A scrawled sign was placed next to a decapitated body near a main road in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo. Its message was simple: stop talking about drug cartels on the internet — or anywhere else. “Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and social networking sites,” the sign read, “I’m The Laredo Girl, and I’m here because of my reports, and yours.”
The execution of Marisol Macias Castaneda — known online as “The Laredo Girl” and as “Nena de Laredo” — is the latest in a series of attacks against Mexicans who go online to discuss drug violence. It’s an epidemic which a new report describes as “so horrific as to approach a civil war.”
The report, released Monday by the Texas Department of Agriculture and authored by retired Major General Robert Scales and retired General Barry McCaffrey, describes a conflict in which drug cartels have forced the “capitulation” of Mexican border cities, killed more than 40,000 people and have fueled “an internal war in Mexico that has stripped that country of its internal security to the extent that a virtual state of siege now exists adjacent to our own southwestern states.”
Residents in towns along drug trafficking routes have been forced out by cartels, leaving them abandoned. Throughout northern Mexico, civil society has “severely deteriorated.”
The authors go on to claim Mexican cartels have moved into Texas border counties to use as safe havens: hiding out from Mexican authorities under the nose of U.S. law enforcement, directing drug shipments into the United States interior and engaging in kidnapping. Cartels have built command centers in Texas comparable to brigade-level headquarters.
Cartel operatives are also becoming more confident. The authors note pickup trucks emblazoned with large “Z” stickers and Ferrari logos – symbols used by the Zetas cartel – are an increasingly common sight in Texas. Drug traffickers have also been spotted in uniform and have shown willingness to confront U.S. law enforcement.
During a press conference Monday, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples even warned that without adequate U.S. assistance to Mexico, the Mexican government may be forced to negotiate with the cartels following presidential elections next year. The Mexican government strongly denies any consideration of negotiating with criminals.
The McCaffrey/Scales report contains some problems. Talk about “spillover violence” is exaggerated and relies heavily on anecdotes. I listened to Laredo, Texas Mayor Raul Salinas incredulously tell an audience in Austin on Sunday that it’s “baloney” U.S. border cities are experiencing a surge in violence.
Indeed, FBI crime statistics show Laredo, El Paso and other border cities to be relatively peaceful for their size, though Scales and McCaffery are right that FBI statistics alone don’t tell the whole story. Cartel-related violence does in fact occur on the U.S. side of the border. As recently as Tuesday morning, an apparent power struggle within the Gulf Cartel led to a fatal shooting on a highway in McAllen, Texas.
But to what extent cartel-related crimes are exaggerated — or not — in Texas, it’s the reverse in Mexico. Tortured bodies of “snitches” turn up in public. Reporters who attempt to expose the cartels are struck down with guns and grenades. As a result, people have shifted to social media for information on violence and how to dodge it.
Writing for the New York Times, Damien Cave described a terrified public using Twitter, Facebook and blogs to transmit information traditional media cannot report for fear of reprisal. Cave points out that while Mexico is very dangerous, the country is broadly middle class and inundated with cell phones. Facebook has a 95 percent penetration rate. A laundry list of sites like El Blog del Narco report violence daily, often in extremely graphic detail.
Last week, social networks buzzed with information after a paramilitary group dumped the bodies of 35 people — presumed to be affiliated with the Zetas — from the backs of two pickup trucks during rush hour in the eastern coastal city of Veracruz. Last month, two Veracruz residents were charged with terrorism and sabotage (the charges were later dropped) after spreading false rumors on Twitter and Facebook that area schools were under attack by gunmen.
Cave writes that although cartels have successfully bullied traditional media into being quiet, they “are clearly threatened by the decentralized distribution of the Web. And it may be harder for them to control.”
Which explains why two residents of Nuevo Laredo were found hanged from a pedestrian overpass Sept. 13, allegedly for posting to social media websites. Macias, who also worked as an employee for local newspaper Primera Hora, was then killed.
“For those who don’t want to believe, this happened to me because of my actions, for believing in the army and the navy,” the sign read. It concluded, “Thank you for your attention, respectfully, Laredo Girl…ZZZZ.”