Guns, drugs and viral content: Welcome to Cartel TikTok

With Mexico set to again shatter murder records this year, experts on organised crime say Cartel TikTok is a propaganda campaign to attract expendable young recruits.
With Mexico set to again shatter murder records this year, experts on organised crime say Cartel TikTok is a propaganda campaign to attract expendable young recruits.PHOTO: ST FILE

MEXICO CITY (NYTIMES) - Tiger cubs and semi-automatic weapons. Piles of cash and armoured cars. Fields of poppies watered to the sound of ballads glorifying Mexican drug cartel culture.

This is the world of Cartel TikTok, a genre of videos depicting drug trafficking groups and their activities that is racking up hundreds of thousands of views on the popular social media platform.

But behind the narco bling and dancing gang members lies an ominous reality: With Mexico set to again shatter murder records this year, experts on organised crime say Cartel TikTok is just the latest propaganda campaign designed to mask the bloodbath and use the promise of infinite wealth to attract expendable young recruits.

"It's narco-marketing," said anthropologist Alejandra León Olvera at Spain's University of Murcia, who studies the presence of Mexican organised crime groups on social media.

Circulating on Mexican social media for years, cartel content began flooding TikTok feeds in the United States this month after a clip of a high-speed boat chase went viral on the video-sharing platform.

Asked about their policy regarding the videos, a TikTok spokesman said that the company was "committed to working with law enforcement to combat organised criminal activity" and that it removed "content and accounts that promote illegal activity".

Examples of cartel videos that were sent to TikTok for comment were soon removed from the platform.

While cartel content might be new for most teen TikTokers, according to Mr Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, online portrayals of narco culture go back more than a decade, when Mexico began ramping up its bloody war against the cartels.

At first, the videos were crude and violent - images of beheadings and torture that were posted on YouTube, designed to strike fear in rival gangs and show government forces the ruthlessness they were up against.

But as social platforms evolved and cartels became more digitally savvy, the content became more sophisticated.

While some videos are made to strike terror, others are created to show young men in rural Mexico the potential benefits of joining the drug trade: endless cash, expensive cars, beautiful women, exotic pets.

But the ultimate goal is the same: drawing in an army of young men willing to give their lives for a chance at glory.