Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category

A Brief History of Narcocorridos

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Unless you live in northern Mexico or you’re a Mexican-American living in any of the border states, chances are you’ve never heard of American singer-songwriter Gerardo Ortiz. And yet, if you were to measure popularity by an artist’s YouTube views and subscribers, then Gerardo Ortiz would be twice as popular as Madonna. His 2013 hit “Dámaso” from the Latin-Grammy nominated album “El Primer Ministro” has over 140 million views on YouTube. Gerardo Ortiz sings narcocorridos, Mexican folk ballads about famous drug lords, their exploits, lifestyle, and the drug trade in general.

Ortiz is just one of hundreds of narcocorrido artists that have become incredibly popular in the past decade. Another such artist is Alfredo Rios, better known as El Komander who is part of a sub-genre of narcocorridos called ‘movimiento alterado’, or ‘altered movement’. Unlike the narcocorridos, these songs go beyond chronicling the lifestyle and adventures of drug dealers and instead go into very explicit detail on beheadings, torture, and kidnappings that are so commonplace among the narcos.

Con cuerno de chivo y bazuka en la nuca
volando cabezas al que se atraviesa

With an AK-47 and a bazooka around my neck
blowing off the heads of whoever gets in our way

Where did this music come from and how did it become so unbelievably popular among millions of people? Narcocorridos have been around for a long time and have gone through several important transformations, and as their popularity increased, it came to draw the attention of authorities. The glorification of the violence and the narco-lifestyle has been major pain in the side of the Mexican authorities who have repeatedly sought to censor such music. This attempt at censorship has drawn a lot of comparisons between narcocorridos and gangster rap from the 1980’s. El Komander has even been called “the Jay Z of Mexican drug balladeers.

Corridos have a long history in Mexico, starting from the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 and throughout the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921). The ballads usually told stories about oppression by the government and usually carried hidden political meanings as was common during the revolution. They were also about the daily lives of peasants and sometimes about a lost or disgraced love. In fact, you’ve probably heard one of these corridos before.

Ballads about smuggling appeared in the late 19th century, when the government of president Porfirio Diaz imposed tariffs on fine textiles upwards of 300% making the smuggling of textiles from the US into Mexico a very lucrative business. One of the most famous textile smugglers was Mariano Resendez, the subject of one of the first ballads about contraband. Resendez, like the subjects of many corridos, was considered a hero among the communities in Northern Mexico because of his resistance to government forces. In fact, drug lore is full of such characters. Most famous of which is Jesus Malverde, angel of the poor, patron saint of the narcos, and subject of many narcocorridos.

Although his existence is not verified, Malverde was most likely not a drug smuggler since marijuana and opiates were not illegal during his time (b. 1870 – d. 1909). It wasn’t until 1920 and 1925 that Mexico prohibited the sale and use of marijuana and opiates, respectively. What’s significant about Malverde is his Robin Hood-esque fame. His story is said to be modeled after Heraclio Bernal (1855-1888) who, quite literally, stole from the rich and gave to the poor. This important trope will remain a significant part of narcocorridos for many decades.

 

Jesus Malverde soap

Photo by: David Agren

It wasn’t until the 1920’s with the enactment of the 18th Amendment and the subsequent Volstead Act that smuggling really took off. Smugglers known as Tequileros would push rafts full of–you guessed it–Tequila across the Rio Grande and would drive trucks through the desert to smuggle it into the US. In addition to smuggling, corridos at the time also dealt with social issues. As “El Corrido de los Bootleggers” demonstrates, the dire conditions in some parts of Mexico sometimes left people with no other choice but to resort to smuggling.

Me puse a pensar señores
Que trabajo ya no había
Tenía que buscar mi vida
Si el señor me concedía

I started thinking, gentlemen
There is no more work
I have to find my life
If the Lord would grant me

When prohibition ended in 1933, the Tequileros suddenly found themselves out of a job and turned to other controlled substances. Drug smuggling took off shortly afterwards and with that came the first drug ballads. One of the first narcocorrido is said to have been “El Contrabandista” written by Juan Gaytán of the “Gaytán y Cantú” band. It perfectly illustrates the shift in the smuggling business.

Comencé a vender champán, tequila y vino habanero,
Pero este yo no sabía lo que sufre un prisionero.
Muy pronto compré automóvil, propiedad con residencia,
Sin saber que en poco tiempo iba ir a la penitencia.
Por vender la cocaína, la morfina y la mariguana,
Me llevaron de prisionera a las dos de la mañana.

I began selling champagne, tequila, and Havana wine,
But I did not know what a prisoner suffers.
Soon I bought an automobile, property with a house,
Without knowing that in a short time I would be going to jail.
For selling cocaine, morphine, and marijuana,
They took me prisoner at two in the morning.

After the initial appearance of drug ballads, there seems to be a gap between the 1950’s and 1960’s, when nothing major happened in the narcocorrido space. This could have been due to the economic prosperity Mexico enjoyed during these decades. The resurgence of narcocorridos seems to coincide with the social and economic trouble that enveloped the country at the end of the 1960’s. Another major factor for their resurgence could have been the increase in marijuana consumption in the US during the 1960’s or the increase in heroin traffick due to the collapse of its market in Europe and the Middle East. Whatever it was, the definite turning point for narcocorridos came in 1972 when a song about a now very famous Texan hit the airwaves. The song, by norteño band from Northern California, would mean the rebirth of a genre that would grow to reach millions of listeners on both sides of the border.

