A member of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel—his stomach straining against a black sleeveless vest—is crouching over the body of a mutilated foot soldier from a rival crime group. The fallen man’s hands are bound and his chest looks like it has been torn open.
Shocking cellphone footage—captured in broad daylight—shows the hitman tearing large bites from the dead man’s heart. The cameraman continues to film as the hitman mocks the fallen sicario by pretending to offer him a taste of his no-longer-beating heart. In the background of the twisted scene, another body is partly visible, as is the shadow of someone hacking away at it.
When the video first surfaced in Mexico’s troubled Zacatecas state last month, it quickly went viral. Dr. Robert J. Bunker, a security analyst who studies Mexico’s cartels, told The Daily Beast that was exactly the point: It was a public display intended as a threat to the Sinaloa outfit. (The Daily Beast is not linking to the footage due to its graphic and disturbing content.)
“Given its warning to other Mayo Zambada gunmen, the video has clearly been produced for PSYOPS purposes by the CJNG unit involved in the incident who then uploaded it to social media,” Bunker said. Though cannibalism has been practiced by several organized crime groups in Mexico for a variety of reasons, including ritualistic rites, this particular incident “appears secular in orientation,” said Bunker, a research director at the consultancy firm C/O Futures LLC.
The sicario seen eating his enemy is a member of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which is locked in a deadly battle with the Sinaloa Cartel—formerly run by Chapo Guzmán and now headed by Mayo Zambada—for regional dominance in Zacatecas. Other cartels like the Knights Templar, the Zetas, and the Michoacán Family have all practiced cannibalism—sometimes to terrorize rivals, to initiate recruits, or even as part of death-cult like rituals meant to weed out spies.
Dutch anthropologist Teun Voeten, who has also served as a war correspondent in Mexico, likens the growing trend to that of beheadings. Decapitations were unheard of in Mexico before 2006, according to Voeten. “After the first incidents, other crime groups started to commit beheadings as well and a vicious circle of imitation and escalation of extreme violence came into being,” Voeten told The Daily Beast. “Now there are dozens of beheadings a year in Mexico.”
He referred to the cycle of crime groups trying to outdo each other as “a sort of Olympics of cruelty and sadism” with cannibalism—which is considered one of the ultimate taboos in many cultures—being treated by the cartels as just another form of savage competition. “In the case of cannibalism occurring more frequently in Mexico, just like beheadings, it also has to do with imitation and escalating violence,” Teun said.
When it comes to escalation, the CJNG—which is led by Nemesio Oseguera-Cervantes, aka “El Mencho”—has taken the practice of feasting on human flesh to a whole new level. In fact, they’ve institutionalized it as part of the mandatory curriculum at their training camps, which are known colloquially in Mexico as “Escuelas de Terror” or “terror schools.”
The country’s fastest-growing cartel sets up these camps at secret locations, typically in rural regions, to train new initiates in the use of small arms and combat tactics. Recruits are typically forced to become man-eaters during the three to four months of boot camp, experts told The Daily Beast.
“I’ve been there and there was a lot of [cannibalism],” said a member of the CJNG who agreed to speak to The Daily Beast only under the condition of anonymity. “They recruit them and then they start working on them.” The cartel insider explained that one of the reasons there are so many individuals “who want to become sicarios” is because the CJNG lures them with offers of “big bills”—but the promised signing bonus “never arrives,” the source explained.
“First they teach them how to cut people. They start by learning how to sever the extremities,” he said. This is an important skill for a future sicario, as the cutting off of fingers and toes—without letting the subject bleed out or lose consciousness—is the preferred torture tactic used to extract information from the cartel’s victims.
At the terror schools, recruits are also forced to devour the severed digits, the source said. If they pass that test, they move on to learning how to dismember entire bodies. Such expertise will prove vital later, when they are called upon to cut up corpses so as to make them easier to transport or disappear. And, as with the extremities, the cartel insider explained. the conscripts are later forced to feed on larger pieces of flesh, such as the vital organs.
“They are given a choice of one of those pieces to eat in front of the boss. You have to do it without reacting or vomiting or you are beaten,” said the source, who added that refusal is also not an option. “If you didn’t want to [eat human flesh] they wouldn’t let you leave, they had you there,” he said.
The DEA’s former chief of international operations, Mike Vigil, said that breaking terror school rules often had fatal consequences for the draftees. “The only way out of there is feet first,” Vigil told The Daily Beast. “If terror school recruits show fear or commit errors or infractions they instantly become the victims of the other trainees who dismember and decapitate them [and] their flesh is then eaten.”
There are other rules that must be followed as well, including strict limits on gossip or revealing the school’s whereabouts.
“One of the terror school recruits violated cartel rules by telling his girlfriend where he was at and jeopardizing all the other trainees,” Vigil recalled. “After she left, the boyfriend was bound and told he was going to be killed for violating the rules. An ice pick was driven several times through his cranium into his brain.” Vigil said that inductees were also at times forced to sleep next to cadavers at night in order to desensitize them, and that the one goal of this process is to convert graduates into “emotionless killing machines.”
Political scientist Javier Oliva Posada, of the National Autonomous University in Mexico City, said the brutal experiences endured in the CJNG training camps also have another psychological effect on the recruits—that of instilling a sense of allegiance toward the group and their fellow trainees.
“A kind of loyalty to the organization is established by such demonstrations of commitment and courage,” Posada told The Daily Beast. He likened CJNG’s “absolutely savage initiation rituals” to the customs practiced by another infamous crime group: MS-13. New members of that Central American gang must “murder and even behead a member of their own family” to show fealty. “[T]hese acts of cannibalism [have] to do with these formulas of procuration, linkage, secrecy and loyalty to the organization,” Posada said.
Those who survive the grueling weeks of camp life are feted at lavish graduation parties complete with narcotics and prostitutes, Vigil said. After that they are ready to become active sicarios and put their new-found skills to work. In many cases, the experiences they’ve been through as trainees have left such deep marks on their psyches that normal life is no longer possible, said security analyst Bunker.
“Once a group of new recruits have graduated from training—that is, they have hunted down, killed, skinned, cooked, and then eaten their assigned victim—they cannot go back into traditional Mexican society,” Bunker said. “They have forever been changed; their souls have in a sense been darkened in the process… Having survived this brutal ‘trial by fire,’ they will not hesitate to carry out future cartel orders no matter how barbaric those may be.”
In discussing the viral video from January, Bunker referred to it as an act of “battlefield cannibalism” similar to other incidents that have been filmed during the conflict in Syria. For an enraged combatant, the eating of the “heart, flesh, or other body part is the ultimate act of disrespect and revenge for fallen comrades. The incident is typically taped by a fellow fighter and posted to social media,” to be used as propaganda. “The fighter engaging in the heinous act then becomes a real badass among his peers,” Bunker added.
Anthropologist Voeten said that acts of cannibalism, drinking the blood of slain enemies, or desecrating their corpses is a historical commonplace worldwide and “a standard repertoire of human behavior in warfare” meant to add “extra humiliation” after the initial defeat in combat.
Cannibalism sends a strong signal that says: “We are victorious and we can do what we want and act with impunity,” Voeten said. “It is a calculated strategy of intimidating enemies into submission.”