In Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, Foucault (1977) suggests the public torture and execution of criminals by the State were vulgar, and sometimes provocative, rhetorical performances. Public torture and execution were explicit, theatrical displays of institutional power, demonstrating to the onlookers that they, like the condemned people standing before them, lacked primary ownership of their outward person (the flesh) and inward person (the blood). The more severe the crime, the more blood was let; the State reestablishing power visually in relation to the levels of transgressions committed by the condemned. In this way, an executioner, the physical embodiment of the State, was reviled socially, but held in awe publicly. The executioner was made an outcast and held in esteem for the same reason: He maintained an inflexible social order. It is well known many such public gatherings had a festive, carnival atmosphere; however, if the condemned was a popular or sympathetic person, or if the executioner handled his work unskillfully, the State could be perceived by the masses as unjust or inept, and questioning of the State might begin (Moore, 2017). Nevertheless, the “fact remains that a few decades [after Damiens’ 1757 execution, France], saw the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on the face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared” (Foucault, 1977, p. 8). The end of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (1793 – 1794) substantiated the general change in European punitive norms that Foucault describes. Put simply, many of the Revolution’s leaders fell prey to the same physical terror they had inspired; the Reign of Terror concluded with Revolution leader Robespierre’s own beheading. A riled public cowed no longer by the State’s instrument, in this case the guillotine, known colloquially as the ‘National Razor,’ now made the object of public execution the executioner. The State chose then to express its power more implicitly, moving punishment out of the town square and into prisons closed to the public. In other words, “punishment of an immediately less physical kind, a certain discretion in the inflicting of pain, a combination of more subtle, more subdued sufferings, deprived of their visible display” became the new accepted norm (p. 8). In Europe and The United States, and with the exceptions of capital offenses and the treatment of American slaves, the threat of long social isolation through imprisonment replaced the immediate threat of bodily destruction. So instilled has this adjusted penal norm become in the Western world that summary, or immediate, execution by representatives of the State may now be prosecuted as murder, and during war, as a war crime.
Capital punishment is legal in 31 of America’s 50 states. Though application of the death penalty is increasingly rare in America, its continuation is based on reaching didactic and cathartic ends. Death penalty supporters tend to believe the implied threat of this punishment deters capital-level crimes. The punishment is thought also to provide explicit justice to the families of the felons’ victims. Note, too, that use of the death penalty in America today is not a rhetorical performance meant to keep a regime in power. So few people, in America, can witness executions, save for State officials, representative members of the families of victims and offenders, and a few journalists, that for most Americans, capital punishment is at most an abstract idea. We fear the State less because we are forbidden from seeing the State carrying out its most fearsome task, the ending of human life. Moreover, American social norms in the main forbid the public from seeing real death in traditional media. Mainstream American news outlets, for instance, will publish pictures of a lake where a child drowned, but not of the drowned child, the scene of a mass shooting, but not of the shooting’s victims, and an execution chamber, but not of the executed individual. On the other hand, while televised news media will show body camera or observer video footage of police shootings of suspects, but not the moment of bullet impact, this latter reporting has had, perhaps, an unintended effect. Each police shooting reminds the public that the State, in fact, has power over life and death, and at least for the duration of a news cycle, State power is seen by many people again as explicit, and not implicit. This is not to say many Americans today are not fond of witnessing violence. Cinematic violence is historically far more palatable to the American audience than cinematic sex is (Bowden, 2016), and violence-charged films and video games are less likely to receive industry ratings that would make them adult only (Dill-Shackleford, 2011). Thus, because cinematic violence may have desensitized the American public to actual violence generally (Archer, 2013), the growing number and popularity of real-life execution videos filmed outside of the United States and now found readily in nontraditional media online may be explained.
Public interest in decapitation was renewed in 2004 with the filmed murder of Nicholas Berg, an American electrician kidnapped in Iraq by jihadists. Prior, most attention to the subject was accorded to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, though increased attention given to Japanese war crimes committed during the Second World War is noted. Hitler’s use of decapitation as a chief punishment for political prisoners is, however, almost unknown to the public. One can perhaps trace this renewed interest in decapitation by examining the traditional American televised news medias’ handling of the subject. Most news programing played a brief clip of Berg’s screams over a picture of him seated in front of his captors. More importantly, each newscast said it would not show the video that Berg’s screams were drawn from to maintain good taste and sensitivity for his family. This decision to keep decorum had a twofold effect. First, the decision would suggest to the very curious that they could find the video for themselves online as it was said to have been posted by terrorist organization Muntada al-Ansar (Filkins, 2004). Second, nontraditional rightwing news outlets began to post the video on their websites in the rhetorical vein of ‘Why We Fight,’ but also to accuse mainstream media of effete leftwing censorship during a time of national crisis stemming from the 9/11 attacks of a few years before. Berg’s experience was repositioned in the United States from that of an unlucky American civilian murdered to an American executed illegally by a hostile foreign power. To the jihadis under Musab al-Zarqawi, Berg’s killing was a performance of revenge and political theater from the start. One of his masked executioners exclaimed, “So we tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls. You will receive nothing from us but coffin after coffin slaughtered in this way” (As cited in Filkins, 2004, para. 18). Decapitation is, then, seen as a deliberate persuasive maneuver.
Decapitation has held different social contexts throughout Western history. For most of Early Modern Europe, decapitation was reserved generally for the nobility as it did not involve commoners laying hands on the royal person, while hanging was reserved for the poor as it was thought to be ignominious. Moreover, the use of a sword was believed to render decapitation quick and painless, as would an axe, but only if the latter was handled by a master executioner. Conversely, Early Modern hanging did not involve breaking of the neck; rather, a short rope was used to ensure slow strangulation. Punishment for the ultimate offense, high treason, disregarded social class inasmuch the convicted was to be hanged, eviscerated, delimbed, and decapitated (Moore, 2017). However, the French Revolution’s radical elimination of all social class and associated privilege put forth that all citizen-enemies of the State would share the same equal fate: the quickest decapitation made possible with use of the guillotine, considered then the most humane execution method. Absent in today’s filmed decapitations is the idea of the humane. Axes, knives, and machetes are more-often-than-not the weapons used.
David Grossman’s On killing: The psychological cost of killing in war and society (2009) tells us the act of cutting another person is among the most physically intimate of violent actions because, unlike shooting, there is little spatial distance between the actor and the acted upon; only eye gouging is said to be more intimate. Thus, while fear was certainly a part of the French Revolution—in 1793, the public began to refer to it as la Terreur, after all—there was little physical intimacy between executioner and the executed. An executioner pulled a lever, which caused the guillotine’s blade to fall. The executioner did not take an edged weapon to his prisoner’s neck personally. In fact, executioners and their assistants could be imprisoned if they were suspected of breaking etiquette by mishandling a corpse (Mignet, 1824). Robespierre, then, imposed revolutionary fervor among France’s citizens through a bloody, but dispassionate public performance. He attempted to justify the new State terror, saying:
If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror
is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe, and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the homeland. (Robespierre, 1794, as cited in Linton, 2006, p.26)
We see the French public were made to witness executions meant to enforce a rigid social order and a social order without class distinction in the same generation. A seemingly idiosyncratic historical nuance, what unifies these public performances of violence, passionate or dispassionate, is the use of terror to promote pragmatic goals.
Despite normative social values in the United States that frown upon the showing of actual death publicly, today’s Americans may be more comfortable with viewing the growing number of filmed decapitations online because they can watch them from a safe intellectual, if not emotional, distance. For one, Americans choose for themselves to watch these videos; the State does not command the public to view executions as it did in the Early Modern Western world. Next, citizens of the United States are not watching Americans being executed by the American government; they are not subjecting themselves to witnessing the abuses of a Terror-based regime governing their homeland. Rather, Americans may take the violence they are viewing as not belonging to their own people because the videos are produced primarily in Brazil, Iraq, Mexico, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The sense of the video participants’ ethnic otherness is emphasized first as the English language is not used very often, except in video titles, which erases almost all performance contexts other than one foreigner is being killed by other foreigners. Ethnic otherness is emphasized also by the Pre-Modern killing methods one may observe. Nigerian execution videos, for example, record the burning of people alive, stonings, and decapitations. An idea of Western exceptionalism may spring then from the consumption of these videos, the American audience believing themselves perhaps more civilized or falling otherwise into a race-centered confirmation bias. Further still, the American public, like other people, may have a human interest in death that borders on the morbid (Zuckerman & Litle, 1986), and execution videos could have replaced the lethal accident and morgue photographs found commonly online during the Internet’s early years. People, in other words, may turn to viewing the grotesque to understand the arbitrary workings of a cruel world.
