My feelings about the coverage of organized crime, drug trafficking, and violence in Mexico are many, and they are complicated. I am disappointed by the focus on violence — rather than the causes of that violence — by the Mexican media. But I am far more bothered by the portrayal of Mexico in the international press, especially the US media. Among all the talk of beheadings, bodies burned in acid, and hangings from bridges, there are a few missing pieces of context. Such as the fact that Mexico’s murder rate in 2009 was actually lower than it was in 1999. Or that the murder rate in Yucatán is comparable to that of Montana and Wyoming. Or that Washington, D.C.’s murder rate is nearly quadruple that of Mexico City’s.
Violence in Mexico is intense, but it is also highly localized along the borders, and in Michoacan, Guerrero, Sinaloa, and Zacatecas. This is because most violence is related to competition among drug gangs for exclusive access to production and transit routes. But rather than focusing on these causes of violence, most US media simply portray Mexico as a “country at war.” I think that comparisons of Mexico with Pakistan as a country “on the verge of becoming a failed state” are ridiculous. I think that Hillary Clinton’s description of drug cartel violence in Mexico as an “insurgency” is both irresponsible and frightening (in terms of its foreign policy implications).
I want to clarify all of this before going on to publish a hyperlinked version of my presentation from this weekend’s Austin Forum on Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking because, frankly, while I believe that the role of citizen media in the coverage and analysis of violence in Mexico is fascinating, I don’t think that it necessarily helps others fully understand the context or causes of that violence.
A few months ago a blogger and student from the prestigious Tec de Monterrey university penned her account of a nearby shootout between soldiers and drug traffickers that left two graduate students dead. She describes in her blog post how she used Twitter to post her observations and to stay up to date with information from others. For months already Twitter users in Monterrey and throughout Mexico had been using the hashtag #balacera as a way to report and find information related to shootouts. In this particular instance Twitter users began using the tag #balaceratec.
What we don’t know is why she stuck around; what compelled her to report, cell phone in hand, when she was clearly putting her life at risk. But what we do know is that she is hardly alone. Regular citizens are becoming increasingly involved in the reporting, distribution, and analysis of information related to organized crime, drug trafficking, and public security. There are countless photos and videos of shootouts in Torreón, for example, that are published by citizens to their blogs and Twitter accounts. Even musician Jenni Rivera became a citizen reporter for a few hours in April when her concert was cancelled due to a shootout that took place just before she was to take the stage. The next day, according to an article by Paola Alín Martínez for Milenio, Twitter users in Tampico expressed their outrage and concern about the level of violence in their city.
Meanwhile the anonymous blogger “M1zAr” who described the shootout at Tec de Monterrey headed back to school the next day to take a major exam. The walls of the security booth were freshly painted white to hide the previous night’s coat of blood. M1zAr writes:
It is sad to see this type of situation so close up. It is sad that Monterrey has become a mimicry of some video war game. Many have compared it to Call of Duty, others to Grand Theft Auto, Whichever you choose, it’s violence.
Citizen Journalism, Narco Publicity, and Citizen Safety
Several anonymous readers have left warnings for M1zAr. “Change you profile,” they advise, “and take down all pictures of yourself and your friends.” She did end up taking down the information from her public profile, but an easily identifiable photograph is still attached to her Twitter account.
Far more worrisome is a comment signed “Atte. La Compañia C.D.G” that reads:
This is a war, and we are fighting to kill the Zetas when we find them. If we kill innocent people in the process then we are sorry, but in order to achieve great things we must make some sacrifices. We respect society and the community, but if they don’t like the way that we exterminate the Zeta rats then we recommend that they change cities. Do Mexico a favor: kill a Zeta.
