Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, January 10, 2019

[Part II] La Terreur to El Terror: The Mexican Drug War’s place in the history of the expression of social power

By Jeremy Sideris—from Coffin Bell [republished by permission of the author-- to access Part I use this hyperlink

"And prior to this century, a cartel’s rival tended to find his end in a hidden shallow grave, and not in the cynical immortality granted by being featured in an execution video..."

The Cártel del Golfo (CDG), Mexico’s oldest cartel, formed the Zetas as an armed wing to resist the Cártel de Sinaloa’s (CDS) incursion; however, after the Zetas broke away, CDG realigned with CDS to fight the Zetas together. Regarding nuance, CDG has blended the propagandistic charity associated with the aforementioned Robin Hood ethos and the Zeta’s hyper-violence. CDG has failed to capitalize on this interesting synthesis, nevertheless, as it has become wracked by its in-fighting. The Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) had an interesting nuance, too. Related to the CDS, the BLO shared a Western Mexican character, but under the sanguinary leadership of Arturo Beltrán Leyva and outsider South Texan Édgar Valdez Villareal, the organization was as violent as the Zetas. The BLO fought at first for the CDS against the Zetas until the Beltrán Leyva family thought itself betrayed to the Mexican government by Guzmán Loera of CDS, when it then aligned with the Zetas. Following Valdez Villareal’s later betrayal of the Beltrán Leyva family to the FBI, the BLO splintered into a hydra of 28 factions (Slater, 2015; Grigoriadis & Cuddehe, 2011; Malkin, 2009).

And in two of Mexican organized crime’s most idiosyncratic turns, members of the quasi-religious, divine justice-based La Familia Michoacana followed a leader said to have written a ‘bible’ centered on self-actualization and mindfulness, while its successor, Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights Templar) advertised its followers’ strict adherence to a chivalric code. La Familia Michoacana began as something of a peasant uprising, an insurgency of vigilantes meant to combat corrupt public officials and the growing number of cocaine traffickers in its state; however, following La Familia Michoacana’s corruption, it became the largest exporter of methamphetamine to The United States. Los Caballeros Templarios were defeated by new local vigilante groups known as autodefensas, but a number of these vigilantes have gone on to form a new cartel called Los Viagras, which fights The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) now. 
On the other hand, the recent violent behaviors expressed by Mexico’s drug cartels are not wholly unique to those organizations. Decapitation was not a tool used by the cartels until the 21st Century; a bullet to the head was historically considered enough of a final message. And prior to this century, a cartel’s rival tended to find his end in a hidden shallow grave, and not in the cynical immortality granted by being featured in an execution video.

The first instance of decapitation is said to have occurred in 2006, when the Zetas placed the heads of two police officers in Acapulco in response to a shootout with the authorities, and the use of decapitation escalated that year when members of La Familia Michoacana (LFM) lobbed the heads of five Zetas in an Uruapan nightclub in response to the Zetas’ killing of a pregnant female LFM associate, possibly a halcón, or lookout (Rodriguez, 2011; Tobar, 2006). The first filming and dissemination of an execution video is considered to be a videotape of Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) captain Édgar Valdez Villareal’s 2005 interrogation and shooting of four Zetas sent to assassinate him; Valdez Villareal had this tape mailed to The Dallas morning news (Borderland beat, 2010; Fly-Wheel, 2016).

One will note the four Zetas are shot in the side of their heads, the manner of execution of rivals favored by Mexican organized crime in the per-decapitation era. It is important to remember here that the original members of the Zetas had served in the Mexican Army’s elite special forces, and that the group was formed by the Cártel del Golfo (CDG) with the express purpose for war. Still, and in regard to decapitation, though “it’s the Zetanization of the country because the Zetas were the first to introduce these ghastly practices into Mexico,” it may not be they who came up with the idea (Grayson, 2011, as cited in Rodriguez, 2011, para. 12). As the Zeta Cartel absorbed the country of Guatemala into its sphere of influence, the organization encouraged members of the Kaibiles, Guatemala’s elite special forces, to desert their military service as the Zetas’ founding members had done and join the cartel. The Kaibiles, “who are known for their brutal, scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign in Guatemala in the 1980s and ’90s” were chosen “to train [the Zetas] newly recruited foot soldiers” (Tobar, 2006, para. 12; Rodriguez, 2011, para. 17).

