Mexican drug cartels are utilizing TikTok to entice younger individuals

In a one-minute TikTok video last fall, drug traffickers on a rigid rubber dinghy yelled at the pilot to accelerate as a Spanish Customs Surveillance ship chased. The viral video, viewed more than a million times, looked like a scene from the Netflix series “Narco”. But it was a real high-speed chase in the cartel drug wars.

Cartels have long used social media to shock and intimidate their enemies, said Howard Campbell, an anthropologist and drug expert at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“It has proven to be an effective strategy,” he said. “The use of TikTok is just the newest phase of this phenomenon.”

But their organized crime strategy has shifted somewhat.

Viewers no longer see corpses hanging on bridges, disembodied heads, or highly produced videos with messages to their enemies.

At least not on TikTok.

“TikTok is primarily used to promote a lifestyle,” said David Saucedo, a Mexico City-based security analyst. “To create an image of luxury and glamor, to show the ‘benefits’ of participating in criminal activity.”

According to Saucedo, the promotion of these videos is intended to attract young men who might be interested in joining the cartel with images of endless money, parties, military-grade weapons, and exotic pets such as baby tigers.

“I’ve seen a few criminal messages, (but) what I’ve seen the most is a message to encourage people to join organized crime,” he said.

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Typing #CartelTikTok in the social media search bar brings up thousands of videos, most of them from people promoting a “cartel culture” – videos with narcotics corridos or the Mexican ballads about drug trafficking as soundtracks and suspected members with money, fancy cars and automobiles boast a luxurious lifestyle.

Cartels enforce recruitment. A new UNICEF poll says gang recruitment leads families to flee their homes and seek asylum in other countries. According to the Child Rights Network in Mexico, around 35,000 children and youth in Mexico have been recruited by criminal gangs to participate in illegal activities that endanger their lives.

However, experts say they will try every possible way to get more people to join.

“The cartels will do everything possible to build their billion dollar business,” said Derek Maltz, former representative of the DEA Special Operations Division. “The use of social media is very attractive. It is used a lot.” from the younger culture, especially from TikTok, and thus 100 percent a recruiting tool. “

A search of the #CartelTikTok community and associated accounts shows that people are responding. Public comments from users like “Are you hiring?” “You want to have gringos join?” “I need an application” or “Can I be a mule?” My children need Christmas presents, ”some videos say.

One of the reports about this cartel community publicly replied, “Of course, hay trabajo para todos.” “I’ll send the application as soon as possible.” “How much does the pound cost in your town?” “Follow me on Instagram to see speak . “The post, which featured two men with lots of $ 100 bills and alcohol, had over a hundred comments.

“We know that the Mexican cartels produce the most incredible amounts of methamphetamine,” said Maltz. “So business is booming. They’re going to keep growing their business so hiring new staff is vital. They want.” Be cool and they will use these platforms to keep their business going.

“The people who promote the Mexican cartels act like global terrorists,” said Maltz. “You are promoting a terrorist organization so that anyone who persecutes or promotes Mexican cartels is involved in the most devastating violence.”

“You are not only killing Americans, but also Mexicans at record levels.”

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Experts said with just one like in one of these videos that because of the algorithm you would end up in the world of # CartelTikTok. Hence, millions of TikTok users glorify cartel culture by liking, promoting, and viewing this content.

The increase in cartel lifestyle videos on TikTok has not reduced the presence of hardcore cartel content on Twitter and Facebook. In July 2020, a video by Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación that went viral on Twitter in the US and Mexico showed an army of cartel soldiers driving tanks and firing military artillery, demonstrating their high firepower.

Cartels continue to use these platforms to convey their messages to their enemies. However, the potential TikTok recruiting strategy could reach millions of younger Americans who are intrigued by these organizations.

“I’m pretty sure cartels would succeed if they advertised their products on TikTok,” said Saucedo, the security analyst. “Without a doubt, TikTok would have this ability to penetrate areas in the white population that they have not reached before.” . “

Cybercrime authorities should watch out for unusual activity, but it is unclear whether they are investigating cartels’ new marketing recruitment tool on TikTok. The Courier Journal reached out to DEA officials for comment, but they did not respond immediately.

“In my experience there are US authorities dealing with these social media issues … but I don’t think they have enough resources to do a decent job,” said Victor Manjarrez Jr ., Associate Director at the Center for Law & Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.

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Maltz said parents need to be better informed about the situation with the Mexican cartels.

“There is an apparent lack of knowledge in the United States, particularly about the dangerous link between Mexican cartels and terrorist groups like Hezbollah and others. Ultimately, it’s a dangerous culture to follow.”

TikTok removed many of the #CartelTikTok videos, but with millions of users sharing this content, it is easy to continue finding these viral videos on the platform.

When asked about the company’s efforts to regulate the content, a TikTok spokesperson said, “The company is committed to working with law enforcement to combat organized criminal activity. In accordance with our Community Guidelines, we are removing content and accounts that promote illegal activity and regulated goods while we work to protect our community. “

“It seems to me that TikTok unfortunately encourages the desire to recruit from cartels and at the same time encourages young men to be fascinated by the world of cartels,” Saucedo said.

But the combination of these two factors could be just as deadly to America as it is to Mexico.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic and border closings, cartels have found a way to keep sending drugs to America. The murder rate in Mexico is rising, as is the drug overdose crisis in the US.

However, what cartels are showing on TikTok is a reality masked to attract more people. In fact, it is the opposite of what a young new member would have to do to join the Mexican cartels.

“The new soldiers within the criminal organization are recruited as traders, informants or killers,” said Saucedo. “The risk is enormous because these organizations have to face the authorities and other enemies.

“Your life in the organization is usually extremely short.”

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Karol Suarez is a Venezuela-born journalist from Mexico City who covers Latin America. She covered the story from Mexico for The Courier Journal.

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