The videos on YouTube and Mexican-based sites are polished — professional singers croon about cartel leaders while images of murdered victims fade one into the next. In the comment area, those loyal to the opposing cartels trade insults and threats.
Such videos are used to intimidate enemies and recruit members by touting "virtues" of cartel leaders, says Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence for Stratfor, a Texas-based global-intelligence company.
Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas-El Paso who studies border issues, says the videos also signal how the cartels have evolved from pure moneymaking ventures to sophisticated groups with political agendas.
One YouTube video sympathetic to the Sinaloa Cartel opens with white lettering: "This is what happens to all my enemies." A singer launches into an up-tempo song against a montage of images: slain police officers, bullet-ridden police cruisers, shell casings, crumpled bodies.
Victoria Grand, head of policy for YouTube, says company officials have seen the cartel videos on their website but would not comment on specific videos.
She says YouTube does remove graphic, violent video if other users flag it as offensive and it lacks documentary or educational purposes. "If the video is clearly violent and the purpose is to shock or disgust, we will remove it," she says. YouTube officials have alerted law enforcement agencies to criminal activity posted on the site, she says.
The cartel videos emerged in 2005, soon after videos of foreigners being beheaded in Iraq appeared on insurgent websites, says Kent Paterson, editor of Frontera NorteSur, a New Mexico-based online news service, who follows the videos.
Early efforts showed prisoners bound and blindfolded, surrounded by armed guards. A declaration was read and the prisoner was executed, often by beheading — mirroring the jihadist videos emerging from Iraq, Paterson says.
These were removed from sites such as YouTube. The cartels gradually replaced them with more sophisticated, better-produced efforts, Paterson says.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration monitors the videos for clues about the cartels and potential use as evidence in prosecutions, says Garrison Courtney, a DEA spokesman. "It's really changed … how we target the cartels," he says. The cartels "absolutely" post videos and have an online presence, he says, though some followers or imposters also post on their behalf.
President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have pledged to help stop the violence. Mexico's government says cartel violence killed 6,290 people across Mexico last year and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009.
Mexican officials study the videos and chats for hints about future killings, says Sergio Belmonte Almeida, a spokesman for Ciudad Juarez, on the border at the center of the violence.
In December, a member of the powerful Juarez Cartel entered a Mexican-based chat room and sparred with someone defending a rival cartel, Almeida says.
"Wait for the little gift we're going to leave for you tomorrow morning," the Juarez Cartel chatter warned, Almeida says.
The next day, he says, two decapitated heads were found in a large cooking pot outside Juarez.