Meet a Disinformation Agent for a Mexican Cartel
AMLO’s fight with Raymundo Ramos shows how human rights activists collude with the cartels in their reign of terror.
Horrific violence wielded by transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) has sadly become part of Mexico’s reality, as is the use of threats and bribes to corrupt ministers, businessmen, governors, and even journalists. Sometimes, however, Mexican cartel tactics can be more subtle, using propaganda and targeted information to change policies by influencing public opinion.
For example, Raymundo Ramos, who cleverly presents himself as a “human rights activist” in northern Mexico, is in fact a disinformation agent of Cartel del Noreste (CDN), the ruthless TCO that controls the Nuevo Laredo region directly across from Laredo, Texas. Ramos’s actual agenda has very little to do with human rights, but everything to do with discrediting Mexico’s armed forces in the court of public opinion. His criminal sponsors know that the more the Mexican military is operationally hampered, the better CDN can conduct its illicit business: smuggling migrants and illegal drugs into the United States.
Ramos has accused the military of human rights violations and spying abuses, propelling himself into Mexico’s national debate about the role of that country’s armed forces in the fight against transnational organized crime. He has managed to gain a platform even with the international media—such as the New York Times, the Economist, and the Washington Post—whose editors appear unaware or unconcerned about Ramos’s alleged links to Cartel del Noreste. Evidently, calls to respect human rights wash away all sins—including allegedly being on the payroll of a cartel.
When I served as U.S. Consul General in Nuevo Laredo (2015–18), my duties included maintaining contact with a wide range of officials, leaders, and activists. Most were concerned Mexicans simply trying to navigate a dangerous and lawless border region. Some were patriots, bravely working on behalf of their country in difficult times (cartel agents tragically killed at least three of these contacts during my time there—RIP). Still others, including Ramos, were unsavory characters who signed up with the cartel because of bribes, threats, or both.
I met twice with Ramos to assess his activities. He hardly disguised his disdain for Mexican security institutions, and it was widely assumed by my other sources that Ramos took orders and clandestine financial support from the local cartel. Yes, it is true that “proving” someone’s links to a criminal cartel without drawing on confidential information is difficult, but as we will see, the release of a Mexican classified communication intercept provides the smoking gun in the case against Ramos.
To understand his rise, it is necessary to examine embattled Nuevo Laredo, Mexico’s main crossing point for trade entering the United States. The CDN—infamously known as Los Zetas before later restructuring itself—has been one of the most bloodthirsty cartels in Mexico. Like others of its ilk in Mexico, CDN controls the local media, buys politicians, extracts protection money from businesses, and even arranges a cut of legitimate trade transported into the United States.
As I learned in encounters with parish priests, CDN agents even keep tabs on the Catholic Church and the few philanthropic NGOs that dare to work in Nuevo Laredo’s marginalized urban areas. The cartel wants to ensure that its own “charitable” activities, designed to buy supporters in these poor neighborhoods and shanty towns, are not surpassed by outsiders. These areas are considered so dangerous that USAID keeps them off-limits for American aid workers. Drawing on classic Maoist guerrilla strategy, cartel operatives “swim” in these dispossessed communities, recruiting new foot soldiers, establishing operational sanctuaries, and gaining legitimacy against the Mexican state.
With their emphasis on this kind of corrosive “soft” power, it is little wonder that CDN strategists run their own “human rights” NGO and can even succeed in placing their own operative on Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos). This is exactly how Ramos emerged, from nowhere, to propel himself into Mexico’s national discussion about the role of the armed forces and the country’s intelligence gathering against criminals.
As Mexico City has increasingly relied on the military to battle the cartels, experts have rightly cautioned that soldiers and marines are not trained for and should not be assigned policing duties, but the authorities have no other choice in places like Nuevo Laredo where law enforcement long ago became guerrilla war. One important reason the army and marines have had some success against cartels, in addition to their combat firepower, is that disciplined military units are difficult for TCO agents to penetrate.
While cartels can corrupt and even outright destroy many police and judicial institutions, the Mexican army (known also by its acronym SEDENA) and marines (SEMAR) are much harder targets. Thus, discrediting the Mexican armed forces through the use of negative reports, particularly based on accusations of committing atrocities, is an invaluable TCO guerrilla tactic; and as the Ramos story illustrates, it is a tool that functions well in a society in which many elite opinion-makers already harbor deep suspicion of the country’s military.
Ramos’s main method is to direct outside media to every accusation against the military while completely ignoring the cartel’s bloody guerrilla warfare tactics. In the early 2000s, the Mexican military high command sent elite marines into Nuevo Laredo to conduct a kind of urban counterinsurgency against the cartel; small army units have also been deployed in the region for years. While the counterinsurgency strategy made sense, how much long-term success the campaign had is unclear because the military never deployed sufficient troops to gain the initiative.
In the ensuing bloody encounters, regrettable human rights violations were surely committed. No one can excuse abuses perpetrated by the military, but the incidents, then and now, point to panicky troops in tense situations, and not instructions from commanders to employ such measures systematically.
