In a one-minute video that first hit TikTok in 2020, drug traffickers were seen speeding on a rigid inflatable boat while yelling at the helmsman to go even faster. Being chased by a Spanish Customs Surveillance Service vessel, the viral clip raked millions of views—as several users compared the real high-speed chase to the hit Netflix series, Narcos.
With tiger cubs, semi-automatic weapons, wads of cash, and luxury cars in the forefront comes the sketchy world of CartelTok, a genre of TikTok videos glorifying trafficking groups and their activities, and enticing viewers with the promise of infinite wealth. Having circulated on Mexican social media for years, it was only when the boat chase video in question gripped TikTok feeds in the US that cartel content began flooding FYPs like there’s no tomorrow—all thanks to the video-sharing platform’s questionable algorithm.
“As soon as I started liking that boat video, then there’s videos of exotic pets, videos of cars,” an 18-year-old TikTok user told The New York Times in 2020. “It’s fascinating. Kind of like watching a movie.” With comments like “Did the cartels just roll out their TikTok marketing strategy?” others slowly began noticing the surge of cartel content in their own feeds. Fast forward to 2022, the phenomenon has officially taken a turn for the worst.
Now, it should be noted that online portrayals of narco culture go back more than a decade, when Mexico began ramping up its bloody war against the cartels. At the time, the videos involved were violent, featuring images of beheadings and torture that were uploaded to YouTube with the aim of intimidating rival gangs and government forces. But as social media platforms and cartels evolved digitally, the content became more… sophisticated.
Leveraging the promise of hefty riches, they started selling the idea of a dream hustle and began recruiting users for organised crime with the lure of their glorified lifestyle.
A quick scroll through #CartelTikTok further proves how this marketing strategy is enticing users into action. Under most videos, public comments include “Y’all hiring?” “I need an application,” and “Can I be a mule?” An investigation by Courier Journal also revealed how one of the accounts related to the cartel community has also responded to some of these comments in the past with statements like: “I’ll send the application ASAP,” “How much is the pound in your city?” and “Follow me on Instagram to talk.”
In April 2022, the Washington Examiner reported that children as young as 14 years old were using apps including TikTok, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook to communicate with smugglers. Sheriff Brad Coe of Kinney County, Texas, also mentioned that children living as far away as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana have been arrested for smuggling charges in the recent past.
“We’ve had kids from broken homes with mom working two jobs and dad’s in jail. The lure of easy money is what does it,” Coe told the Washington Examiner. “They get anywhere from $500 to $2,000 a head. The cartels will give them an address and say, ‘Pull up here and honk your horn twice’.”
During a border security briefing in January, Texas Governor Greg Abbott also alleged that TikTok was promoting human trafficking in the state. “Cartels in Mexico are using TikTok to advertise, to recruit smugglers in Texas, in San Antonio, Houston, and other cities in Texas and maybe some other states, to advertise for smugglers, for pay, for them to smuggle people here in Texas, which would include victims of human trafficking,” the governor claimed.
“TikTok should be ashamed, condemned, and have a legal action brought against it for promoting human trafficking in Texas and the United States of America,” he added.
As of 13 October, law enforcement officials have further reported that cartels are using stacks of cash, encrypted messages, and the lure of making thousands of dollars in one day on TikTok “to recruit drivers from all over the country to travel to the US border and traffic illegal immigrants.”
“They don’t just come out and say we need a driver to smuggle people,” Texas Department of Public Safety Spokesman Lieutenant Chris Olivarez told the New York Post. “They’ll have a little catchy phrase like ‘driver wanted: direct message me’. And then, they’ll show images of stacks of money, and then they show some pictures with people being smuggled inside. They won’t come out and say we need a driver for smuggling, but just based on the images, we know that it’s associated with criminal activity.”
According to Olivarez, a driver from Indiana was recently recruited this way and was promised $3,000 per immigrant that he was able to get from a Texas border town to San Antonio. The official has also personally seen a TikTok video that promised a $7,000 payday to any user who was willing to drive from the state’s Rio Grande Valley to Houston.
“When you see those stacks of money, it’s very enticing, especially when you’re going to get paid $2,000-3,000 a person,” Olivarez continued, highlighting that cartels typically use WhatsApp to send GPS coordinates—given the platform’s encrypted services.
Then comes the entire debate about the recruitment of young and ‘inexperienced’ drivers, who often panic when they come across law enforcement. “The Indiana man led authorities on a high-speed chase before crashing and losing all the immigrants [in] his car,” the New York Post noted. “He ended up in jail and with no money.” That being said, a compromised driver is also easily replaceable in the case of TikTok’s rapid algorithm when it comes to these viral videos.
“It’s increased drastically just because [of] the fact that now, they’re able to recruit through social media,” Olivarez added.
If you’re based in the UK and have a somewhat unhealthy TikTok addiction—no judgement here, join the club—chances are that you’ve seen at least one of the numerous livestreams featuring Syrian families, which sometimes include only children in them, begging for viewers to send them money.
The way it works on TikTok LIVE is that people can send virtual gifts to someone streaming on the app using TikTok Coins. Now, don’t get this concept all twisted. Although these rewards are initially sent in a digital form, they cost viewers real money and result in monetary compensation for content creators.
As good as all of this sounds, there’s one loophole the video-sharing giant had probably been keen on keeping quiet about—until a recent BBC investigation shed light on the exploitative practice. Though the publication revealed it saw some livestreams earning up to $1,000 (£900) an hour, it found that the people producing said content from Syrian camps received only a tiny percentage of that—with TikTok itself taking up to 70 per cent of the proceeds.
As you could expect, when asked for a comment on the controversial revelation, the company claimed that this “exploitative begging” was not allowed on its platform and that its commission from digital gifts was significantly less than 70 per cent. Obviously, it declined to confirm the exact amount it seizes instead and added that it would take prompt action against this type of content.
What’s even worse is that, after going to camps situated in North-West Syria, the BBC found that the trend was being facilitated by so-called “TikTok middlemen” who provided families with the phones and equipment needed to livestream.
The middlemen said they worked with agencies affiliated to TikTok in China and the Middle East, who gave the families access to their own accounts on the platform. These agencies are part of the app’s global strategy to recruit livestreamers as yet another attempt—which will most definitely prove successful, we’re sure—to encourage users to spend more time on TikTok.
If you’re confused as to why the problematic trend seems to have picked up in the UK specifically, since TikTok’s algorithm suggests content based on the geographic origin of a user’s phone number, the middlemen further shared that they prefer to use British SIM cards for the smartphones they give away to people in need. People from the UK are the most generous gifters, they explained.
In an attempt to find out exactly how much the app actually gives back to its creators, the BBC had a reporter in Syria contact one of the TikTok-affiliated agencies saying he was living in the camps. After he obtained an account and went live, BBC staff in London sent TikTok gifts worth $106 from another account. At the end of the livestream, the balance of the Syrian test account was $33. In other words, TikTok had taken 69 per cent of the value of the gifts sent.
The $33 remaining was then reduced by a further 10 per cent when it was withdrawn from the local money transfer shop. As stated by the publication, “TikTok middlemen would take 35 per cent of the remainder, leaving a family with just $19.”
Not only is this business model completely unfair, but it also clearly violates TikTok’s own policies to “prevent the harm, endangerment or exploitation” of minors on its platform. We can only hope that, as this investigation continues to gain traction online, and until the app finally takes responsibility for the accusations it faces by actually doing something about it, families in desperate need can turn to charities to receive help and basic supplies.