A video released by Mexican blog Videos Policiacos, which tracks drug violence in a similar vein as Blog del Narco and Diario del Narco, examines the range of uniforms and insignias used by Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).
As the video shows, many of the uniforms used by DTO members are almost indistinguishable replicas of those used by federal or municipal police. Wearing such gear is understandably attractive for gang members, as it allows them to blend in and conduct robberies, kidnappings, or killings with impunity. Official uniforms can confuse victims and inspire compliance, as may have occured during the fatal shooting of U.S. agent Jaime Zapata, after he and his partner were possibly forced to stop at a false checkpoint which was in fact run by the deadly and unpredictable Zetas criminal gang.
As recently as April 4, authorities found a cache of false police uniforms used by the “Knights Templar” (Caballeros Templarios), the new incarnation of the Familia Michoacana. The seized goods, which appear about 14 seconds into the video, included baseball hats branded with the Knights Templar logo: a crusader wearing typical medieval gear, a white robe marked with a red cross. The insignia is clearly meant to evoke the Familia’s quasi-religious ideology, and their “crusade” to rid Michoacan of their hated rivals, the Zetas.
As indicated by the Familia case, the usage of such insignia to mark a DTO’s identity can be powerful propaganda tools. Another Familia Michoacana logo in the video uses eagles, a classic symbol of Mexican nationalism. A gold-plated logo that appears to represent a “Commander Shark” (Comandante Tiburon) of the Gulf Cartel depicts a shark popping out of Tamaulipas, the cartel’s stronghold. Uniform insignia can also mark different levels of rank, which can work as a powerful recruitment tool.
Other DTO insignia have developed new meanings over time, sometimes unintentionally. The classic Gulf Cartel logo depicts Mexico, Tamaulipas state, and a “Z” sign to represent the Zetas, the group’s former armed wing. Since then, however, the Zetas have split from the Gulf Cartel and Tamaulipas has become one of the most hotly contested states in Mexico, no longer the undisputed territory of Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias “El Coss,” and his allies.
It is significant that Mexican DTOs are still leaning towards using uniforms marking their identity, in contrast to Colombia, where most DTOs prefer to operate in civilian wear. The usage of uniforms grants Mexican groups visible signs of authority, and essentially presents them as the parallel power operating alongside the state. Using police or military uniforms as a disguise also allows the Mexican DTOs to assert a certain level of social control. By electing to use law enforcement gear, the DTOs are positioning themselves as the enforcers of law and disorder in certain states.
In contrast, the usage of uniforms in Colombia is more associated with the reign of the paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). The paramilitaries used uniforms to present themselves as an organized, hierarchal group with stated political goals. The current generation of Colombian DTOs, however, is now working out of uniform, making it more difficult for the security forces to identify and track these groups.
Uniforms in Colombia therefore appear to pose a risk, whereas in Mexico it still grants authority. Mexican groups have already built up their authority by corrupting and intimidating the security forces and the government: police, soldiers, mayors, judges, lawyers, and civilian journalists. The usage of uniforms is just another layer of protective gear.