The Kaibiles’ training is notoriously difficult, and it is thought of as an honor when soldiers of other countries (e.g. The United States, Spain, Mexico, and China) are invited to train with them in Guatemala (Bailey, 2012). However, the recruits’ self-harm and their bloodletting of animals associated with this training, in a word, “the substantiation of the degrading contents of the training” may lead to psychosis, “confirming one point of their decalogue: ‘The Kaibil is a killing machine’” (Comisión para el Esclaracimiento Histórico, 1999, §42). As of 2006, upwards of 40 Kaibiles were recruited by the Zetas (Stratfor, 2006). This number is not insignificant because these Guatemalan special forces graduate only about 20 of 168 recruits per year (Shadowspear, 2006). Other cartels have recruited Kaibiles, too, and “decapitations have become almost weekly occurrences and a prime terror tactic” (Rodriguez, 2011, para. 19). Another influence may be the militarized Colombian drug cartels, with whom Mexican organized crime has had a relationship with for many decades (Fly-Wheel, 2016).

Facebook launched in 2004, the same year that Cártel de Sinaloa (CDS) boss Joaquin Guzmán Loera convened a meeting with CDS leadership to plan the invasion of Ciudad Juárez and territories east (Beith, 2011), and 23-months before Mexican President Calderón sent 12,500 troops to battle the La Familia Michoacana Cartel in the country’s southwest. Twitter began in 2006. Social medias’ rise coincided with the current Mexican Drug War’s first escalation. These rapidly-expanding internet platforms brought forth an exponentially greater access to mass media, but also a significant renewed attention given to social psychology. For one, any criminal group could now post its propaganda to millions of people anonymously.

Most social media have yet to verify user identity at the time of membership registration. Next, technological advancements in social media allowed for the uploading and presentation of pictures and videos on mobile devices with comparative ease. Gone were the days of vanilla Listserv and low-populated chatrooms on the slow home computers of the decade prior. Most important, though, social media diminished the traditional objective press’ hold on information dispersal, given most anyone with an account could now post almost anything he or she wished, regardless of agenda. This is not to suggest Facebook and Twitter democratized information production completely, however.

Or that they ushered in a new era of critical thought. On the contrary, Snyder (2018) holds social media have from the start appealed to the public’s baser urges, and will, therefore, stunt thoughtful analyses on these platforms. He argues “[…] the way much of the internet works is de-enlightening because it fastens onto the parts of our mind that emote before we have a chance to actually think about things, and it breaks-up our attention to the smallest possible units that are suitable for advertising […]” (Snyder, 2018, as cited in Siegel, 2018, min. 42:13). In other words, social media commend the public to feel before they think: In Facebook’s case, to rely more-and-more on the symbols of emotion, known as emoji, or emoticons, and in Twitter’s case, to limit one’s vocabulary to 280-characters. And, given that fascism thrives on subjective emotion delivered in short, repeated messages, Snyder (2018) suggests further that social media were made to promote fascism. This point is salient as each of the drug cartels put forth us-versus-them messages, push unity of thought, and through their presentations of terror, appeal to the public’s gut emotions. In 2013, Facebook defended a user’s posting on its general news feed of a then-viral execution video showing a Zeta beheading a woman said to belong to the Cártel del Golfo, Facebook executives arguing its community has a right to learn of the world’s horrors if these horrors are presented without salacious intent (Grant, 2013; McCartney, 2013).

After some back-and-forth, however, Facebook bent to community pressure, which in the main held the posting ran counter to the platform’s fun ethos, and it removed the video. Facebook’s community standards regarding the subject remain unclear. Execution videos and crime scene photographs are not uncommon on pages dedicated to the Mexican Drug War and narcoterrorism, and these images seem to be removed only if a page member files an online report, which is rare considering most people subscribe to pages knowing their content beforehand. In 2018, for example, the execution video thought to be the most atrocious yet, a film where members of the Viagaras Cartel decapitate a father and then remove the heart from his living ten-year-old son, was up for weeks (Martinez, 2018). Facebook has yet to address violent images on the platform with the same vigor it applied in 2013, despite the second flood of distressing videos and photographs from other wars in Syria, Nigeria, and Iraq. Rather, the social media platform has debated whether the addition of a ‘dislike’ button on its newsfeed would be considered too harsh by its community.                                                                                                    
Our interest in Mexican organized crime’s execution videos stemmed initially from the uniformity of their presentation. These short films consist of the same four distinct parts, which are presented always in the same order: Interrogation, Presentation of the Weapon, Killing, and Presentation of the Killed. We became interested most in the first part, Interrogation, after we noted wholly unexpected, but again similar, improvisations were taking place there. Prisoners are directed to state their names and the names of any pertinent relatives, cartel affiliations and their roles therein, and whether they regret working against their captors or knowing someone in a rival cartel. Never do the prisoners appear to be reading from cue cards, as they do in execution videos produced in the Middle East.

