MEXICO CITY – Tiger babies and semi-automatic weapons. Loads of cash and armored cars. Poppy fields watered with the sound of ballads that glorify Mexican drug cartel culture.
This is the world of Cartel TikTok, a genre of videos depicting drug trafficking groups and their activities that generate hundreds of thousands of views on the popular social media platform.
Yet behind the members of the drug and dance gang lurks an ominous reality: Given that Mexico is set to destroy murder records again this year, organized crime experts say Cartel TikTok is just the latest propaganda campaign masking the carnage and that Use promise of the infinite to use prosperity to attract expendable young recruits.
"It's narcomarketing," said Alejandra León Olvera, an anthropologist at the University of Murcia, Spain, who studies the presence of Mexican organized crime groups on social media. The cartels "use these types of platforms for advertising, but of course it's hedonistic advertising."
Cartel content that had been circulating on Mexican social media for years began to flood TikTok feeds in the US this month after a clip of a high-speed boat chase went viral on the video-sharing platform.
American teenagers were served the boat hunting video on their For You page, which recommended showing videos to users. Millions liked and shared the clip. Your clicks improved the video in the For You page algorithm which meant more people watched it.
And when they watched the chase video, the algorithm offered them a trickle and then a deluge of clips that appeared to be from drug trafficking groups in Mexico.
"As soon as I like this boat video, there will be videos of exotic pets, videos of cars," said Ricardo Angeles, 18, a California TikToker who is interested in cartel culture.
"It's fascinating," he said, "like a movie."
Others also noted the surge in cartel videos and posted reactions to the spate of guns and luxury cars filling their feeds.
"Have the cartels just launched their TikTok marketing strategy?" asked a flummoxed user in a video that was viewed approximately 490,000 times. "Is the coronavirus affecting your sales?"
When asked about the guidelines for the videos, a TikTok spokeswoman said the company was "required to work with law enforcement to combat organized criminal activity" and "remove content and accounts that promote illegal activity." Examples of cartel videos sent to TikTok for comment were soon removed from the platform.
While carton content might be new to most TikToker teenagers, according to Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco: In Mexico's Criminal Riot, online depictions of narco culture go back more than a decade when Mexico began its bloody war US to tighten cartels.
Initially, the videos were rude and violent – images of beheadings and torture that were posted on YouTube to instill fear among rival gangs and to show government forces the ruthlessness they faced.
But as social platforms evolved and cartels became more digital, the content got more sophisticated.
In July, a video that was widely shared on social media showed members of the brutal Jalisco New Generation Cartel in exertion holding high-profile weapons and their leader next to dozens of armored cars bearing the cartel's Spanish initials, C.J.N.G.
The show of force appeared online at the same time as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was visiting the states that make up the stronghold of the cartel.
"It's a kind of kick, a punch in the stomach for the government's security strategy," said Grillo.
Mr López Obrador, who campaigned for the promise to confront crimes with “hugs instead of bullets”, has so far not been able to significantly contain the rising violence in the country. Last year alone, 34,582 murders were recorded.
While some videos are still being made to fight terrorism, others are being made to show young men in rural Mexico the potential benefits of joining the drug trade: endless money, expensive cars, beautiful women, exotic pets.
"It's all about the dream, it's about the rush," said Ed Calderon, security advisor and former member of the Mexican law enforcement agency. "They sell that."
According to Falko Ernst, Senior Mexico Analyst at the International Crisis Group, a global think tank, some of the TikTok videos could be produced by cartel members themselves, especially young hits or “Sicarios” who want to show off the spoils of war.
Still, he said, most of them are likely to be filmed by young, subordinate operators in the gangs and then widely distributed on the internet by their friends or those who crave the lifestyle.
But whether they are made and shared by cartels, or simply produced by aspiring gangsters, the ultimate goal is the same: to attract an army of young men ready to give their lives for a chance at glory.
The gangs, said Mr Ernst, depend on this "sea of young people".
And while videos of jeweled guns and decorated cars have been circulating on Instagram and Facebook for years, TikTok has given the cartel genre a new dimension.
"The message has to be quick, it has to be engaging and it has to be viral," said Ms. León, the anthropologist. "Violence is fun or is even set to music."
A video that attracted more than 500,000 likes before it was removed shows a farmer cutting unripe seed pods in a poppy field, presumably to harvest the resin for heroin production.
"Here in the mountains there are only hard workers," says a spokesman. "Only good people."
In another video from a now-deactivated account called "The Clown of the CJNG" relating to the Jalisco Cartel, a figure dressed in black with a bulletproof vest and an AR-15 rifle makes a dance move known as dental floss.
While such videos are intended for a Mexican audience, for users in the US who promote them they take advantage of an increasingly popular fascination with the cartel world promoted by shows like "Narcos" on Netflix.
That was part of the appeal for Mr. Angeles, the California teenager whose parents had emigrated from Mexico before he was born.
Although Cartel TikTok recognized the real-life violence behind the videos, it has become a way to connect with Mexican popular culture from a safe distance.
"There's a difference between watching Narcos and being kidnapped," said Angeles.
The videos are also a strong reminder of what life might have been like if his parents hadn't looked for better options north of the border.
"I could have been in that lifestyle," said Mr. Angeles. But "I'd much rather be broke and nameless than rich and famous."