It’s no secret Mexico is one of the world’s most dangerous places for working journalists. However, you’d think commenters on web forums and blogs would be treated differently — exempt, perhaps, from retaliation for speaking openly about the country’s deadly drug war.
You’d be wrong.
On Tuesday morning in the sprawling northern industrial metro of Nuevo Laredo, just across the Texas border, the bodies of two residents were found strung by their arms and legs from a pedestrian overpass. The appearance of the man and woman, both in their twenties, revealed signs of torture. The woman was disembowled.
“This will happen to all the internet snitches (Frontera al Rojo Vivo, Blog Del Narco, or Denuncia Ciudadano),” read one banner accompanying the scene. Then a message. “Be warned, we’ve got our eye on you. Signed, Z.”
That likely means the Zetas: one of Mexico’s largest and most violent drug cartels. However, there is nothing necessarily new about victims of the Zetas hanged from bridges alongside or attached to crude “narco” banners, labeled with accusations of collaborating with the government or with rival cartels. But these banners listed websites, as if their victims’ only apparent offense was to have said too much online.
A word of caution, however. We don’t know if the two victims were indeed targeted, as their assassins claim, for participating in online discussions about the drug war — or for using social media to tip off authorities about crimes. But if true, the implication is that a war against media (or rather, an ongoing media war) has turned even more dangerous.
Before, narcocorrido musicians, or folk singers who write ballads glamorizing a criminal lifestyle, had faced threats and even assassination for offending the wrong drug lords. In response to the music genre’s popularity, the Mexican government launched a comics-art propaganda campaign.
Earlier this year, the Mexican government funded a short-lived television series glamorizing the federal police. On the other hand are narconovelas, or popular soap operas about fashionable but fictional mafia wives.
Some major media organizations have reduced coverage of violence citing ethics guidelines, so as to not publicize cartel killings. Other journalists have scaled back reporting on the drug war due to kidnappings, killings and threats against themselves and their colleagues.
To an extent, social media in the form of blogs and web forums have taken their place.
“The criminal gangs exert control over the press,” Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists told the Washington Post. “The media stops. And in the absence of news, ordinary citizens turn to Twitter and Facebook to fill the void.”
Civilians have taken to real-time reporting of trouble spots on the country’s dangerous northern highways. Using Twitter, locations of firefights between cartels and government security forces, or risky cartel checkpoints, are broadcast by volunteers to wired motorists.
The reliance on social media also includes a degree of risk. Last month, rumors spread throughout the city of Veracruz via Twitter and Facebook that area schools had come under attack by gangs. The rumors were false, but led to panic as parents wrecked and abandoned cars in frantic attempts to reach their children. In a case that has drawn criticism from human rights groups, two people were arrested and accused of “terrorism and sabotage.”
But if users of social media are now potential targets, as far as the cartels are concerned, whatever distinction there was between old and new media may as well no longer exist.