“La Compañia C.D.G” stands for “Cártel del Golfo” or “The Gulf Cartel.” For years they worked together with the Zetas, a group of Mexican Army Special Forces deserters that now also have connections deep into Central America and all the way to Italy. The Zetas once took orders from The Gulf Cartel, but when Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was extradited to the United States, the Zetas broke away and a bloody rivalry formed between the two groups. Not only do they hunt each other down on the streets, leaving entire cities empty, but both groups are participating in a grassroots, Web 2.0 publicity campaign. They use blog comments, forums, YouTube threads, and email lists to convince citizens that collateral damage is a necessary sacrifice to rid the country of their rivals.
I have begun with the story of M1zAr’s post because it touches all of the topics that I would like to review in this presentation. First I want to take a close look at the role of citizens in reporting, sharing, and analyzing information related to organized crime and public safety. Second, I’ll review what I believe are some of the advantages and disadvantages of circumvention tools that allow internet users to publish information anonymously. Finally, I will propose a list of questions that I believe are vital to both journalists and academics in how they interact with citizen produced content.
Narco-Censorship and Neutral Platforms
Let’s start with some context, and with a particular narrative that has recently formed in both the Mexican and US press. It goes something like this: Mainstream Mexican media and foreign correspondents have been silenced by fear and the deaths of their colleagues, while citizens are left reporting on violence and the activities of the drug gangs. Others, like Carlos Ramírez Hernández of LaPalabra.com, argue that mainstream media are too preoccupied with blaming the government for its failed war on drugs while the government spends its efforts blaming the media for sensationalized coverage of violence. Again, citizens are left to depend on each other for information about shootouts and “narco-roadblocks,” where gangs put up checkpoints to search for passing rivals.
In fact, earlier this morning, when Álvaro Sierra listed aspects of drug trafficking that are not being sufficiently covered by journalists, I Googled each of those topics and was not surprised to find that the majority of top search results were not articles written by professional journalists, but rather blog posts and Wikipedia articles written by regular citizens. For example, Sierra is correct that we see little coverage of “narco-culture,” such as the phenomenon of Santa Muerte, in mainstream media. But it is well covered in blogs. Another example is the intense online debate that took place after Vicente Fox published a blog post advocating for the legalization of drugs as a strategy to take power away from drug cartels. There were literally hundreds of blog posts that looked into very detailed specifics of drug policy, including decriminalization, justice reform, and frank debate about the successes and failures of decriminalization in the Netherlands.
There is no greater and more controversial example of citizen coverage of drug trafficking than Blog Del Narco. I challenge any of you to point me to a resource that has more information about gangs and drug trafficking in Mexico. I’m not referring to the quality or constructiveness of the information, but simply what is available to readers. As you can see in this AP article, Blog del Narco is presented as a citizen replacement for a mainstream media that has been silenced.
What kind of content will you find on Blog del Narco?
- A video of a man being decapitated. While media only reported police finding a beheaded body, the video shows the man confessing to working for drug lord Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villareal, who is locked in a fight with both the Beltran Leyva and Sinaloa cartels.
- The prison warden affair, which unfolded in a video of masked members of the Zetas drug gang interrogating a police officer, who reveals that inmates allied with the Sinaloa cartel are given guns and cars and sent off to commit murders. At the end of the video the officer is shot to death.
- Links to Facebook pages of alleged traffickers and their children, weapons, cars and lavish parties.
- Photos of Mexican pop music stars at a birthday party for an alleged drug dealer’s teenage daughter in the border state of Coahuila, across from Texas.
The last two types of content are especially interesting. Earlier today I was speaking with Mónica Almeida from the Ecuadorean El Universo. She described to me how it is nearly impossible to find information about members of organized crime groups with traditional investigative journalism methods, such as searching for bank accounts, tax returns, and police records. But, surprisingly, she has been able to find several of them on Hi5, a social networking platform that is hugely popular in Ecuador. At one point she asked one of her younger colleagues to attempt to “friend” a known gang leader. He accepted the friend request and they found that he posted photos of guns and cocaine to his profile, which they published in their story.
