November 26, 2021   5 mins

In nobler times, there wasn’t just honour among thieves; besuited gangsters, freedom-fighting terrorists and even invading fascist armies would give the citizens of a town or city fair warning before they started maiming, bombing and wiping out the local population. Old-school villains and ageing counter-terrorism experts I know often speak of “putting the frighteners” on extortion victims or receiving “coded” telephone calls from the IRA: failure to comply meant “we’d have to break something” or worse.

But taking the lethal option was almost as undesired by the perpetrator as the victim. Murder has a way of redoubling the authorities’ efforts; and besides, dead men can’t pay kickbacks.

Today’s bad guy, however, leaves nothing to chance. The tripartite of gangsterism, terrorism and militarism has become a crowded market, and the art of intimidation has given way to the credo of shoot-first-don’t-even-bother-asking-questions-later.

I’ve seen this callous disregard for human life, and the blurred lines between crime, politics, warfare and “legitimate targets” in countries ranging from war-torn Sierra Leone to South Africa. But nowhere is it more abundant than in Mexico: the narco-capital of the world, a place where ingenious methods of drug trafficking and murder go hand in bloody hand.

To gauge what a typical Mexican crime reporter’s beat reads like, here’s the introduction to a recent report from Albinson Linares of current affairs show, Noticias Telemundo:

“The corpses of three people, dismembered and burned, were found in bags in Abasolo, in the state of Guanajuato, on Sept. 2. Three days later, a trans woman was murdered in the same state, and the body of a man, burned and tortured, was found hanging from a tree in Coacalco state. On Sept. 7, more than 300 migrants who had been kidnapped were rescued in Aguascalientes, and on Sept. 19, an entire family in Chihuahua was killed and an explosive package in Guanajuato caused the deaths of two men.”

And that’s a tiny sample of the 438 “acts of extreme violence” registered in Mexico that month. In this sense, then, daily life in Mexico is not a million miles away from the corrupt, ultra-violent, narco-state image of the country that Netflix has successfully cultivated via multiple documentaries, movies, series and “dope operas”.  The latest, and greatest, incarnation in the streaming service’s drug dramas is season three of Narcos: Mexico — a show notorious for its “brutal” executions and murder.

But the truth is that, if anything, these shows actually downplay the violence of cartels. In Narcos, when someone gets whacked they’re dispatched like a third-rate nobody. A bit of blood splatter; a groan; next. In the real world, people who fall foul of the cartels get taken out in the most macabre of fashions: in one execution video allegedly released by the La Familia Michoacán drug cartel, a pit bull rips the man’s testicles off in full view of the camera. It’s horrific, gruesome, and in keeping with the cartels’ sadistic rule of law.

“These videos emerged in Mexico way back in late 2005, with the first one supposedly coming out of Acapulco,” says British journalist, Ioan Grillo, who left Britain for Mexico 20 years ago and is the bestselling author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. “It showed the interrogation of a gang member who was strapped to a chair. At the end of the video someone puts a gun to his head and blows his brains out. Literally. That video wasn’t posted on the internet in the same way that videos are today, because at that time it wasn’t as easy to post videos online. It actually turned up on a VHS tape and was given to a regional newspaper in the United States before making its way to the Dallas Morning News newspaper and then onto Mexican TV. They didn’t show the video in its entirety, but that was arguably the start of it all.”

According to Grillo, the cartels got the bright idea of shooting VHS videos of their murderous activities, and disseminating them via American and Mexican mainstream media, from watching al-Qaeda’s beheading videos of Westerners in the early 2000s. After one Mexican news programme ran the unexpurgated version of an American contractor’s beheading by the terrorist group in 2003, the cartels registered the hype it generated, and a new narco-propaganda tool was born.

Ever since, an endless stream of filmed ‘media-friendly’ atrocities and ultra-violent stunts have been employed by various warring cartels, including the rolling of five decapitated heads onto a crowded dance floor in Michoacán in 2006 by masked gunmen and the discovery of a box containing a football with a man’s face sewn onto it in a Sinaloa street in 2010 as a threat to the Juarez drug cartel. Inside the box was the message: “Happy New Year, because this will be your last.” The victim, Hugo Hernandez, was found chopped up into seven pieces.

Yet decapitations have become so routine that, as Grillo says, they’re barely newsworthy anymore. So to up the propaganda and aesthetic stakes, the likes of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel records videos to spread on Facebook and Instragram. They usually show a phalanx of military vehicles and cartel members posing in tactical gear with assault weapons and, as Grillo notes, “sometimes torturing and executing enemy cartel members”.

While YouTube had been an unwitting early adopter of cartel snuff videos, and the jihadist executions that had inspired them, its $1.6 billion acquisition in 2006 by Google soon put paid to all that. The drug lords’ propaganda activities retreated into the shadowy recesses of the Internet and onto ‘dark social’ platforms and encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp, which contain no digital referral information about source material and thus make it nigh on impossible for law enforcement to track a video’s origins.

With decapitation fatigue setting in among Mexico’s informational gatekeepers, and the Western mainstream media having little or no interest in Latin American current affairs, dark social has given the cartels, with the help of a new breed of ‘citizen journalists’ and the pervasive use of mobile technology, the opportunity to spread its propaganda. Websites such as Blog del Narco have become aggregators and repositories for the worst of Mexico’s violent drug war, disseminating information the mainstream media and political establishment choose to ignore due to cynicism or boredom.

From these blogs — and increasingly their associated Twitter and Instagram accounts — a sort of narco-chic has evolved, spanning everything from music to fashion to ‘slanguage’. Like the criminal milieu of West Coast gangs and their symbiotic relationship with gangsta rap in the Nineties, or the petty New Jersey mafiosi who got their dress codes from The Sopranos in the early noughties, the narcotariat is seeping into mainstream culture thanks the nexus between Narcos and traditional-cum-trendy drug culture.

And so at one end of the spectrum we have narcocorridos, or drug ballads, about the exploits of drug traffickers, sicarios (cartel hitmen), their lovers or even mass murders. And at the other we have buchonas: the cosmetically enhanced, Kardashian-esque girlfriends of flashy cartel players whose style has become something of a social media phenomenon. Just look at Jenny69, one of the more visible ambassadors of buchona culture despite being from California, who has racked up more than two million followers on Instagram.

No doubt we’ll learn about these developments in Netflix’s next outing in Mexico. But just as journalists have to wrestle with cartels exploiting us as useful idiots in a trade-off between proper news and propaganda, so documentary and film producers must contend with the costs of glamorising one of the most dangerous criminal underworlds on the planet.

In 2017, Narcos producer Carlos Muñoz Porta was shot dead while location-scouting in Temascalapa, north of Mexico City. To date, no one has been brought to justice for the murder. We will probably never know whether it was cartel-inspired or just another random act of violence. Either way, it seems guaranteed that the blurry line in Mexico between art and reality will continue to be crossed for many more seasons to come.

David Matthews is an award-winning writer and filmmaker.