Photo: Mark Morris / Flickr
Photo: Mark Morris / Flickr

If you ever visit a city with cartel footprints such as Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, the worst time to step outside is at 5:45 p.m.. That is when cartels executioners would strategically time their killings.

But why 5:45pm? Tom Wainwright, author of “Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel“, explains in the book that 5:45pm is conveniently right before the 6pm news. When faced with a tight deadline, TV stations often rush to show the raw footages, with little commentary or filter. He writes:

Many of their killings seem designed for a mass audience, filmed and promoted online using similar techniques to terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. In Ciudad Juárez, a pathologist once told me that the most dangerous time to step outside was at 5:45 p.m., because that was when the cartels would carry out their murders in order to lead the 6:00 p.m. evening news.

Scene from Narco Cultura, a film that explores the rise of drug cartel culture
Cartels crave camera time above all else. Photo from Narco Cultura, a film that explores the rise of drug cartel culture.

Often, cartels would murder victims for no reason other than to “market” their activity and instill fear. They would kill and dump a body at strategic locations as to draw police into a rival’s turf. This could help disrupt a rival’s business. Wainwright writes:

If a dozen dead bodies are dumped in a public place, the government tends to respond by sendinga shock force of troops to the area, making it much harder to do business for a few weeks. Cartels will sometimes deliberately “heat up” a rival cartel’s patch – calentar la plaza, as it is known – precisely in order to provoke such a crackdown.

Provoking the police requires the “cooperation” of the media. If the TV stations report an abnormal number of murders in an area, the police have no choice but to investigate. They play right into the hands of the instigating cartel, who want nothing more than for the police to show up and distort rival’s operations.

Cartels in Mexico are infamous for their complete control of people’s lives, sometimes to the point that the inhabitants even miss them when they’re gone. This isn’t uncommon in cities where officials are so corrupt and the police presence so thin that the cartels have become the de facto law and order.

When eleven gang members were shot dead last year in Ocotlan, Mexico, the Washington Post reported that many of the locals paid their respects to the slain cartel members:

They don’t see them as gangsters but as childhood friends who guarded homes, watched parked cars, kept drunks from disrespecting the women. It’s the police, they say, who will take things from the corner store without paying, shake you down on your walk home, make your 12-year-old daughter unbutton her shirt.

Cartels know that to succeed long term, they can’t just rely on rampant violence. They need to win the hearts of the people they often terrorize, using a combination of carrots and sticks. To achieve that, many cartels invest in “corporate social responsibility”, or CSR, to boost their image as a long term strategy.

It’s a deadly business – one that causes about 60,000 deaths per year. When the mortality rate is that high, it’s difficult to find young men who are willing to enter the industry and replace their “retired” elders. The Economists writes:

Public relations are delicate in a business which has caused about 60,000 deaths in Mexico in the past six years. That is why cartel leaders are very serious about corporate social responsibility. Senior executives remain free partly because people are unwilling to tip off the police. Fear is one reason; another is that drug lords spread their profits around. Contributions to the local constabulary are popular.

Despite operating outside of the law, cartels can’t afford operate outside of best practices for a successful business: improve your image, outmaneuver your competitors, and above all, win people over in the court of public opinions, even if you can’t win in the court of law.