The Brownsville Herald
Bullets have been sprayed and blood spilled in the ongoing struggle among Mexico’s Gulf Cartel, its erstwhile allies the Zetas and the government.
But against the backdrop of violence that has claimed more than 35,000 lives since December 2006, the trio has also waged a concerted war for the hearts and minds of the populace. Using public relations tools that include banners, leaflets and releases to the news media, each has sought to cast itself in a positive light relative to its enemies.
Public support has its benefits for the cartels, not least of which is the ability to conduct their illicit business without drawing undue attention and interference from the authorities, said George W. Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary and author ofMexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?. Indeed, that was largely how the cartels operated in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“They could import, store, transport and export as long as they followed the rules,” Grayson said. “The (rules) included no kidnapping, no selling drugs to children and if they had any issues among themselves to take it outside” areas where innocents might otherwise get caught up in the violence.
Such were the good ‘ol days, and by many accounts from Grayson and others familiar with the cartels, the criminals long for a return to that halcyon era.
Mexico’s cartels have long used banners to publicly taunt and threaten one another, but early last year they began increasingly targeting their public messages at, well, the public in an apparent bid to curry favor.
When an alliance of the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Familia Michoacana — collectively known as Carteles Unidos — declared war against the Zetas in late February 2010, kicking off an armed conflict that persists to this day, the troika’s agents put up banners warning of the imminent violence and seeking to win public consent.
Since then, narco-banners —also known as narco-mantas — have appeared across Mexico, particularly in areas with major cartel activity such as Ciudad Victoria, Matamoros, Monterrey and Reynosa. The banners are usually placed in the early morning or late at night in a high-traffic area such as a bridge or a major thoroughfare. Onlookers promptly gather to read them and snap photos before authorities arrive to take them down.
For years the Zetas — a paramilitary organization founded by former members of Mexico’s special forces — served as the armed wing of the Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel. Now, having turned against their former masters and grown into a powerful cartel in their own right, the Zetas are locked in a bloody struggle with their erstwhile allies for control over smuggling routes into the United States.
In early March 2010, just days after that struggle began, banners signed by the Gulf Cartel appeared throughout Reynosa, blaming the Zetas for rapes, kidnappings and extortions. The banners proclaimed that the Gulf Cartel had banded together with the Sinaloa and Familia organizations to eliminate the Zeta menace.
“People of Tamaulipas, don’t be afraid. We are only looking out for your wellbeing,” read one such sign. “We are trained individuals, not children. We respect women. We don’t kill civilians. …We are from Tamaulipas and we respect our own.”
Leaflets were soon strewn about, warning the public to stay indoors at night. An e-mail with a similar message was also sent out to media outlets, telling residents that the trucks being used by the Gulf Cartel and its allies would have logos identifying them as CDG or XXX and asking the public to report any Zetas to them. Be patient, the Gulf Cartel urged; the conflict will soon be over.
Unwilling to stand for such abuse, the Zetas responded by posting their own banners throughout Tamaulipas, countering the accusations. They pointedly noted that they had carried out executions and kidnappings under orders from the Gulf Cartel when the Zetas served as their enforcers. The Zetas’ banners also accused the Gulf Cartel of killing civilians and burning homes simply so they would have atrocities to blame on the Zetas.
More recently, the criminal groups have in effect publicly tattled on each other in an apparent effort to concentrate the attention of authorities on one another.
Two days after the February slaying in Mexico of Jaime Zapata, a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Carteles Unidos issued a communiqué blaming the Zetas for his murder. The troika also pointed the finger at the Zetas for several other high-profile cases, including the February slaughter of 18 civilians on a passenger bus in Padilla, Tamps., and the slaying last year of U.S. citizen David Hartley on the Mexican side of Falcon Reservoir.
About the same time Carteles Unidos issued that release, the Zetas posted a banner blaming the Gulf Cartel for the deaths of the civilians in Padilla.
And early this month, the Gulf Cartel distributed leaflets in the southern Tamaulipas town of Ciudad Mante, warning the local residents that they would me making a big push to remove the Zetas from the region and asking the public to stay indoors after dark.
Most recently, Carteles Unidos posted banners across Reynosa addressed to Mexican President Felipe Calderón, distancing themselves from any attacks on federal buildings and authorities and calling for a “frente común,” or common front, with the armed forces to eradicate the Zetas.
“Afterwards,” the message to the president continues, “you can come after us.”
Early on, Carteles Unidos’ messages to the public were somewhat effective in swaying opinion, said Grayson, the College of William and Mary professor. Now, though, they mostly fall on deaf ears.
“A year ago, with the triple alliance against the Zetas, those banners had some credibility,” he said. “Now, the violence has become so widespread that the average person doesn’t believe one cartel is more humane than the other they are all now looked at as killers pursuing an agenda.”
Marcos Herrera, a middle-aged farmer from San Fernando — a hotbed of cartel violence about 85 miles south of Reynosa — said residents have even taken to joking about the banners.
In some cases, the twist of the joke is that the cartel is making a perfectly vanilla pronouncement about, say, the weather or a sale on produce at the local grocery. By likening the cartel messages to the most commonplace of declarations, the teller, in just a few words, completely saps them of their self-importance.
“Did you hear about the manta near the supermarket downtown?” Herrera said, reciting one such joke. “It says, ‘Tomatoes: two for one.’”
In the early ‘80s and in the ‘90s, drug cartels weren’t necessarily seen as evil because they mostly abided by a certain code of conduct and kept to themselves, going about their businesses outside the public’s view, Herrera recalled.
“Now, you have these drugged-up kids with machine guns that have ruined our town,” he said.
The public relations push has not been limited to the cartels. The Mexican military also has sought to become a doctor of spin in the war on drugs. Part of that effort has been a tendency to make its own action more widely known than in the past.
Historically, readily available information about military operations targeting drug cartels was very limited; however, in recent years the armed forces have not only issued timely news releases on a regular basis, but they also have adopted social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to tout their successes.
These days, an army or navy arrest of a suspected drug dealer or gunman is promptly followed by a news release and photos that are then widely disseminate via media outlets, often despite skepticism by critical observers about the true standing of the suspects.
“Every time the military arrests someone, they make them out to be the biggest, baddest sicario (hit man) ever,” said Grayson, the College of William and Mary professor. The effort to inflate the value of any suspect is also related to a rivalry among the Mexican army, the Mexican navy and the Mexican federal police, who rarely cooperate or share intelligence and routinely try to outdo one another.
While the banners’ messages are often aimed at the public, the Zetas have brazenly posted some mantas tantamount to recruitment messages targeted at members of the Mexican military, complete with promises of decent wages and better food.
“Soldiers are typically given packages of dried noodles,” Grayson said. “The Zetas promise them that if they join they won’t have to eat them anymore. …
“Going from a government institution like the army into a drug cartel, you at least triple your salary and, depending on what you think is respect, you get to assert yourself as an individual, whereas in the army the emphasis is placed on being part of organization.”
The recruitment efforts have produced results, Grayson said.
“(Mexico's Federal Institute for Access to Public Information, known by its Spanish acronym IFAI) shows that defense officials lost 125 special ops soldiers in the past two years,” Grayson said, “even though the government increased military pay by 115 percent since 2006.”