Mexican Drug Cartels Making Audacious Pitch for Recruits

A banner in Nuevo Laredo advertises jobs with Los Zetas, a hit squad for the Gulf cartel. It includes a contact number.
A banner in Nuevo Laredo advertises jobs with Los Zetas, a hit squad for the Gulf cartel. It includes a contact number. (Courtesy Of El Maana Newspaper)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico -- The job offer was tempting.

It was printed on a 16-foot-wide banner and strung above one of the busiest roads here, calling out to any "soldier or ex-soldier."

"We're offering you a good salary, food and medical care for your families," it said in block letters.

But there was a catch: The employer was Los Zetas, a notorious Gulf cartel hit squad formed by elite Mexican army deserters. The group even included a phone number for job seekers that linked to a voice mailbox.

Outrageous as they seem, drug cartel messages such as the banner hung here late last month are becoming increasingly common along the violence-savaged U.S.-Mexico border and in other parts of the region. As soldiers wage a massive campaign against drug trafficking across Mexico, they are encountering an information war managed by criminal networks that operate with near impunity.

The cartels' appeals -- which authorities generally believe to be authentic recruitment efforts -- seem designed in part to taunt a military plagued by at least 100,000 desertions in the past eight years.

Even though the drug war has traumatized Mexicans, cartels still use bravado and a dash of humor to gain supporters. The Nuevo Laredo banner, for instance, promised that the cartels would not feed new recruits instant noodle soup, an allusion to the cheap and frequently mocked meals that many poor soldiers are forced to eat and that the government often provides to stranded migrants.

A similar sign in the Gulf of Mexico city of Tampico promised "loans and life insurance."

"What else could you want?" it read. The banner closed with a boast: "The state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, the United States and the world -- territory of the Gulf cartel."

"The cartels are very good at this -- they've had songs written about them, they put up these signs, they make themselves out to be Robin Hoods," Carlos Martínez, a Nuevo Laredo elementary school principal and community activist, said in an interview. "People like this. We Mexicans like a good joke -- we like to make fun of our problems."

The banners also appeal to many poorer Mexicans who respect the brashness of the cartels, which provide food, clothing and toys to win civilians' loyalty.

Marcelino, a 74-year-old pensioner who did not provide his last name for fear of retribution, said that he had been wronged plenty of times by police but that drug traffickers had given him a sturdy mountain bike. When the subject of the cartel's banner here came up, he laughed until he broke down in a coughing fit.

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