Execution videos are, however, produced with performance contexts in mind, whether the American viewership picks up on them, or not. Online, these short films present two rhetorical contexts: one explicit, for the local audiences the videos are meant for, and the other implicit, for world audiences who happen upon them. Implicitly, the videos suggest a general introduction with the aim to shock, as in, ‘We are the Zetas, and we do not have a problem killing these four women.’ Explicitly, the videos send a specific message to a targeted enemy, as in, ‘Your aunties are about to suffer because you have worked against the Zetas.’ Here, exploring a further Mexican context is most conducive for analysis.
Almost half of Mexico exists as a narco-state (Grillo, 2011). Various drug cartels vie for control of lucrative plazas, or distribution points along the Mexico-United States border, as well as growing and production areas farther south. The United States’ government believes the drug cartels make between $19-to-$26 billion from narcotic sales in the United States (Morton & Williams, 2010), though former Mexican Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna places that number closer to $64 billion (Latin American herald tribune, 2017). Gaining access to these monies provokes, finances, and perpetuates a bipartite war that places the Mexican State against the cartels and the cartels against each other. Almost one-third of cartel income is said to have gone toward the purchase of arms and body armor (Grillo, 2011), and there are more than 6,600 gun shops along the American side of the 1,954-mile border. There is only one gun shop in all of Mexico (McKinley, 2009). Since 2006, the warring has led to the deaths of almost 200,000 people and an overall sense of lawlessness (Breslaw, 2015; Fisher & Taub, 2017; Tucker, 2018). Cartel-directed assassinations of mid-to-low-level political candidates and municipal workers, for instance, took the lives of more than 90 people in recent months (Valencia, 2018), and over 80 journalists have been murdered or disappeared for reporting cartel activities from 2006 on (Dearman, 2016; Kahn, 2017). Journalists have been intimidated to the point where a news blackout of organized crime activities in cartel-controlled areas exists (Emmott, 2010; Priest, 2015), and infamously, a front-page editorial in newspaper El diario de Juárez (2010)asked the cartels what is permissible to publish, stating, “Tell us therefore what is expected of us” (As cited in Carroll, 2010, para. 4). Citizen-journalists, who attempted to carry on the work of news media on Twitter and Facebook accounts, such as Valor por Tamaulipas and Responsabilidad por Tamaulipas ended their nascent work largely, too, after the 2014 murder of Responsabilidad por Tamaulipas site administrator Maŕia del Rosario Fuentes Rubio and they and their families received death threats, some on printed flyers; only blog Borderland beat retains a strong online presence, likely because of the extreme Web security measures undertaken by its citizen staff. Moreover, in regions controlled by the cartels, just 20-percent of murder cases end in arrest, (Linthicum, 2017), and only 1-3-percent of murder cases end in conviction (Grillo, 2011; Alcántara 2008). It is well known Mexican police serving in proximity to the cartels are given often the impossible choice of working for the cartels or being made to see their families murdered; consequently, while some police officers have quit out of protest or have fled their posts from fear (Associated Press, 2008; Quinones, Rudman, & Patrick, 2011), many are now on the cartels’ payrolls and are, thus, new targets for rival cartels, themselves. To combat the effects of police officer defection, the Mexican military has assumed a far-ranging posse comitatus role, and the private personal security industry is flourishing. Since 2006, 494 Mexican soldiers have been killed while fighting the cartels (Gagne, 2017). Additionally, in Southern Mexico, villagers formed armed militias, known as autodefensas, to drive cartels away, but the Mexican government disbanded most of them because private gun ownership is all but forbidden in Mexico. Autodefensas have not appeared in Northern Mexico as much as cartel hegemony there is more complete.
Looking at the Mexican context, we see the cartels have almost complete control over the presentation of their images. Mexican traditional and nontraditional news media, for the most part, and in an act of autocensura, or self-censorship, repudiate the cartels no longer, and most of the images of organized crime the public receives are now cartel-produced propaganda; the Zetas cartel, for example, is said to have a media director (Priest, 2015). This propaganda takes many forms: group photos of men holding rifles, wearing black face masks with or without the white image of a skeletal jaw, and dressed in usually dark military uniforms and combat helmets, though camouflage uniforms are seen, too; filmed ‘news conferences’ held by men dressed similarly as those in the aforementioned group photos; filmed convoys of late-model pickup trucks carrying armed men; films of gun battles and kidnappings; commissioned narcocorridos, or folks songs of praise; news releases of parties for children and gifts for neighborhood residents; public advertisements for career opportunities within the cartels; the hanging of victims from highway overpasses; the parking of vehicles filled with dismembered corpses in public areas, such as in front of townhalls, police stations, at road intersections, and on freeways; human heads left in the same places mentioned above, but thrown also into dance clubs; and the execution videos we have discussed thus far. Most all victims’ corpses are accompanied by a narcomensaje or narcomanta, narco-messages, written on a placard or a bedsheet, respectively. These messages, which tend to use poor grammar, carry out two tasks: first, to rationalize the action taken, and second, to warn opponents and rivals away from causing future trouble. A unifying feature of these messages is each will bear the name of the cartel responsible for the murder and will likely provide the nickname of the leader who ordered it, as well. Mexican execution videos share this naming tendency, but with some unintentional irony. Masked men will declare their cartel association and leader often. One may surmise the self-identification
results from little material fear of criminal prosecution (Linthicum, 2017; Alcántara 2008), but then again, the point of public execution is to be seen (Foucault, 1977). However, the cartels’ presentation of corpses is almost always symbolic. Consider Primera hora editor-in-chief Marisol Maćias Castañeda’s severed head was placed on her computer’s keyboard in a popular park with the accompanying message signed by the Zetas Cartel (2011):
O.K. Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and social networking sites, I’m the Laredo girl, and I’m here because of my reports, and yours…For those who don’t want to believe, this happened to me because of my actions, for believing in the ARMY and the NAVY. Thank you for your attention, respectfully, Laredo “Girl”…ZZZZ (As cited in
Borderland beat, September 24, 2011, para. 8)
Thus, while Maćias’ death was literal, the deliberate placement of her head on her computer’s keyboard symbolized the ongoing criminal threat to professional and citizen-journalists. Six-weeks later, the decapitated remains of a person, said by the Zetas to be a blogger affiliated with Maćias, were placed in the same location as Maćias’ corpse; his narcomensaje said, in part, “Hello! I’m Rascatripas and this happened to me for failing to understand that I should not report things on social media websites” (Zetas, 2011, as cited in Borderland beat, November 9, 2011, para. 6). Nevertheless, corpses have become abstractions. It is assumed no longer that the dead the public happens upon on the streets or sees in execution videos are always rival cartel members or citizens, who will not bend to organized crime will. As the level of violence in Mexico increases, greater demonstrations of vulgar power are required to sustain all-important shock value, and one finds “innocents used as props [….] chosen randomly to create a macabre display” (Martinez, 2012, paras. 1; 12). The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), Cártel del Golfo (CDG), Cártel de Sinaloa, Zetas Cartel, and Millenio Cartel are known to kidnap random passersby for use in proportional revenge killings. Put simply, if one cartel was to kidnap and murder 35 civilians to cite them falsely as being the newly dead belonging to an opposing cartel, the named opposing cartel would do the same with a similar number of civilians to
preserve its honor (Martinez, 2012).