While Blog del Narco has been getting all of the attention lately because of its gory content, there are several other noble, citizen-led endeavors that haven’t been getting as much attention. Earlier today we saw Judith Torrea’s impressive work in Ciudad Juarez. More recently, Menos Días Aquí launched as a volunteer-led effort to “put names and faces to numbers, to stop the banalization of death.” In Mexico there is a popular belief that everyone who has been killed in drug- and gang-related violence is somehow implicated in the crime. Menos Días Aquí challenges the stereotype by looking into the lives behind the statistics. Two posts on Global Voices help give an idea of just how many citizens have become involved in the discussion and analysis around violence and drug trafficking in Mexico.
For the scanty details that they put on television, they get grenades thrown at them and their reporters kidnapped. We publish everything. Imagine what they could do to us.
-Blog del Narco, from AP quote.
The anonymous, 20-something, computer security student who runs Blog del Narco accepts all information that he deems relevant. Most of the submitted content is anonymous, but it could come from police, citizens, or the narcos themselves. Unlike mainstream media, he is able to publish all of this content because he is completely anonymous. The advantage, clearly, is that anonymity provides protection from threats by narcos and by the government. The disadvantage is that we, as readers, cannot judge or understand the author’s motivations.
Another Gap: Journalists, Academics, Society
Earlier today Álvaro Sierra suggested that there is a gap between academics who have studied drug trafficking and organized crime over years, even decades, and journalists who are out in the field reporting. I’d like to suggest that a third gap exists between the interactions of academics and journalists at elite conferences like this one, and the interaction between ordinary citizens that take place online every day.
A couple weeks ago the anti-corruption NGO Global Integrity interviewed two ‘experts’ about the recent, popular narrative that ‘citizen journalism is replacing Mexico’s silenced mainstream media.’ The first interview is with John Ackerman, a prominent academic and journalist in Mexico City. I wasn’t surprised to read that Ackerman feels that citizen journalists have not “played a strong role in reporting incidents ignored by online or print reporters.” But what did shock me is that Ackerman hadn’t even heard of Blog del Narco, which is undoubtedly on of the most influential websites in the coverage of drug trafficking in Mexico. In fact, if we look at web traffic statistics from Alexa, we see that Blog del Narco now receives roughly twice as many visits as the Torreón’s major newspaper, and has also exceeded at times the number of visits to both El Norte and La Reforma. And this is a blog written by just two young students. Ackerman is insane to think that Blog del Narco has not “played a strong role in reporting incidents ignored by online or print reporters.”
The Ethics of Information
What weblogs like blogdelnarco.com are providing is a platform for criminals to share information among themselves.
Much more interesting than Ackerman’s response is Leonarda Reyes’ take on the question posed by Global Integrity about whether citizen journalism is replacing traditional journalism in the coverage of narco-trafficking in Mexico. According to Reyes, despite their popularity, these citizen platforms are little more than ways for criminals to share information among themselves. She also says that this is nothing new. In May of 2005 Spanish blogger Ignacio Escolar posted a brief note about the Zetas when they still worked for the Gulf Cartel. The post attracted nearly 2,000 comments and became an online war of threats by rival gangs. In August of 2006, over a year after the post was first published, a commenter by the nickname “hijo de chaparrito” left a comment predicting the death of Marcelo Garza y Garza, the director of the investigative police of the state of Nuevo Leon. A month later and Ignacio Escolar announced on his blog that the commenter’s threat (or prophesy) was carried out. El Norte ran the headline “blog anticipates the murder of Marcelo.”
Others, like Baja California Government Prosecutor Maria Guadalupe Licea, say that showing gory violence on sites like Blog del Narco merely inspire even more shocking copycat killings. Critics also say that so-called narcoblogs offer free publicity to drug cartels while spreading fear throughout society. New York-based blogger and photographer Raul Gutierrez interviewed the anonymous author of Blog del Narco last week and asked him, “How do you respond to people who say that by posting images from drug gangs and hit squads, you are spreading fear and that the blog is irresponsibly violent?” The response:
I would describe journalism as the act of publishing photos or videos. People have a right to know why things have become so insecure in recent years. The violence that is happening in Mexico is not because the public reads about what is happening in BlogdelNarco.com. The factors that provoke violence in Mexico are much more important, and ultimately they are economic.
