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.
"We are all Zetas. No doubt about it, we are all Zetas," he said.
Marcelino said police had harassed his neighbors, trumping up phony criminal violations and extracting bribes to avoid incarceration. Previous local governments tried to throw him and other squatters off government land. Drug traffickers, however, sided with the squatters, earning their enduring gratitude by paying to build cinder-block shacks and distributing clothing.
"I trust the Zetas more than the thieving police and soldiers," Marcelino said. "The police are rats."
Cartels have long been known for showy displays designed to gain public support, though their public campaigns have become more audacious.
Last week, clowns entertained 500 children and gave out presents at a party in the city of Acuña, across the border from southeast Texas. A banner said the party was sponsored by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the Gulf cartel kingpin who is now imprisoned on drug trafficking charges in the United States.
"Your friend Osiel Cárdenas Guillén wishes you a Happy Children's Day," the banner read. "You are the future of Mexico."
For every cheeky public display, there are also darker messages, including threats carved into the bodies of shooting victims. In January, drug cartels are suspected of having left a banner with the names of 17 "executable" police officials on a monument to fallen officers in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso. In typically macabre style, the banner was accompanied by funeral flowers. Since then, at least nine of the men named on the banner have been assassinated.
Nearly all the cartels' messages get big play in local media, especially in small but well-read afternoon papers that specialize in gory crime coverage. Mexican reporters and editors say they are often contacted by local drug chieftains who demand that photographs of cartel banners and victims be displayed prominently. The threats carry weight -- Mexico trails only Iraq in journalist deaths.
Faced with a blizzard of publicity about every cartel pronouncement, some military officials fear they are losing the information war. A top military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, said cartels have succeeded in getting the public on their side in some places and in recruiting soldiers to their ranks. The general said internal rules prevent the army from using paid advertisements to counter the drug cartels' public messages.
"Lamentably, it's human nature for some of our men to fall to the temptations of money," the general said.
At the same time, the cartels have seized on human rights allegations against the military to win the hearts of some residents, the general said. Cartels prize the allegiance of residents because they can provide hiding places during crackdowns or refuse to cooperate with authorities investigating trafficking networks.
Mexican soldiers are prime targets for the recruitment efforts by cartels.
In an interview, former Gen. José Francisco Gallardo said that some soldiers don't initially intend to join criminal groups after deserting, but that once they leave the military, they find it almost impossible to get legitimate employment without revealing their status as deserters. That makes them easy targets for job offers -- both the splashy sort that appeared in Nuevo Laredo and quieter entreaties -- presented by drug lords, Gallardo said.
"This is one of the main origins of insecurity in our country," Gallardo said. "These soldiers are lost -- fugitives in their own country -- and they're angry."
Once they join drug gangs, the deserters seem "cool" to many people, according to Martínez, the Nuevo Laredo school principal and activist. Children in his neighborhood see banners advertising jobs in drug gangs and connect those images with the suddenly prosperous deserters, and other cartel recruits, they meet on the streets. With few opportunities for employment in Mexico's weak economy, the prospect of joining a gang is appealing, he said.
"They see these guys driving around in new pickup trucks and wearing nice clothes, and they're impressed," Martínez said.
A few days after the cartel recruitment banner appeared in Nuevo Laredo, Martínez said, he came across a group of 8-year-olds talking -- as 8-year-olds are wont to do -- about what they wanted to be when they grew up.
One little boy stood up, Martínez said, and proudly announced his hope: "I want to be a Zeta."