On Sunday, just hours after notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from a maximum security prison through a nearly mile-long underground tunnel, a Twitter account bearing his name told American businessman Donald Trump that it would make him eat his "[expletive] words."
The sentiment was popular: Trump had angered many people with recent comments about Mexican immigrants. At the time of writing, that tweet has been retweeted more than 20,000 times, and favorited more than 21,000 times. It sparked headlines around the world, and apparently spooked Trump enough that he asked the FBI to investigate the threats against him.
Yet for all the attention, there's one fact that seems to be overlooked: No-one actually knows whether @ElChap0Guzman has any link to Guzmán at all.
And even if it doesn't, the account and its popularity should be reason for concern.
@ElChap0Guzman first tweeted in 2012; it has sent off more than 600 tweets since then. The tweets often feature philosophical musings or jokes: "What is the ignorance of humanity" the first tweet says, showing a picture of dying Miura bull (graphic images of bullfighting are a recurring theme).
Another tweet shows photos of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, spliced together to show how similar they look. "Could not help laughing," adds 'El Chapo.'
JAJAJAJAJAJAJAJAJAJA No pude evitar reírme. pic.twitter.com/Sm31mizyjh
— Joaquín Guzmán Loera (@ElChap0Guzman) January 24, 2014
In a relatively short space of time, the account has become very popular. At the time of writing, @ElChap0Guzman has 380,000 followers, and a search for its username shows a stream of positive messages being sent to the account. The account describes itself as 'official,' and among the 18 accounts it follows are attributed to Guzmán family members and an account that bills itself as the account of the Sinaloa Cartel.
The FBI declined to comment on whether the account could be real, but experts contacted by WorldViews expressed mixed feelings.
"It wouldn't surprise me," said Howard Campbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, who has studied the habits of Mexican cartel members. "In the past, cartel people have used social media a lot," he adds, pointing to a notable "machismo" within the Sinaloa cartel that may explain the crude nature of some of the tweets.
Others are far less cautious. "With 99.999999999999% certainty, it's not Chapo's account," Alejandro Hope, an expert on cartels who is currently the security editor for El Daily Post explained in an e-mail. "For several months, I doubt he is going to use anything more sophisticated than pen and pencil, or maybe smoke signals."
That logic is simple: Social media carries with it certain risks and some doubt that the 60-year-old Guzmán, known for his caution, would use it personally. David Shirk, an associate professor at the University of San Diego and the director of the Justice in Mexico project, points out that it would be "foolish" for any high-ranking cartel member to post to social media personally, and that generally it is only "younger, inexperienced individuals" who use the networks like Twitter so flagrantly.
There are two good well-known younger cartel members who might have wanted to tweet for Guzmán: His sons Iván and Alfredo.
Guzmán is believed to have a number of children, but Iván and Alfredo have become best known for their rising profile in the Sinaloa cartel. Twitter accounts bearing their names have been operating for years, sharing scenes from a lifestyle that match how you might imagine cartel youngers might live.
Nose si me alcanse lo que traigo en la tesiada pic.twitter.com/tjmjlMI2Gk
— Alfredo Guzmán (@AlfreditoGuzma) June 16, 2013
These accounts made headlines again only last week. Just a few days before 'El Chapo' escaped from prison, an account under Iván's name offered an ominous message: "Good things come to those who wait."
Todo llega para quien sabe esperar.
— Iván Guzmán. (@lvanArchivaIdo) July 7, 2015
The accounts present as many questions as they answer, however. There are multiple accounts on Twitter purporting to be Iván and Alfredo, some of which have tens of thousands of followers. These accounts have sometimes referenced the @ElChap0Guzman account, but they have also referenced another, less popular account (@Elchap0guzman_) which also purports to be an official account and has also – bizarrely – threatened Donald Trump.
Zulia Orozco, a doctoral student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who studies the cartels' use of social media, says she believes that at least some of the accounts purporting to be by the younger Guzmáns are authentic. "Narcos use social media like everyone else," she explains, adding that Twitter and Instagram are the favored social media networks.
Not everyone is convinced. Anabel Hernandez, a Mexican investigative journalist who covers the Sinaloa cartel, says her doubts grew after she an account linked to Iván talking about a new leadership position. "Iván Guzmán will never get that power," she says. "I can't take it very seriously. "
Social media use has certainly caused trouble for the cartels. Jose Rodrigo Arechiga Gamboa, a top enforcer for Sinaloa, was arrested in Amsterdam in 2013 after police used his Instagram to tie him to cartel activity. That same year, Serafin Zambada, the son of a top leader in the Sinaloa cartel, was arrested after allegedly sharing photographs on Twitter.
Campbell, the UT-El Paso professor, suggests that after these and other "stupid mistakes," the cartels have become more careful on social media. However, the Guzmán family may still have the "machismo" he suggested: After 'El Chapo' escaped, someone sent photographs to the website El Blog Del Narco that appeared to show Guzmán drinking and flying in a plane.
It's very possible that someone with no real links to Sinaloa set up the account in homage to Guzmán. "It is common practice for 'fans' of high-profile cartel members to set up accounts on social media in their honor," said Antoine Nouvet, a research associate from the Canadian think tank SecDev Foundation who has investigated the cartels' use of social media.
"Most likely, it's just some kid with too much time on his hands," Alejandro Hope says.
Of course, getting involved with the cartels online like this may carry some risks. One of the accounts linked to Alfredo Guzmán once posted a picture of a young man who was now dead, Zulia Orozco says: The account said that the man had been tweeting falsely under Iván Guzmán's name.
Even so, generally there does seem to be a tolerance for online homages set up by "fans" of cartels. Nouvet says he once spoke to a Facebook user who had set up a fan page for the deceased Sinaloa member Manuel Torres Félix, also known as El Ondeado. “He was a good man," the Facebook user politely explained to Nouvet. The exaggerated online remembrance to dead cartel members resembles the lavish mausoleums some dead drug traffickers are given in real life, Nouvet notes.
These are just one form of the online cult of cartels. Over a dozen "narco corridos" – ballads written to celebrate the life of Mexico's cartel members – have been written since Guzmán's escape and released online. Videos of cartels' extreme violence and flashy wealth appear of El Blog Del Narco and other websites that follow narco culture to be consumed by fans. Cartel members use Twitter and other social media services to threaten those who question their authority or even just report on it (and sometimes they go beyond threats).
Trump almost certainly has nothing to fear from @ElChap0Guzman. But the culture that allows that Twitter account to win hundreds of thousands of followers and huge outpourings of support? Maybe that's what is scary.
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