Meet the Narcos

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

Read more about America’s dysfunctional relationship with Mexico. 

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.

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.

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.

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.