Ángel González wrote “Contrabando y Traición” in the mid 60’s and Los Tigres del Norte, a band formed earlier in San Jose, CA recorded it in 1972. The story begins with Camelia “La Texana” travelling north from San Isidro to LA with her partner Emilio Varela, their car tires filled with marijuana. Upon arriving to Hollywood and finalizing the drug deal, Emilio Varela tells Camelia he is leaving her for another woman in San Francisco. Camelia does not take this news too lightly and shoots Emilio, taking off with the money and never being heard of again. Up until then, most of the corridos had been about real events, but Ángel had completely made up the story of Camelia (even though he did happen to know a Camelia who isn’t from Texas and an Emilio Varela, his cousin, who had never met Camelia). In writing a fictional song, Ángel set the genre on a new path. Soon after the song’s widespread success, hundreds of writers tried to replicate the formula and it took the popularity of narcocorridos to new heights.  

In an interview by author Elijah Wald, González tells how after 30 years he has not been able to come to terms with the song’s enormous popularity and the countless of corridistas it inspired. “That song, I wrote it without thinking, I had no idea what would happen afterward. After my corrido, along came that whole pile of songs about drug traffickers, but I wrote it without any idea of that. It was a problem I brought to light, but not something I knew much about […] I never, never ever thought that the song would make it big.” While it seems like González had a strong moral stance against drug smuggling, it is not clear that the rest of the corridistas and their fans shared the same ideals.

Researcher, Juan Carlos Ramirez-Pimienta says drug trafficking was seen almost as a patriotic duty since it was bringing large quantities of money into Mexico. The economic benefits of the drug trade are of course exaggerated, he says, but it’s not difficult to see how in the minds of a lot of people, drug trafficking was not all that bad, especially during Mexico’s troubled economy. What’s more, the cartels would often give out “narcolimosnas”, or narco-charity to win over the public’s opinion. It’s almost too obvious that the major drug lords would engage in the same type of generosity as legends like Jesús Malverde. If the lower classes in Mexico had the social, cultural, financial, and even military backing from the government, it would have been harder for the cartels to win over large segments of the Mexican population (decades later, this sort of justification would no longer be necessary with the “Movimiento Alterado”).

With or without moral justification, the genre exploded and corridos underwent several transformations. The songs shifted from portraying the protagonist as someone who just smuggled drugs into someone who reaped and enjoyed the riches it brought. The smuggler was now someone who consumed drugs and not just smuggled them, someone who enjoyed the lifestyle, someone who through their own brawn rather than their brain rose up from poverty to achieve great success in the form of riches and power. Researcher Helena Simonnet says:

“The changing social reality of Mexico’s Northwest also affected popular music, notably the corrido production. Although the image of the brave man that was generated by the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century still holds for the protagonists of the contemporary corridos, the meaning of bravery has changed. While the heroes of the folk corridos raised their arms for social justice and equality, the tough guys of the narcocorridos carry their weapons for personal enrichment and empowerment.”

No one embodies the quintessential narcocorrido protagonist of the time better than Rafael Caro Quintero. Born in a poor rural town in Sinaloa, Caro Quintero went on to be a billionaire as the founder of the Guadalajara Cartel. His story alone could fill volumes as it involves the CIA, the DEA, the Contras, and billions of dollars stashed in Swiss bank accounts. In the eyes of the people, Caro Quintero was a hero. For one, he was born into a very poor family where he was one of 12 siblings. In his teenage years he began growing and selling marijuana, amassing a small fortune that would later become billions. He also defied the US government in a way that resonated among people living along the border, people who had suffered at the hands of US authorities. And of course, he was known to be very generous having funded large infrastructure projects such as a highway in his hometown of Badiguarato. Hundreds of songs were written about Caro Quintero.

At the same time as corridos were exalting narco-heroes for their generosity, they were also celebrating the lavish narco lifestyle. Mexican authorities, out of fear that these songs would act as recruitment strategies for the cartels, began cracking down and in some places banned these songs from the airwaves. This never proved fruitful since much of the audience resided in the US where freedom of speech laws protected the corridos from any sort of censorship. What’s more, US radio stations have no regard from borders, so people who lived along the border on the Mexican side could still tune in to American radio stations. Censorship even proved advantageous to bands such as Los Tigres del Norte who capitalized on prohibition by marketing their albums as “forbidden”. Despite relatively low airplay in Mexico, their best-selling album “Corridos Prohibidos” (Forbidden Corridos) was hugely successful even though there was nothing “forbidden” about their songs, especially not in the US. Their strategy proved so successful that many other bands followed suit like Los Tucanes de Tijuana’s “Tucanes de Plata: Catorce Tucanes Censurados”.

As the popularity and demand for narcocorridos raged on, in the early nineties, a new phenomenon began to take hold of Los Angeles nightclubs. Many capos, having heard many commercial narcocorridos about the most famous drug lords such as Caro Quintero, decided they wanted to be protagonists of their own corridos, so they started commissioning their own.