The Interrogation concludes with a warning directed at the cartel the prisoners are said to belong to or be affiliated with. Interrogators appear so familiar with the questions that they take frequent license with their asking. For example, the tone throughout borders often on the jovial, and the interrogators have yet to speak with anger; the concluding warnings are spoken more in a matter-of-fact way than heatedly. Perhaps the interrogator is letting his stark uniform to do the work of intimidation the tone of words could do otherwise.

The Spanish used has often a sing-song rhythm, giving an almost call-and-response feel. Most interestingly, the formal usted is used sometimes in speech peppered with expletives, rather than the informal tú. It is unknown whether this addition of formality of speech is an obvious attempt at gallows’ humor or if it is meant to convey a modicum of respect. It is known, however, that the Interrogation is more show trial than elucidation of information; mercy has never been filmed. The following is a transcript of one of the more famous execution videos, in which a member of the Zetas question four kneeling and partially disrobed women (Borderland beat, 2013). Notice how the interrogator asks the women the same questions in quick succession:

“Y tú, cómo te llamas?”                                              And you, what is your name?                              “[Inaudible] Castillo Lopez”

“A que organizacíon pertenece?”                               What organization do you belong to?

“Al Golfo.”                                                                  The Gulf [CDG]

“Para quien trabajas?”                                               Who do you work for?”

“Para José Guadalupe Aguila Lopez,                        For José Guadalupe Aguila Lopez, alias the

alias el ‘Ostión.’”                                                        ‘Oyster.’

“Qué era tullo?”                                                          What is he to you?

“Tío.”                                                                          Uncle.

“Y tú, cómo te llamas?”                                              And you, what is your name?

“Olivia Lopez Jimenez”       

“A qué organizacíon pertenece?”                               What organization do you belong to?

“Al Golfo.”                                                                  The Gulf.

“A quien conoce?”                                                      Who do you know?

“A mi cuñado.”                                                           My brother-in-law.

“Quien es su cuñado?                                                 Who is your brother-in-law?

“José Guadalupe”                            

“Como le dicen?”                                                        What do they call him?


“Como le dicen!”                                                        What do they call him!

“El ‘Ostión.’”                                                              The Oyster.

“Y usted, cómo se llama?”                                          And you, what is your name?

“María Rosario Mendez”

“Para quien trabajas, que organizacíon?”                 Who do you work for? What organization?

“Para al Golfo.”                                                         For the Gulf.

“Qué función desempeñaba del Golfo?”                    What role did you play?

“Halcóna.”                                                                  Lookout.

“A quien mas conoce?”                                               Who else do you know?

“Nada mas.”                                                               That’s it.

“Y usted, cómo se llama?”                                          And you, what is your name?

“Yesenia Pachecho Rodriquez”

“Como le dicen?”                                                        What do they call you?

“Comandante Guera”                                                 Commander Blondie

“Para quien trabajaban?”                                          Who do you work for?

“Para el Carpe.”                                                         For the Carpe.

“Con quien mas andaba usted?”                                 Who else were you with?

“Con el Comandante Gallo.”                                      With Commander Rooster.

“Comandante Gallo que?”                                          What about Commander Rooster?

“Encargado de Altamira, Aldama.”                           He’s charge of Altamira and Aldama.

“Quien más andaba con el Comandante Gallo?”      Who else was with him?

“El Pájaro.”                                                                The Bird.

“Y quien más?”                                                           Who else?

“Pelón.”                                                                      Baldy.

“Y ese Pájaro que?”                                                    What about that Bird?

“Viene siendo el segundo del Gallo?”                        He is followed by the Rooster.

“Viene siendo el segundo del Gallo, y el Pelón?”      He is followed by the Rooster. What about Baldy?

“Siempre anda en el troca con ellos.”                        He’s always in the truck with them.

“Cuántos grupos son en total?”                                  How many groups are in total?

“Tres o cuatro.”                                                          Three or four.

“Como se llaman!”                                                     What are they called!

“Los de Aldama les dicen Bravos, y los de                The ones from Aldama are called

Cuauhtémoc les dicen Pumas.”                                  the Bravos, and the ones from Cuauhtémoc

                                                                                    are called the Pumas.