How the cartels dress for the camera is symbolic, also. Yes, while it is not uncommon to
find members dressed for the ranch in jeans, long-sleeve button-down shirts or plain tee shirts, and boots, official presentations are decidedly rhetorical performances. In official organized crime media, it is easy to confuse cartel members with the Mexican federal police and military. The latter wear ski masks as a means of identity protection; the cartels wear ski and motorcycle face masks. Black body armor is worn by all groups, and what separates one uniform from another are insignia, such as embroidered patches. The helmets and black caps worn are the same, too, as are the high-caliber weapons carried. Even the poses taken in photographs are similar: members of the Mexican federal police and military will stand behind captured weapons, drugs, and suspects; members of the cartels will stand behind the people they have kidnapped. One difference in the posing is the cartels will almost always have their prisoners kneeling and often in various stages of undress. Another difference is cartels will tend to pose a second time after their prisoners have been murdered, holding severed heads, limbs, or organs, which reminds one of Pre-Modern woodcuts of public executions. Though the Mexican federal police and military are known to limit themselves to taking routine crime scene photographs after shootouts with the cartels, one instance of posing a body for mass publication, the laid-out corpse of drug lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva that the authorities had disrobed partially and littered with cash, backfired terrifically. The night after the funeral of a commando killed during the siege of Beltrán Leyva’s condominium, the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) had the commando’s mother, sister, brother, and aunt shot-to-death in their sleep (Wilkinson, 2009). Yet, confusing the cartel members with the Mexican federal police and military results not only from similar appearance, but also from similar intent.
It has been established that organized crime directs the greater part of local police forces in regions under its control. The corruption associated with municipal law enforcement, as a representative of the State, has inured the Mexican public to distrust of the State, especially as reporting a cartel-related crime at the local precinct office can lead to the citizen being delivered by police officers to the cartel he or she sought to accuse. In what appears to be the Mexican federal government’s attempt at restoring hegemony, municipal law enforcement in major cities, such as Nuevo Laredo and Veracruz has been replaced largely by the military. However, the United States’ government believes the only section of the Mexican military to be uncorrupted is the naval special forces (Wikileaks, 2009; Grillo, 2011). It is thought further that the Mexican Army has battled the cartels only selectively; that before Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzmán Loera’s second-of-two federal guard-assisted escapes from prison, the Mexican government fought Sinaloa’s enemies while, to maintain the appearance of objectivity, Guzmán Loera would arrange for the State the occasional capture of Sinaloa associates, who had fallen out of his favor (Roston, 2012; Payan, Kruszewski, & Staudt 2013). Appearances matter. While it had efficient paramilitary hit squads like any other cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel was believed to possess a different ethos than its rivals, preferring first to bribe its way into control. If the Mexican government could not eradicate the cartels, it preferred to support the branch of organized crime that did not depend wholly on publicized terror to impose its will, like the Zetas. Supporting Sinaloa clandestinely would hurry-up Guzmán Loera’s bids for the key plazas of Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Tijuana, it was supposed, and Mexico’s veneer of a stable and proud land friendly to tourists would return. Guzmán Loera’s incursions, however, failed in the main. Despite the collaboration of Ciudad Juárez’s authorities and the Mexican Army (Burnett & Peñalosa, & Benincasa 2010), the Juárez Cartel fought Sinaloa more-or-less to a draw, and Ciudad Juárez became more dangerous than Baghdad, Iraq (El universal, 2010). In Mexico’s northeast, the Zetas shattered Sinaloa’s invasion, and the region became known for its execution and narco combat-related videos. Guzmán Loera, though, found success in Tijuana against the Arellano-Félix Organization, known also as the Tijuana Cartel. It bears noting La Línea, the armed wing of the Juárez Cartel, consists of former and current police officers (Langton, 2011), and the Zetas Cartel was formed from members of the Mexican Army’s United States-trained elite Special-Forces Airmobile Group (GAFE), who deserted at the behest of the Cártel del Golfo (Grayson & Logan, 2012). Therefore, the cartels use elements of the Mexican government to fight the Mexican government and each other. This impossible situation is exacerbated by the Mexican government’s preference for targeting high-level cartel leaders. While this strategy guarantees good publicity for the State in the form of spectacular arrests, it has had the sum effect of creating multiple power vacuums and increased violence associated with factional fighting and the renewed testing of territorial borders by rival cartels (Wikileaks, 2009). Organized crime has splintered, the Mexican government faces now almost four-times the number of criminal organizations, and 2017 has been recorded as the country’s deadliest year (BBC Monitoring, 2018).
The Mexican Drug War that began in 2006 shows no sign of ending soon. No one cartel is strong enough to dominate the others completely. The Mexican government has yet to commit itself to total war against the cartels. There is too much money to be made, and the lure of gaining even the smallest part of the billions of American dollars fought for will continue to draw Mexico’s poor into a life within organized crime; one remembers the price of a contract killing in Ciudad Juárez is about $75 (Grillo, 2011), when a week of the best legitimate factory work pays more-or-less the same amount (Blake, 2010). The general American belief that marijuana legalization in the United States will cause the cartels to wither and die is outdated at best and naïve at worst. Marijuana sales account for only a fraction of cartel profits now as Mexican organized crime has diversified into car theft, cocaine sales, counterfeit CD and DVD sales, extortion, gasoline theft/pipeline tapping, heroin sales, human organ harvesting, human trafficking, kidnapping, methamphetamine sales, minerals racketeering, produce racketeering (chiefly within the avocado and lime markets), sex trafficking, and territory/franchise leasing (Fry, 2014; Kahn, 2018). This anti-Prohibition argument depends too much on the limited, historical American context, that the 1933 removal of alcohol’s illegality removed the gangster selling it. More importantly, though, the argument ignores the idea that American drug users, especially hard drug users, tend to care much more about the quality of narcotics than where the narcotics come from. For example, “[…] some people who are so careful about making sure they buy fair-trade coffee and farm-to-table beef think nothing of buying marijuana which in all likelihood was raised by murderers, sadists, sociopaths, and harvested by slave labor” (Gross, 2015, para. 89). And “[the United States is] the largest drug market in the world. We’re 5 percent of the world’s population. We consume 25 percent of the world’s illegal drugs (Winslow, 2015, as cited in Gross, 2015, para. 67) [….] [W]e ought to know the provenance of the drugs we’re taking” (para. 92). The popularity of Mexican narcotics in American society may be another reason, beyond the cartel-inspired news blackout, why the public hears frequently about other crises, such as Syria’s Civil War or the missing girls of Nigeria. News media tend to give their consumers what is sensational, but ultimately palatable. The American public can, for instance, learn about the 2014 Chibok Schoolgirls’ Kidnapping, where terrorist group Boko Haram abducted 276 young women, without feeling any complicity, but to hear of the 300 dead of the 2011 Allende Massacre, which occurred 39.7-miles south of Eagle Pass, Texas, that is to know “there’s a high probability that other people paid in pain and suffering for that party you’re having” (para. 92). Nevertheless, the United States government continues to give Mexico $280-million annually for anti-cartel actions, legal reorganization, and military assistance (Slack, 2017). If there has been any winner in the Mexican Drug War thus far, it is the idea of power,
It is interesting how popular American entertainment presents Mexican organized crime often as homogenous, devoid of meaningful group or regional nuances, referring to it merely as ‘the Cartel.’ Or films that give us the common storyline of a ragtag group of plucky agents on the outs with their DEA superiors, who will nonetheless ‘take the Cartel down.’ Most of the time Hollywood seems to depend on the unified, but long-defunct Guadalajara Cartel or the faded Arellano-Félix Organization as its boilerplate templates. Films, such as Traffic (2000), Savages (2012), and Sicario (2015) and television programs, such as Kingpin (2003), Breaking bad (2008-2013) and The bridge (2013-2014) purport to give their American audiences an inside look into the Drug War, but their presentation is at most glancing. Traffic, for instance,outlines nascent cartel rivalry, yet its scope is limited to just two groups associated with only two plazas, Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez; even before 2006 the situation in Mexico was not that tidy. Savages and Breaking bad present decapitation, but hardly at the rate that this type of violence was occurring at the time of their filming, and decapitation becomes, thus, only a sensationalistic plot device. Also, if it is the Juárez Cartel that Walter White opposed, one wonders why the group was so relaxed in the program; the Juárez Cartel was fighting the Cártel de Sinaloa for its existence. The information Sicario provided was simply outdated, and The bridge bordered on the unintentionally absurd with its protagonist, a female agent with Asperger syndrome, able to navigate Ciudad Juárez in the throes of war with ease. The producers of Kingpin, like many Americans, confused the Mexican cartels for the American Mafia, drawing notably from The godfather (1972) and The Sopranos (1999-2007). While the Mafia is no stranger to violence historically, the most egregious violence is usually hidden from the public intentionally. In the main, the Mafia sees publicized violence now as bad for business. The cartels, on the other hand, see publicized violence as good for business, if this violence does not move into the United States. It is still not considered efficacious to draw that level of direct attention from the American authorities in.