Among the most influential commissioned-corridistas was Rosalino “Chalino” Sánchez. As the story goes, Chalino was born in 1960 in rural Sinaloa. When he was five years old, a local tough guy raped his sister. Ten years later, Chalino ran into him at a party and without saying a word walked up to him and shot him dead. Soon afterward he fled Sinaloa and moved to LA to live with his aunt. In LA he would work several jobs including low-level smuggling which would connect him to the narco-world. In 1984, his brother, Armando, was shot and killed in Tijuana and Chalino would write his first narcocorrido to preserve his memory. Soon afterward he found himself serving jail time where he would write songs about his fellow inmates in exchange for money or favors. Word spread of his writing talents and after his release he found himself in high demand among low-level narcos who would pay him cash to produce cassettes with their ballads performed by a band. While still a relatively local phenomenon in southern California, his big publicity break came in early 1992 when, while singing at a club in Coachella, someone came up to the stage and shot Chalino on his side. Chalino pulled out his gun and shot back. By the end of the shootout, the would-be assassin would end up dead, shot in the mouth with his own pistol. News coverage of the shooting made him a sensation on both sides of the border. Months later, Chalino’s luck ran out when after a concert in Culiacán he was killed after being picked up by a group of armed men. He became the Mexican version of Tupac Shakur. Chalino’s death elevated him to legendary status. Hundreds of songs were written about him, his song “Nieves de Enero” became a radio hit, and soon the narcocorrido genre was flooded with imitators.

The narcocorrido trend continued throughout the nineties. While Mexico was enjoying a period of relative peace, so were the corridos. All that seemed to change when Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. Soon after Operation Michoacán in December of the same year, the country turned violent and so did the corridos, and with that came the birth of the Movimiento Alterado. Although now used as a generic term, Movimiento Alterado (“altered” movement, as in the altered state of your brain, supposedly) was a product of Adolfo and Omar Valenzuela, owners of Twiins Music Group who produced a lot of corridos alterados through their subsidiary La Disco Music. Unlike narcocorridos before them, this new breed of corridos was hyper violent, with lyrics about blowing people’s heads off and killing those who deserved it.

Even though there is a clear difference between older corridos and new corridos “alterados”, artists from this new movement seem to disagree with critics who say their songs promote violence. Singer-songwriter El Komander has said during interviews his songs are about partying and about having a good time, not about promoting violence. But the truth is that the festive corridos El Komander describes have been around since the nineties and it is very difficult to find any songs from that decade that match the level of violence contained in the new corridos.

While it was Calderon’s bloody war that caused the birth of this new genre, it was the increasing adoption of the internet in Mexico that allowed for its spread. The low production costs and essentially free distribution afforded by services such as YouTube allowed hundreds of young people to take risks by exploring new styles and helped them gain new audiences. In the late 1980’s Chalino had to sell cassettes out of the trunk of his car. Nowadays singer-songwriters only need a camera and an internet connection. The internet even serves as a source for inspiration. In the documentary film “Narco Cultura”, BuKnas frontman Edgar Quintero, who lives in LA but seldom travels to Mexico, watches YouTube videos from Mexico to draw inspiration for his own songs.

It is worth noting that at this point in time, not only did artists merely sing about violence, but the violence also came to them in a very real way. Chalino Sanchez popularized the commissioned narcocorrido trend. Unfortunately, he might have also been the first in a long list of ill-fated corridistas. Singing about the narcotrafficking world turned out to be an extremely dangerous profession.

All of these people were killed between 2006 and 2010. During the same period, the Committee To Protect Journalists lists 38 killed journalists. In Mexico, being a narcocorrido singer, is almost as dangerous as being a journalist.

During the past 15 years, narcocorridos have become harder to categorize. They are more complex, dealing with a variety of subjects. Some songs give people an insight into the secret and underground world of narcotrafficking. Others very graphically describe the exploits of the famous capos. Then there are others which are purely about the narco-lifestyle. Narcocorridos are many things: stories, eulogies, praise, and even news sources.

In a country where traditional media is censored via intimidation, through the government, or even self-censorship, millions of people are forced to resort to alternative news sources such as El Blog del Narco. This blog and it’s many re-incarnations and copycats have been extremely popular sources for people who want to get the inside scoop into world of the narcos. Narcocorridos offer people another peek into the secret world of narcotrafficking. Narcocorridos don’t need to act as a source of breaking news to be relevant. They are relevant because they are an important vehicle for distributing information about major events. One recent example is Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman’s second escape from prison. Within hours, corridistas had written, composed, recorded, and uploaded their songs on the internet about El Chapo’s escape.

El Chapo’s escape was widely covered in the news, but a much less covered news story at the time was the death of Atanacio Torres Acosta, son of Manuel Torres Felix “El M1”, a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008. His death, which was the result of a rivalry between M1 and the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, left a trail of torture and murder for many weeks and solidified the rivalry between the cartels that would leave thousands dead for years to come. In April of 2008, gang members of the latter killed Torres Felix’s son, Atanasio and injured his 4-year-old sister (apparently she lost half of her right arm). The killing sent Torres Felix into a killing spree, which earned him the nickname “El Ondeado” (The Crazy One). About a month after the killing, two dead bodies appeared in the same location, one of which was found decapitated inside a plastic barrel. A sign next to the bodies read: “These are the homosexual gunmen of Arturo Beltrán Leyva and the guy in the barrel is non other than the childkiller ‘El Caimán’. So you learn to respect. My respects for the children.” At the time very few sources covered the newsHowever the story is now part of narco-lore partly because of the song “La Venganza del M1”:

