Nation & World

Mexican drug traffickers wage PR war over image

WASHINGTON — In Mexico, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo is feared and reviled as the godfather of Mexico's cocaine trade. On his Web site, however, he's portrayed as a family man and a savvy business tycoon.

Yes, the drug kingpin known as "El Padrino" has his own Web site. He launched the site in June with the help of his family, even though he doesn't have Internet access from his cell in one of Mexico's highest-security prisons.

Mexican law-enforcement officials said that such a PR effort by one of the nation's most infamous traffickers wasn't surprising anymore. Lately, traffickers are turning to propaganda in inventive and often menacing ways, officials said. Although Mexico's drug cartels have long operated in the shadows, some traffickers or their associates now publicly advertise jobs, sponsor folksongs to sing their own praises and post videos or music online as tributes to leaders or to threaten enemies.

The reason for the sudden outspokenness by the usually secretive figures is unclear. Law enforcement officials think that traffickers are lashing out at the government because a crackdown by President Felipe Calderon's administration is pressuring drug cartels as never before. Others think the phenomenon shows that the traffickers see the government as weak enough to challenge directly.

Mexican officials said that so-called "narco-billboards" had appeared in the territory that the paramilitary drug gang, the Zetas, controlled as a way to attack rivals and the government. After a mass shooting of 13 people last month, several billboards threatened residents in the northern state of Chihuahua with more violence. Other signs appeared elsewhere in the country, accusing Calderon's administration of colluding with drug traffickers.

Jose Manuel Suarez, legal attache in Washington for the Mexican attorney general, denies the allegations.

"The government's actions do not favor or give priority to one cartel over another," he said. "The narco-billboards are acts of propaganda that attempt to maintain the traffickers' power to intimidate the population."

Others, however, say the phenomenon shows that Mexico's political institutions have weakened since one-party rule collapsed in 2000, provoking drug traffickers to become more brazen.

"The traffickers were controlled and protected under an authoritarian system that has disappeared," said Luis Alejandro Astorga Almanza, a sociologist who studies the drug trade with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "They're taking advantage of the institutional weaknesses to attack representatives of the government and try to gain power."

A son of Felix Gallardo who responded to questions by e-mail and by phone said his father had less ambitious intentions: He wanted medical attention for a chronic ear infection and an eye injury that's causing him to go blind. Felix Gallardo joins another drug kingpin, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, 77, in pushing for better medical treatment in the prison. In a news conference in Mexico last April, Fonseca Carrillo's relatives said they thought that he had cancer and could die if he wasn't transferred to a hospital.

Felix Gallardo has served 19 years out of a 40-year sentence for operating one of Mexico's most violent drug organizations in the 1980s. In 1992, he was transferred to Altiplano, a high-security prison west of Mexico City, because authorities said he was continuing to arrange drug deals by cell phone and fax. Recently, Mexican prison officials said the 62-year-old had tested positive for cocaine use, a charge that his attorney Ricardo Jimenez calls "ridiculous" considering his age and his current residence.

Mexican officials dismiss his medical complaints as exaggerated and say he has received adequate treatment. The security of Mexican prisons, notoriously lax, has tightened in the last several years, making inmates more likely to complain, officials said.

Felix Gallardo's son, Josue, who speaks conversational English that he described as "rusty," has been especially vocal. On an online forum set up by Mexico's version of the White House, the younger Felix Gallardo debated a prison hunger strike. When he noticed Tijuana border blogger Anna Cearley wondering online about his father's site, he responded to her by posting a comment.

He registered with a U.S. company to protect the domain name and posted photos from his father's heyday as the leader of the Guadalajara drug cartel. He said the family became nervous about attracting too much attention recently and took down some of the photos, including those of sprawling ranches that his father once owned. The family's letters to Mexico's president about his ailments remain.

"We don't want his liberty," said Josue Felix Gallardo, a 29-year-old who said he had university degrees in computer science and communications. "We only want his health."

His father's complaints have garnered little sympathy in Mexico, where Felix Gallardo was dubbed "the boss of the bosses" after becoming one of the first traffickers to cut a deal with Colombian cartels, ensuring a steady supply of cocaine to the United States. He established ties with prominent Mexican politicians even as he was linked to some of the most heinous drug slayings in the 1980s, including the kidnapping, torture and murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena.

So far, his Web site has drawn more than 5,800 readers, including about 45 who posted questions about the trafficker. Josue Felix Gallardo said his father had personally responded to about half of them by relaying the answers to relatives.

Josue, who was 10 when his father was sent to prison, said his father never involved his children in his affairs. But he added, "We are aware that he may have done bad things. Bad things are bad things. We don't approve of that. But only he knows what he did."


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