Hollywood has ignored the fact that Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzmán Loera had long-cultivated a Robin Hood ethos for his cartel, though this ethos suffered in the east of Mexico when it was discovered Guzmán had the bodies of kidnapped Nuevo Laredo civilians presented as members of the Zetas. Guzmán’s action was a calculated strategic deviation, however, because “‘the Sinaloans are more negotiators’ who rely on bribery and coercion to maintain influence” (Benitez, 2016, as cited in Kryt, 2016, para. 25). The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), known alternately as the Mata Zetas (Zeta Killers), and formerly an armed wing of the Cártel de Sinaloa, pursues a social justice ethos. CJNG (2011) told the world on a narcomanta placed at the site of the September 20, 2011 Veracruz Massacre:
No more , no more killings of innocent people! in the state of and politicians helping them: This is going to happen to you, or we can shoot you as we did to you guys before too. People of Veracruz, do not allow yourselves to be extorted; do not pay for ; if you do is because you want to. This is the only thing these people can do. This is going to happen to all the [expletive] who continue to operate in Veracruz. This territory has a new proprietor. (As cited in Blog del narco, 2011, para.6)
And in a communique filmed as a news conference four days later, CJNG (2011) refined the message of the earlier narcomanta, saying:
Good afternoon, on this Saturday, 24th of September at 4:00pm we deliver the following communique:
To the federal, state and municipal authorities and society in general. As it is apparent to all of you the plight of insecurity that the country is experiencing is reflected within the nation’s politics, economics, society and military.
In accordance with the above; we, the most vulnerable because of the circumstances of our way of life, want you to understand what is our role in this problem.
As an ethical principle we do not extort, kidnap, rob or oppress or in any other way disturb the national, familial, mental or moral well-being.
Motivated by our personal experiences, we the members of this force that is the paramilitary arm of the people and for the people state that our only objective is the Zetas cartel, with all due respect to the armed forces that we understand cannot act outside the law, which we encourage.
We condemn the evil public servants whose support allows this scourge to continue against society, particularly in the communities of the port of Veracruz, Boca del Rio, Cardel, Xalapa, Poza Rica, Tuxpan, Panuco, Cordova, Orizaba, Perote, San Andres Tuxtla, Martinez de la Torre, Minatitlan, Acayucan, Alvarado, Coatzacoalcos and other municipalities in the state of Veracruz.
We do not avoid our responsibilities, but only fighting under equal terms will we succeed in eradicating the Zeta cartel from the roots up. To accomplish this we ask that that the functionaries and authorities who support the Zetas stop doing so.
That the armed forces be confident that our only objective is to finish off the Zetas and that all of society be confident that we, the Mata Zetas, do not extort, do not kidnap, or in any way damage your personal or the national well-being.
We respect the federal, state and municipal executive powers in their fight against organized crime, and we understand their position of not negotiating which obligates us to act covertly but always to the benefit of the Mexican nation.
We are anonymous warriors, faceless, but proudly Mexican.
We must not fall into the trap of external enemies that wield maliciousness, discredit and wickedness for truly predatory ends.
Shielded by the respect for God and democracy, we reiterate to the federal and local authorities that our fight is against Los Zetas. And if our actions have offended society, the Mexican nation and the federal authorities, we, as representatives of the force that we are part of, ask your forgiveness.
Our intention was to show the people of Veracruz that this scourge against society is not invincible, and that you stop letting yourselves be extorted.
To each his battles and his fears, to us a single heart.
Thank You. (As cited in Borderland beat, 2011, paras. 8-22)
Despite the CJNG having positioned itself as the grim defender of the Mexican people’s dignity, within days the Mexican government admitted the CJNG were, at that time, operatives for the Zetas’ rival, the Cártel de Sinaloa, and that the 35 Veracruz Massacre victims had no ties to organized crime; rather, “most of the victims [were] males between the ages 15 and 30, but there were women too, and two girls ages 15 and 16, as well as a popular transvestite well-known in celebrity circles” (Los Angeles times, 2011, para. 9). Today, the CJNG is a chief rival of the Cártel de Sinaloa, and it battles the Mexican federal police and military, too, having shot down a military helicopter (Tuckman, 2015). The CJNG “is known for its hyper-aggressive, paramilitary tactics,” and extortion, kidnapping, and far-reaching drug trafficking, but that is to say its work resembles that of the older Zetas Cartel (Kryt, 2016, para.1). The Zetas’ ethos is centered almost squarely on unapologetic terror. If the Cártel de Sinaloa’s principle was ‘plata o plomo’(‘silver or lead,’ as in, you may have wealth or a bullet), the Zetas’ credo is ‘plomo.’ The Zetas “‘are seen as the natural enemies of the population’” (Chabat, 2013, as cited in Wills, 2013, para. 9) [….] “‘Los Zetas are not known as a cartel looking for a social base’” (para. 6). Even so, the Zetas are not without nuance. They hold parties for children. Notice the ease with which they hold their ethos on a narcomanta following 2013 Día del Niño celebrations:
Thank you to all of the children of Victoria and of the neighboring towns for having attended the events held in the different municipalities on the occasion of Children’s Day.
May God bless you all and guide you on the good path to righteousness that you must follow to be men and women of good.
P.S. To everyone that talks about us, that says that we are killers or kidnappers, I just ask you to stop and think before you speak out. We are who we are, but how many of you politicians, businessmen, and rich men looked into your hearts to make these kids happy.
Before speaking think of what I say and then criticize.
God bless our little ones.
Attn. Los Z (As cited in Proceso, 2013, para. 1).
The declaration, “We are who we are,” resonates. Likely, more than a few of these celebrated children had lost relatives at the hands of the Zetas, yet the Zetas make no effort to distance themselves from their horrid reputation. However, when the Zetas poke the social elite, asking what they have done to help the region’s poor children, the Zetas attempt to gain something of a moral high ground. The lasting importance of this public relations’ maneuver remains unclear. Wills (2013) suggests the Día del Niño celebrations may be part of a nascent and overdue campaign to secure local goodwill, but since the Zetas have chosen not to follow through with other altruistic schemes, choosing instead to do little more than continue to sow terror, it appears such strategies remain of little rhetorical interest to them. The single-minded attention the Zetas have given to securing and holding lucrative drug plazas has been matched by the constancy of their enemies. Throughout its history, the Zetas have warred with most all other cartels, though as part of Mexican organized crime, their alliances have shifted whenever an advantage was thought to be gained. This group, with its history in the Mexican Special Forces, prefers sustained combat over reactive fighting, the latter a characteristic of the Sinaloans (Archibold & Cave, 2012). The Zetas are thought commonly to fear only the Marinas, Mexico’s marines, who have yet to collude with organized crime, but may have committed mass extrajudicial killings of suspects (Sherman, 2018; Diaz, 2018). All the Zetas’ founding members are dead or incarcerated, and like the other cartels now, are subject to factionalism. The Cártel del Golfo (CDG), Mexico’s oldest cartel, formed the Zetas as an armed wing to resist the Cártel de Sinaloa’s (CDS) incursion; however, after the Zetas broke away, CDG realigned with CDS to fight the Zetas together. Regarding nuance, CDG has blended the propagandistic charity associated with the aforementioned Robin Hood ethos and the Zeta’s hyper-violence. CDG has failed to capitalize on this interesting synthesis, nevertheless, as it has become wracked by its in-fighting. The Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) had an interesting nuance, too. Related to the CDS, the BLO shared a Western Mexican character, but under the sanguinary leadership of Arturo Beltrán Leyva and outsider South Texan Édgar Valdez Villareal, the organization was as violent as the Zetas. The BLO fought at first for the CDS against the Zetas until the Beltrán Leyva family thought itself betrayed to the Mexican government by Guzmán Loera of CDS, when it then aligned with the Zetas. Following Valdez Villareal’s later betrayal of the Beltrán Leyva family to the FBI, the BLO splintered into a hydra of 28 factions (Slater, 2015; Grigoriadis & Cuddehe, 2011; Malkin, 2009). And in two of Mexican organized crime’s most idiosyncratic turns, members of the quasi-religious, divine justice-based La Familia Michoacana followed a leader said to have written a ‘bible’ centered on self-actualization and mindfulness, while its successor, Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights Templar) advertised its followers’ strict adherence to a chivalric code. La Familia Michoacana began as something of a peasant uprising, an insurgency of vigilantes meant to combat corrupt public officials and the growing number of cocaine traffickers in its state; however, following La Familia Michoacana’s corruption, it became the largest exporter of methamphetamine to The United States. Los Caballeros Templarios were defeated by new local vigilante groups known as autodefensas, but a number of these vigilantes have gone on to form a new cartel called Los Viagaras, which fights The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) now.