Indeed, there is general agreement among both journalists and academics that violence in Mexico is ultimately rooted in economic inequality, but stories about beheadings still greatly outnumber stories about poverty reduction programs in troubled cities like Juarez, Tampico, and Los Mochis where drug lords are often treated as Robin Hood characters by the poor. (Though the fact that violence erupts in some communities where economic inequality is high but not others forces us to recognize that other variables are also at play.)
From Narco-Censorship to Internet Censorship?
What we do know is that drug cartels don’t merely depend on anonymous websites like Blog del Narco and Borderland Beat to spread their propaganda. They are quite capable of publishing that information online – and anonymously – themselves. In fact, according to the the blog “Last of the Dodos,” the Gulf Cartel even temporarily had its own official YouTube channel. (The account was quickly suspended.) Mexican officials also say that drug cartels are using Twitter and Facebook to avoid military raids and police checkpoints. In the border town of Reynosa, where fighting between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel has been the most intense, a Facebook message that warned of an upcoming shootout caused the entire city, including schools and shops, to shut down. (The predicted shootout never did take place.)
Mexican politicians have responded by proposing a law that would give them power to block websites that facilitate the breaking of the law. It would also make illegal the publishing of information that helps anyone break the law or avoid the police.
In practice, the law could provide the government a handy excuse to censor legitimate information that helps hold government officials accountable, such as this video of soldiers harassing reporters at the scene of a shootout in Nuevo Laredo:
This video was spread widely by influential users on Twitter and Facebook. The next day and Mexico’s Secretary of National Defense released an official statement condemning the behavior of the soldiers and announcing that their actions would be investigated.
While most violence in Mexico is carried out by rival drug cartels, Article 19 has found that most threats against the safety of journalists actually come from the state, not the cartels.
Questions for Discussion
All of this brings up several important questions:
- Do mechanisms need to be created to train and protect citizen journalists similar to those that already exist for professional journalists?
- Proceso is beginning to publish some articles anonymously – what are the advantages and disadvantages? Should we be more accepting of journalists who choose to publish their articles anonymously?
- Should journalism schools teach circumvention techniques to students to protect their identity and publish anonymously?
- What is the role of the professional journalist in the online information ecology? How can they work with citizens to help verify claims, identify missed stories, and promote productive, outcome-oriented discussion?
- Is Judith’s work financially sustainable? When will she burn out?
- Should the government regulate the flow of online information?
The last topic is of particular interest to me because next month I will participate in a meeting organized by Frank La Rue, the United Nations Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion, about how governments should and/or should not regulate the use of the internet. Many proposals throughout the region to give government more control of what can be published online is rooted in concern over internet use by organized crime groups, so I am trying to deepen my understanding of all sides of the debate.
To conclude, allow me to return to the “M1zAr”, the student-blogger in Monterrey who witnessed the shootout that left two of her classmates dead. How did she feel, seated at her computer, while writing her post? Was it painful? Therapeutic? And how did she feel when, several days later, she received a comment signed by the Gulf Cartel, apologizing for the collateral deaths as they set out to exterminate their rivals? Was she frightened by the interaction or relieved by the comment’s implication — that she is safe?
Better yet, why did a gang member from the Gulf Cartel take the time to leave a comment in poorly written Spanish to assure M1zAr and her readers that they are not the target of the group’s bloody violence? Is that comment the consequence of conscience, or merely an attempt to enlist others in the cartel’s efforts to kill the rival Zetas? How did the anonymous commenter become involved with the Gulf Cartel in the first place? Was it due to a lack of jobs and economic opportunities, as the author of Blog del Narco suggests, or was (s)he allured by the glorification of narco-culture that takes place on TV, in the news, and on websites like Blog del Narco and BoingBoing?
These are difficult — but not impossible — questions to answer. Mexico’s future might very well depend on them.