The week of September 6, 2015

Inside the gold-plated world of Instagram’s narcoculture

By Stephanie Stark

If you were a member of a notorious Mexican drug cartel, you might think twice before posting Instagram pictures of guns, women, and cars—the ill-gotten gains of your ongoing illegal enterprise. Yet today one can easily find tens of thousands of similar posts under hashtags such as #narcos and #narcostyle. Images abound of exotic pets, selfies taken in front of wads of cash (blurred faces further hidden beneath bandanas), stacks of what looks like bundled cocaine, and guns—lots of guns, often gold-plated and/or brandished by a beautiful woman.

Welcome to Instagram’s outpost of narcoculture, the popular and intensely romanticized view of cartel life.

“Everything started for me because I like guns, I like to drink…In other words I would say that I like the good life!” says Arturo, in Spanish. Arturo, who declined to give a last name, is a 25-year-old mechanical engineer living in Sinaloa, Mexico, home to one of the largest international drug cartels. The Sinaloa cartel is run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, considered by Forbes to be the world’s most powerful drug trafficker. He’s long evaded both the Mexican and U.S. governments, turning him into a folk hero. When El Chapo was finally captured last year, followed by a brazen escape this summer, he provided extra fodder for narcocorridos—the ballads that often lionize cartel members.

Narcocorridos existed long before social media, but Arturo’s Instagram account, @Arturo5_7, is something like a visual narcocorrido. It celebrates the trappings of narco life with hashtags like #narcos, #carteldesinaloa, and #antrax (a reference to Los Antrax, the enforcement arm of the Sinaloa cartel). He’s posted images of shimmering golden handguns and hyper-saturated sportscars. One favorite features a lion lounging in front of a row of exotic supercars while a man with a blurred-out face looks on.

A photo posted by Arturo AG (@arturo5_7) on

“Not all of the pictures are taken by me, [some] are taken and sent to me by my friends,” Arturo says. Like much of Instagram, his pictures are aspirational—a tastefully filtered view of how he imagines the cartels and their members. He says he reveres the cartels, believing they have done more good than the government, which he vehemently distrusts.

Police have long monitored social media for incriminating photos; San Francisco has an “Instagram Officer.”

“Horses, women, guns, alcohol, drugs, cars—all of this is what makes us part of the narcoculture,” he says. It’s a romantic view of cartel life, to be sure. But Arturo insists the notion of narcoculture captures something important about life in Mexico today. “Mexico has been overcome by narcoculture,” he says, “starting with the music. The regional Mexican music genre includes corridos, which always tell the reality of the country.”

In reality, in the last nine years
60,000 to 80,000 Mexicans have died in cartel-related violence. Thousands more have disappeared. Cartels have brutally beheaded politicians and journalists, sometimes publicly displaying the heads as warnings to others. In September 2014, 43 students protesting in Iguala, a city a few miles south of Mexico City, disappeared. At first, some suspected the cartels, but later events have shown the truth is likely more complicated: Arrested suspects have included police officers, and one newspaper has implicated the federal police and army in the disappearance. (Thus far, only one body has been recovered and positively identified.)

Narcoculture seems to concern itself less with Mexico’s violent reality than with a glorified view of cartel life. As Javier Alejandro Valenzuela Rodriguez, a 17-year-old Chilean who often posts with narco-related hashtags, says, “It’s like something that now is a part of the pop culture.” It’s a pop culture view of a violent, dangerous world—almost like an artifact of narco fanfiction.

Yet is it in any way connected to reality? Are actual cartel members carefully curating images of their lives on Instagram? Hugo Benavides, a Fordham University professor who wrote Drugs, Thugs, and Divas: Telenovelas and Narco-Dramas in Latin America, points out the obvious. “Somebody who posts so much about this is most probably not very much involved, or else they wouldn’t post about it,” he says.

That seems logical, but cartel members have already been noticed on other social media, including Twitter and Facebook. El Chapo’s sons, for example, are prolific Twitter users; in fact, his 29-year-old, Jesus Alfredo Guzmán Salazar, may have inadvertently revealed his hideout this week after failing to switch off his phone’s location data on a tweet. Alfredo Guzmán has 156,000 followers and once tweeted a link to his Instagram account, which is also posted in his Twitter profile. (Sadly, he’s yet to post any pictures there.) His older brother Ivan Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar, on the other hand, only has 91,500 followers. And José Rodrigo Aréchiga Gamboa, a Sinaloan drug lord and hit man known as “El Chino Ántrax,” was quite active on Twitter before his arrest in late 2013. He was reportedly identified by police thanks to pictures he’d repeatedly posted of himself wearing a distinctive Los Ántrax death’s head ring.

“Horses, women, guns, alcohol, drugs, cars—all of this is what makes us part of the narcoculture.”

Arturo, the Sinaloan engineer, says he’s not a trafficker, and he’s not worried about law enforcement suspecting him based on his photos. That may be a reasonable assumption; he’s not claiming to be a wanted criminal, after all. But police have long monitored social media for incriminating photos. In July 2015, San Francisco police used Instagram photos of weaponry as probable cause to search a home, and it publicly named one of its officers as its “Instagram Officer.” (More controversially, the New York Police Department has unfairly used Facebook likes as evidence against teenagers in Harlem, critics say.)

And according to a 2013 survey from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, nearly every law enforcement unit in the country (despite the “international” title, the survey only covers the United States) is on social media now, too. In the 48 states surveyed for the study, 95.9 percent of law enforcement agencies said they use social media in some capacity, and 80.4 percent reported that its use has helped solve crimes.

But the relative anonymity of social media might provide a place to flaunt what otherwise would remain concealed. “You can’t [go out for] a night on the town with your gold-plated AK-47,” says Colin Gunckel, a historian on Latino media at the University of Michigan. “In Mexico, you can’t be wearing your nice watch, or other accessories and things like that, that go with that lifestyle, so social media is a way of showing that off in a way you can’t do for a number of reasons in public.”

QEPD ARIEL CAMACHO ?? sigan @nando_vazquez57 @nando_vazquez57 ?? siganlo y manden sus fotos raza

A photo posted by De Aqui no nos Vamos (@cartel.imperial01) on

That may be true for cartel members who want to flaunt their wealth but aren’t as brazen as El Chino Ántrax or El Chapo’s sons. Mostly, though, narcoculture on Instagram seems like a way for people to identify with and show their approval of a certain imagined lifestyle. (One could say this is the fundamental appeal of Instagram, actually.) Narcoculture
is part of Mexican pop culture, and it has fans. The cartel_luxury Instagram account, for example, is a typical slideshow of fast cars, beautiful women, and garishly gold-plated weaponry. It has some 27,000 followers. (In return, it only follows 21 accounts, including Vin Diesel, Wiz Khalifa, NASA, and, unsurprisingly, Dan Bilzerian.) Gunckel suggests narcoculture is “like a middle finger to the Mexican government and to the U.S. government, that’s attractive to people even though it has dire consequences.”

“Obviously (cartel members) do not contribute to the well-being of the country,” says Arturo. He suggests that ultimately narcoculture is another strain of #YOLO. “Most of them lived in poverty and chose the fast route. They chose easy money. It is a dangerous world, but they do not care.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated El Chapo’s period of incarceration.

Illustration by J. Longo