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