The scene Wednesday morning on Nuevo Laredo's Bulevar Aeropuerto with the two tortured bodies of the male and female "internet snitches" has been interpreted by some journalists in general terms as a direct threat by drug cartels against online social media and freedom of expression, which it certainly is, but there is also a local context to this incident.
The murders were the latest in a continuing string of threats by Los Zetas against online media and anonymous tipsters to Mexican federal authorities in a bloody, almost unknown, little war being waged on the streets of this city on the Mexico-Texas border.
Nuevo Laredo is the largest inland port of entry in terms of volume for commerce between the U.S. and Mexico and is perhaps the most lucrative plaza on the border for organized crime. It is a smuggling corridor Los Zetas have held for years and have no intention of giving up.
The fact that the conflict is mostly invisible is a testament to the power of Los Zetas to censor and intimidate the local media and municipal authorities.
In the case of the local media, what was in the past a tradition of buying the silence of many, but not all, local journalists has now been replaced by the more effective method of brutal death threats, not only to individuals but to entire families.
Even the government has the power to silence the local media from reporting military casualties and the killing and disappearances of suspects.
However, it has proven much harder to silence online social media which has filled the void created by the censoring of local newspapers, radio and television stations.
The internet sites highlighted on the placards left by Los Zetas at the crime scene on Bulevar Aeropuerto were Frontera al Rojo Vivo, http://gruporeforma.mural.com/Libre/Offlines/Mty/Frontera/default.asp?Prevista=0&EstadoSelecc=2a website sponsored by Grupo Reforma with forums for anonymous tips and news for the main cities and towns of Mexico's border states; Blog del Narco, the most famous of Mexico's graphic "narco" news sites; and Denuncia Ciudadana, a series of websites sponsored by Mexico's Defense Ministry, Attorney General's office and several state governments for citizen's denunciations and anonymous tips.
In addition, local sites such as nuevolaredoenvivo serve the important function of a citizen's network for the collection of information on organized criminal activity such as the movement of suspicious vehicles and armed individuals, the location of halcones (lookouts), narcotiendas (locations where drugs are being sold) and bloqueos (blockades) or retenes (checkpoints), and even the reporting of stolen vehicles which are sometimes located with the help of dozens of anonymous network members.
Nuevolaredoenvivo encourages citizen's involvement in the fight against organized crime and is a model for an online neighborhood watch type program on a city wide scale.
What Nuevolaredoenvivo depicts is a city in crisis, caught in a conflict between the military and Los Zetas that has taken a bloody turn for the worse in Nuevo Laredo.
The role of local sites such as Nuevolaredoenvivo, VigilantesMantes https://twitter.com/#%21/VigilantesM which covers the Mantes-Tampico region , and Reynosa Libre http://reynosafree.blogspot.com/ which covers Reynosa and the communities of the Frontera Chica has grown in importance since Los Zetas and The Gulf Cartel splintered in early 2010, starting an armed conflict for control of drug trafficking routes into the United States.
Initially the state and federal governments ceded control of large areas of the state to the warring drug cartels but this year Mexico's Army and Marines have begun to reinstate government authority, to varying degree, in most areas of the state.
The presence of the military was reinforced after the discovery of clandestine graves earlier this year containing approximately 200 murder victims abducted from buses in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, by Los Zetas were discovered. The victims were traveling from the interior of Mexico to the U.S. border. (the Calderon administration has made the nationwide fight against Los Zetas a top priority)
However, the state of Tamaulipas remains in a chronic state of low intensity conflict.
A conversation with a number of Nuevo Laredo residents in "el Centro", the city center between both downtown international bridges, painted a picture of frequent, almost daily gun battles lasting 15 minutes or longer between Los Zetas and the military, especially in the western and southern sectors and the Viveros area on the east side of the city, that are rarely reported in any media.
The "heating up of the plaza" where a rival cartel sends squads of gunmen into another organization's turf such as the situation between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas in Matamoros and Reynosa, the other large border cities in Tamaulipas, are not as common in Nuevo Laredo.
There are rumors (it is almost impossible to confirm information that seeps out of Nuevo Laredo, this city is the land of rumors) that the sharp divisions between The Gulf cartel and Los Zetas blur a bit in Nuevo Laredo. Some cells maintain contacts with longtime friends and relatives in a rival group and when there is money to be made an arrangement is sometimes reached. (Alberto Castillo "Beto Fabe", the one time Gulf Cartel plaza chief in Matamoros, was murdered in May 2010 for letting Zetas operate in that city)
The city is also home to hundreds of street gangs composed of teenagers living in the extremely poor neighborhoods in the periphery of the city. Some of these gangs now settle their disputes with assault weapons instead of the old school knife and chain. As is the norm in Latin America, these marginal neighborhoods are seldom policed.
The Infonavit colonias, where cartel sicario cells and street gangs frequently appropriate abandoned housing, seem to be particular hotspots.
(Infonavit is a Mexican government agency that funds mortgages for workers, usually for low cost housing.)
The Nuevo Laredo residents reported that Army and Marine units in the city have instituted a policy of not taking live prisoners and usually execute alleged Zetas taken alive or injured in confrontations. It was also reported that the military is taking casualties in these street battles.
Persistent reports state that during the military operations that resulted in the death of the Zeta plaza chief, Jorge De La Peña "El Pompin", on August 2, 2011 (http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2011/08/jefe-de-plaza-killed-in-nuevo-laredo.html), Army troops swept through Nuevo Laredo executing halcones where they were found. The number of deaths is impossible to confirm.
Although the el Centro residents did not witness these executions they believed the reports to be true.
One man, a business owner, reported seeing a military helicopter firing on targets on the ground during the operation. He also claimed that one helicopter had been forced down after being hit by ground fire earlier this year.
Although the residents expressed gratitude that the Zetas were being dealt with, a more nuanced opinion was expressed in regards to extrajudicial killings. Of particular concern was the danger of innocent civilians being mistakenly targeted by the military.
The residents, middle and lower middle class, all claimed to have been a victim of, or had a close family member that was a victim of, at least one violent crime since the beginning of the year.
Another concern voiced was the huge increase in violent street crime such as robberies, muggings and carjackings committed by petty criminals and street gangs that are the result of the municipal police force being transferred in mass to out of state police academies for vetting and retraining.
Nuevo Laredo's municipal police had been heavily infiltrated by Los Zetas but the residents mostly felt that this corrupt force was better than none.
The military has been unable or unwilling to address this problem, as they are focused on dealing with organized crime. Only a token number of state police officers have been sent to Nuevo Laredo and they have been completely ineffective in dealing with this crime wave.
This is also a void that is being addressed by Nuevolaredoenvivo, where posters warn fellow citizens of hot spots where common criminals and street gangs are active, even posting addresses and pictures of hideouts.
Online media posters were reminded last Wednesday how dangerous filling that void is. Many, if not most, will continue the battle with their keyboards.
Life in Nuevo Laredo, courtesy of Nuevolaredoenvivo
Videos of Nuevo Laredo robbery August 18, 2011