On the other hand, the recent violent behaviors expressed by Mexico’s drug cartels are not wholly unique to those organizations. Decapitation was not a tool used by the cartels until the 21st Century; a bullet to the head was historically considered enough of a final message. And prior to this century, a cartel’s rival tended to find his end in a hidden shallow grave, and not in the cynical immortality granted by being featured in an execution video. The first instance of decapitation is said to have occurred in 2006, when the Zetas placed the heads of two police officers in Acapulco in response to a shootout with the authorities, and the use of decapitation escalated that year when members of La Familia Michoacana (LFM) lobbed the heads of five Zetas in an Uruapan nightclub in response to the Zetas’ killing of a pregnant female LFM associate, possibly a halcón, or lookout (Rodriguez, 2011; Tobar, 2006). The first filming and dissemination of an execution video is considered to be a videotape of Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) captain Édgar Valdez Villareal’s 2005 interrogation and shooting of four Zetas sent to assassinate him; Valdez Villareal had this tape mailed to The Dallas morning news (Borderland beat, 2010; Fly-Wheel, 2016). One will note the four Zetas are shot in the side of their heads, the manner of execution of rivals favored by Mexican organized crime in the per-decapitation era. It is important to remember here that the original members of the Zetas had served in the Mexican Army’s elite special forces, and that the group was formed by the Cártel del Golfo (CDG) with the express purpose for war. Still, and in regard to decapitation, though “it’s the Zetanization of the country because the Zetas were the first to introduce these ghastly practices into Mexico,” it may not be they who came up with the idea (Grayson, 2011, as cited in Rodriguez, 2011, para. 12). As the Zeta Cartel absorbed the country of Guatemala into its sphere of influence, the organization encouraged members of the Kaibiles, Guatemala’s elite special forces, to desert their military service as the Zetas’ founding members had done and join the cartel. The Kaibiles, “who are known for their brutal, scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign in Guatemala in the 1980s and ’90s” were chosen “to train [the Zetas] newly recruited foot soldiers” (Tobar, 2006, para. 12; Rodriguez, 2011, para. 17). The Kaibiles’ training is notoriously difficult, and it is thought of as an honor when soldiers of other countries (e.g. The United States, Spain, Mexico, and China) are invited to train with them in Guatemala (Bailey, 2012). However, the recruits’ self-harm and their bloodletting of animals associated with this training, in a word, “the substantiation of the degrading contents of the training” may lead to psychosis, “confirming one point of their decalogue: ‘The Kaibil is a killing machine’” (Comisión para el Esclaracimiento Histórico, 1999, §42). As of 2006, upwards of 40 Kaibiles were recruited by the Zetas (Stratfor, 2006). This number is not insignificant because these Guatemalan special forces graduate only about 20 of 168 recruits per year (Shadowspear, 2006). Other cartels have recruited Kaibiles, too, and “decapitations have become almost weekly occurrences and a prime terror tactic” (Rodriguez, 2011, para. 19). Another influence may be the militarized Colombian drug cartels, with whom Mexican organized crime has had a relationship with for many decades (Fly-Wheel, 2016).
Facebook launched in 2004, the same year that Cártel de Sinaloa (CDS) boss Joaquin Guzmán Loera convened a meeting with CDS leadership to plan the invasion of Ciudad Juárez and territories east (Beith, 2011), and 23-months before Mexican President Calderón sent 12,500 troops to battle the La Familia Michoacana Cartel in the country’s southwest. Twitter began in 2006. Social medias’ rise coincided with the current Mexican Drug War’s first escalation. These rapidly-expanding internet platforms brought forth an exponentially greater access to mass media, but also a significant renewed attention given to social psychology. For one, any criminal group could now post its propaganda to millions of people anonymously. Most social media have yet to verify user identity at the time of membership registration. Next, technological advancements in social media allowed for the uploading and presentation of pictures and videos on mobile devices with comparative ease. Gone were the days of vanilla Listserv and low-populated chatrooms on the slow home computers of the decade prior. Most important, though, social media diminished the traditional objective press’ hold on information dispersal, given most anyone with an account could now post almost anything he or she wished, regardless of agenda. This is not to suggest Facebook and Twitter democratized information production completely, however. Or that they ushered in a new era of critical thought. On the contrary, Snyder (2018) holds social media have from the start appealed to the public’s baser urges, and will, therefore, stunt thoughtful analyses on these platforms. He argues “[…] the way much of the internet works is de-enlightening because it fastens onto the parts of our mind that emote before we have a chance to actually think about things, and it breaks-up our attention to the smallest possible units that are suitable for advertising […]” (Snyder, 2018, as cited in Siegel, 2018, min. 42:13). In other words, social media commend the public to feel before they think: In Facebook’s case, to rely more-and-more on the symbols of emotion, known as emoji, or emoticons, and in Twitter’s case, to limit one’s vocabulary to 280-characters. And, given that fascism thrives on subjective emotion delivered in short, repeated messages, Snyder (2018) suggests further that social media were made to promote fascism. This point is salient as each of the drug cartels put forth us-versus-them messages, push unity of thought, and through their presentations of terror, appeal to the public’s gut emotions. In 2013, Facebook defended a user’s posting on its general newsfeed of a then-viral execution video showing a Zeta beheading a woman said to belong to the Cártel del Golfo, Facebook executives arguing its community has a right to learn of the world’s horrors if these horrors are presented without salacious intent (Grant, 2013; McCartney, 2013). After some back-and-forth, however, Facebook bent to community pressure, which in the main held the posting ran counter to the platform’s fun ethos, and it removed the video. Facebook’s community standards regarding the subject remain unclear. Execution videos and crime scene photographs are not uncommon on pages dedicated to the Mexican Drug War and narcoterrorism, and these images seem to be removed only if a page member files an online report, which is rare considering most people subscribe to pages knowing their content beforehand. In 2018, for example, the execution video thought to be the most atrocious yet, a film where members of the Viagaras Cartel decapitate a father and then remove the heart from his living ten-year-old son, was up for weeks (Martinez, 2018). Facebook has yet to address violent images on the platform with the same vigor it applied in 2013, despite the second flood of distressing videos and photographs from other wars in Syria, Nigeria, and Iraq. Rather, the social media platform has debated whether the addition of a ‘dislike’ button on its newsfeed would be considered too harsh by its community.
