Citizens of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico were stunned to see two beheaded and disemboweled corpses hanging from a highway overpass in early September. It wasn’t because they’d never been exposed to this level of brutality by Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), but rather it was because of the message that was left with the bodies signed by Los Zetas. The note implied the two unidentified males were savagely killed for using social media against them.
Later that month, the beheaded body of Elizabeth Macias, an employee of a Mexican news organization, was found in the same location. And on November 10, Mexican police found a fourth body in a wealthy Nuevo Laredo neighborhood with a note that read: “This happened to me for not understanding that I shouldn't report on the social networks.”
While US media have reported these incidents and the impact they have had on social media users in Mexico, few have examined how drug war bloggers and tweeters in the United States feel about this new TCO tactic. As it turns out, their level of concern varies.
[Editor's note: Three years ago US counterdrug intelligence officials disclosed that they were aware of what they called "vague threats" made by at least one TCO against American-based journalists in general covering the Mexican drug war]
The director of the Arizona-based blog Border Narcotics writes and tweets to inform people about the drug war as well as what both the US and Mexican government are doing about the violence. He says some TCO members follow him on Twitter, as well as on Facebook. While he hasn’t received any threats directly, his site has, and he says he’s always concerned because “anything can happen.”
The blog owner of another drug war site that's based in Texas, Neglected War, which aims to raise awareness about the drug war and drug addiction, thinks Twitter is an extremely useful tool. “It gives information the moment it happens,” he said, noting “it also helps when authorities and media don't want to report the events.”
While this blogger has never been threatened, he’s still moderately concerned. “I think a tweeter/blogger goes into really dangerous territory when they become specific,” he warned.
But other bloggers don’t feel as threatened.
Borderland Beat is one of the more well-known drug war blogs that derives its content from a variety of contributors in both the United States and Mexico. One Texas-based contributor likes that the blog helps put a face on the personal traumas being suffered by the Mexican people as a result of the violence. Like many others, he feels Twitter is indispensable for obtaining real-time information from within Mexico and along the border as events unfold. He’s also never been threatened and feels the personal risk due to his work is very low. However, he goes to great lengths to disguise his true identity.
“Having lived in Laredo, Texas, I am very aware with how dangerous and violent the cartels can be, but I have no concerns,” he said, explaining that his blog is a secondary source of information and feels primary sources (journalists and tweeters) are the ones more likely to be in the line of fire.
I myselv have a blog called Mexico’s Drug War and have had people claiming to be relatively high-ranking members of a TCO who (politely) comment regularly on the site. I’ve never directly been threatened, but I take great pains not to reveal my exact location in the St. Louis area—just in case.
Like Walker, I feel that because I do not reveal anything that hasn’t already been made public that my work in no way results in arrests or lost drug profits.
[Editor’s note: Homeland Security Today Online Editor and senior reporter Anthony Kimery writes regularly about TCOs, their activities and operations, and has spent considerable time since late 2008 on the southern border meeting with federal, state and local border security and law enforcement authorities. While he has never received any direct threats, officials have cautioned him on several occasions to be careful]
The challenge with analyzing the sorts of threats that have been made by Los Zetas toward social media users is trying to determine just who the victims were and if they actually did what Los Zetas accused them of, and just how Los Zetas identifies them.
Macias did not make any effort to hide her identity because of her job in the news business, but the majority of Mexico-based drug war bloggers and tweeters hide their identities. They believe they’re anonymous when they post information detrimental to TCO operations. While some experts believe TCOs have increased their cybercrime capabilities, it’s unclear whether they have the expertise to crack through the layers of Twitter or Facebook security to identify—and track down—a user.
Fortunately, it appears US-based bloggers and tweeters on the drug war in Mexico aren’t currently in the TCOs’ crosshairs. And it’s not clear if those based in Mexico are actually targets , or if unknown individuals are being murdered to be used as propaganda tools by Los Zetas. Whatever the truth, the messages that have been left with the beheaded bodies are having an impact; many bloggers have shut down their sites, and many Twitter users in Mexico have been silenced.
While social media users in the United States who broadcast messages about the drug war for the benefit of Americans and other observers who long for up-to-the-minute information should be able to conduct business as usual, it doesn’t necessarily mean Los Zetas or another TCO won’t eventually turn their attention northward. Or, that US-based bloggers and tweeters shouldn’t take at least a minimum of safety precautions—just in case!
A retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Homeland Security Today correspondent Sylvia Longmire worked as the Latin America desk officer analyzing issues in the US Southern Command area of responsibilty that might affect the security of deployed Air Force personnel. From Dec. 2005 through July 2009, she worked as an intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency's situational awareness Unit, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. Her first book, "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars," was published in Sept. To contact Sylvia, email her at: sylvia(at)longmireconsulting.com