“Puma? Que licenciado los apoya?”                          What lawyer supports you?

“Licenciado Garza” Lawyer Garza          

“Y del ejército?”                                                         And what about the Army?

“Dos soldados.”                                                          Two soldiers.

“Dos soldados; como se llaman?”                              Two soldiers; what are their names?

“Uno le dicen cazador, y otro fantasma.”                  One they call Hunter, and the other Ghost.

“Que grado tienen?”                                                   What grade are they?

“No se, andan en las trocas en las pintas.”                I’m not sure, they ride in armored trucks.

“En que central es el Tampico?”                                Where is the Tampico headquarters?

“Dos centrales; una que se llama Ofelia.”                 Two headquarters; one is called Ofelia.

“Y ahí quien anda?”                                                    Who is there?

“Ahí tiran lo que es Altamira, Madena, y                   It consists of Altamira, Madena, and

Tampico.”                                                                   Tampico.

“Y la otra central?”                                                     And the other headquarters?

“Dragones.”                                                                Dragons.

“Y ese para donde tira?”                                             And where does that lead to?

“No más lo que es Tampico.”                                      No farther than Tampico.


“Si.”                                                                             Yes

“Quien más?”                                                              Who else?

“No más son ellos; ellos son los que andan               Only them; they are the only ones who

de Gonzáles, Zaragoza y de Zaragoza a Mante,         are robbing from González to Zaragoza,

y de Mante a Matamoros andan robando.”                and from there to Manta, and from Mante to

“Miren pinches Golfos: Ustedes se cren bien            Look [expletive] Gulfs: You think you’re

verga y mandan a puras Viejas que creemos             tough by sending women, who we think

tienen más huevos que ustedes. Por qué no               have more [expletive] than you. Why don’t

vienen  a romperse la madre con los Zetas?               you come as bust yourself with the Zetas?

Si se cren bien verga por que no vienen a                  If you think you’re tough, come and stand in

pararse aquí en el terreno para romperles su            our land so we can beat you [expletive];

madre; esta pinche gente inocente va a morir            all these [expletive] innocent people will die

por su culpa, nada más por andarlas treyendo          because of your fault, only because they

por andar en pendejos como ustedes.”                       believe in being around idiots, like you.

This Interrogation lasts 2-minutes and 26-seconds. The most questions are directed at the final, and highest-value prisoner, Yesenia Pachecho Rodriquez, who refers to herself in the video also as “Comandante Guera” of the Cártel del Golfo (CDG), though she was known additionally as ‘Guera Loca,’ or ‘Crazy Blonde,’ regionally (Borderland beat, 2013). Her answers establish the power structure, Mexican Army contacts, legal representation, and territory of her CDG cell.

The least time is accorded to the lowest-level prisoner, the CDG halcón, or lookout, María Rosario Mendez. Questions asked of José Guadalupe Aguila Lopez’s niece (Castillo Lopez) and his sister-in-law (Olivia Lopez Jimenez) establish their familial relationships with the Zetas’ enemy. The young interrogator raises his voice twice, but he regains his composure quickly; we consider the interrogator to be a youth because his voice cracks midway. He begins the questioning of each woman with a half-hearted slap to the head, though a subordinate strikes Olivia Lopez Jimenez on the head with a rifle barrel when she is slow to confirm José Guadalupe Aguila Lopez’s nickname, “El Ostión,” or ‘The Oyster.’ The interrogator’s warning to the CDG lasts 36-seconds.

We must make note of the prisoners’ stoicism during the interrogation. Their relative calm is typical of most prisoners in Mexican execution videos; in all but two videos observed, one with a teenaged girl and another with the aforementioned ten-year-old boy, emotion is not explicit in the prisoners’ speech or behavior. A sense of complete detachment or resignation has yet to be observed, however, though earnestness of speech is implied. We cannot say with certainty how the cartels treat their prisoners prior to filming, but the common disarray or removal of dress, disheveled hair, and marks on faces suggest the prisoners are manhandled, and in the case of females, raped, from the time of their abductions. In sum, an execution video’s first part, the Interrogation, with regard to rhetoric, is meant to establish the idea of total control. Through filmed self-control, the cartels hope to engender a sense of legitimacy in their purpose while the demonstration of the prisoners’ passivity may be used to imply the prisoners’ guilt.

