By Mark Stevenson
Think before you tweet.
A former teacher turned radio commentator and a math tutor who lives with his mother sit in a prison in southern Mexico, facing possible 30-year sentences for terrorism and sabotage in what may be the most serious charges ever brought against anyone using a Twitter social network account.
Prosecutors say the defendants helped cause a chaos of car crashes and panic as parents in the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz rushed to save their children because of false reports that gunmen were attacking schools.
Gerardo Buganza, interior secretary for Veracruz state, compared the panic to that caused by Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds." But he said the fear roused by that account of a Martian invasion of New Jersey "was small compared to what happened here."
"Here, there were 26 car accidents, or people left their cars in the middle of the streets to run and pick up their children, because they thought these things were occurring at their kids' schools," Buganza told local reporters.
The charges say the messages caused such panic that emergency numbers "totally collapsed because people were terrified," damaging service for real emergencies.
Veracruz, the state's largest city, and the neighboring suburb of Boca del Rio were already on edge after weeks of gunbattles involving drug traffickers. One attack occurred on a major boulevard. In another, gunmen tossed a grenade outside the city aquarium, killing an tourist and seriously wounding his wife and their two young children.
On Aug. 25, nerves were further frayed when residents saw armed convoys of marines circulating on the streets, making some think a confrontation with gangs was imminent.
That is when Gilberto Martinez Vera, who works as a low-paid tutor at several private schools, allegedly opened the floodgates of fear with repeated messages that gunmen were taking children from schools.
"My sister-in-law just called me all upset, they just kidnapped five children from the school," Martinez tweeted.
In fact, no such kidnappings occurred that day. Defense lawyer Claribel Guevara said the rumors already had started and that Martinez Vera was just relaying what others told him. She said he never claimed to have firsthand knowledge of the incident.
But in a subsequent tweet about the kidnap rumor, he said, "I don't know what time it happened, but it's true." He also tweeted that three days earlier, "they mowed down six kids between 13 and 15 in the Hidalgo neighborhood." While a similar attack occurred, it didn't involve children.
Prosecutors say the rumors were also sent by Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola, who has worked as a teacher, a state arts official and a radio commentator. She says she was just relaying such messages to her own Twitter followers.
"How can they possibly do this to me, for re-tweeting a message? I mean, it's 140 characters. It's not logical,'" said Guevara, quoting her client.
Better known on the radio and social networks as "Maruchi," her Facebook site now features the Twitter logo, a little bluebird, blindfolded and standing in front of the scales of justice, with the slogan "I too am a TwitTerrorist."
Online petitions are circulating to demand her release, and the pair's cause has been taken up by human rights groups that call the charges exaggerated. Amnesty International says officials are violating freedom of expression and it blames the panic on the uncertainty many Mexicans feel amid a drug war in which more than 35,000 people have died over the past five years.
"The lack of safety creates an atmosphere of mistrust in which rumors that circulate on social networks are part of people's efforts to protect themselves, since there is very little trustworthy information," Amnesty wrote in a statement on the case.
In violence-wracked cities in the northern state of Tamaulipas, citizens and even authorities have used Twitter and Facebook to warn one another about shootouts.
Anita Vera, Martinez Vera's 71-year-old mother, said her 48-year-old son still lives at her house with his girlfriend. She said he told her that had posted his messages after the panic had already started.
"He told me "Mom, I didn't start any of this, I just transmitted what I was told,'" Vera Martellis said after visiting her son in prison.
"He used the computer, but I swear that my son never wanted to do anybody harm, or start a revolution, like they say he did," said Vera, who ekes out a living selling flowers.
Raul Trejo, an expert on media and violence at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the terrorism charge is unwarranted, but described the case as "a very incautious use of Twitter."
He noted that in Mexico, "Twitter has been used by drug traffickers to create panic with false warnings." In one case, a wave of messages about impending violence shut down schools, bars and restaurants in the central city of Cuernavaca last year.
Trejo said Twitter users must learn "not to believe everything, and simply take the Twitter messages as an indication that some (report) is making the rounds."
But the real problem appears to be that governments cannot prevent drug cartel violence or even accurately inform citizens about it. Local news media are often so battered by kidnappings and killings of reporters that, in many states, they are loath to report about it.
"These Twitter users had accounts with a few hundred followers," Trejo noted. "If these lies grew, it is not so much because they propagated them, but because in Veracruz as in most of the rest of the country, there is such a lack of public safety that the public is inclined to believe unconfirmed acts of violence ... The government doesn't make clear what is happening."
Defense attorneys also say their clients were held incommunicado for almost three days, unable to see a lawyer.
It appears one of the most serious sets of charges ever brought for sending or resending Twitter messages.
Tweeter Paul Chambers was fined 385 pounds and ordered to pay 2,000 pounds ($3,225) in prosecution costs last year for tweeting that if northern England's Robin Hood Airport didn't reopen in time for his flight, "I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"
Venezuelan authorities last year charged two people with spreading false information about the country's banking system using Twitter and urging people to pull money out of banks. They could serve nine to 11 years in prison if convicted.
In 2009, a Chinese woman was sentenced to a year in a labor camp for posting a satirical Twitter message about the Japan pavilion at the Shanghai Expo.