In Mexico, State Seeks to Ban Narco-Messages

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The governor of Sinaloa state, west Mexico, is trying to outlaw the posting of “narcomantas,” public banners hung by drug gangs to threaten enemies or improve their image, in an initiative that seems both counterproductive and doomed to fail.

Governor Mario Lopez Valdez has introduced a bill that would make it illegal to hang the banners or to serve as a lookout, also known as a “halcon”, for criminal groups, as Riodoce reported.

Lopez, whose state is among the most violent in Mexico and is home to many of Mexico’s most notorious capos, did not say what the penalties would be for breaking his proposed law.

Mantas have become an increasingly common element in Mexico’s criminal landscape over the past few years, with messages appearing on a regular basis to taunt enemies, call on the government to take action against rivals, improve a group’s image with the public, or a combination of the three.

For instance, a manta posted in 2011 in two cities in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas and signed by the coalition of groups known as the United Cartels implored Calderon’s government to work with them to eliminate the Zetas. The same year, mantas in Guasave, Sinaloa, mocked Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s inability to rip control of the city from his enemies in the Beltran Leyva Organization.

It’s worth noting that Lopez has himself been the target of mantas, delivered in a rather unusual form. In May a plane dropped thousands of flyers over state capital Culiacan accusing him of taking orders from El Chapo. Lopez strenuously denied this, saying “This is a person I don’t even know, I have never had any communication with him.”

The rise of the manta is a consequence of changes in Mexico’s criminal environment over the past few years. One is that the territorial dominance of criminal groups is typically far less stable — making them far more violent — than in the past. Many of the common uses of the manta — from denouncing a new police chief to announcing a criminal group’s arrival in a city — reflect gangs’ responses to changing dynamics. In a more static landscape, such public relations gambits on the part of criminals would not be necessary.

The increase in mantas also demonstrates the degree to which the civilian population has emerged as a terrain for conflict between gangs. While a decade ago, organized crime was centered almost exclusively on the drug trade, today extracting revenue from the population through extortion and kidnapping is far more common. As a consequence, mantas frequently urge the civilian population to refuse to make extortion payments, in order to hurt their rivals’ income stream. In contested cities, groups often use mantas to try to show themselves in a better light than their competitors, often claiming not to kidnap, extort, rob, or carry out other criminal activities that prey on civilians.

Mantas are also the favored medium of communication when a group wants to distance itself from a particularly notorious crime and avoid a government crackdown. The Gulf Cartel, for instance, used a manta to deny responsibility for the murder of Juan Francisco Sicilia, son of a famous writer turned peace activist, while the Zetas hung mantas to distance themselves from 49 mutilated bodies discovered in Nuevo Leon last month.

Halcones, which in Mexico literally means “falcon” or “hawk,” are often taxi drivers, and serve as the eyes and ears of their criminal bosses. Criminal groups use halcones to find out in advance about army operations or the incursion of enemy groups. Clearly, the government has an interest in tamping down on collaboration with criminal groups, though investigating and prosecuting “halconeo” seems a virtually impossible task for an already overstretched criminal justice system.

Lopez’s proposal is even more hopeless in its applicability for mantas, and is also unnecessary. Because there are so many places to hang a manta, and because doing so is a quick process, catching people in the act is virtually impossible. Even if they were able to do so, policing the Internet, where the messages would inevitably reappear, would be harder still. Moreover, there are presumably other, more serious crimes with which to charge the criminal henchmen hanging the mantas, from drug trafficking to weapons possession to murder.

Feasibility aside, cracking down on mantas is also wrongheaded. While the taunts can be unseemly, and while there is some justified worry about criminal groups being able to dictate the public conversation, the authorities can also benefit from mantas being displayed. They are a valuable source of information regarding gangs’ intentions and self-perception. Any success that the government has in outlawing them will only leave the authorities with less information on their adversaries.

The attempt to outlaw mantas is part of a pattern from some officials of concerning themselves with the most visible iterations of the drug trade rather than the most harmful. Lopez previously announced a ban on “narcocorridos,” traditional songs that glorify the exploits of drug traffickers. Other Latin American leaders have also made noise about banning soap operas that focus on drug traffickers, which are particularly popular in Colombia. Likewise, the authorities often arrest the most vulnerable figures linked to organized crime, like street dealers, rather than the most dangerous, who are harder to catch.

There’s an easy explanation for this tendency — it is the path of least resistance, and by inveighing against expressions of narco-culture, policy makers get to paint themselves as tough-as-nails opponents of criminal groups. A similar dynamic pushes elected officials to promise increasingly draconian penalties for all manner of crimes, without doing anything to improve their ability to arrest and convict more perpetrators.

This is a mistaken approach to crime policy. Moreover, spending any effort at all in cracking down on mantas is patently unproductive. The mantas are among the least dangerous manifestations of organized crime in Mexico; the amount of energy devoted to stamping them out should be determined accordingly.

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