On the other hand, and thinking more cynically, perhaps most of the people involved are so hardened by the commonness of murder in Mexico today that, for them, what is taking place is rote and hardly a cause for any more theatrics than the exercise demands. For example, in another turn, Comandante Diablo (Hugo Alberto Banderas Padilla) of the Cártel del Golfo (CDG) said of the filmed decapitation of his mother, sister, brother, and sister-in-law by the Zetas, in his response video where he beheads a Zeta halcón, “You already [expletive] my family up, but no problem, we all know what we are into” (Banderas Padilla, 2012, as cited in Martinez, 2012, para. 10). Perhaps anyone abducted by a cartel knows his or her life is over already, and that leads to a certain quietude. We are reminded here of the practice during the French Revolution whereby imprisoned nobility were referred to in the past tense as, for instance, ‘The former Comtesse du Barry.’

An execution video’s second part, Presentation of the Weapon, is the film’s quickest section, but it may also hold the most pathos. It is when prisoners will come out of their reverie, and in many videos, loud gasps of surprise are heard from them; nevertheless, many prisoners will remain silent, and in some cases, unflinching. The latter may be in shock, but it is rumored prisoners are drugged sometimes. Cartel members tend to approach prisoners from the side, but they are known to approach from the front or back, too. At this point, the situation’s truth, if it has evaded the prisoners thus far, becomes apparent. Axes, machetes, and knives are presented most often, and less common are handsaws and firearms, but in one case, a chainsaw was used in 2011 by the Cártel de Sinaloa against one of their own, a so-called torreta, or ‘snitch’ (Borderland beat, 2011).

The Presentation of the Weapon phase is ignored when prisoners’ eyes have been duct-taped. We were surprised when, in two videos, members of the Zetas gave such duct-taped prisoners a sort of coup de grace with strikes from 2×4’s about the head, knocking them unconscious before their decapitations. The Presentation of the Weapon has historical precedent. During the Spanish Inquisition (1478 C.E. – 1834 C.E.), prisoners would be shown the implements of torture just before coercion was set to begin to elicit bloodless, last-minute confessions (Moore, 2017). Unlike the Inquisition, however, Mexico’s drug cartels offer no such eleventh-hour clemency; the Catholic Church was invested specifically in bending a prisoner’s will whereas the cartels are invested only in bending their viewership’s will through the presentation of certain violence, so prisoners seem almost interchangeable. The murders occur seconds after the weapons appear. In the 2013 video we are analyzing, it is unclear whether it is Castillo Lopez or Lopez Jimenez who emotes, but her sound is more of a whimper than a gasp. Rosario Mendez and Pachecho Rodriquez remain silent.

The Killing lasts 1-minute, and the subsequent dismemberment another 2-minutes and 72-seconds. Castillo Lopez and Lopez Jimenez, relatives of Cártel del Golfo (CDG) member El Ostión, are killed with a knife and axe, respectively, and CDG halcóna Rosario Mendez and CDG cell leader Pachecho Rodriquez are slain with a machete. The women are decapitated almost simultaneously, but not in the order of their interrogation; rather, first are Castillo Lopez and Lopez Jimenez, and then Pachecho Rodriquez, with Rosario Mendez last.

One may wonder if the Zetas’ choice of weapons was a deliberate one; the use of an axe seems to lead to a quicker death than with a knife or machete, and again, it is Lopez Jimenez, who appears to be middle-aged, who is murdered with the axe. More telling is the positioning of the prisoners just prior to their executions. All but Pachecho Rodriquez, who is made to kneel, are placed in a supine, or passive, laying position. Pachecho Rodriquez is then made to expose her neck when a Zeta pulls her head backwards, which suggests the Zetas made her suffer more than the others. Except for Lopez Jimenez, the Zetas slit the throat of each prisoner prior to completing the decapitations. The dismemberment follows the Killing immediately, and Presentation of the Killed begins neatly with the women’s heads being lined up, but ends in a tangle quickly with arms, legs, and torsos thrown carelessly on top of the heads. One overhears the Zetas commenting to one another and to Pachecho Rodriquez’s corpse during the dismembering.

Internet viewer comments on the Killing phase of Mexican execution videos in English and Spanish can be placed in 12-categories. On a serious website, like Borderland beat, and on an ad hocsite, like Blog del narco, one finds ten comment variations: Sympathy for Mexico and the slain; Lack of sympathy for Mexico or the slain, saying the country or prisoners have it coming to them; Suggestions that a rival cartel will bring an end to narcoterrorism; Suggestions that all cartels are the same; Cheerleading for one or another cartel; Expressions of shock, disbelief, or amazement; Calls for foreign military intervention as it is known generally that Mexican federal police and military are in league often with the cartels; Calls for drug legalization in America; Requests for further information; Clarifications; and Thanks given for uploading information that the world would not know otherwise.

