narrative to justify their criminal enterprise. They could portray the drug trade as a means of taking money from greedy gringos and bringing it home to help Mexico.

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There is a storied history of charismatic outlaws, from old-school mafia bosses to Colombia's Pablo Escobar, who ostentatiously shared his drug-smuggling wealth. And in Mexico, masked Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista insurgency of the mid-1990s, positioned himself as a mysterious media celebrity. Perhaps if they took a break from killing one another, Mexico's drug traffickers would come to realize that violence alone has limits as a form of effective propaganda.

The Mexican government is trying to make the cartels' top capos better-known by offering handsome rewards for information that could help apprehend them. And Mexicans are beginning to notice that whenever an American dignitary pays a visit, local authorities suddenly manage to locate and detain some of the country's most-wanted drug traffickers.

Hillary Clinton's March 24 visit came a day after the arrest of Hector Huerta Rios, one of Mexico's 37 most-wanted drug traffickers. A joint visit by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder on April 3 coincided with the spectacular, bullet-free arrest of Vicente Carrillo Leyva—the suave, well-dressed "narco junior" heir to the Carrillo Fuentes cartel, who was detained while jogging near his home in one of Mexico City's most exclusive neighborhoods.

The big question among conspiracy-minded locals: Who will the Mexican authorities magically arrest in time for President Barack Obama's visit to Mexico later this week?

The authorities could do a lot worse than Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, who comes closest to being a bona fide narco legend. Not only is Guzmán nowhere to be seen—he may not even be in Mexico. El Chapo ("Shorty") is listed in Forbes magazine's 2009 list of billionaires, based on his success in the multibillion-dollar cocaine-smuggling industry. Videos celebrating his audacity regularly show up on YouTube, and admiring musicians compose narcocorridos, or drug-trafficking ballads, in his honor.

The songwriting is more of a response to newspaper reports about drug traffickers than an outright celebration of the cartel bosses, says Elijah Wald, a music journalist and author of Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas."The narcos have never been into public relations, they are just trying to make money, not get elected," he says. "As long as they can buy people off, they don't need the majority of the population."

The exact opposite of public relations, of course, is public terror. Over the last few months, the narcos have delivered their messages to locals and the national media with banners hung from bridges and church walls—anywhere they might be visible to the public—threatening to kill police. "The narcos really know how to exploit the media," says Javier Valdez, a reporter who covers drugs for the Riodoce weekly newspaper in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. "These narco banners are terror campaigns."

El Chapo is one of the Mexican government's most-reviled public enemies, with a 30 million peso ($2.1 million) reward on offer for information on his whereabouts. The United States, for its part, also has Guzmán on its most-wanted list, offering $5 million for information leading to his capture.

Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, was exposed to drug trafficking from an early age, simply by being born and raised poor in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa—a place that has long been the epicenter of Mexican drug-trafficking. Narcocorridos were first composed here, and Jesus Malverde, the Sinaloan Robin Hood who was hanged by the federal government in 1909, is often called the "Narco Saint"—the patron saint of drug trafficking. Religious trinkets with Malverde's image are very popular in Sinaloa—his face appearing everywhere from bracelets to painted "narco chic" fingernails.

A kind of "narco mythology" has risen around El Chapo. He is feared by his rivals in the Gulf and Beltran Leyva cartels but often admired by the underprivileged who have found work with, or have been enriched by, his smuggling operations. The Mexican government is fortunate that El Chapo and his cohorts haven't tried very hard to broaden this circle of beneficiaries from the drug trade.

Spotting El Chapo these days is only a little less improbable than an Elvis sighting, since the boss has been on the lam since 2001. El Chapo's career began with an apprenticeship of sorts: He is said to have learned the narco ropes in the 1980s as an aircraft logistics expert working with Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, aka El Padrino, the Godfather, then the most powerful narco in Mexico.

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