How China's TikTok Rakes in Cash for Cartels

TikTok screenshot
May 4, 2022

Law enforcement officials across the southern border blame the Chinese app TikTok for facilitating cartel violence and drug smuggling, as well as luring young Americans into working for them with seductive videos.

"Cartels are trying to get workers. They're trying to recruit people to help them out. [They] show lots of money, they show lots of drinking, partying, and everything else," Commander Jorge Esparza of the Brooks County Sheriff Department told the Washington Free Beacon during a recent trip to the border. "The way I look at it is, if social media companies are getting mad at somebody for making a comment about race or sexuality or something, I think they should be held more accountable" for what cartels are posting.

Anyone can open TikTok and find what amounts to a job board offering: a few hundred bucks in exchange for a simple task, such as driving a car a few miles past a law enforcement checkpoint. A search for "cartel" on TikTok brings up thousands of posts—some of which resemble rap music videos—with a combined nearly 682 million views. Commenters ask how to apply for a job or leave their contact information.

The rise of the social media platform presents a new challenge for authorities overwhelmed with violence and crime stemming from the border crisis. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has faced criticism for its internal policy allowing the solicitation of human smuggling on its platforms, but few other social media companies host such brazen criminal activity.

TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

"We've seen ads on TikTok, we've seen ads on Facebook for people that were recruiting individuals to drive their cars," said Sgt. Aaron Moreno of the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Department. "I've pulled over people who have [illegal migrants in their car] and they’re like 'Yeah, I'm, like, an Uber driver, sir.'"

Smuggling on the southwest border has spiked in recent years, creating a multibillion-dollar industry for cartels, their contracted coyotes, and Americans who bring migrants and narcotics to stash houses. Customs and Border Protection warned in February that "transnational criminal organizations are luring minors to smuggle migrants across border towns ... with the promise of fast cash."

"It's like a joke on law enforcement," Moreno said. "I've seen TikTok videos where there's coyotes in a vehicle and they have a long rifle."

Some Republicans are demanding federal authorities do more to clamp down on or outlaw advertisements from criminal organizations on TikTok.

"No one should be surprised. TikTok is a Chinese company, which means it is required by law to serve the interests of the Chinese Communist Party," Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) told the Free Beacon. "And what do the cartels and Beijing have in common? Both are eager to flood our communities with fentanyl. If President Biden were serious about protecting Americans, he'd ban TikTok and secure the border. It is really that simple."

Aside from using TikTok as a recruitment tool, criminal organizations use the platform to coordinate human smuggling and drug trafficking, according to former Border Patrol agent Michael Celinas.

"A lot of times they use TikTok and videotape where they are, where they've arrived," he told the Free Beacon. "They're high-fiving and passing around the videos to prove that they made it over. We have guys constantly monitoring the platforms just digging around."

Law enforcement departments in border towns like McAllen, Texas, have adopted a "no pursuit" policy for cars that flee police. Too many times, officers say, young drivers panic and end up in horrific wrecks leaving themselves or migrants seriously injured or dead.

Texas attorney general Ken Paxton (R.) is investigating "TikTok's potential facilitation of human trafficking … as well as other potential unlawful conduct." His preliminary investigation asks whether law enforcement are notified of potential criminal activity and what the company's criteria is for removing cartel-related content.

"Chinese-owned company TikTok may be complicit in child exploitation, sex trafficking, human trafficking, drug smuggling and other unimaginable horrors," Paxton said in a February statement. "I will get to the bottom of these concerns and make sure Big Tech doesn't interfere with the safety and security of Texans."