By Michael RileyBloomberg Businessweek
Anonymous, a global group of hacker-activists, has had a remarkable string of successes lately, from helping Occupy Wall Street to taking out government websites of repressive regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. But when the group this month launched a plan called OpCartel, threatening to release stolen data exposing 100 collaborators of Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most savage drug cartels, the U.S. security firm Stratfor, among others, warned the hackers they were out of their depth.
In September, the Zetas showed their displeasure with a blogger who contributed to an anti-cartel website by dumping her decapitated body near a monument in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. The victim’s detached head was wearing a pair of headphones, and a computer keyboard lay next to her torso.
Releasing information on Zeta collaborators, hacked from police data banks, would likely put the suspects on a “kill list” of rival cartels, security experts warned. Anonymous’s usually boisterous followers were divided on the wisdom of the confrontation, which was announced as a response to the alleged kidnapping of an Anonymous member in the Mexican state of Veracruz sometime before Oct. 6. “Won’t be tweeting on #OpCartel going forward,” messaged a member going by the name AnonyNewsNet. “Excuse me, while I go chainsmoke and/or feel like a coward.”
When the kidnapped activist was freed on Nov. 4 with a note from her captors threatening to kill 10 people for every name released, OpCartel was quickly called off. “We blackmailed them,” says Barrett Brown, an informal spokesman for Anonymous, noting that the Zetas don’t often release victims alive. “And they blackmailed us.”
Forty-five thousand Mexicans have been killed since 2006 and the drug war has cost the economy $120 billion in security expenditures and lost investment, according to Bulltick Capital Markets, a Miami-based investment firm that specializes in Latin America. The wreckage includes a cowed media and an out-gunned, often corrupt police force. Into the void, a new generation of young activists in Mexico is hoping to confront the cartels using social media and high tech tools that have proven effective in other movements.
In conflict-torn Mexican cities, Twitter and Facebook are platforms for crowd-sourced intelligence on the drug gangs. Blogs, which don’t have editorial offices the cartels can bomb, have replaced newspapers as go-to sources. Just as important, say activists, is that social media provide a way for beleaguered citizens to fight back. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Here and no further. Even if you kill us, even if you kidnap us, we aren’t going to disappear,’ ” says Javier Valdez, who writes for Río Doce, a website chronicling cartel activity in the Pacific state of Sinaloa.
The movement began with residents in some of the country’s worst conflict zones using Twitter to track street shootouts or murder scenes in real time. Community websites began compiling those feeds as a kind of traffic report of violence. “A convoy of armed men circulating on Colosio Boulevard. Take care,” an anonymous writer warned recently on the site Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, which tracks activity in the border city south of Laredo, Tex.
In Tamaulipas state, where local newspapers rarely cover cartel activity, Twitter users developed codes to indicate the level of confidence in the information they post: A2 means it’s rumors, for example; A4 indicates a witnessed event. “Twitter users have taken in their hands a kind of citizen journalism,” Rossana Reguillo, a professor at the Jesuit University of Guadalajara, said at a recent conference in the western state of Jalisco.
Over time, users have grown more daring. The editors at Nuevo Laredo en Vivo recently compiled reports to create a map of drug sale locations and suspected lookouts. The site’s contributors included Maria Elizabeth Macias, the beheaded victim, who posted under the nickname La Nena de Laredo (The Girl from Laredo). Colleagues suspect the Zetas were able to piece together information that led from Macias’ online handle to her real identity.
To protect contributors, the editors of the blog Borderland Beat, which has a reputation as one of the most reliable sources of information on Mexico’s drug violence, say even they don’t know the identity of some of the site’s major contributors. Posts are often passed through intermediaries to protect secrecy. “They could be journalists, cops, politicians, maybe even cartel members themselves,” says one of the blog’s editors, who uses the nickname Buggs.
That wouldn’t pass muster in most traditional newsrooms. Then again, these are not typical newsroom situations. In the Zetas home base of Tamaulipas, whenever there’s a shootout or grenade attack—both happen with alarming frequency—reporters wait for a call from a cartel representative to hear whether they can cover the incident, says Jo Tuckman, an author and analyst in Mexico City.
Editors of the site Blog Del Narco say they’ve survived the deadly politics of covering the drug wars because they don’t take sides. Until recently, the site functioned like a YouTube of the drug wars. Users posted video of shootouts captured on mobile phones, or gruesome photos of murder scenes. The site became so popular that cartels started posting there as well. One video, apparently meant as a message to a rival cartel, included a beheading. Beginning in early November, users looking for the blog were redirected to a toned-down sister site called Mil Cincuenta.
Recent killings indicate the cartels are taking the new online tactics seriously—and that the activists may have miscalculated in counting on nicknames and IP addresses for protection. In September two bodies were found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo with a note warning about the price paid by “Internet snitches.” The note—signed with a ‘Z’ for Zeta—named several websites, including Blog del Narco and Denuncia Ciudadano, which lets users anonymously report criminal activity.
A fourth decapitated blogger was found in the same city on Nov. 9. Following the confrontation with Anonymous, the U.S. firm Stratfor and security experts in Mexico warned that, with so many government officials on the take, the cartels likely have access to the military-grade tracking technology used by the Mexican government. In at least one case, according to journalist Valdez, the Sinaloan cartel hired a hacker to hunt down a government informant.
Anonymous members involved in OpCartel say they’re not giving up the fight, just changing targets. The information on Zetas collaborators was culled from more than 200,000 e-mails hacked from Mexican police agencies, which the group has been analyzing over the last six months, according to an Anonymous member who goes by the name Itzela.
He says the stolen data contain evidence fingering at least 70 national and local Mexican officials in corrupt activities, including details of bribes. “That could give the government a lot of trouble,” says Jorge Chabat, a political scientist at CIDE, a university in Mexico City. “There will be pressure to do something.”
But will it pressure, let alone hurt, the cartels? “At this point, no, I don’t think it worries them too much,” Itzela concedes. “If we get rid of one corrupt politician, when another arrives, they’ll just buy him, too.” He says Anonymous went after the Zetas only because of the kidnapping; the group’s real target is the Mexican government.
From now on, the group, which has seen more than 30 members arrested in several countries, will no longer discuss any Mexico activities in open forums. “We have to be careful,” Itzela says. “Being arrested by the police is not the same as being killed by a cartel.”
The bottom line: As Mexican drug war bloggers grow more sophisticated, the drug cartels keep pace—and deal with online “snitches” harshly.
Riley is a reporter for Bloomberg News.