By Patrick Manning
Fox News Latino
The Mexican drug war that has taken thousands of lives over the past four years isn’t just on the other side of the border.
It’s now online.
Cartels are using Facebook and Twitter to find out information on potential victims and to track them down.
“They use them as intelligence sources, I suppose, to gather information on people,”
said Dr. Tony Payan, associate professor of political science at the University of Texas-El Paso.
Payan told Fox News Latino they’re also posting violent videos of victims being tortured YouTube to threaten and intimidate their enemies.
“They are saying: ‘Look you guys, you contrary team, competitors, you enemy, this is what’s going to happen to you,’” he said.
Plus, the use of Twitter also allows the cartels to send messages quickly.
“You don’t have to make a bunch of phone calls, you don’t have to take the time to communicate to everybody,” Payan said.
He added they use secret phrases about where to meet other cartel members or to inform them about the status of an operation.
Before, cartels worked quietly.
“I think this is a new generation of drug traffickers, new generation of criminals, and they often like to post what they do on the Internet,” Payan said. “They used to be quite discrete and quite restrained. In fact, they went out of their way not to draw attention to themselves.”
Now, the tables have turned.
Gomecindo López, a commander at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, said they have been aware of the drug cartels using social media sites for several years.
There have been no incidents reported of cartels using social media to target victims in El Paso, nor any spillover of violence.
López said businesses who have relocated from Juárez to El Paso to escape the violence should be the most careful – especially if they still have close ties on the Mexican side of the border.
“We know you have a highly successful business, we know you can pay. If you don’t pay this is what’s going to happen to your family,” López added, mimicking what a cartel might say.
Facebook can be a resource for the cartels to search for the business owners and find out to whom they may related, and what members of the family may still live in Juárez. They may threaten to kidnap a family member or extort their business if they do not pay ransom, experts said.
When Facebook users use the “Check In” function on their mobile devices, it tells cartel members (or any criminal) where they can find their targets. Students at the University of Texas-El Paso recommended not using that function – and to keep their Facebook profiles as private as possible.
That includes not accepting friend requests from strangers.
“If you don’t know them, just don’t accept them,” said graduate student Austin Campbell.
“You never know who's looking out for you or who's watching you [or] who's following you through social networks like that, so I would just prefer to not update where I’m at, what I’m doing, just in case someone out there is trying to find me or look for me,” said senior Christine Zamora. “You don’t know what they’re capable of.”
Fox News Latino reached out to Facebook and asked how users can protect themselves from the cartels. A spokesperson responded via e-mail and stated: "Our policies prohibit any kind of threatening, intimidating, or hateful contact between one user and another, and there are several ways that people can protect themselves from this kind of behavior on Facebook.”
“All users should be careful to only accept friend requests from people that they know, or remove people who are harassing them from their Friend Lists,” the spokesperson added.
They also recommended users to utilize the privacy tools to limit their personal information and to whom it’s available.
López said Mexican law enforcement agents don’t have the time or personnel to monitor what dangerous information is being posted on social media sites and YouTube.
Patrick Manning is a Junior Reporter for FoxNews.com based in El Paso.