6 Ways Life in Cartel-Run Mexico Is Nothing Like You Imagine
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:
The Narcotics Trade Is Its Own Bizarre Culture
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:
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.
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 ...
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.
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.
The Cartels Have an Advanced PR Campaign
Once I was in , 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.
This one brags that cartel gunmen don't have to live on instant ramen. We're not joking -- that's what "Sopa Maruchan" means.
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:
For Many Mexicans, Cartels Are the Government
The most successful cartels don't rule through fear alone. Cartels have been known to hand out presents at Christmas, like Santa Claus (if his beard was white from all the cocaine). Also, they give out money. Just straight up money.
All of Santa Cartel's reindeer have red noses.
Since the Mexican government is nonexistent in some parts of the country, cartels have taken to establishing schools and hospitals. But it's not out of the goodness of their hearts -- they recruit from these schools. We're talking poor kids in rural areas with not much else in the way of opportunity. Imagine if your dad worked his ass off all week for 20 bucks, and then the cool kid in school with an iPad and designer jeans starts saying, "You know what, you could earn $800 or $900 a month, I know some people ..."
That kid is going to listen real intently to what his "friend" has to say. It's not even a matter of greed; most of us would do the same if faced with a choice between "starvation wages" and "smuggling." It's the same with the police; you might earn as little as $11,000 per year as a local cop. If you go crooked, you can make three times that much. Integrity disappears fast when it's standing between you and things like antibiotics for your kids or plain ol' liquor money.
And for those who don't join ...
It's Worse Than a Dictatorship
The cartels have their own checkpoints, just like the government. While those government checkpoints are looking for drugs and weapons, the cartel checkpoints are looking for anyone who might work with a rival cartel.
And you thought Games of Thrones was complicated.
Let's say some guy born near the Gulf decides to travel across the country to the Pacific side. The real cops aren't going to care, because that's perfectly normal. But the cartels might suspect he's working with their foes from the other coast, and they don't take chances with stuff like that. There's no burden of proof to meet, no due process -- if they're suspicious, they'll just murder you and take your stuff.
Likewise, living under the cartels changes everything about what you can say in mixed company. With a dictatorship, as long as you stay out of politics, you're safe. But in a cartel-dominated area? If a drug dealer likes your girlfriend, he'll kill you. You have no right to exist. If you're a woman and he wants to "date" you, there's no right to refuse. Make the mistake of blogging and complaining about the cartels? Good luck living to see your next birthday.
I'm not even remotely exaggerating about the journalist thing being a big deal (graphic images).
Two people I know were at a restaurant (in another town I will not name) when two gunmen entered the restaurant, grabbed a guy in front of his family, and took him out to the street. One gunman said to the rest of the customers, "Don't report it, don't say anything, or we'll bomb this place and kill you all." They never found the guy they took away, and they never will.
If you're asking yourself what it is about Mexico that makes it so screwed up, well, there's one thing to keep in mind ...
The Money and Guns Come From America
It really bugs me to see things like cocaine use made light of in American movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, because 90 percent of the coke you buy passes through Mexico on the way to your nose. Depending on who you ask, the cartels make between $20 billion and $64 billion a year selling their drugs stateside. Pot legalization in Colorado and Washington might have cut as much as $3 billion in cartel profits, but that's a drop in the bucket -- coke and meth are the money-makers, and no one's about to lobby for their legalization.
Almost no one.
In an upside for the corporate persons Smith & Wesson and a downside to capable-of-bleeding persons across Central America, all that drug money doesn't stay in Mexico. A shitload of it runs right back across the border, to the 6,700 American firearms dealers who operate near the border. Nearly half of all gun dealers in the United States are at least somewhat dependent on the Mexican gun trade for their livelihood. Huh, you never hear about that in the NRA commercials, do you? And when you hear people complain that you need bigger walls along the border to keep the drugs and immigrants out, they don't seem nearly as concerned about the river of lethal iron flowing south.
See, in Mexico, it's illegal to buy weapons -- there's one legal gun store in all of Mexico City, and you can only buy with permission from the military. So while the USA is fighting over what to do with assault weapons, guns of every kind are flowing into Mexico and killing us. But approximately 0 percent of the American gun control debate by either side has anything to do with Mexico, because who cares, right?
Well, no one except arms manufacturers, who have 127.2 million reasons to care.
For example, in political circles, there was all kinds of outrage over the ATF's "Fast and Furious" program (aka "selling guns straight to cartels to see what happens"). The scandal was focused on the Border Patrol agent who was killed by those smuggled guns, but there was nary a word about how many Mexican civilians died by those weapons. But hey, their names were hard to spell, and they weren't pale enough for their pictures to share well on Facebook.
And can you imagine the rhetoric from politicians if, say, seven people in Arizona were murdered by a cartel ambush? But move that crime less than one mile south, and it barely makes a blip. That's the magic of a border -- it lets everyone believe that what happens on the other side will never, ever be their problem. In reality, you can't build a wall big enough to make that true.
Related Reading: For another side of the drug war, why not read about the experiences of an undercover agent fighting the cartels? If you're more interested in the dealing side of the drug war, we've got that story too. Have a tale of your own to tell Cracked? Reach us here.