Public Relations, Narco Style
Zabludovsky, Karla, Newsweek
Byline: Karla Zabludovsky
"Who giveth food to all flesh, for his mercy endureth forever."
- Psalm 136:25
And so it comes to pass that the drug cartels give and endure, with little mercy and a lot of help from YouTube.
In a video that has been circulating on the web since Tuesday, January 7, members of the Gulf Cartel, one of the largest in Mexico, are shown handing out cakes traditionally eaten by Catholics during the week leading up to Epiphany. They visit what appear to be schools, hospitals, nursing homes and impoverished neighborhoods in northeastern Tamaulipas state, giving away the colorful, sugary treat to residents who at times look eager, and at other times apprehensive.
"We take care of our people and always help," reads a caption embedded in the video, albeit with spelling errors. Shaky and out of focus, the video appears to have been shot with a handheld camera and edited at home. In the opening scene, six boys smile nervously as they hold two-foot-wide cakes, shaped like elongated donuts with red, white and green embellishments - the colors of the Mexican flag.
While President Enrique Pena Nieto focuses his efforts on - and channels international attention toward - Mexico's healthy economy and his signature education, tax and energy overhauls, criminal organizations are tightening their grip on vast regions of the country and showcasing their triumphs on increasingly public platforms, say analysts such as Pedro Isnardo de la Cruz, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
The viral video, they say, is the latest weapon in the less violent but still devastating side of the drug war: narco public relations.
Cartels have long been known for their brutal methods. For years, people trembled at the thought of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who eventually controlled more than 80 percent of the cocaine that entered the United States. "To Escobar, it didn't matter whether you were a man, woman or a child. If you were going to die, you were going to die. If he had to kill the father, he'd kill the whole family," says Max Mermelstein, a former drug smuggler, in "The Godfather of Cocaine," a 1997 Frontline special.
When former president Felipe Calderon declared war on Mexico's criminal groups in 2006, he indirectly unleashed a new level of ghastliness. Cartel thugs have thrown human heads onto busy dance floors; they have sewn the face of a victim to a soccer ball; they have hung nearly naked bodies from bridges above busy highways.
But the drug kingpins have always known that a little sugar was needed to improve their rapidly deteriorating image. Helping the communities in which they operate encourages the population to "not see them as enemies but rather, as people who can help, so that when there is a police operation, the community does not report them," says Jorge Chabat, a drug and security expert at CIDE, a Mexico City research university. It also sows the seeds for future recruits, Chabat added.
In the 1980s, Escobar built soccer fields and public housing, invested in reforestation programs and paid for street lighting projects. He became so beloved in some parts of Colombia that in his portrayal of Escobar's death, painter Fernando Botero included a tearful woman beneath the drug trafficker's bullet-ridden body.
Some drug barons are also known for their efforts at moral guidance. In 1995, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the longtime reputed leader of the Gulf Cartel, sent a large shipment of toys to Tamaulipas. As clowns entertained the crowd, a woman handed out dolls, bicycles and roller skates to the children. Attached to each toy was a sticker that read, "Perseverance, discipline and effort are the basis for success. …