#12 power
Sonja Peteranderl

A Bounty on Bloggers

Stories about shoot outs, street blockades, and murders: Mexicans are using narcoblogs, Facebook and Twitter to battle the media’s silence about the war on drugs. But the dedication of online citizen journalists can have deadly results.

In February a flyer circulated in Ciudad Victoria and other cities in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in which a drug cartel offered a bounty “to shut the mouths of those idiots who think they are heroes.” The flyer offered 600,000 pesos, more than 35,000 euros, for tips that would help identify the target, his parents, siblings, children or wife. They were not looking for a traitor from inside the ranks, a killer from a rival gang or an undercover agent from an anti-drug agency – but rather the anonymous operator of the  Valor por Tamaulipas Facebook page [1].

One year before, in January 2012, he had founded the Valor por Tamaulipas page to inform the inhabitants of Tamaulipas about current threats such as shoot outs, murders, kidnappings and blockaded streets via Facebook and Twitter. Eyewitnesses were invited to submit their photos and tips via an email address. The page quickly developed into one of the most important discussion platforms and sources of information about what was transpiring in Tamaulipas. The Facebook page has 276,000 readers and the ValorxTamaulipas Twitter [2] feed enjoys 45,000 followers.

Fighting the silence

In recent years the internet has become a final refuge for citizens, journalists and citizen journalists. Innumerable weblogs known as narcoblogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds like Valor por Tamaulipas have been created with one objective: to work around the increasing self-censorship of the local media and deliver information about the violence of the Mexican drug war. Since 2006 this bloody power struggle between rival cartels and the Mexican military has cost the lives of over 70,000 people, including many ordinary citizens.

Innumerable weblogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds have been created with one objective: to work around the increasing self-censorship of the local media.

With its high murder rate, the border town Ciudad Juárez has long been considered the most dangerous city in the world and a symbol of the drug war. But the battle is spreading to encompass ever increasing numbers of cities throughout Mexico. While arrests of cartel leaders have splintered the organisations, they have also made them even harder to control. The cartels form very shifting alliances with their competititors and the thousands of youth gangs across Mexico. They have expanded their business from the drugs trade to a whole host of other ills, such as kidnapping, human trafficking, extortion and product piracy.

In Tamaulipas, a state in Northeast Mexico bordering on Texas and the home of the Valor por Tamaulipas page, the war on drugs is raging with particular brutality. US experts refer to it as a “failed state”. The Golf Cartel is at war with the Zetas and entrenched in conflicts with the military and police, which often side with organized crime. Local inhabitants find themselves at the mercy of daily violence and kidnappings, lawlessness and weak, corrupt officials.

In the cartels’ sights

Very little information about what is happening in the theatres of the war on drugs makes its way to the outside world. Like terrorist organizations, the Mexican cartels practice information warfare, disseminating bloody images and videos to spread terror and fear. They are trying to maintain their image as powerful organisations that are moderate in their dealings with civilians and influence media reporting through bribes – or threats.

The Mexican cartels practice information warfare, disseminating bloody images and videos to spread terror and fear.

Mexico is therefore considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Since 2000, over 80 reporters and other media representatives have been killed there. The human rights organization Article 19 documented 207 attacks on journalists, editorial offices and their employees last year alone – kidnappings, murders, defamations and threats, shots fired at offices, the destruction of cameras and materials by cartels, but also by politicians, the police and the military.

Many media outlets and local media in particular are forced to self-censure. So local inhabitants have founded their own media on the internet to protect themselves and exchange information about what is happening.

Narcoblogs: Diaries of terror

In 2010 the narcoblog genre was created in Mexico. Numerous weblogs began documenting cartel violence, the brutality of the drug traders, the “narcos”, along with the violence and corruption of the military, police and politicians.

There were hyperlocal blogs that dealt with the situation in individual hot spots of the war on drugs, like the cities of Reynosa, Matamaros and Ciudad Mier. There were background blogs that compiled information on the different cartels and their histories. Blogs were created that documented the daily terror across the country – and sometimes copied articles, photos and videos from the websites of national and local media, brought together information from social networks, and, like Wikileaks, published material sent in by whistle-blowers.

Among the narcoblogs,"El Blog del Narco [3] has achieved a sort of information monopoly. Founded in March 2010, it is the most successful Mexican narcoblog. In 2013, the author of Blog del Narco even published her first book: “Dying for the Truth: Undercover Inside the Mexican Drug War by the Fugitive Reporters of Blog del Narco”.

The anonymous operators behind the blog, supposedly a young journalist who goes by the pseudonym “Lucy” and a 27-year-old IT student from northern Mexico, managed to attract millions of readers in a very short time including cartel members, members of the police and military, Mexican authorities, American anti-drug authorities and the FBI.

In the comment threads, regular citizens, weapons experts, police officers and cartel members sometimes debate what is actually happening – a negotiation about the truth.

In the comment threads, regular citizens, weapons experts, police officers and cartel members sometimes debate what is actually happening – a negotiation about the truth, which is very complex and fragile in Mexico.

Mouthpiece for the cartels

Narcoblogs are also controversial in Mexico: “The narcoblogs publish bloody images, but they don’t explain anything,” criticises Mexican investigative journalist Ana Lilia Pérez. “And the cartels use the blogs to cultivate their image.”

