Last weekend, residents of El Paso, Texas were startled to find freeway billboards painted with petrifying cartel-like messages, and what looked like dead bodies dangling off the signs. Police quickly ascertained that the corpses were actually mannequins wearing suits and ties, but who did it?
Turns out that the chilling billboards were intended as a stunt to raise awareness about the dangers of the US drug trade. Las Vegas man Ryan Jean admitted that was behind the effigies and the painted slogans, which included "DYING FOR DRUGS" and "PLATA O PLOMO" ("silver or lead", a common saying among South American drug gangs meaning "pay your money or die"). Jean was caught by police as he tried to board a plane back to Las Vegas.
The display terrified the city's residents: many made frantic 911 calls and local news agencies speculated whether the scene was an advert or the work of gangs operating in the area. The messages mimicked Mexico's gangland executions in which cartels often leave decapitated bodies on public display to send warn off government officials, police and rival gangs.
Police were confused too, and in a press release prior to catching Jean, they said: "'This symbol has historically been used by Mexican drug cartels to threaten or intimidate Mexican citizens, business owners and government officials; however, we have never experienced this in El Paso."
According to arrest affadavits obtained by AP, Jean faces two graffiti charges, two criminal trespassing charges and one criminal mischief charge He was taken to El Paso County jail on May 26 and released after posting $21,800 bail the next day. Jean was caught when a fingerprint on one of the plastic bags used to stuff the head of one of the mannequins matched one found at the second billboard location.
So residents of El Paso, rest easy. The macabre displays that hung over your city were the work of a public-minded prankster – not the cartels.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot
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