Outside journalists, directed by Ramos, typically report on killed cartel operatives, often presenting them as innocents and focusing on their grieving family members. Some victims are no doubt innocent, but in all this tragedy, survivors almost never publicly denounce cartel atrocities to the media, rightly fearing TCO reprisals. Despite the military’s mistakes, almost all the citizens of Nuevo Laredo I encountered privately applauded the marines and army because they were at least fighting for the security of the city.
With media reporting fed by activists like Ramos, SEMAR operations in Nuevo Laredo came under national scrutiny. By 2021, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, where Ramos was and is a member, had investigated atrocity and torture accusations, helping to orchestrate political pressure that led to criminal charges being brought against thirty marines. To what extent marine operations actually ran roughshod over due process is still being litigated, and will likely never be known given Mexico’s dysfunctional court system. Meanwhile, CDN’s hold over the Nuevo Laredo region has only increased, abetted by the Biden administration’s open border policies and the insatiable American appetite for illicit narcotics.
Two tragic incidents, one in July 2020 and another in February 2023, launched Ramos on a renewed PR campaign to discredit the army. The facts are contentious, but they indicate that Mexican soldiers, who function constantly in a tense security environment, wrongfully killed persons who were innocent or not explicitly linked to CDN. Beyond the human tragedy of these unfortunate killings, the result has been to hand Ramos yet another public-relations cudgel to argue for the army’s withdrawal from its security role in Nuevo Laredo, or at least to put SEDENA under intense scrutiny, all giving more operational space for CDN.
Ramos’s PR campaign against the army has now been underway for several years. Sadly, stories of brutal killings are commonplace across Mexico, but with time and persistence, Ramos has steadily gained attention, eventually hitting paydirt with American journalists (see the New York Times April 7 report) and international human rights groups. Ramos even managed to put his case before the United Nations, which recently called for a “diligent, prompt and impartial investigation” into military actions in Nuevo Laredo. The UN expresses little concern about cartel brutality.
It was when Ramos accused the Mexican armed forces of spying on him, and by extension on all their political adversaries, that he truly struck propaganda gold. Ramos charged that the military was surveilling him and other critics through the use of illegal spyware called Pegasus, designed to clandestinely monitor cell phone and electronic communication.
Ramos’s spying charges have become a cause célèbre among the country’s left-leaning journalist-intellectual class, with their permanent distrust of the Mexican military. These intellectuals are generally supportive of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO). But when the president broke ranks and basically defended the armed forces against Ramos, this influential class, well-connected internationally, felt betrayed.
Once famous for his slogan “hugs, not bullets,” AMLO indicated during his presidential campaign that he would rein in the armed forces in their fight against TCOs, while also curtailing alleged abuses such as the army spying on its political opponents. But after more than four years in office, frustrated daily by the destruction and death that TCOs are unleashing on Mexico, AMLO appears to have somewhat changed his tune.
Last year, for example, the president basically abandoned his proposed anti-cartel strategy, which had been centered on the creation of a new independent national guard; after disappointing results, AMLO transferred the national guard under the military high command. Despite critics’ charges that the military has too much power, AMLO increasingly appears to have realized that only the country’s armed forces can prevent Mexico from descending even further into TCO chaos.
Under pressure, AMLO has responded to the spying charges against the military, distinguishing between political spying and intelligence gathering against criminal suspects. Revealingly, at one recent press conference, the president carried out a pre-planned exchange with a friendly journalist, Carlos Dominguez, to turn the tables on Ramos.
AMLO called on the journalist to play live a recorded clip in which Ramos is heard colluding in a phone conversation with a cartel leader. Using his bully pulpit, the president made sure the recording, apparently first leaked in 2019, got wide exposure and helped communicate to his countrymen and journalists exactly who Ramos is—far from an authentic human rights activist, but an actual criminal suspect.
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Predictably, the international media gave the accusations of human rights abuses and illegal spying much more coverage than they did the exposure of Ramos at AMLO’s press conference. The best the New York Times could do in acknowledging Ramos’ dodgy background was to report on March 7, “The military’s intelligence report said Mr. Ramos had ‘links’ to a Mexican cartel and would benefit financially from discrediting the armed forces.” Nothing else the Gray Lady reported even hinted at Ramos’s CDN connections.
What a depressing journalistic standard. As our proud southern neighbor struggles for national survival—a fight that has huge implications for the United States—the international media’s reporting on events in Nuevo Laredo reveals yet again an ideological unwillingness to present the full story. Instead, these journalists are sadly comfortable acting as mouthpieces for a paid agent of a criminal cartel.
It is no wonder that Americans have little understanding of the true human rights and public safety situation in Mexico. The country is defending itself not merely from organized crime, but from a highly sophisticated, insurgent combat force employing guerrilla warfare tactics. It is the TCOs that by far have committed the most atrocities and threaten the right of Mexicans to live in a peaceful, functioning country.