By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 9, 2007
MEXICO CITY -- Bloody bodies -- slumped at steering wheels, stacked in pickup trucks, crumpled on sidewalks -- clog nearly every frame of the music video that shook Mexico's criminal underworld.
Posted on YouTube and countless Mexican Web sites last year, the video opens with blaring horns and accordions. Valentín Elizalde, a singer known as the "Golden Rooster," croons over images of an open-mouthed shooting victim. "I'm singing this song to all my enemies," he belts out.
Elizalde's narcocorrido, or drug trafficker's ballad, sparked what is believed to be an unprecedented cyberspace drug war. Chat rooms filled with accusations that he was promoting the Sinaloa cartel and mocking its rival, the Gulf cartel. Drug lords flooded the Internet with images of beheadings, execution-style shootings and torture.
Within months, Elizalde was dead, shot 20 times after a November concert. His enemies exacted their final revenge by posting a video of his autopsy, the camera panning from Elizalde's personalized cowboy boots to his bloodied naked body.
Elizalde's narco-ballad video and its aftermath highlight a new surge of Internet activity by Mexican drug cartels, whose mastery of technology gives them a huge advantage over law enforcement agencies. Following the model of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, the cartels have discovered the Web as a powerful means of transmitting threats, recruiting members and glorifying the narco-trafficker lifestyle of big money, big guns and big thrills.
"It's out of control," Victor Clark, a Tijuana-based drug expert, said in an interview.
Drug raids in Mexico now routinely net cameras, computers and intricate computerized surveillance systems along with the usual piles of cash, cocaine and weapons. Hit men are just as likely to pack video cameras as "goat's horns" -- the Mexican drug world's nickname for AK-47 assault rifles.
Mexican police have been slow to recognize the Internet as a font of clues, critics say, a mistake that has increased the ability of the cartels to work in the open.
"Imagine, if you're a policeman, you can find gold here on these Web sites," said Alejandro Páez Varela, an editor at the Mexican magazine Dia Siete who tracks drug gangs' use of the Internet. "It's a shame. Everything's here: names, places. They even say who they are going to kill."
The videos, almost unheard-of a year ago, now show up with disturbing regularity. Last Monday, Mexican newspaper Web sites published portions of a video of a supposed Gulf cartel hit man being questioned by an off-screen interrogator about the February murders of five police officers in Acapulco.
The man wears nothing but underwear. A large "Z" is scrawled in thick ink on his chest, along with the words "Welcome, killers of women and children." The Z is a symbol of the Zetas, the Gulf cartel's notorious hit squad, which was started by former Mexican army special forces officers.
The full version of the video shows assassins decapitating the man by slowing twisting a wire through his neck. It ends with a written threat: "Lazcano, you're next" -- an apparent reference to Heriberto Lazcano, alleged chief of the Zetas.
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.