It seems no one is safe from exposure on the Internet. Not even the most feared and secretive Mexican drug gangs.
Mexico’s federal prosecutor’s office discovered on YouTube recent photos of the alleged leader of the Tijuana Cartel and posted them to its Most Wanted website. The photos went viral Tuesday and have been circulated on the Internet by major newspapers.
The photos verified by the prosecutor’s office are of Fernando Sánchez Arellano, alleged leader of the Arellano Félix Cartel, also known as the Tijuana Cartel. Mr. Sánchez Arellano allegedly took control after most of his uncles were either arrested or killed. (Editor's Note: Two days after this article was published, the photos were revealed to be a hoax. Read the Monitor's follow-up.)
Social networks post risks to drug gangs
A baby-faced Sánchez Arellano is shown posing with a young woman in romantic settings on the beach, in a boat, and on an all-terrain vehicle (see video). The slideshow is a rare peek into the highly guarded private life of alleged drug kingpins, whose most-wanted photos are often taken from mug shots or from a distance.
The more intimate shots of Sánchez Arellano may not have been uploaded with his consent, demonstrating once again the perils to privacy so often associated with social networks and user-generated content, some analysts say.
“What often happens among young people is that they tend to upload photos of their events,” says Jose Ramos, security expert at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. “This situation can happen at a very private party when someone knows [a drug trafficker] or recognizes them. That’s the risk generated by these types of networks.”
Ramos warned, however, that data gleaned from social networks must be diligently verified before authorities can use it, which the prosecutor’s office says it has done.
YouTube: cyber-front in the Mexico drug war
While photos or videos of drug traffickers have been circulated online before, most of them are posted with the intention of sending messages to rival gangs or to the authorities, say security experts. They often demonstrate a show of force through images of heavily armed men or taped executions.
Crime groups have also used YouTube in the past to expose their adversaries, revealing recorded confessions of killings or photos of police suspected of colluding with rival cartels. In November, a drug gang circulated a forced confession on YouTube of rivals admitting to murder, which helped lead police to a mass grave of 18 Mexican tourists outside Acapulco. In 2006, crime groups ran photos and recordings of Tijuana police alleging they assisted in the killing of a federal agent.
It was only a matter of time before the police turned the cartels’ strategy against them, by using YouTube to update a much older wanted poster on file of Sánchez Arellano.
Police arrest Zetas founder Flavio Méndez Santiago
The national daily Reforma newspaper wrote Tuesday that the prosecutor’s office “updated” itself in the search for Sánchez Arellano, an apparent play on words indicating that they updated the photo but also modernized their strategy by using YouTube. The new shots of Sánchez Arellano circulated on YouTube were from 2009.
The government website listing Mexico’s deadliest drug lords offers a 30-million-peso ($2.5 million) reward for information leading to the arrest of Sánchez Arellano, alias “The Engineer.” The son of Enedina Arellano Félix, a sister of the Arellano Félix brothers, Sánchez Arellano is said to head a much weaker cartel since his uncles were either captured or killed over the past two decades.
In related news, federal police presented Tuesday the arrest of one of the leaders and founders of the feared Zetas drug gang. Flavio Méndez Santiago, known as “El Amarillo,” is allegedly responsible for running trafficking routes of Central American migrants passing through southern Mexico on their way to the US border. Authorities told reporters that Mr. Méndez was sent to Guatemala in 2008 to extend Zetas operations in Central America.