Mexicans use social media to negotiate the drug war

In the midst of the brutal drug trafficking war encroaching on their lives, thousands of Mexicans every morning check social network websites to see if they will encounter any unpleasant surprises on the way to work or school.

But they are not the only ones.

While average citizens go online to let others know where in their neighborhood a body has been uncovered or if they can expect disruptions from cartels or the Mexican military, the drug gangs themselves also use the tools to manipulate public opinion by making threats and warnings.

The spread of vital information ahead of the daily commute, via social networking technology and sites like Facebook and Twitter, is especially useful in the country’s north, near the US border, which has become ground zero for the country’s drug war.

More than 28,000 people are believed to have been killed in drug cartel-related violence in Mexico in the last four years, when President Felipe Calderon launched a military crackdown, making residents increasingly desperate for ways to avoid the bloodshed.

In recent days northern Mexico has been roiled by another spate of violence, with 47 deaths blamed on drug cartels in the border region and a series of grenade attacks in the border city of Monterrey that wounded a dozen people.

The internet is playing a growing role in Mexico’s drug war, spreading both information and fear with even journalists and other media figures becoming targets for the gangs — at least 10 reporters have been killed this year — outlets have resorted at times to self-censorship in attempts to safeguard their workers, making online portals even more vital.

“Pedestrians in the city report gunfire… anyone else?” wrote a user of an information site in Guadalajara called “BalaceraGDL” (meaning gunfight), that sprung up in Mexico’s second largest city in a bid by residents to spread news of conflict on their streets.

Some official networking sites, including Twitter pages and Facebook accounts, have also been created by local authorities.

In Tamaulipas state, a northeastern region that has seen some of the worst violence in recent years due to cartel turf wars, city officials from Reynosa — across the border from the Texas town of McAllen — have sought to counter contradicting information from cartels with their own source.

“The aim is to establish a tool of communication to put an end to the rumors that come out of social networking, and inform people what’s really happening, in real time,” said the city mayor’s chief of staff Juan Triana.

“Before driving my son to college, I consult my BB (BlackBerry) to check what is happening in the streets, to avoid any unpleasant surprises,” said Reynosa sales clerk Rosario Leon.

“Military patrol in San Fernando, with unexpected traffic jams… Have a nice day,” read one message on the Reynosa’s Twitter account, referring to the nearby small town where last month the bodies of 72 immigrants were found after a suspected drug gang massacre.

Further south, in the port town of Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico, the local service “infotampico,” asks users: “Anyone else today know about the four (bodies) hanging from the bridge?”

Leonardo Hernandez, a university researcher who is working on a paper about online terrorism, said that sometimes more can be learned about a crime online than in other media nowadays.

“It happens sometimes that the first news about something breaks on the social network sites,” he said, citing the example of a former presidential candidate who was kidnapped in June and whose whereabouts remain unknown.

The alleged kidnappers posted photos of their prisoner on Twitter.

“We learned more about it on the social networks than we did in the media,” he said. — AFP



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