Cobro justo liquido las cuentas
de la empresa del m y la z
conocido como el m1

es mi vicio la sangre enemiga
la venganza se me hizo un placer
habra torturas, habra un infierno

el 4 fue valiente mi hijo
fue abatido por unos cobardes
tenian miedo de llegar conmigo

con un pie presionaba su pecho
con una mano le agarro el pelo
en la otra mano trae un cuchillo
lo decapito les corto el cuello
y dejo junto a el un mensaje
que para los niños su respeto

Charged justly, settled accounts
Of the M and Z enterprise
He is known as the M1

My vice is enemy blood
Vengeance is my pleasure
There will be tortures, there will be hell

4 was brave, my son
Was killed by some cowards
They were afraid to meet me

With one foot I pressed against his chest
With one hand I grabbed his hair
In the other hand, a knife
I decapitate him, I cut their necks
And I leave next to him a message
To children, you show respect

When these corridos report a story such as the case of El M1’s son, it is hard to verify at the time the accuracy of the events described. It is usually until later that people find out what really happened and we confirm whether the corrido was fact or fiction. If this seems like a less than ideal news source, it is. But consider that the same thing can be said about information received from the government (or lack thereof). If the government knew about the intricacies in the rivalries among the cartels that people have heard through narcocorridos, they did not communicate it. Because of government mistrust and censorship in the media, these alternate mediums such as corridos and El Blog del Narco became a very important source of information for people seeking information about the narco-world.

Narcocorridos, altered or unaltered, promote a long list of morally impure practices such as violence, criminal lifestyles, misogyny, homophobia, etc. But they can’t be merely dismissed as such, for they tell story and culture of the last 100 years for a significant part of Mexico. They are complicated and straightforward, deplorable and worthwhile, uninteresting and fascinating. They are a major part of a culture comprised of millions of people, and they can’t be dismissed as merely “songs about violence” because like them or not, they are here to stay.

 


 

Ramirez-Pimienta, Juan Carlos. “De Torturaciones, Balas Y Explosiones: Narcocultura, Movimiento Alterado E Hiperrealismo En El Sexenio de Felipe Calderón.” A Contra Corriente 10, no. 3 (Sprin 2013): 302–34.
———. “Del Corrido De Narcotráfico Al Narcocorrido: Orígnes Y Desarrollo Del Canto a Los Traficantes.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 23 (2004): 21–41.
Schwarz, Saul. Narco Cultura. Ocean Size Pictures, 2013.
Simonett, Helena. “Narcocorridos: An Emerging Micromusic of Nuevo L. A.” Ethnomusicology 45, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 2001): 315–37.
Wald, Elijah. Narcocorrido:  A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas. 1st ed. Rayo, 2001.

The Mexican GovBots Did NOT Take Down #YaMeCanse, But We Can Keep #YaMeCanse# Trending

Monday, December 8th, 2014

Perhaps it was the excitement of hearing about a new phenomenon in censorship that prompted me to write a little too hastily about how the government of Mexico might have used Twitter bots to spam and trash the #YaMeCanse hashtag out of the trending topics list. As reported by Lo Que Sigue, Sopitas.com, Aristegui Noticias, and myself, #YaMeCanse, the hashtag used as the rallying cry for Mexico’s 43 missing students, was suddenly dropped from the trending topic list by an army of bots, presumably coordinated by the federal government. No proof is provided by any of us that the government was behind this, but a series of videos and screenshots originally provided by Lo Que Sigue lead us to believe that a swarm of bots is at least responsible.

It was NOT the bots

December 3 at 10:36 AM was the last time @TrendieMX reported #YaMeCanse to be trending. By 9:36 PM of the next day, #YaMeCanse2 was already trending. Let’s take a look at what the Topsy trends for #YaMeCanse looks like for the month of November and the first days of December.

Usage of #YaMeCanse

 

To make sense of what happened, we need to understand what Twitter is doing to calculate a trending topic. We don’t have access to specific information about how the trending algorithm functions, but we do know how trending algorithms in work general and we have some clues about what Twitter has done in the past to tweak its algorithms. The relevant issue here can be described as “the Justin Bieber problem”. Many of you might remember how some years ago Justin Bieber was constantly trending due to the millions of Beliebers continuously tweeting about him. Twitter wants to tell us what’s trending right now, and not one hour ago or one month ago. As Twitter is quoted saying in this Mashable article:

“The new algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help people discover the ‘most breaking’ breaking news from across the world. (We had previously built in this ’emergent’ algorithm for all local trends, described below.) We think that trending topics which capture the hottest emerging trends and topics of discussion on Twitter are the most interesting.”

Instead of merely looking at volume of Bieber tweets (of which there are many), Twitter looks at speed and “burstiness” of the tweets. However, there’s more to it. If Twitter only measured “burstiness”, you might see “Good Morning” trending every morning of every day. For this, Twitter establishes a baseline of expected frequencies based on history. Twitter “knows” there is usually a spike of “Good Morning” tweets every morning and corrects for this. As this video on trend detection in twitter social data explains, a ratio is calculated for each term based on the past frequency of the term and the present frequency.

What most likely happened is that after a couple of weeks of trending, the baseline for #YaMeCanse rose from zero (it didn’t exist before 11/7) to the frequency of people tweeting at the end of November. Twitter treated the volume and speed of the hashtag as something it would expect and dropped it off the trending list.

