In the USA, the "war on drugs" tends to mean lots of people getting arrested for carrying tiny baggies of crack and schoolkids getting boring lectures about the evils of marijuana. But in Mexico, the "war" is far more literal.
We spoke with a former Mexican citizen from a cartel-dominated region of the country who fled their homeland for Canada's much lower rate of dismemberings and midday gunfights. Here's what they told us about living under the coke-stained thumb of Mexico's brutal drug mafias:
#6. The Narcotics Trade Is Its Own Bizarre Culture
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
Drug dealers aren't afraid of saying they're drug dealers here. Every single cartel has its own logo. You join the right one, you might even get a monogrammed tote bag:
Via Borderland Beat
You thought I was joking about that one, didn't you?
People brag about their cartel affiliation on Facebook. The cartels post pictures of the corpses of murdered bloggers and opponents, and people "like" that stuff as if they were adorable cat pictures. It's called narcoculture, and it's what happens when you deal with different murderous gangs long enough that they become like sports teams to you.
There's even a saint for drug dealers -- Malverde. They call him "the angel of the poor" or "the generous bandit," and drug smugglers pray to him before driving a load of China White up to New Mexico or raiding another cartel's stash. If they make it, Malverde's shrine gets a new candle.
Via Honduras News
Light enough, and the Virgin Mary takes you for a ride in her vintage Studebaker, apparently.
Narcoculture also has its own multimillion-dollar music genre, beloved around Mexico by all the poverty-stricken youngsters who dream of the wealth and power only drug dealing can buy. It's called narcocorridos, and you might know it from that one episode of Breaking Bad with the really weird musical intro:
And if all of that sounds fairly adorable, if not downright glamorous, well ...
#5. It's a Real War
First of all, some history: We've had cartel problems in Mexico since Prohibition times. It started with small family beer cartels smuggling alcohol to the U.S. When America flip-flopped on that whole booze thing, these bootleggers were thrown into disarray ... until the United States banned marijuana. It's been a pretty straight shot from there to running meth and beheading people. The players have changed, but the basic story stays the same: America bans drugs and people in Mexico start shooting each other for a slice of a black market pie worth tens of billions of dollars.
FergusM1970, via Wikipedia
We imagine they're stocking up on trans fats and e-cigarettes right now, just in case.
But then, in 2006, everything exploded. That's when President Felipe Calderon decided to, as we said earlier, make the war on drugs a literal war. So, he invaded the nation of Drugs with soldiers and tanks, despite the fact that history says cartels will never go away as long there's still money to be made. At least 80,000 people have died since then, making the war on drugs significantly bloodier for Mexico than the war in Vietnam was for the United States.
The drug war affects every part of life in the northern cities and towns dominated by cartels. In the towns where the factions still compete, gunfights are treated like shitty weather and gridlock in a normal city. The cartels even post warnings so people know not to go out after 7 or 8 p.m., or whenever they decide it's murdering time. Yes, it sounds almost nice of them. But things would be a whole lot nicer if, you know, they weren't constantly doing things like murdering random road workers just to send a message.
You know email sends messages, too? Just sayin'.
Citizens rose up and formed groups called autodefensas, using weapons taken off dead cartel members. After a year, they've cleaned up about 5 percent of Mexico, but obviously the government doesn't exactly approve of a vigilante army operating outside the law (it doesn't help that the cartels have money and influence -- they own a significant chunk of Mexico's government and police forces, even while the president talks tough).
As incredible as the achievements of this Batmanesque army seem, it's entirely possible the government will swoop in with tanks and helicopters to "disarm" them all. And then the cartels will flood back in, high-five their buddies with badges, and prove that mass murder, like riding a bicycle, is a skill you never forget.
#4. The Cartels Have an Advanced PR Campaign
Once I was in [a town whose name is withheld because beheadings], and I saw a billboard that read, "Mexican soldier! You get as little as $800 per month. You're fed with junk food. Join with us and earn a minimum of $1,000-2,000 a month. You'll get more free time!" You see these cartel signs in various parts of the country, offering soldiers hard cash for their weapons or loyalty.
They also have their own form of news. Spread mainly through Facebook, cartel news is less about informing people than it is about scaring the sopaipillas out of them with pictures and videos of gruesome beheadings. And also selfies -- yes, even murderous cartel gunmen feel the need to take sweet-ass profile pics whenever possible. Take this one, from the drug trade's answer to Medieval Times:
You'll want to stay at least 200 yards back during the "joust."
But hey, no good PR campaign ends with the Internet. The cartels also do their best to spread propaganda to the people who live in and around the place where they operate. If there's a hurricane or a flood or some sort of disaster, you can bet cartel trucks loaded with aid supplies will start flooding into the region, and that cartel men with cameras will be there to videotape it for YouTube. Because a few trucks loaded with food and water totally make up for all those murders: