Drug traffickers are waging a highly effective publicity campaign in Mexico that began with a chilling show of brutality in Acapulco: two police officers’ heads, streaming with blood, were stuck on metal spikes outside a downtown building with a fluorescent cardboard sign. “So that you learn to respect,” it read in thick black letters.
The spectacle a year ago in the Pacific resort set off a ghoulish trend among the drug lords battling for billion-dollar smuggling routes into the United States. They’ve since left a trail of bodies and bloodstained notes across Mexico, with a goal of spreading fear — a sense of dread so deep that rivals, police, witnesses and even President Felipe Calderon won’t dare cross them.
Regular citizens used to be left out of this calculation as organized crime groups quietly settled scores between themselves.
No longer. The drug gangs now publish newspaper ads, and tack threatening notes to corpses with ice picks or tape them to trash bags filled with body parts for public display. They’re even using the Internet, posting a video on YouTube that showed the apparent beheading of an alleged hitman.
“Before long, they’re going to have their own TV program, ‘Narconews,’ where they drag out their dead for show,” drug expert Jorge Chabat joked grimly.
Drug-related killings using corpses as message boards have been carried out in a dozen Mexican states in the past year — an indication, experts say, that Mexico’s rival Gulf and Sinaloa cartels hope they can frighten the population to the point that Calder?n will retreat from his nationwide military crackdown.
In many areas, it’s working: Police are resigning in record numbers, newspapers are censoring themselves, and witnesses rarely expose themselves to a justice system seen as inefficient and corrupt.
“Without a doubt, this is part of a strategy by organized crime to terrorize the population and destabilize the government,” said Nuevo Leon Deputy State Attorney General Aldo Fasci Zuazua, whose state bordering Texas has seen nearly three dozen drug-related killings since January, including one threatening the top state prosecutor with a message stuck to a corpse with an ice pick.
Drug lords have long used grisly killings and torture tactics to communicate with rival gangs and police. The former Amado Fuentes Carrillo cartel in Ciudad Juarez used to cut off the fingers of snitches and shove them down their throats. Others who crossed drug lords were given a “Colombian necktie,” in which the victims’ tongues were pulled through their slashed throats.
Now such messages go straight to the public.
In Calderon’s home state of Michoacan, The Family, a shadowy group believed allied with the Gulf cartel, took out a newspaper ad saying it wanted to stop kidnapping, robbery and the sale of methamphetamines in the state. The ad blamed violence on a rival gang and depicted The Family as entrepreneurs trying to mind their own business.
“Perhaps at this time people don’t understand us, but we know that in the most affected regions, they understand our actions,” it said, adding: “People who work at any decent activity have no reason to worry.”
The group delivered a similar message in much more grisly fashion last year, rolling five heads across a dance floor in a Michoacan town with a note that said The Family “doesn’t kill innocent people, only those who deserve to die. Everyone knows that.”
One of the boldest displays yet was a video posted on YouTube this month. It showed a man in his underwear, tied to a chair with a “Z” written on his chest ? an apparent reference to the Zetas, former military operatives who now are Gulf cartel hitmen. The video, which was picked up by newspapers across the country, called on Mexicans to “do something for your country, kill a Zeta.”
Someone off-screen interrogates the man about the Feb. 6 killing of five Acapulco police officers and two secretaries, punching him repeatedly until he says he participated in the attacks. Then he’s shown being strangled by using metal rods to twist a cord around his neck. The video then shows his headless body.
Anyone can post a video on YouTube; there was no way to confirm the video’s authenticity or determine made it. Police have not found a body.
Steve Robertson, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency special agent who worked for 17 years on the U.S.-Mexico border, said the publicity campaign is only the latest tactic traffickers are using to control their turf.
“The drug trafficking organizations are a business, and like any successful business, they are using the latest toys, like e-mail, cell phones or Blackberries,” he said. “They use fear to control their area and intimidate citizens into not becoming involved and cooperate with law enforcement.”