Baseline shift on #YaMeCanse

Spam bots should have no impact on the algorithm. The spam team at Twitter identifies the bots and they are not counted towards the algorithm. Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that Twitter has a team of low-paid human workers manually sorting through hashtags to eliminate advertiser spam. Even so, there is no evidence of an increase in bots during the time the hashtag was dropped from the list. The team at Lo Que Sea provided this video as proof of the presence of bots (not that we need proof of that in general)

Screenshot of Lo Que Sea video

Why are individual and unconnected tweets labeled as bots? If I tweet and only one person RT’s me, by their standards, I’m a bot. You can run the simulation from the video yourself on flocker.outliers.es. Use #YaMeCanse2 and wait for the same pattern of connected and disconnected tweets to occur. Then zoom in on the disconnected tweets and look up a couple of usernames. You’ll find a lot of those disconnected nodes are real people. You’ll also run into bots, but having no one retweet your tweet does not make you a bot.

This has happened before.

This would not be the first time that people have cried censorship upon the disappearance of a hashtag from the TT list. The Mashable article quoted above was a response to Beliebers accusing Twitter of censorship. Similarly, occupiers accused Twitter of censorship when #OccupyWallStreet was taken off the list. In both occasions Twitter had to step in and say this was just a result of how the algorithm works. In some cases we should be glad the algorithm works like this, otherwise we’d see #JustinBieber constantly trending. But how about when it’s something important like #YaMeCanse?

At this point I should say that if it were possible for the Mexican government to use such a tactic to censor people on social media, they probably would. We’ve already seen how Peña Nieto’s campaign used bots to promote the candidate on Twitter. And earlier this year, an initiative put forth by Peña Nieto on Radio and Telecom caused a lot of controversy when people claimed the law would allow the government to censor online content and to interrupt cell reception during protests. There’s also the case of 1DMX.org which was censored by GoDaddy under pressure from the US Consulate in Mexico.

We’ve Discovered How To Get Around the Algorithm

I believe the immediate response by the Mexican Twitterverse in the creation of #YaMeCanse2 has revealed an exploitable feature in the algorithm. It took less than two days for people to adapt to the new hashtag. Topsy Trends shows that #YaMeCanse2 doesn’t have significantly more traffic than #YaMeCanse had before being taken down, but the reason why #YaMeCanse2 was able to trend so quickly is because its baseline at the time was zero. This means whenever #YaMeCanse2’s baseline shifts up enough for it to de-trend, we can just start again with #YaMeCanse3. We can keep going with this as long as we keep the speed at which people tweet constant or as long as Twitter doesn’t catch on and modifies the algorithm to account for us just adding a number at the end of the phrase (In which case we can just add the word “tres”). This is also why we keep seeing so many different Bieber hashtags, they’re all different phrases that didn’t exist before.

The lesson here for the Mexican folk is that if we want to continue to have a #YaMeCanse hashtag trending, we need to coordinate to increment the number at the end of the tag each time it expires. When #YaMeCanse2 falls off the list, we simply switch over to #YaMeCanse3.

Censorship on Twitter Using Bots? How #YaMeCanse Was Knocked Off Twitter Trending Topics

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

UPDATE BELOW, AND ALSO THIS POST WITH MORE INFO.

In late September of this year, 43 students in the Mexican state of Guerrero went missing. In an attempt to prevent students from disrupting a political event for his wife, the mayor of Iguala ordered local police to stop and detain the students. This set in motion a series of events that resulted in several murdered students and 43 missing students. People later learned the missing students were handed over to a local cartel and were subsequently killed and burned until no traces of their bodies were left behind. This announcement was made during a press conference by Mexico’s Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam where at the end of the conference, tired and exasperated, said “Ya me cansé.” I’ve had enough.

#YaMeCanse

Mexicans took to social media and responded with “We’re tired too…” Of the violence. Of the injustice. Of the impunity. Of the corruption. The #YaMeCanse hashtag became the rallying cry for discourse online and protests all over Mexico. The hashtag has been on Twitter trending topics almost since Murillo Karam’s press conference. Yesterday, the hashtag suddenly disappeared from the list even though usage had not waned.

Usage of #YaMeCanse

 

This sudden disappearance of such a popular hashtag raised some eyebrows. Determining trending topics is a little more complicated than simply calculating the number of mentions of a hashtag. Twitter has an algorithm that determines trending topics based on several factors. According to Twitter, one of the rules against usage of trending topics is “Repeatedly Tweeting the same topic/hashtag without adding value to the conversation in an attempt to get the topic trending or trending higher.” It is very likely that the overwhelming spamming of the #YaMeCanse caused Twitter’s algorithms to treat the hashtag as spam and proceded to remove it from the trending list.

As reported in sopitas.com, an army of bots had been RT and tweeting the #YaMeCanse hashtag for several days.

“Who says that online censorship and repression does not exist online? A storm of bots tries to disappear #YaMeCanse”

Spam Tweets

Another analysis by Lo Que Sigue shows the difference between connected and disconnected tweets symbolizing real people versus bots.

#YaMeCanse2

Not to be easily dissuaded, the Mexican twitterverse quickly came up with a simple solution: #YaMeCanse2, which is currently trending. An added cleverness to adding the number ‘2’ is that it forces people to ask “What happened to regular #YaMeCanse? Where’s #YaMeCanse1?” which leads people to find out about the attack. It’s a sort of the Barbra Streissand effect where in an attempt to censor one hashtag, not only do people evade the censorship, but in doing so call attention to the attempt at censorship.