Our interest in Mexican organized crime’s execution videos stemmed initially from the uniformity of their presentation. These short films consist of the same four distinct parts, which are presented always in the same order: Interrogation, Presentation of the Weapon, Killing, and Presentation of the Killed. We became interested most in the first part, Interrogation, after we noted wholly unexpected, but again similar, improvisations were taking place there. Prisoners are directed to state their names and the names of any pertinent relatives, cartel affiliations and their roles therein, and whether they regret working against their captors or knowing someone in a rival cartel. Never do the prisoners appear to be reading from cue cards, as they do in execution videos produced in the Middle East. The Interrogation concludes with a warning directed at the cartel the prisoners are said to belong to or be affiliated with. Interrogators appear so familiar with the questions that they take frequent license with their asking. For example, the tone throughout borders often on the jovial, and the interrogators have yet to speak with anger; the concluding warnings are spoken more in a matter-of-fact way than heatedly. Perhaps the interrogator is letting his stark uniform to do the work of intimidation the tone of words could do otherwise. The Spanish used has often a sing-song rhythm, giving an almost call-and-response feel. Most interestingly, the formal usted is used sometimes in speech peppered with expletives, rather than the informal tú. It is unknown whether this addition of formality of speech is an obvious attempt at gallows’ humor or if it is meant to convey a modicum of respect. It is known, however, that the Interrogation is more show trial than elucidation of information; mercy has never been filmed. The following is a transcript of one of the more famous execution videos, in which a member of the Zetas question four kneeling and partially disrobed women (Borderland beat, 2013). Notice how the interrogator asks the women the same questions in quick succession:
“Y tú, cómo te llamas?” And you, what is your name? “[Inaudible] Castillo Lopez”
“A que organizacíon pertenece?” What organization do you belong to?
“Al Golfo.” The Gulf
“Para quien trabajas?” Who do you work for?”
“Para José Guadalupe Aguila Lopez, For José Guadalupe Aguila Lopez, alias the
alias el ‘Ostión.’” ‘Oyster.’
“Qué era tullo?” What is he to you?
“Y tú, cómo te llamas?” And you, what is your name?
“Olivia Lopez Jimenez”
“A qué organizacíon pertenece?” What organization do you belong to?
“Al Golfo.” The Gulf.
“A quien conoce?” Who do you know?
“A mi cuñado.” My brother-in-law.
“Quien es su cuñado? Who is your brother-in-law?
“Como le dicen?” What do they call him?
“Como le dicen!” What do they call him!
“El ‘Ostión.’” The Oyster.
“Y usted, cómo se llama?” And you, what is your name?
“María Rosario Mendez”
“Para quien trabajas, que organizacíon?” Who do you work for? What organization?
“Para al Golfo.” For the Gulf.
“Qué función desempeñaba del Golfo?” What role did you play?
“A quien mas conoce?” Who else do you know?
“Nada mas.” That’s it.
“Y usted, cómo se llama?” And you, what is your name?
“Yesenia Pachecho Rodriquez”
“Como le dicen?” What do they call you?
“Comandante Guera” Commander Blondie
“Para quien trabajaban?” Who do you work for?
“Para el Carpe.” For the Carpe.
“Con quien mas andaba usted?” Who else were you with?
“Con el Comandante Gallo.” With Commander Rooster.
“Comandante Gallo que?” What about Commander Rooster?
“Encargado de Altamira, Aldama.” He’s charge of Altamira and Aldama.
“Quien más andaba con el Comandante Gallo?” Who else was with him?
“El Pájaro.” The Bird.
“Y quien más?” Who else?
“Y ese Pájaro que?” What about that Bird?
“Viene siendo el segundo del Gallo?” He is followed by the Rooster.
“Viene siendo el segundo del Gallo, y el Pelón?” He is followed by the Rooster. What about Baldy?
“Siempre anda en el troca con ellos.” He’s always in the truck with them.
“Cuántos grupos son en total?” How many groups are in total?
“Tres o cuatro.” Three or four.
“Como se llaman!” What are they called!
“Los de Aldama les dicen Bravos, y los de The ones from Aldama are called
Cuauhtémoc les dicen Pumas.” the Bravos, and the ones from Cuauhtémoc
are called the Pumas.
“Puma? Que licenciado los apoya?” What lawyer supports you?
“Licenciado Garza” Lawyer Garza
“Y del ejército?” And what about the Army?
“Dos soldados.” Two soldiers.
“Dos soldados; como se llaman?” Two soldiers; what are their names?
“Uno le dicen cazador, y otro fantasma.” One they call Hunter, and the other Ghost.
“Que grado tienen?” What grade are they?
“No se, andan en las trocas en las pintas.” I’m not sure, they ride in armored trucks.
“En que central es el Tampico?” Where is the Tampico headquarters?
“Dos centrales; una que se llama Ofelia.” Two headquarters; one is called Ofelia.
“Y ahí quien anda?” Who is there?
“Ahí tiran lo que es Altamira, Madena, y It consists of Altamira, Madena, and
“Y la otra central?” And the other headquarters?
“Y ese para donde tira?” And where does that lead to?
“No más lo que es Tampico.” No farther than Tampico.
“Quien más?” Who else?
“No más son ellos; ellos son los que andan Only them; they are the only ones who
de Gonzáles, Zaragoza y de Zaragoza a Mante, are robbing from González to Zaragoza,
y de Mante a Matamoros andan robando.” from there to Manta, and from Mante to
“Miren pinches Golfos: Ustedes se cren bien Look [expletive] Gulfs: You think you’re
verga y mandan a puras Viejas que creemos tough by sending women, who we think
tienen más huevos que ustedes. Por qué no have more [expletive] than you. Why don’t
vienen a romperse la madre con los Zetas? you come as bust yourself with the Zetas?
Si se cren bien verga por que no vienen a If you think you’re tough, come and stand in
pararse aquí en el terreno para romperles su our land so we can beat you [expletive];
madre; esta pinche gente inocente va a morir all these [expletive] innocent people will die
por su culpa, nada más por andarlas treyendo because of your fault, only because they
por andar en pendejos como ustedes.” believe in being around idiots, like you.
This Interrogation lasts 2-minutes and 26-seconds. The most questions are directed at the final, and highest-value prisoner, Yesenia Pachecho Rodriquez, who refers to herself in the video also as “Comandante Guera” of the Cártel del Golfo (CDG), though she was known additionally as ‘Guera Loca,’ or ‘Crazy Blonde,’ regionally (Borderland beat, 2013). Her answers establish the power structure, Mexican Army contacts, legal representation, and territory of her CDG cell. The least time is accorded to the lowest-level prisoner, the CDG halcón, or lookout, María Rosario Mendez. Questions asked of José Guadalupe Aguila Lopez’s niece (Castillo Lopez) and his sister-in-law (Olivia Lopez Jimenez) establish their familial relationships with the Zetas’ enemy. The young interrogator raises his voice twice, but he regains his composure quickly; we consider the interrogator to be a youth because his voice cracks midway. He begins the questioning of each woman with a half-hearted slap to the head, though a subordinate strikes Olivia Lopez Jimenez on the head with a rifle barrel when she is slow to confirm José Guadalupe Aguila Lopez’s nickname, “El Ostión,” or ‘The Oyster.’ The interrogator’s warning to the CDG lasts 36-seconds.
We must make note of the prisoners’ stoicism during the interrogation. Their relative calm is typical of most prisoners in Mexican execution videos; in all but two videos observed, one with a teenaged girl and another with the aforementioned ten-year-old boy, emotion is not explicit in the prisoners’ speech or behavior. A sense of complete detachment or resignation has yet to be observed, however, though earnestness of speech is implied. We cannot say with certainty how the cartels treat their prisoners prior to filming, but the common disarray or removal of dress, disheveled hair, and marks on faces suggest the prisoners are manhandled, and in the case of females, raped, from the time of their abductions. In sum, an execution video’s first part, the Interrogation, with regard to rhetoric, is meant to establish the idea of total control. Through filmed self-control, the cartels hope to engender a sense of legitimacy in their purpose while the demonstration of the prisoners’ passivity may be used to imply the prisoners’ guilt. On the other hand, and thinking more cynically, perhaps most of the people involved are so hardened by the commonness of murder in Mexico today that, for them, what is taking place is rote and hardly a cause for any more theatrics than the exercise demands. For example, in another turn, Comandante Diablo (Hugo Alberto Banderas Padilla) of the Cártel del Golfo (CDG) said of the filmed decapitation of his mother, sister, brother, and sister-in-law by the Zetas, in his response video where he beheads a Zeta halcón, “You already [expletive] my family up, but no problem, we all know what we are into” (Banderas Padilla, 2012, as cited in Martinez, 2012, para. 10). Perhaps anyone abducted by a cartel knows his or her life is over already, and that leads to a certain quietude. We are reminded here of the practice during the French Revolution whereby imprisoned nobility were referred to in the past tense as, for instance, ‘The former Comtesse du Barry.’