On shock websites, such as Best gore and Liveleak, one finds another comment variation: The comparing and contrasting of the knife work filmed by Al-Qaeda and The Taliban, the Mexican drug cartels, and ISIS, arguing, in general, the Mexicans are amateurs, having often to resort to using axes when knives or machetes fail them midway during a decapitation. Mexican execution videos posted on citizen-journalist websites, like Borderland beat receive, on average, a few dozen comments, but many more viewers remarked when the videos were new to Cyberspace. Borderland beat protects people commenting from possible Mexican organized crime attention by allowing them to post anonymously. The comments following the video we are discussing provide examples from the first 11 categories(Borderland beat, 2013).

The foot soldiers’ persistent giggling heard during the Presentation of the Killed in this film sets it apart from most other Mexican execution videos. In general, these videos conclude with the interrogator, standing in front of his men who have been called back to attention, giving a stern warning to opponents whilst holding a prisoner’s severed head. The final portion of this video is marked, rather, by disarray. The Zetas here are clearly in a good mood; we do not believe their laughter has the nervous quality that other mass executioners have presented (Clendinnen, 2002). Their masked faces keep us from noting if, in fact, the men are smiling, but how they ridicule Pachecho Rodriquez’s torso suggests a self-congratulatory atmosphere. The language directed at her remains consists of little more than common expletives, but the attention the Zetas give Pachecho Rodriquez confirms she was, in fact, thought of as a high-level target. It is, however, unclear to us exactly which “Comandante Guera” or “Guera Loca” Pachecho Rodriquez was.

There may have been two women in the Cártel del Golfo (CDG) with the same monikers, one of whom gained infamy beheading a Zeta, whose face was then skinned by her compatriots, in an earlier execution video (NRMX, 2017; Borderland beat, 2013; Borderland beat, 2011). The offender in the 2011 video, yet to be named publicly, is said to have died in a Zeta ambush, and her former coworkers at a hair salon raped and murdered by the Zetas in further retaliation (NRMX, 2017; Borderland beat, 2011). Adding to our inability to identify her clearly is though she was one of the few narcos not to wear a facemask, the quality of the CDG-produced videos she is featured in are of poor enough quality that a definitive comparison with the Zetas’ 2013 video is almost impossible. Such confusion is not uncommon in the Mexican Drug War. The Cártel del Golfo, for example, had three men called “Comandante Diablo,” and the Zetas had another (Borderland beat, 2014; Borderland beat, 2012). In any event, it is not the interrogator who gives the final warning in this video, but the Zeta foot soldier who killed Castillo Lopez. Holding Pachecho Rodriquez’s severed head up, the Zeta calls the Cártel del Golfo out as “whores.”

Lastly, if Pachecho Rodriquez was as highly-valued a target as the Zetas believed, and advertised with this production, this film would be set apart from other execution videos for another reason: Most execution videos, if the prisoners are, in fact, narcos and not kidnapped civilians, are limited to the killing of members of the lowest rung of cartel hierarchy, the halcones, or look outs, because the nature of their job makes them easy targets. Halcones tend to be people of the street, such as vendors, taxi drivers, street kids, and municipal police officers. They do not patrol towns in well-armed convoys, like their superiors, the sicaros, or a cartel’s gunmen, do.Ancillary members of Mexican organized crime are targeted, also. In two cases, food preparers were murdered (Blog del narco, 2014; Associated Press, 2010). Also more common than the filmed deaths of organized crime’s leaders are videos of the murders of the leaders’ families.

Until 2008, when one of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzmán Loera’s sons was shot and killed outside of a shopping mall, and like the American Mafia, Mexican organized crime held more-or-less to a ‘hands off’ rule toward noncombatant relatives. This rule holds no longer. Surveying Borderland beat, the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación’s 2010 kidnapping, rape, murder, and burning of a 10-year-old girl, thought mistakenly to be the daughter of a rival, the Zetas’ 2012 killing of Cártel del Golfo (CDG) operative Banderas Padilla’s family, the CDG’s 2013 butchering of 15-year-old Honduran boy, whose mother was said to work for the Zetas, the 2016 Beltrán Leyva Organization’s 150-man assault on Joaquin Guzmán Loera’s mother’s home (she was left unharmed), and the 2018 Viagaras Cartel’s removal of a policeman’s living 10-year-son’s heart suggest an endemic psychological war on Mexico’s organized crime waged by its various groups. Returning to the subject of halcones for a moment, most execution videos made with the purpose of revenge for slain family members, and the occasional leader, center on the murder of these abducted lookouts. This last point is cogent because in the narco community, such killing is put down as too easy, and taunts on the order of ‘Why don’t you come for those of us who are armed, instead?’ are commonplace.

