Last weekend, hundreds of kids in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas danced to bands and played with clowns hired by the Los Zetas cartel.
In Ciudad Victoria, the state's capital, children attended parties and received gifts from the crime organization's proxies as part of a series of celebrations in honor of Día del Niño [Children's Day] according to Mexican magazine Proceso.
As entertainers welcomed kids to games and trampolines, cartel members set up notices throughout the city, urging the population to rethink Los Zetas' role, and thanking children for bringing joy to their homes. "May God bless you all and always guide you on the good path to righteousness that you must follow to be men and women of good. God bless our little ones. Att. Los Z," the message read.
For several decades, kingpins and drug trafficking organizations in countries like Mexico and Colombia have courted the civil population with money, presents and donations in an effort to garner popular support. Pablo Escobar in Medellín as well as drug dealers from around Sinaloa were known and admired for their generosity, which was implemented through events such as those that took place in Tamaulipas.
The phenomenon is far from new, except for Los Zetas. As the most powerful Mexican cartel, this gesture could point to a strategic and dangerous political shift.
"It is a relatively common phenomenon, but not for Los Zetas," Jorge Chabat, a professor and researcher from the Centro de Investigación and Docencia Ecónomica in Mexico City, who specializes in drug organizations, told Univision News. "It signals that they are trying to change their image. Los Zetas are not known for being a cartel that looks for a social base."
In the previous decade, the Gulf Cartel, headed by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, threw numerous children's parties in Tamaulipas and sent truckloads of toys and gifts to boys and girls from Ciudad Victoria and nearby states. At the time, Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel's armed branch, followed suit, contributed to events in the state of Coahuila, seemingly hiding under the name of groups like Zindicato Anónimo Altruizta.
As the cartel war grew, Los Zetas turned on the Gulf Cartel sometime around 2010 and quickly dissociated themselves from any sort of gesture that could reflect anything other than brutality.
"Contrary to other organizations, Los Zetas are known for extortion, murder, and kidnapping," Chabat said. "Unlike Chapo Guzmán, for instance, they are seen as natural enemies of the population."
In April 2012, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, "El Lazca," the former Zetas leader who was gunned down last October, reportedly coordinated a kid's party to commemorate Children's Day in Ciudad Victoria. Despite Lazcano's death, it seems poised to become a tradition as this year's event.
"It seems that they are looking for social support, and this is clearly worrying," Chabat said. "With popular backing, it would be much harder to combat them. They want people to back them and to warn them if, let's say, the police is coming or a raid is underway."
This will prove tricky, given Los Zetas' notoriety and the unending crime wave in Tamaulipas, one of the Mexican states with the highest number of murders and kidnappings. Still, they seem to be willing to give it a go.
"P.S. To everyone that talks about us, that says that we are killers or kidnappers," the note posted last weekend in Ciudad Victoria said. "[I] just ask you to stop and think before you speak out. We are who we are, but how many of you politicians, businessmen, and rich men looked into your hearts to make these kids happy."