For months, video artists and videographers of varying skill have been peppering the Internet with a gruesome cavalcade of images: a woman slain in the cab of a pickup truck, an alleged Mafia hit man being tortured and executed, an assassinated singer’s body splayed on a coroner’s table.
Many of the videos are posted at one time or another on the website YouTube. They seek to cheer on or denigrate the opposing sides in Mexico’s drug wars, the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and the Gulf cartel believed led, until recently, by Osiel Cardenas. Mexican authorities extradited Cardenas last month to face charges in a U.S. courtroom.
Last week, assassins armed with both assault weapons and cameras appeared to take the cultural battle to a new level. Police said two groups of gunmen videotaped themselves Tuesday as they killed five officers and two secretaries at police stations in Acapulco.
Those images have yet to surface on the Internet. But already a vibrant subculture has emerged to celebrate and document the deeds of the drug traffickers. Though many of those who post videos are probably not directly involved in the drug trade, explicit threats were made on one blog, since shut down, that were later followed by actual killings.
The deeds of Mexico’s drug traffickers have long been celebrated in the folk music genre known as narcocorridos. Web video is a new venue for spreading the mythology, allowing people who identify with one of the cartels to delight in humiliating their rivals.
The videos hint at the growing mystique of the cartels, which have formed competing bands of hit men who purportedly have received paramilitary training. Although YouTube often removes the violent videos from its site, they usually reappear quickly. Many of the postings have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
“Now you can see that they’re not that brave -- ha, ha, ha,” one YouTube poster wrote in response to a four-minute video titled “Los Sicarios” (The Hit Men). The video shows a suspected member of the Gulf cartel, popularly known as the Zetas, arrested after a firefight in the state of Tabasco.
Handcuffed and lying on the floor, the suspect meekly asks to talk to his family and says, “They’re going to kill me, I know I’m going to be killed.”
“This is great,” the YouTube poster writes in response. “Pure Sinaloa Productions.”
Such mocking may merely be empty bluster, but other postings are not. In September, Marcelo Garza, a high-ranking federal investigator in the border state of Nuevo Leon, was assassinated 18 days after a blogger wrote, “We swear to you that soon we will knock him down.” The blog accused Garza of working for a rival cartel.
In 2005, the Dallas Morning News obtained a copy of a DVD showing unknown kidnappers interrogating four men allegedly working for the Gulf cartel. One of the captives is executed on camera. A Mexican official told the newspaper that video was part of a rival cartel’s “counterintelligence strategy.”
The video of that killing has shown up in several YouTube postings, including one that threatens revenge for the killing of singer Valentin “The Golden Rooster” Elizalde, whose narcocorrido ballads were taken up as anthems to Sinaloa cartel leader Guzman.
“This is directed to all those who call themselves Zetas ... and to the Gulf cartel,” the YouTube video begins in a hip-hop cadence. “You’ll pay with your lives for what you did to our Golden Rooster.”
A 30-second video of Elizalde’s autopsy in the border city of Reynosa after his slaying in November circulates widely on the Internet. As of Wednesday, one version on YouTube had been viewed more than 850,000 times.
A YouTube spokesman said in a statement last week that the company relied on users to report inappropriate content. Such content is removed, he said.
“Real violence on YouTube is not allowed,” said the spokesman, who declined to be identified. “If a video shows someone getting ‘hurt, attacked or humiliated,’ it will be removed as according to our community guidelines.”
Luis Astorga, a drug trafficking analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the vast majority of videos posted on YouTube and other sites were probably produced by people with no links to the cartels.
Often, reporters arrive at crime scenes before the police do. Officers don’t always close off the area, and bystanders can shoot footage with the hope of selling it later. In fact, some video available on YouTube appears to have been filmed by police, including an eight-minute sequence shot from inside a jail in Tabasco state during a shootout.
“We’re in the Palace of Justice and we’re under fire,” one man in the video says as he calls for help on his cellphone. Explosions are audible outside the building, and blood covers the floor.
A woman cries out, “Please, call the army!”
But the camera-wielding assassins in Acapulco on Tuesday raise the possibility that the cartels are beginning to take the image war seriously, Astorga said.
The assault was staged much like a piece of improvisational theater. The killers arrived in two groups of eight.
Police and news reports say they included six men dressed in military uniforms, complete with red berets, and two men in business suits.
The assassins told officers to hand over their weapons. (Real army units disarmed the corruption-tainted police in the city of Tijuana last month.) When the weapons had been gathered, the assassins opened fire.
“Hopefully this isn’t the beginning of a spiral of macabre videos,” Astorga said. “Perhaps this was done with the goal of impacting public opinion.”