El Blog del Narco publishes all the material they receive with no selection process. The blog also disseminates narcomensajes, messages from the cartels, found with dismembered bodies or on huge banners on motorway overpasses, along with videos in which masked men saw the heads off the members of rival cartels while the cameras roll.

Videos and photos of murders taken with cameras or mobile telephones are part of the cartels’ publicity strategy.

In his book “War of the Zetas” journalist Diego Enrique Osorno describes how the cartels have begun sending photographers out with the murder squads: “The photographers and camera men are just as important to the death squads as the murders,” Osorno believes. “Otherwise who would preserve for posterity the crimes that are published on Blog del Narco or Youtube just minutes later?” Videos and photos of murders taken with cameras or mobile telephones are part of the cartels’ publicity strategy.

Murdering bloggers

Even the internet is no longer a space with complete freedom of speech. Cartels understand the importance of online communication, view internet formats as either PR platforms or irritations, and do their best to control what happens on the internet. On September 13, 2011, the bodies of a young woman and young man were found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo. They had been tortured before being killed, their ears and fingers mutilated, and the Zetas had left a warning to all “online traitors” who “post funny things on the internet” – such as on Blog del Narco or in the Frontera al Rojo Vivo forum.

Just a short time later on September 26, 2011, the Zetas killed 39-year-old María Elizabeth Macías Castro who regularly posted in the crowdsourcing blog Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and other social networks as La Nena de Laredo or Laredo Girl. The website had published information about the cartels, offered links to the anonymous whistle-blower pages of the police, navy, and military, and worked with users to create a collective map of points of sale for drugs. As a warning the Zetas cut off Castro’s head and placed it on her keyboard. On November 9, the next corpse was found in the same spot, this time a man who supposedly reported on the portal.

Four internet murders in just two months – and the terror campaign achieved its goal.

Four internet murders in just two months – and the terror campaign achieved its goal. The online community was shocked. Some closed down their Twitter accounts or stopped blogging – Nuevo Laredo en Vivo asked all users to change their passwords and names; the Frontera al Rojo Vivo forum closed down. Others expressed their willingness to fight back: “I am ready to sacrifice my life if soldiers read my reports, if the risk achieves something,” wrote user “Anon5182”.

In 2012 numerous new sources of information on the current risks sprang up on Facebook in particular, but on Twitter as well. These included, the Valor por Tamaulipas Facebook page (276,000 readers) founded at the beginning of 2012, the Codigo Rojo Saltillo Facebook page [4] with almost 35,000 likes, the Codigo Rojo Torreón page [5], created in September 2012 and with 37,000 fans, and the Codigo Rojo Laguna Facebook page [6] also put up in September 2012 and now with 201,000 readers.

Deadly security gaps

Although the internet is more decentralised than traditional media and internet users more difficult to locate than journalists who report for traditional media, bloggers and online journalists still face huge risks. On Facebook many people contribute comments through their personal profiles which contain their full names, photos, and other personal data – and place themselves in grave danger. Even the anonymous operators of blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts are not sufficiently protected.

Journalists and citizen journalists desperately need to improve their understanding of digital and mobile security.

A 2012 study led by ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Jorge Luis Sierra based on interviews with 102 journalists and bloggers throughout Mexico has warned that journalists and citizen journalists desperately needed to improve their understanding of digital and mobile security. According to the study, all those interviewed used social networks, mobile telephones and blogs for their work, but demonstrated “little or no command of digital security tools”. Just 15 percent of participants reported they had “a good command of security tools like data encryption, use of VPNs, anonymous Internet navigation and secure file removal.”

Two-thirds had already been victims of attacks or threats for their journalistic work. “The results of this survey show the urgent need to introduce Mexican journalists and bloggers to new technologies and protocols and help newsrooms develop a culture of digital-security awareness to counter increasingly sophisticated threats and attacks from both governmental agencies and criminal organizations,” the report concluded.

Left to their own devices

The operator of Valor por Tamaulipas was forced to shut down his Facebook page after the cartel placed a bounty on his head. Even the government took no steps to protect or defend him. And he did not appeal to the authorities for assistance because he did not trust them. Like journalists, bloggers face threats from the cartels, from government persecution or inaction, and the fact that criminals can act with virtual impunity.

In April 2013 he logged on one last time to take his leave: “In my case organised crime won the battle. It beat me and my family, but not society, not the 200,000 readers who trusted me, and not the thousands who sent me materials despite the terror.” The page went back online after a short hiatus – in all likelihood under a new administrator.

“He just said 'run', then hung up. 
It was our code word for extreme situations, our last resort.”

The author of the Blog del Narco had to flee to Spain [7] via the USA in May 2013. As she told a Guardian reporter over the phone, her partner who took care of the technical aspects of the blog had disappeared. On May 5 he called one last time to warn her: “He just said 'run', then hung up. It was our code word for extreme situations, our last resort, but until then we had never used it. I called him back but there was no answer. I emailed him, tried Skype and WhatsApp, but nothing. Nothing,” Lucy recalls. It was the last sign of life from her friend. She is still blogging in exile.

Header image © Feral House

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