It’s quite possible that this is not a coordinated attack on the hashtag by some entity. It could be just regular bots hijacking a popular hashtag. And it is very tempting to attribute to this “attack” to the government of Mexico. I would not be surprised at all if it was, and I’d be willing to bet that the Mexican government is behind this (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I would like to find definitive proof. The people behind Lo Que Sigue working to start an Indiegogo campaign to try and find the origin of these bots. Perhaps we don’t have to wait around for this to get funded and we can crowdsource/collaborate to try and see if tracing the origin of the bots is possible. I would welcome any ideas on how to do this.

UPDATE:

So Trending Topics are more complicated than they seem. It’s hard to tell whether bots had any role in dropping the hashtag from the trending list. It seems that Twitter is actually looking for “bursts” of tweets, and how fast these tweets appear ( ∂Tw/∂t?). It is entirely possible that volume of tweets remained stable but the “burstiness” was gone. I don’t know. Twitter’s algorithms are very private. Even if bots played no part in dropping the hashtag, the possibility of that happening might still exist. After all, riding hashtags to promote unrelated content is shunned by Twitter. Whether they can detect that algorithmically, I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised. If they can detect that, then it’s entirely possible to spam a hashtag using bots. Perhaps the only way to find out is to actually measure the volume and speed of the bots. Doing this, it turns out, is very hard.

 

Pushing Policy Through Mexican Telenovelas

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

In recent Mexican news, there has been some talk about an energy reform. One of the biggest and most contentious issues being discussed is whether the state-owned oil company, PEMEX, should be allowed to receive foreign investment. Whether it should or it shouldn’t is not the topic of this post.

A couple of months ago, a YouTube user uploaded this clip from the telenovela Corazón Indomable.

Translating, and attempting to keep the tone of the conversation, the dialog goes something like this:

Woman 1: “Is there an inconvenience ma’am?”

Woman 2: “I didn’t think that a foreigner could have property in this island.”

Woman 1: “Yes, we are happy that is so. We would be sad if we didn’t have investment from abroad.”

Woman 2: “Why?”

Woman 1: “Because places prosper with everyone’s talent, national and foreign.”

Woman 2: “Hmm, but foreigners take the money with them, no?

Woman 1: “Money comes and goes, what you’re talking about with the Emir, he practically leaves it here because he spends it here.”

[Some talk about the Emir.]

Woman 2: “Well, every day you learn something new.”

Woman 1: “And what did you learn today?”

Woman 2: “Well, that foreign investment is really necessary and convenient.”

Woman 1: “Don’t doubt it. Without disparaging the national ones, of course.”

Woman 2: “Well, thanks for everything and good day.”

Woman 1: “Good day, excuse me.”

This telenovela is produced by Mexico’s largest media company (and largest in the Spanish-speaking world), Televisa. Televisa generated a lot of controversy during last year’s presidential election because of an alleged secret collaboration between the PRI and Televisa. The media company has been criticized for it’s low quality content and often ridiculous telenovelas (if you don’t speak Spanish, I’m sorry, you’re missing out), but I’m not sure I have seen this blatant use of telenovelas to convince the public of a political agenda before. It even gets didactic in the end when the woman asks “And what did you learn today?”

In a country where only two companies (Televisa and TV Azteca) own practically all TV content in Spanish, it is becoming increasingly important to make sure more people have access to the internet, where they would have access to a broader variety of media content, and as the Soraya meme shows, would even have the ability to ridicule such horrible TV .

The Internet vs. The Cartels: Social Media Use in Mexico’s Drug War

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Note: This post was made for Clay Shirky’s Political Uses of Social Media class at ITP. It references a couple of documents that the class read for class, but I tried to write this as a self-contained post for those who have not read some of these articles (although they are all linked).

This a brief overview of the use of social media in Mexico and its role in the Mexican Drug War. I will start with a bit of background on how the situation got to where it is, and how the use of social media has evolved throughout the years. There have been several major events that are worth noting which serve to paint a general picture of the role of social media in Mexico during this time of crisis. I will also discuss how the social movements against the cartels and the cartels themselves fit into Jennifer Earl’s Tanks, Tear Gas, and Taxes. Finally, I will look at some possibilities for more effective action by the social movements in Mexico.

Drug cartels have been present in Mexico for several decades, but it wasn’t until President Felipe Calderón, who vowed to wage a war against the cartels, took office in 2006, that the violence became commonplace around the country. There is some debate as to exactly why drug violence rose dramatically during the Calderón years, but most people believe that Calderon’s strategy of eliminating high-ranking cartel members created a power struggle– for control over the organization or over territory–among the different cartels that caused the cartels to become considerably more aggressive. Of course, much of the violence and it’s spilling onto the streets also resulted from the mere fact of sending in thousands of armed forces into cities and towns to wage a war against powerful criminal organizations.

For the first couple of years, traditional news sources such as newspapers would follow the quotidian routine of reporting the horrendous violence on the streets. However, journalists remained unprotected, and the cartels started threatening, and even killing, reporters who wrote about the violence or who tried to expose information the cartels wished to keep secret (a full report on killed or missing journalists is available from the Center to Protect Journalists). Newspapers started to self-censor. In September, 2010, El Diario de Juárez, the largest newspaper from the most violent city, published an op-ed declaring that it had decided to self-censor after the killing of two of it’s journalists. “We ask you to explain what you want from us, what we should try to publish or not publish, so we know what to expect.” the op-ed read. And the trend continued; journalists were threatened or killed, newspapers self-censored, and sometimes even newspaper offices were attacked.