An execution video’s second part, Presentation of the Weapon, is the film’s quickest section, but it may also hold the most pathos. It is when prisoners will come out of their reverie, and in many videos, loud gasps of surprise are heard from them; nevertheless, many prisoners will remain silent, and in some cases, unflinching. The latter may be in shock, but it is rumored prisoners are drugged sometimes. Cartel members tend to approach prisoners from the side, but they are known to approach from the front or back, too. At this point, the situation’s truth, if it has evaded the prisoners thus far, becomes apparent. Axes, machetes, and knives are presented most often, and less common are handsaws and firearms, but in one case, a chainsaw was used in 2011 by the Cártel de Sinaloa against one of their own, a so-called torreta, or ‘snitch’ (Borderland beat, 2011). The Presentation of the Weapon phase is ignored when prisoners’ eyes have been duct-taped. We were surprised when, in two videos, members of the Zetas gave such duct-taped prisoners a sort of coup de grace with strikes from 2×4’s about the head, knocking them unconscious before their decapitations. The Presentation of the Weapon has historical precedent. During the Spanish Inquisition (1478 C.E. – 1834 C.E.), prisoners would be shown the implements of torture just before coercion was set to begin to elicit bloodless, last-minute confessions (Moore, 2017). Unlike the Inquisition, however, Mexico’s drug cartels offer no such eleventh-hour clemency; the Catholic Church was invested specifically in bending a prisoner’s will whereas the cartels are invested only in bending their viewership’s will through the presentation of certain violence, so prisoners seem almost interchangeable. The murders occur seconds after the weapons appear. In the 2013 video we are analyzing, it is unclear whether it is Castillo Lopez or Lopez Jimenez who emotes, but her sound is more of a whimper than a gasp. Rosario Mendez and Pachecho Rodriquez remain silent.
The Killing lasts 1-minute, and the subsequent dismemberment another 2-minutes and 72-seconds. Castillo Lopez and Lopez Jimenez, relatives of Cártel del Golfo (CDG) member El Ostión, are killed with a knife and axe, respectively, and CDG halcóna Rosario Mendez and CDG cell leader Pachecho Rodriquez are slain with a machete. The women are decapitated almost simultaneously, but not in the order of their interrogation; rather, first are Castillo Lopez and Lopez Jimenez, and then Pachecho Rodriquez, with Rosario Mendez last. One may wonder if the Zetas’ choice of weapons was a deliberate one; the use of an axe seems to lead to a quicker death than with a knife or machete, and again, it is Lopez Jimenez, who appears to be middle-aged, who is murdered with the axe. More telling is the positioning of the prisoners just prior to their executions. All but Pachecho Rodriquez, who is made to kneel, are placed in a supine, or passive, laying position. Pachecho Rodriquez is then made to expose her neck when a Zeta pulls her head backwards, which suggests the Zetas made her suffer more than the others. Except for Lopez Jimenez, the Zetas slit the throat of each prisoner prior to completing the decapitations. The dismemberment follows the Killing immediately, and Presentation of the Killed begins neatly with the women’s heads being lined up, but ends in a tangle quickly with arms, legs, and torsos thrown carelessly on top of the heads. One overhears the Zetas commenting to one another and to Pachecho Rodriquez’s corpse during the dismembering.
Internet viewer comments on the Killing phase of Mexican execution videos in English and Spanish can be placed in 12-categories. On a serious website, like Borderland beat,and on an ad hoc site, like Blog del narco, one finds ten comment variations: Sympathy for Mexico and the slain; Lack of sympathy for Mexico or the slain, saying the country or prisoners have it coming to them; Suggestions that a rival cartel will bring an end to narcoterrorism; Suggestions that all cartels are the same; Cheerleading for one or another cartel; Expressions of shock, disbelief, or amazement; Calls for foreign military intervention as it is known generally that Mexican federal police and military are in league often with the cartels; Calls for drug legalization in America; Requests for further information; Clarifications; and Thanks given for uploading information that the world would not know otherwise. On shock websites, such as Best gore and Liveleak, one finds another comment variation: The comparing and contrasting of the knifework filmed by Al-Qaeda and The Taliban, the Mexican drug cartels, and ISIS, arguing, in general, the Mexicans are amateurs, having often to resort to using axes when knives or machetes fail them midway during a decapitation. Mexican execution videos posted on citizen-journalist websites, like Borderland beat receive, on average, a few dozen comments, but many more viewers remarked when the videos were new to Cyberspace. Borderland beat protects people commenting from possible Mexican organized crime attention by allowing them to post anonymously. The comments following the video we are discussing provide examples from the first 11 categories (Borderland beat, 2013).
The foot soldiers’ persistent giggling heard during the Presentation of the Killed in this film sets it apart from most other Mexican execution videos. In general, these videos conclude with the interrogator, standing in front of his men who have been called back to attention, giving a stern warning to opponents whilst holding a prisoner’s severed head. The final portion of this video is marked, rather, by disarray. The Zetas here are clearly in a good mood; we do not believe their laughter has the nervous quality that other mass executioners have presented (Clendinnen, 2002). Their masked faces keep us from noting if, in fact, the men are smiling, but how they ridicule Pachecho Rodriquez’s torso suggests a self-congratulatory atmosphere. The language directed at her remains consists of little more than common expletives, but the attention the Zetas give Pachecho Rodriquez confirms she was, in fact, thought of as a high-level target. It is, however, unclear to us exactly which “Comandante Guera” or “Guera Loca” Pachecho Rodriquez was. There may have been two women in the Cártel del Golfo (CDG) with the same monikers, one of whom gained infamy beheading a Zeta, whose face was then skinned by her compatriots, in an earlier execution video (NRMX, 2017; Borderland beat, 2013; Borderland beat, 2011). The offender in the 2011 video, yet to be named publicly, is said to have died in a Zeta ambush, and her former coworkers at a hair salon raped and murdered by the Zetas in further retaliation (NRMX, 2017; Borderland beat, 2011). Adding to our inability to identify her clearly is though she was one of the few narcos not to wear a facemask, the quality of the CDG-produced videos she is featured in are of poor enough quality that a definitive comparison with the Zetas’ 2013 video is almost impossible. Such confusion is not uncommon in the Mexican Drug War. The Cártel del Golfo, for example, had three men called “Comandante Diablo,” and the Zetas had another (Borderland beat, 2014; Borderland beat, 2012). In any event, it is not the interrogator who gives the final warning in this video, but the Zeta foot soldier who killed Castillo Lopez. Holding Pachecho Rodriquez’s severed head up, the Zeta calls the Cártel del Golfo out as “whores.”
Lastly, if Pachecho Rodriquez was as highly-valued a target as the Zetas believed, and advertised with this production, this film would be set apart from other execution videos for another reason: Most execution videos, if the prisoners are, in fact, narcos and not kidnapped civilians, are limited to the killing of members of the lowest rung of cartel hierarchy, the halcones, or look outs, because the nature of their job makes them easy targets. Halcones tend to be people of the street, such as vendors, taxi drivers, street kids, and municipal police officers. They do not patrol towns in well-armed convoys, like their superiors, the sicaros, or a cartel’s gunmen, do.Ancillary members of Mexican organized crime are targeted, also. In two cases, food preparers were murdered (Blog del narco, 2014; Associated Press, 2010). Also more common than the filmed deaths of organized crime’s leaders are videos of the murders of the leaders’ families. Until 2008, when one of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzmán Loera’s sons was shot and killed outside of a shopping mall, and like the American Mafia, Mexican organized crime held more-or-less to a ‘hands off’ rule toward noncombatant relatives. This rule holds no longer. Surveying Borderland beat, the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación’s 2010 kidnapping, rape, murder, and burning of a 10-year-old girl, thought mistakenly to be the daughter of a rival, the Zetas’ 2012 killing of Cártel del Golfo (CDG) operative Banderas Padilla’s family, the CDG’s 2013 butchering of 15-year-old Honduran boy, whose mother was said to work for the Zetas, the 2016 Beltrán Leyva Organization’s 150-man assault on Joaquin Guzmán Loera’s mother’s home (she was left unharmed), and the 2018 Viagaras Cartel’s removal of a policeman’s living 10-year-son’s heart suggest an endemic psychological war on Mexico’s organized crime waged by its various groups. Returning to the subject of halcones for a moment, most execution videos made with the purpose of revenge for slain family members, and the occasional leader, center on the murder of these abducted lookouts. This last point is cogent because in the narco community, such killing is put down as too easy, and taunts on the order of ‘Why don’t you come for those of us who are armed, instead?’ are commonplace.
