In recent years, YouTube has become the bulletin board and billboard for Mexican drug cartels seeking to threaten rivals, brag of their exploits and recruit new members. Just type "zetas," "sinaloa cartel," or "la familia michoacana" into the YouTube search window to see how these drug mafias have adeptly appropriated social media.
Often to the accompaniment of a narcocorrido, pictures flash on the screen of murdered rivals, hooded policemen, shiny smuggling vehicles, bales of marijuana, and stacks of cash. But the videos can also be gruesome, showing real-time executions with pistols or decapitations by ligatures.
Under YouTube's Inappropriate Content guidelines, users can flag violent or graphic material and YouTube monitors usually remove the objectionable images within minutes. But the pictures often reappear soon afterward.
The use of the Internet by Mexican narcotics cartels is directly modeled on how jihadist terrorists use anti-western Web sites. "They'll do videos of them executing a guy, something like you see in al-Qaida," said Roberto Garcia, a veteran police detective in Laredo, Texas.
Savvy narcotics investigators have learned to keep up with the drug cartels on YouTube just as the FBI uses the Internet to track the activities of terrorist groups.
"This is an amazing source of information for us," Garcia says. "It keeps us up to date, verifies stuff we already know, and gives information on murder suspects we're looking for that have already been executed."
Sitting at his supervisor's desk in police headquarters, Garcia took me on a tour through the dark world of YouTube cartel videos. He clicked on a video titled "Matando Zetas," (Killing Zetas).
"Here are four shirtless guys who've been beaten," the detective says, looking at the image of four husky, hand-cuffed and terrified men kneeling on the floor, surrounded by hooded men with assault rifles. "It looks like somebody taped Hefty trash bags on the wall to prevent blood from spilling all over the place.
They're being questioned. They've been tortured. They're making 'em explain who they are, who they work for. They say they work for Zetas."
The video appears to have been posted by someone who sympathizes with the Sinaloa Cartel, which at various times and in various places has been at war with Los Zetas, a criminal organization that operates in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas.
"It's to put terror on rival gang members, to say, 'This is what happens if we catch you,'" he adds.
Garcia clicks on another video, this one of a large recruitment banner draped boldly across a public highway overpass in Ciudad Juarez. Garcia squints to read the wording.
"Grupo Zetas wants you, military or ex-military. We'll offer you good pay, food and attention to your family." Then a squad of Mexican soldiers can be seen cutting the banner down.
But can the videos be completely trusted?
"YouTube can be useful a tool for gathering intelligence about what's going on with the cartels, who's been killed, who's on a hit list," says Stephen Meiners, until recently a Latin American analyst for Stratfor, a global intelligence company based in Austin.
"The problem is the videos are full of propaganda." he adds, "They can also be a forum for disinformation. They know the DEA and Mexican federal police are looking at You Tube, too."