Density Plot of Reporters Killed/Disappeared During the Mexican Drug War

It seems there has been a decline since 2010. Could it be there is less threat to reporters because less reporters are reporting about the violence?

The bloggers started early on (Twitter had not caught on yet). It’s difficult to trace these blogs since some don’t exist anymore, but others are still around. The “first” Blog Del Narco was hosted on Blogspot and started in May, 2008 and remained very active (publishing 1,500+ posts) for about 2.5 years. Just as this blog’s activity began dwindling* (see footnote), the now famous Blog del Narco (BDN) appeared (same name, not related).  Although it’s hard to confirm their motivations since most bloggers remain anonymous, it is believed that these blogs were a response to the media’s self-censorship. Last month, the blogger for BDN agreed to an interview by The Guardian and the Texas Observer, in which she revealed she was a woman in her mid-20’s living somewhere north Mexico. Lucy (as she has nicknamed herself), with the help from a colleague who handles the tech, has posted more than 7,800 posts about the cartels during her 3-year blogging career. She has received multiple death threats from the cartels and has also been accused of spreading the cartel’s message and is therefore also wanted by the police. BDN has since acquired a huge following (3M hits/month) and has become indispensable reading when it comes to narco-news. Lucy sees herself and her work as necessary to fill the void left by the censored media. “If it wasn’t for the blog often bodies wouldn’t be identified”, she says.

But it hasn’t been easy for the bloggers. In 2011, the Zeta cartel started cracking down on those who reported the group’s activities. On September of that year, two people were disemboweled and hung from a bridge by the Zetas with a message warning anyone who decided to blog about their activities. Days later, another blogger was decapitated and left with a similar message. A month later, a fourth blogger. Years later in her interview, Lucy would reveal that some of those bloggers were regular contributors. Since those four killings, there hasn’t been much news about dead bloggers, but the threats nonetheless continue.

Then came the interesting case of Anonymous. I want to add a caveat that there is no way to know if all of this information is 100% true, but this is the widely accepted story of how things went down. During the summer of 2011, the Mexican faction of the loose hacktivist collective Anonymous launched Operation PaperStorm. Anonymous believed that the Veracruz state government was protecting the Zetas while prosecuting those who tweeted about kidnappings (more on this later). After (or perhaps in response to) PaperStorm, a member of Anonymous was kidnapped by the Zetas. Anonymous responded by threatening to release vital information concerning the Zetas cartel if the victim was not released by November 5th. In response, unconfirmed reports suggest that the Zetas recruited computer specialists to try to identify the Anonymous members behind the threat. This digital standoff could’ve been devastating to both groups. The release of such information could have potentially been dangerous to the Zetas cartel, especially in the hands of rival cartels, while the lives of the Anonymous members were at stake if their identities were revealed. As a result of the deadly threat, many Anonymous members denied involvement and disassociated themselves with those who wanted to go forward with the threat. On November 4th, the kidnapped victim was released and the Zetas threatened to kill 10 people for every name released by Anonymous. Both parties backed down.

The Zetas cartel operates as a clandestine operation. Their attacks on bloggers and news media reveal a strategy to control information in order to remain unidentified to ensure the group can continue to operate with impunity. This control of information runs counter to the beliefs of Anonymous, which believes information should be free and decentralized. It was only a matter of time before these two groups collided. The threat of having information about the cartel released posed a great threat to the Zetas’ operations (the information supposedly contained names of members, bribed officials, and messengers). Since Anon operates as a loose collective, a lot of its members were able to disassociate from the attack, leaving Anonymous more susceptible to the Zetas. The fact that these two non-state actors can operate illicitly on the internet is also interesting. Since both groups operate outside of the law, the Mexican government had no choice but to sit back and watch the whole duel unfold. This presents a relatively new dynamic where private actors coerce against each other while remaining relatively undisturbed by a state actor. This confrontation reveals, at least in Mexico, the inability of the government to control their cyberspace and the inability of the government to protect its netizens. Much of these ideas I have presented about the Anon-Zetas standoff come from an article written by Paul Rexton Kan for the Yale Journal of International Affairs. It is extremely interesting, and I suggest you read it.

In his article, Kan presents several interesting and unanswered questions that result from this incident. Kan asks if either groups are aware of a scenario of mutually assured destruction (MAD), where they could both inflict an unacceptable amount of damage to each other. If they are both aware of this MAD scenario, would this deter them from attacking each other again? Since Anonymous is a loose collective, could there be a case where a small faction of the group dissents and decides to attack the Zetas again? With the Zetas gaining technical know-how, will they be able to uncover the identities of Anon? One sure take-away from this conflict is that this type of cyber war undermines the legitimacy of the Mexican government’s authority in cyberspace (and in the offline world as well).

As blogging became increasingly dangerous and more time-intensive, the rest of the netizens took to Twitter. Instead of focusing on denouncing cartel activities, people began using Twitter as a platform to warn people of dangerous situations. The shootouts among cartels and Mexican forces that were so commonplace in Mexico became known as “Risk Situations” (SDR, Situación de Riesgo). Over time people adopted a system of reporting that included city-specific hashtags. If you wanted to monitor SDR’s in Monterrey, you would follow #MTYfollow. Or #ReynosaFollow for Reynosa, etc. Eventually, “social media curators” became beacons for warnings of SDR’s. Andres Monroy-Hernandez, et al. at Microsoft Research has written a great paper on the emergence of these curators, which spend long hours of the day monitoring hashtags and receiving information about SDR’s so that they can relay important information to their followers. Just like the bloggers, these curators say they have stepped up to the plate to be part of the “citizen network to protect and provide tips about civic safety, to avoid becoming victims of crime.”

