Late last year, Colombian federal police arrested Diego Optra, a crime boss who leads a ruthless gang called La Local in the port city of Buenaventura. In addition to overseeing drug trafficking and blackmail rings, La Local had reportedly lagged behind over 90 percent of the murders in the city. Optra had successfully dodged the police for months, but left behind digital breadcrumbs in the form of his carefully curated Instagram profile. While there, its many fans were regularly treated to photos of Optra wearing diamond-studded bracelets, designer clothes and an arsenal of firearms. According to police officers, his lively social media profile was key to his arrest and conviction.
Optra isn't the first crime boss to show off his gangster lifestyle on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram. Nor is he the first to be caught afterwards. Drug traffickers and gangs are lively social media users across America. Cartel leaders and their subordinates use popular social media and popular messaging apps like Telegram to build power and influence, threaten competition, recruit new members, engage in sex trafficking, and sell drugs and contraband. Mexico used to be ground zero for this type of activity, where researchers created a new discipline from studying these narco posts. Now gangs in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador and the United States are also involved.
Brazil is one of the world's largest consumers and producers of social media content. It is therefore not surprising that his gangs, militias, and mafia groups post regularly online. Although the upper levels of the drug trafficking factions avoid too large a digital footprint, local cells are very active. Comando Vermelho, one of the largest arms and drug trafficking organizations in Brazil, uses Twitter to poach young recruits from a rival group in Rio de Janeiro, the Terceiro Comando Puro. Their tactics are not that subtle: Comando Vermelho's messages urge the members of Terceiro Comando Puro to change sides or face a violent end. The same groups also turn to Facebook to publicize their exploits. This is a useful way to cement allegiances while intimidating enemies, including the police.
Social media is the place of serious competition with violence. Comando Vermelho and Primeiro Comando da Capital of São Paulo, another large human trafficking organization, often exchange extremely gruesome messages. These serve a performative purpose: taped executions of rival gang members, including in prisons, are widely broadcast on YouTube, WhatsApp and Telegram. The goal is not only to scare opponents, but also to send a message to the local communities showing who the boss is. Facebook and Instagram are also handy tools for gangs to choose their targets. The photos and posts posted by alleged gangsters and informants are closely monitored and are often used by political groups and the police as a justification for their arrest and extrajudicial execution.
In areas where drug factions are judges, juries and executioners, Facebook has been used to publicize convictions and convictions during mock tribunals or criminal courts. Primeiro Comando da Capital, Comando Vermelho and Guardiões do Estado, a criminal group from the state of Ceará, have imposed brutal – and sometimes fatal – sentences on young women accused of treason and fraud. In some cases, these show trials are filmed and the videos distributed on WhatsApp to warn other locals about crossing the gangs. In order to gain sympathy, Primeiro Comando da Capital also distributes photos and videos on Facebook and YouTube denouncing the mistreatment of prison inmates. These videos are widely distributed by the Group's legal department, Sintonia dos Gravatas.
While members of drug cartels and street gangs are increasingly concerned about being monitored, they are also avid users of social platforms like Snapchat and TikTok. These tools were particularly effective in circulating narco culture on a scale. In Mexico, cartel-related music content is technically illegal, including the country's infamous gangster ballads known as narcocorridos. For example, TikTok videos show the guns, gangs and tropes of some cartels and have reached millions of visitors, including younger viewers in the US. This so-called cartel TikTok has the intention and effect of normalizing the lifestyle of the cartel and potentially attracting younger recruits for criminal factions from Sinaloa in Mexico to Medellín in Colombia.
The use of social media by criminal organizations is hardly limited to Latin America. There are many examples of members of the Italian Mafia, particularly the Camorra, using TikTok, although the posts were quickly removed from the site. Unsurprisingly, after many of the Mafia's old guard were arrested in the 2000s, the younger leaders who then took command are avid consumers of social media. Videos have surfaced showing Camorristi bragging about their guns, tattoos, cars, motorcycles, and other paraphernalia to listen to music in the local dialect. As in America, the Italian mafia also uses social media to recruit new members from Italy's disaffected youth, particularly in Sicily and the southern regions of Calabria and Puglia.
Law enforcement agencies have been warning for years that the so-called darknet – the unsupervised areas of the Internet – is one of the largest sources of direct sales of illegal drugs and other illegal goods and services. Transnational law enforcement measures in which Darknet providers are switched off at the same time are routine. However, the sale of illegal goods on public social media cannot be missed. Instagram is currently the leading platform for selling drugs directly to consumers, while Facebook ranks second. These platforms serve as a kind of intermediate station between the street market and the darknet. Buyers and sellers use traditional social media platforms and virtual private networks to connect contacts using encrypted services such as Telegram, Signal, WhatsApp and Wickr.
For example, the Brazilian Congress is considering a bill to punish anyone who posts or shares content that in any way supports criminal activity on social media. In Colombia, national police authorities have invested in digital surveillance technology to track criminal behavior and trends on social media. Not surprisingly, digital rights groups are ringing alarm bells. Ultimately, a coordinated and comprehensive approach is essential. Intelligence agencies and investigators have to monitor activities. Tech companies need to step up their efforts to monitor and remove dangerous content. And digital rights groups and consumers need to stay vigilant, preventing governments and tech companies from going too far.