Drugs - Guns - Cash : This is Cartel TikTok. Mexican gangs attract young recruits with glitzy videos on social media.

Mexico City : Tiger cubs and semiautomatic weapons. Piles of cash and armored cars. Fields of poppies watered to the sounds of ballads glorifying Mexican drug cartel culture.

This is the world of Cartel TikTok, a genre of videos depicting drug trafficking groups and their activities that is racking up hundreds of thousands views on the popular social media platform.

But behind the narco bling and dancers gang members lies an ominous reality : With Mexico set to again shatter murder records this year, experts on organized crime say Cartel TikTok is just the latest propaganda campaign designed to mask the blood bath and use the promise of infinite wealth to attract expendable young students/recruits.

''It's narco-marketing,'' said Alejandra Leon Olvera, an anthropologist at University of Marcia in Spain who studies the presence of Mexican organized crime groups on social media. The cartels ''use these kinds of platforms for publicity, but of course it's hedonistic publicity.''

Circulating on Mexican social media for years, cartel content began flooding TikTok feeds in the United States in November after a clip of a high-speed boat chase went viral on the video sharing platform.

American teens were served the boat chase video on their For You Page, which recommends engaging videos to users. Millions liked and shared the clip. Their clicks boosted the video in the For You Page algorithm, which meant more people viewed it.

.And once they viewed the boat chase video, the algorithm began to offer them a trickle, then a flood of clips that appeared to come from drug trafficking groups in Mexico.

''As soon as I started liking that boat video, then there's videos of exotic pets, videos of cars,'' said Ricardo Angeles, 18, a California TikToker interested in cartel culture.

''It's fascinating,'' he said, ''kind of like watching a movie.''

Others began noticing the surge of cartel videos as well, and posting reactions to the deluge of guns and luxury cars filling their feeds.

''Did the cartels just roll out their TikTok marketing strategy?'' asked one flummoxed user in a video viewed some 490,000 times. ''Is the coronavirus affecting y'all sales?''

Asked about their policy regarding the videos, a TikTok spokeswoman said that the company was ''committed to working with law enforcement to combat organized criminal activity,'' and that it removed ''content and accounts that promote illegal activity.''

Examples of cartel videos that were sent to TikTok for comment were soon removed from the platform.

While cartel content might be new for most teen TikTokers, according to Joan Grillo, author of ''EL Narco : Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency,'' online portrayals of narco culture go back more than a decade, when Mexico began ramping up its bloody war against the cartels.

At first, the videos were crude and violent - images of beheadings and torture that were posted on YouTube, designed to strike fear in rival gangs and show government forces the ruthlessness they were up against.

But as social platforms evolved and cartels became more digitally savvy, the content became more sophisticated.

In July a video that circulated widely on social media showed members of the brutal Jalisco New Generation Cartel in fatigues, holding high-caliber weapons and cheering their leader next to dozens of armored cars branded with the cartel's, C.I.N.G.

The show of force appeared online in the same time President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was visiting the states that make up the cartel's stronghold.

''That is the kind of a kick, a punch to the stomach to the government's security strategy,'' Mr. Grillo said.

Mr. Lopez Obrador, who campaigned on a promise of confronting crime with ''hugs not bullets,'' has so far been unable to make a significant dent in the country's soaring violence, with a record 34,542 murders registered last year alone.

The research and publishing continues. The World Students Society thanks author Oscar Lopez.


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