Today, almost all the major players present at the start of the 2006 Mexican Drug War have either left elected office, been extradited to prison in the United States, been jailed in Mexico, or are dead. Yet, 12-years later, a conceivable end to this war has yet to materialize. Former President Felipe Calderón’s explicit assertion of State power that was meant to rein-in Mexico’s black marketeers, when they moved from the shadows and into spectacular violence, backfired. The narcotics trade coexisted with previous administrations for too long, too many mutually-beneficial relationships were formed between government officials of all levels and the narcos, and the promise of yet more money from the billions of dollars the cartels dedicate to bribery annually ensured Calderón’s war against the cartels would never be a single-minded one (Blackstone, 2012). Also, Calderón’s preferred strategy, eliminating organized crime’s leaders, could have only short-term rhetorical, but not material, results. The well-publicized capturing or killing of mid- and high-level cartel targets put forth definitive evidence that Calderón’s plan was working, and that the State under his leadership was energetic because the public could not fail to see 45,000 troops being deployed throughout Mexico without delay. However, Calderón failed to note Mexican organized crime’s essential elasticity; narcos know their life expectancy is short, so each cartel has replacement leadership at the ready.

And when Calderón saw these replacements eliminated, too, the cartels assumed smaller, more nimble structures. The Zetas, for instance, operate now as 3 groups, the Cártel de Sinaloa at least 2, the Cártel del Golfo 18 or more, and Beltrán Leyva Organization, 28. Further, narcotics exports to the United States only increased. Calderón did not enjoy the fruit of his efforts for long. The Mexican public, persuaded initially of the power of the State, began to view the State as capricious. For one, as the war escalated, it became apparent that the federal police and military were not fighting mere gangbangers, but hardened paramilitary groups, and given the heavy-handedness war can bring, the public began to see the State as much of an oppressor as the organized crime groups it was fighting.

It did not help Calderón when some of his forces appeared to favor the Cártel de Sinaloa (CDS) during CDS’ incursions into rival territories (Burnett & Peñaloza, 2010). The public was persuaded the State acted subjectively as it seemed to apprehend sicarios from one cartel, but not another, to besiege some territories, but to not establish any presence in others, like Sinaloa. The administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, Calderón’s successor, has faired no better; 2017 is held commonly as the Mexican Drug War’s most violent year, yet. Whereas Calderón favored open war on Mexican organized crime, Peña Nieto, in an appeal to public sentiment, preferred a policy of narco containment with an emphasis on violence reduction. The problem was, the cartels, in their new factionalized forms, became more violent than ever with their almost endless jockeying to fill the several power vacuums left by the Calderón administration.

The cartels could not be contained. Peña Nieto also opened a kind of second front, another appeal to the public, in the form of judicial liberalization meant to combat the rise in the federal police and military’s extrajudicial actions. In a word, Peña Nieto attempted reframe the State as interested more in public welfare and less in national prestige; though Mexico may have a parallel narco-state within its borders, the Mexican people ought not to suffer more from organized crime being goaded further. Nevertheless, if Calderón’s administration was marked by frustration, Peña Nieto’s was marked by embarrassment. As his term ended in 2018, Peña Nieto could not argue for the efficacy of his more implicit approach to Mexico’s dilemma. We wonder if Mexico’s next president will go further than Peña Nieto and return the country to its blind eye policy toward the cartels, but then again, that relationship worked most peacefully only when the singular Guadalajara Cartel operated.

Organized crime group leaders fear being extradited to the United States more than the thought of continued armed combat with the Mexican government. Extradition engenders a sense of hopelessness. American law enforcement, apart from corrupted elements within border and customs agencies, has yet to show itself susceptible to cartel bribery. In this regard, differences between American and Mexican prisons are stark. Often the best a cartel leader brought to America can expect is the almost complete social isolation that a supermax prison facility commands. In a Mexican prison, a prisoner’s luxuries tend to be limited to only what he can afford, and facilities holding the higher-level leaders have been known to be converted into something akin to upscale condominiums frequented by visiting prostitutes (Associated Press, 2016; Tharoor, 2016).