Facebook pages, such as Valor Por Tamaulipas (VXT), with similar functions as the Twitter curators have sprung up as well. However, just like some blogs, VXT has been threatened. A few months ago, an unknown criminal group posted a $49,000 reward to any information leading to the identity of the VXT admin. Despite the threats, the admin has decided to continue posting. While bloggers and Facebook page admins receive threats, Twitter seems to have been relatively unfazed by the cartels threats. As long as the cartels (or any criminal group) can identify a single person responsible for reporting, they can threaten that person’s life. Since there are hundreds of thousands of Twitter users, the cartels have no way of effectively threatening the Twitter community. This might indicate that in order to launch a relatively safe social media strategy against the cartels, you would need the power of numbers. As one blogger said, “They can’t kill us all.” So far, Twitter information is mostly used to warn about risk situations and not so much to report specific activities from cartels, which might also explain the general disinterest of the cartels towards the use of Twitter. Unfortunately, Twitter is not always as great as it is hyped up to be. In August, 2011 a Twitter user from the state of Veracruz wrote “#verfollow I confirm that in the school ‘Jorge Arroyo’ in the Carranza neighborhood 5 kids were kidnapped, armed group, panic in the zone”. Almost immediately, there was panic all over the city. As a result, the state government tried to prosecute those who tweeted false information (one of the reasons Anon launched Operation PaperStorm). The whole debacle ended making the state government look ridiculous for attempting to label Twitter users as terrorists. This incident does illustrates how difficult it is to trust information from Twitter. The larger and the more anonymous that your network of reporters gets, the less reliable your information becomes. This has been one of the main problems of reporting drug war violence through Twitter almost since its inception. Because people’s reputation is not at stake like it is for a news organization like the New York Times, people have weak motivations to ensure they are providing accurate information. This seems to be the trade-off: a safe and large network with a high incidence of unverifiable and uncurated information, or a small, vulnerable network (often a network of one or two curators) with more reliable information.

In Tanks, Tear Gas, and Taxes, Jennifer Earl refines the theory of repression to include a larger set of variables that have been left out in previous repression studies. She uses three dimensions of repression: the identity of the repressive agent, the repressive action, and whether the action is observable. In our case, we could treat the cartels as the repressive agent and the social media movements or organizations–let’s call them concerned netizens– as the repressed. Under Earl’s ‘Dimensions of Repression‘ (Earl’s terms italicized), the cartels are private agents, who through observable action use coercion. I argue that the cartels’ actions are observable because while we may not know the perpetrator (an unidentifiable agent), the actions are highly visible as exemplified by the accompaniment of written messages with dead bodies, usually as a warning to enemies, and in this case, to the concerned netizens. Earl then argues that some of the combinations to these three dimensions need to be addressed by future research. Research on the threat of observed coercion by private agents, according to Earl, is insufficient.

Yet it’s not that research on the dynamic between the cartels and the concerned netizens is insufficient, our case simply does not fit into any of her approaches to repression. In short, her approaches to repression describe how a private or state actor would react towards a movement depending on certain characteristics of the movement. For example, movements that are weak and threatening will be major targets of repression. The problem is that the cartels simply do not share the same concerns as a state or regular private actor would, mainly because the cartels operate outside of the law and they do not have to be accountable to any constituents. Any threat to the cartels will be met with coercion. The cartels do not need to worry about political opportunities, timing issues, or law-enforcement characteristics, they are free to act as they wish and remain mostly undisturbed by consequences.

I wanted to conclude by providing few ideas (borrowed from Beautiful Trouble) to reflect on. However, when going through the book, I found that most of the tactics, principles, and theories could not be applied to the cartels. The main problem can be exemplified by a short phrase I found in the book: “accountability is what gives democracy it’s bite”. Unfortunately, we’re not dealing with a force that responds to a democratic system, much less a force that has any accountability whatsoever to anyone except its own members, so how can you encourage collective action against such a violent force when the cost of participating is so high? I realize that the class is called “Political Uses of Social Media” and not “Uses of Social Media Against the Cartels”, but it is worth looking at how the theories we have seen in class might apply to this situation. Yet I think the best thing to do is to direct action toward the government. I am not suggesting that people stop blogging or tweeting about crime. Making information public is a way of showing the government’s inability to overpower criminal organizations and a way of holding the government accountable for their deficiencies.  The risk of engaging against the cartels–as Anonymous did–is just too high. The Mexican government is the institution which can be held accountable, and they are the only force large enough to stop this other tremendous force (I use ‘force’ loosely, not advocating for more war). By acting against the government, all the models and theories we have learned in class make sense. We can apply a wide range of tactics to demand change from the government. After all protesting and demanding change is what Mexicans do best.

 

 

*blogspot.blogdelnarco.com stopped posting on Sept. 2010. After a long hiatus, this blogger finally posted again on April 4, 2013: “I wasn’t dead, I was partying. Say what you want, this is the original Blog del Narco”. The timing with the release of ‘Lucy’s’ interview suggests this post was a reaction to ‘Lucy’s” new fame.