Today, almost all the major players present at the start of the 2006 Mexican Drug War have either left elected office, been extradited to prison in the United States, been jailed in Mexico, or are dead. Yet, 12-years later, a conceivable end to this war has yet to materialize. Former President Felipe Calderón’s explicit assertion of State power that was meant to rein-in Mexico’s black marketeers, when they moved from the shadows and into spectacular violence, backfired. The narcotics trade coexisted with previous administrations for too long, too many mutually-beneficial relationships were formed between government officials of all levels and the narcos, and the promise of yet more money from the billions of dollars the cartels dedicate to bribery annually ensured Calderón’s war against the cartels would never be a single-minded one (Blackstone, 2012). Also, Calderón’s preferred strategy, eliminating organized crime’s leaders, could have only short-term rhetorical, but not material, results. The well-publicized capturing or killing of mid- and high-level cartel targets put forth definitive evidence that Calderón’s plan was working, and that the State under his leadership was energetic because the public could not fail to see 45,000 troops being deployed throughout Mexico without delay. However, Calderón failed to note Mexican organized crime’s essential elasticity; narcos know their life expectancy is short, so each cartel has replacement leadership at the ready. And when Calderón saw these replacements eliminated, too, the cartels assumed smaller, more nimble structures. The Zetas, for instance, operate now as 3 groups, the Cártel de Sinaloa at least 2, the Cártel del Golfo 18 or more, and Beltrán Leyva Organization, 28. Further, narcotics exports to the United States only increased. Calderón did not enjoy the fruit of his efforts for long. The Mexican public, persuaded initially of the power of the State, began to view the State as capricious. For one, as the war escalated, it became apparent that the federal police and military were not fighting mere gangbangers, but hardened paramilitary groups, and given the heavy-handedness war can bring, the public began to see the State as much of an oppressor as the organized crime groups it was fighting. It did not help Calderón when some of his forces appeared to favor the Cártel de Sinaloa (CDS) during CDS’ incursions into rival territories (Burnett & Peñaloza, 2010). The public was persuaded the State acted subjectively as it seemed to apprehend sicarios from one cartel, but not another, to besiege some territories, but to not establish any presence in others, like Sinaloa. The administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, Calderón’s successor, has faired no better; 2017 is held commonly as the Mexican Drug War’s most violent year, yet. Whereas Calderón favored open war on Mexican organized crime, Peña Nieto, in an appeal to public sentiment, preferred a policy of narco containment with an emphasis on violence reduction. The problem was, the cartels, in their new factionalized forms, became more violent than ever with their almost endless jockeying to fill the several power vacuums left by the Calderón administration. The cartels could not be contained. Peña Nieto also opened a kind of second front, another appeal to the public, in the form of judicial liberalization meant to combat the rise in the federal police and military’s extrajudicial actions. In a word, Peña Nieto attempted reframe the State as interested more in public welfare and less in national prestige; though Mexico may have a parallel narco-state within its borders, the Mexican people ought not to suffer more from organized crime being goaded further. Nevertheless, if Calderón’s administration was marked by frustration, Peña Nieto’s was marked by embarrassment. As his term ended in 2018, Peña Nieto could not argue for the efficacy of his more implicit approach to Mexico’s dilemma. We wonder if Mexico’s next president will go further than Peña Nieto and return the country to its blind eye policy toward the cartels, but then again, that relationship worked most peacefully only when the singular Guadalajara Cartel operated.
Organized crime group leaders fear being extradited to the United States more than the thought of continued armed combat with the Mexican government. Extradition engenders a sense of hopelessness. American law enforcement, apart from corrupted elements within border and customs agencies, has yet to show itself susceptible to cartel bribery. In this regard, differences between American and Mexican prisons are stark. Often the best a cartel leader brought to America can expect is the almost complete social isolation that a supermax prison facility commands. In a Mexican prison, a prisoner’s luxuries tend to be limited to only what he can afford, and facilities holding the higher-level leaders have been known to be converted into something akin to upscale condominiums frequented by visiting prostitutes (Associated Press, 2016; Tharoor, 2016). A Mexican prison is simply a cartel leader’s new base of operations (Lacey, 2009). The threat and escape from imprisonment fit narco-rhetoric neatly. It was, for instance, a supposition that Cártel de Sinaloa (CDS) leader Joaquin Guzmán Loera provided information leading to the arrest of Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) captain Alfredo Beltrán Leyva that persuaded the BLO to join the Zetas’ fight against the CDS, and the further suggestion that Zetas’ leader Miguel Angel Treviño Morales betrayed his lieutenant Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguillar to the authorities that persuaded the Zetas to splinter into competing factions (Kreider & Schone, 2012). Joaquin Guzmán Loera’s 2001 and 2015 escapes from Mexican prisons embarrassed the administrations of those times greatly and solidified his reputation as a wily narco. That Guzmán Loera paid millions of dollars in bribes for his escapes helped to confirm the existence of corruption in Mexico but substantiated rumors of the CDS’s wealth (Allen, 2015).
It is interesting how the expression of social power at its most explicit is linked to the idea of finality. Death is thought to end all arguments. In this way, when considering the common expression of narco violence within the Mexican Drug War, we are reminded of Tacitus’ 98 C.E. critique of applied Roman power: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call it empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace” (§XXX). We are moreover unsurprised Mexican organized crime has taken to the growing cult of Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, or Our Lady of Sacred Death (Chesnut, 2012; Grillo, 2011). She personifies Death, but the figure is seen also as a giver of favors, a protector, healer, as well as a conduit to financial security. The adoration given to Santa Muerte, in a way similar to how Catholics venerate Saint Mary, is confirmation that Mexican organized crime knows it forms a power structure that parallels the Mexican State. And as with any State, it icons and actions will reflect its central ethos. Santa Muerte looks out for the poor, who know they will likely die young. The fact is only those high up in any cartel are the ones who make any real money; biweekly pay and three meals-a-day are presented as perks in organized crime’s recruitment drives. For example, Zetas’ sicaria María de Jesús Jiménez López, who managed 14-drug houses in Juárez and organized 20-murders, was paid the equivalent of $1,500-a-month (Notimex, 2012; Borderland beat, 2012). Narco-terrorism, then, can be read as a physical embodiment of Mexico’s desperation, but to hold only to that interpretation would ignore the material reality that a very small number of very wealthy people desire to capitalize even more from the selling of narcotics to Americans. It is further interesting to us that the Americans’ perceived need for chemical intoxication is so great, that their collective emotional depression is so encompassing when one-hour of their minimum wage pay is the equivalent of what a Mexican taxi driver earns on a very good day. Narco-power is expressed explicitly and implicitly. The most explicit form, the execution videos we have discussed, substantiate the narco-state axiom: We have complete control over you and your families. Implicitly, narco-power is behind Chicago’s gang-related shootings over drug territories, which have exceeded 10,000, and a new trend, the production in Brazil of execution videos by gangs, which imitate those filmed in Mexico, but are generally more violent, less self-controlled, and often without stated context. Nevertheless, the actions taken by Mexican organized crime, when one considers the history of the expression of social power, are more-or-less the same as other authoritarian regimes. The State’s material demands take priority over ethical concerns.
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Jeremy Sideris is a tenured professor of English at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He teaches writing at Buffalo State College, too, as a way of giving back to his alma mater.