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Mexican Drug Cartels Leave a Bloody Trail on YouTube

Singer Valentín Elizalde, shown on YouTube, was gunned down months after the online video of his narco-ballad sparked a drug war in cyberspace.
Singer Valentín Elizalde, shown on YouTube, was gunned down months after the online video of his narco-ballad sparked a drug war in cyberspace. (Courtesy Of

Viewer comments on the video sites provide some of the possible clues police could be investigating, Clark said. On one recent evening, viewers had posted what appeared to be death threats on a YouTube page showing a bloody narcocorrido video.

"You have few days left, Miguel Treviño," wrote a user named "kslnrv."

"The Internet has turned into a toy for Mexican organized crime," Clark said. "It's a toy, a toy to have fun with, a toy to scare people."

While terrorists have turned to the Internet to communicate with other terrorists, the Mexican cartels appear to be using cyberspace mostly to taunt and threaten enemies. The videos can be explicit or cryptic. Inserting code words is part of the game for drug dealers who delight in leaving riddles to be unscrambled by their rivals and police officers.

Mexican researchers are beginning to examine these Internet postings to monitor who is up and who is down in the drug wars. Páez Varela is tracking an increase in videos posted by the Sinaloa cartel, many of which tout the supposed virtues of its leader, Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán.

Guzmán, who escaped from a high-security Mexican prison in 2001, and his backers appear to be posting more videos of his hit men carrying out executions in parts of Mexico once thought to be under control of the Gulf cartel.

"What Chapo Guzmán is saying is that his militant arm is strong, not just in Sinaloa, but in Veracruz, the state of Tamaulipas and the state of Tabasco," Páez Varela said. "It's like an advertisement."

But the other side is advertising, too, even though its leader, Osiel Cárdenas, was recently extradited to the United States. A video homage to Cárdenas has proliferated on the Web, boasting that he is still powerful.

"With an order from the boss, more heads will roll," an unknown performer sings. As the singer wails, the screen fills with an image of a blood-smeared floor and four heads severed from their bodies. It ends with a pistol shot into the forehead of a supposed gang member and a gushing wound.

"Mexican law enforcement is ill-equipped to deal with this," Andrew Teekell, an analyst at Stratfor, a private intelligence firm based in Texas, said in an interview. "In the U.S., posting videos like that would be plain crazy -- U.S. law enforcement has guys who do nothing but surf the Internet. But in Mexico, they can get away with it. It shows these cartels are untouchable."

Mexico's federal police agency has a cybercrimes unit, but it has produced few important drug busts. In the meantime, most local police forces pay little attention to the Internet, Clark said. A federal police spokesman declined to discuss ongoing investigations, but said a concerted effort is now being made to track drug gangs on the Internet.

"The police are not taking what narcos post on the Internet seriously," Clark said. "It's a mistake. In terms of investigations, you have to take advantage of all available information."

YouTube, which appears to be the most popular destination for the cartels' videos, removes those flagged by users as objectionable. But the violent clips frequently reappear on the site shortly after being removed. Online comment sections attached to videos disappear, but fill up again when the videos return. The online discussions, in Spanish, are often filled with threats, overt and veiled, as well as streams of profanities.

Mexican drug dealers have for years commissioned composers to write songs in their honor. Now, the Internet is suddenly turning some of them into superstars. None is bigger than Valentín Elizalde.

When he was alive, he never had a best-selling album. But less than four months after his murder and half a year after "To My Enemies" became an Internet hit, Elizalde made it big. On March 3, when Billboard came out with its list of best-selling Latin albums in the United States, Elizalde occupied the top two spots.

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