A Mexican prison is simply a cartel leader’s new base of operations (Lacey, 2009). The threat and escape from imprisonment fit narco-rhetoric neatly. It was, for instance, a supposition that Cártel de Sinaloa (CDS) leader Joaquin Guzmán Loera provided information leading to the arrest of Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) captain Alfredo Beltrán Leyva that persuaded the BLO to join the Zetas’ fight against the CDS, and the further suggestion that Zetas’ leader Miguel Angel Treviño Morales betrayed his lieutenant Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguillar to the authorities that persuaded the Zetas to splinter into competing factions (Kreider & Schone, 2012). Joaquin Guzmán Loera’s 2001 and 2015 escapes from Mexican prisons embarrassed the administrations of those times greatly and solidified his reputation as a wily narco. That Guzmán Loera paid millions of dollars in bribes for his escapes helped to confirm the existence of corruption in Mexico but substantiated rumors of the CDS’s wealth (Allen, 2015).

It is interesting how the expression of social power at its most explicit is linked to the idea of finality. Death is thought to end all arguments. In this way, when considering the common expression of narco violence within the Mexican Drug War, we are reminded of Tacitus’ 98 C.E. critique of applied Roman power: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call it empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace” (§XXX). We are moreover unsurprised Mexican organized crime has taken to the growing cult of Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, or Our Lady of Sacred Death (Chesnut, 2012; Grillo, 2011). She personifies Death, but the figure is seen also as a giver of favors, a protector, healer, as well as a conduit to financial security. The adoration given to Santa Muerte, in a way similar to how Catholics venerate Saint Mary, is confirmation that Mexican organized crime knows it forms a power structure that parallels the Mexican State. And as with any State, it icons and actions will reflect its central ethos. Santa Muerte looks out for the poor, who know they will likely die young.

The fact is only those high up in any cartel are the ones who make any real money; biweekly pay and three meals-a-day are presented as perks in organized crime’s recruitment drives. For example, Zetas’ sicaria María de Jesús Jiménez López, who managed 14-drug houses in Juárez and organized 20-murders, was paid the equivalent of $1,500-a-month (Notimex, 2012;Borderland beat, 2012). Narco-terrorism, then, can be read as a physical embodiment of Mexico’s desperation, but to hold only to that interpretation would ignore the material reality that a very small number of very wealthy people desire to capitalize even more from the selling of narcotics to Americans.

It is further interesting to us that the Americans’ perceived need for chemical intoxication is so great, that their collective emotional depression is so encompassing when one-hour of their minimum wage pay is the equivalent of what a Mexican taxi driver earns on a very good day. Narco-power is expressed explicitly and implicitly. The most explicit form, the execution videos we have discussed, substantiate the narco-state axiom: We have complete control over you and your families. Implicitly, narco-power is behind Chicago’s gang-related shootings over drug territories, which have exceeded 10,000, and a new trend, the production in Brazil of execution videos by gangs, which imitate those filmed in Mexico, but are generally more violent, less self-controlled, and often without stated context. Nevertheless, the actions taken by Mexican organized crime, when one considers the history of the expression of social power, are more-or-less the same as other authoritarian regimes. The State’s material demands take priority over ethical concerns.

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Dr. Jeremy Sideris

English Professor, Edinboro University

Copy Editor, Academic Affairs, Edinboro University

English Instructor, Buffalo State College


  1. Wrong!! BLO was doing business with Los Zetas before El Mochomo was arrested. The Beltran Leyva brothers betrayed los Patrones Sr Chapo and SR Mayo. Even though they were raised by El Chapo Guzman's mother and they were distant cousins of El "Senor de las Montanas" they still bit the hand that feed them.

    Arriba el patron Chapo y Badiraguato Sinaloa

    GN Ground Branch

  2. Cdg may have a no aggression pact with cds but as late as 2017 they still took plazas from cds. El gamma 10 before dying with el cherry was fighting in the south against cds groups.

  3. my god what have we become

  4. WOW. Maybe the most informative article I ever read on the psychosis ruling these cartels. They hold a definite control over their victims not realizing they are controlled by an evil almost without constraint. The descriptions of the decapitation's are chilling. Evil personified. How any government official can work with these cartels is beyond me, but they do. And this is what allows them to continue. Government corruption.

  5. To live and die in Mexico.

  6. Bueno, one more thing , that picture of the zombie creepy very creepy


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