MEXICO CITY — When “The Worm Eater” and his sidekick “The Rat” were captured, they were allegedly carrying five grenades and about $1 million in cash. “Garbage” was caught extorting money from Mexico City bus drivers, police say. “The Pig” was known for his brutal style of killing rivals. “The Bum” allegedly burned and buried his victims in clandestine pits.
As Mexico’s drug violence gets bloodier, with cartels competing to leave ever-bigger piles of slaughtered victims, drug traffickers are being tagged with ever-grittier, low-brow nicknames to reflect their impersonal, almost industrial style of violence.
Gone are the days of high-flying sobriquets such as “The King” (Jesus Zambada Garcia), “The Lord of the Skies” (Amado Carrillo Fuentes) or “The Boss of Bosses” (Arturo Beltran Leyva), all of whom are dead or in prison. Mid-level cartel leaders are now adopting or being baptized with nicknames such as “The Dog Killer.” That was Baltazar Saucedo Estrada, an alleged leader of the notoriously bloodthirsty Zetas gang.
Experts say the killings and arrests of top cartel capos have left lesser spawn to run the drug, kidnapping and extortion businesses; that has fueled a cruder approach and a psychopathic, mass-dismemberment style of killing. Instead of offing rivals for turf or cash, many of today’s narco-killers, especially among the Zetas, view their ultraviolence as a part of business, designed to shock the public into submission.
“What we’re seeing today is a different kind of nickname, that reflects a different way of criminals identifying themselves, and these new forms of violence,” said Martin Barron, en expert in criminology at Mexico’s National Institute for Penal Sciences.
Mexico had already seen plenty of grisly drug war violence after the federal government launched its offensive against the cartels in 2006. The carnage has only accelerated over the past two years and grown ever more routine, with the emphasis placed on the sheer quantity of bodies. The latest mass atrocity came in May, when 49 still-unidentified torsos were dumped on a roadside in northern Mexico with their hands, feet and heads chopped off.
“We’re seeing an ever-more bestial violence … in which other people are dehumanized,” Barron noted. “You no longer care about what you do or don’t do to someone else.”
Saucedo Estrada, “the Dog Killer” (El Mateperros), purportedly ordered his henchmen to set fire to a casino in the northern city of Monterrey last year to punish the owners for failing to pay protection money. Fifty-two people were killed, and Saucedo Estrada was arrested in January. The source of his nickname remains unclear: Cartels sometimes refer to rivals and police as “dogs,” and cartel recruits reportedly are ordered to hack up the animals as training for human dismemberment.
Another mid-level Zetas leader, William de Jesus Torres Solorzano, alias “The Worm Eater” (El ComeGusanos), was an alleged financial operator for the Zetas. His nickname may allude to the survival training top Zetas go through, which is styled on that of Guatemala’s elite Kaibil rangers unit, in which participants are expected to eat whatever insects or animals they can find in the jungle.
“The Pig” (La Puerca), Manuel Fernandez Valencia, was allegedly a close associate of cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman; his nickname came from his “piggish” style of killing rivals. He was also known as “The Animal.”
The new breed of nicknames show “a trace of cynicism, of mockery,” said Pedro de la Cruz, a professor who specializes in security issues at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
“These nicknames reflect the fact that even they do not take themselves seriously,” as cartel leaders of the past did, with codes of conduct and large clans of family-based criminal networks that operated on mafia-style codes of silence and obedience, de la Cruz said.
Even more chilling are the nicknames considered so dangerous that no one even dares to pronounce them, Barron notes.
Mauricio Guizar, an alleged regional leader of the Zetas in southern Mexico arrested in July, was nicknamed “Yellow” (El Amarillo) in an apparent reference to his skin color. But the Mexican navy says many just called him “The Color,” apparently because even mentioning his name was considered off limits.
In regions such as the violence-plagued border state of Tamaulipas, no one mentions the Zetas by name, instead calling them “The Letter” or “The Last Letter.”
“In some parts of Tamaulipas, if you go to buy a newspaper that costs seven pesos, and they charge you ten, they’ll tell you, ‘The other three pesos are for The Company.’ They don’t even say the name of the cartel,” Barron said.
Of course, some criminals continue to use nicknames that are simply odd.
In June, soldiers in northern Chihuahua state detained Jose Guadalupe Rivas, an alleged leader of the La Linea gang, which dominated the cities of Juarez and Chihuahua. Rivas, who allegedly oversaw the gang’s communications network and drug distribution, was known as “Zucaritas,” the Mexican brand name for “Frosted Flakes.”
Among several La Familia cartel gunmen arrested in May in the western state of Jalisco was Gerardo Fernandez Covarrubias, or “Mufflers” (El Mofles), apparently in reference to a Mexican movie comic. Another gunman called himself “Yogurt,” for reasons that remain unclear.
Juan Abelardo Hernandez, a legal expert at Mexico’s Panamerican University who specializes in the philosophy of culture, said “The Joker” character in the Batman movies may have inspired a new generation of cartel leaders looking for an ironic avatar. In fact, one of the suspects in the 2011 killing of seven people in the central state of Morelos was Cesar Galindo used the comic villain’s Spanish name, “El Guason.” The alleged Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooter James Holmes also reportedly called himself “The Joker.”
Hernandez says today’s hit men, usually in their 20s, may be using the same kinds of tags they grew up with in online gambling or blogging, as opposed to past nicknames that referred to rank or function in a criminal organization.
The suggestion isn’t so farfetched, given the media savvy shown by cartels as they take pains to film their worst crimes and post them on blogs and social networking and video-sharing sites.
“This is a different generation,” Hernandez said, “that looks more for alter-egos, images on the net, or characters or avatars.”