Mexico: Lethal Threats for Citizens Reporting on Drug Crimes

In Mexico last month, a drug cartel offered a bounty of MX$600,000 for information on the identity and location of a person who has been using social media to report on drug violence [es] in the northern state of Tamaulipas. The drug war has had a stark, chilling effect on Mexico's press, with sometimes lethal violence against journalists forcing news outlets to censor their coverage of crime. But this and other recent incidents have shown that both professional and citizen journalists alike are now facing these threats.

US Congress Committee on Foreign Relations. This image is in the public domain.

US Congress Committee on Foreign Relations. This image is in the public domain.

On a daily basis, cartels engage in combat throughout the country, clashing with rival cartels, traffickers, the military, and the police. This new reality has left Mexico in a general state of violent instability and fear, as many of these fights result in civilian casualties. By the end of 2012, observers estimated that this ongoing, large-scale conflict had taken the lives of more than 60,000 people, and has displaced more than 230,000 people. The Mexican government maintains that 90% of those killed by the conflict have been drug trade workers, but human rights organizations are skeptical of this claim.

Mexico has long been both a growing site and critical transit point for traffickers of illegal drugs from South America, due in large part to the robust demand for cocaine, marijuana and heroin in the United States. But violent conflict between drug cartels, police, and military agents has escalated dramatically over the last six years.

In 2006, shortly after his election, now former Mexican president Felipe Calderón decided to end the generally passive stance the government had held regarding drug organizations in Mexico. With the first major military operation against drug lords, Operation Michoacán, the country began a new phase in a drug war that has turned Mexico into one of the most violent countries on earth. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that during Calderón’s administration alone, sixteen professional journalists were killed in what advocates believe were targeted attempts to curb reporting on drug violence.

Mexican military forces in Michoacan. Photo by Diego Fernandez. Released to the public domain.

Mexican military forces in Michoacan. Photo by Diego Fernandez. Released to the public domain.

As with any internal conflict, information is vital and thus very important to control. Media outlets and governments now self-censor their own content – some because they are said to be collaborating with cartels, others because they have been explicitly threatened for covering “uncomfortable” news. In response, citizen journalists have been working to fill the gap by reporting on the violence they see around them.

“The New War Correspondents,” a new study from Microsoft Research, describes the changes that the conflict has brought about for information flow in Mexico:

As drug war violence spreads and traditional news media weakens, frustrated citizens turn to the increasingly pervasive social media for information and survival. Twitter in particular has become one of the principal sources of citizen-driven alerts in several Mexican cities; people often report, confirm, comment on, and disseminate information and alerts about the violence, typically as it unfolds.

A survey conducted by Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists of Mexican journalists and bloggers showed that 96% of respondents know a colleague who has been attacked. The organization surveyed 102 journalists in 20 Mexican states. Northeast Mexico appears to be the epicenter of this battle as Insight Crime reports:

The Zetas criminal group is the main suspect in the slayings of three social media activists in Nuevo Laredo in 2011 which included the blogger and citizen journalist “la nena de Nuevo Laredo.” The attacks led to the so-called “Twitter Manifesto” in which social media users said, “We have been abandoned to our fate in this unequal fight of free citizens against the drug traffickers.”

Recently, a social media user who reports on drug violence using the name “Valor por Tamaulipas” [Courage for Tamaulipas] on both Twitter and Facebook has been the target of these threats. An unidentified drug cartel [es] has circulated pamphlets in Tamaulipas and surrounding areas offering a bounty of MX$600,000 (about US$46,000) to anyone who provides information that can uncover @ValorTamaulipas’ real identity. A video showing the execution of a man warns anyone who reports on narco violence of the consequences they could face for their actions. The video, which first appeared on YouTube [es] but was removed because it violated the site's terms of service, mentions “Valor por Tamaulipas” directly. @ValorTamaulipas hasn’t been persuaded to stop reporting, saying, “I won’t give up if you don’t.” [es]

In an interview published by CNN Mexico the individual summarizes what many citizen journalists think about reporting in Mexico: “I think what is happening to me is the least relevant thing that is happening in my state,” the blogger said.

There are hundreds of families waiting for their missing ones, who at their moment of filing complaints were filled with fear by authorities who told them to assume they are dead.

Although those following the case appear to believe that @ValorTamaulipas is a person located within Mexico, it is possible that @ValorTamaulipas is a group or network working from various unique locations in or outside of Mexico.

Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has continued Calderon's military and police strategy against drug organizations. He has also vowed to develop stronger infrastructure for youth enrichment programs and job creation, though observers are skeptical that he will make good on this promise. Policymakers have argued that poverty and lack of job opportunities have driven many young people to seek work in the drug trade and that the country's has become dependent on the industry as a result.

The clear and present danger that drug cartels present for citizen journalists in Mexico is unique within the global context. The majority of bloggers and social media users around the world who face repression for reporting on political issues are being restricted either by governments, Internet companies, or some combination of the two. But Mexico's citizen media communities face a different kind of threat. Unlike governments and companies, drug cartels operate outside of the law and their international reputation has little bearing on their financial success. Policy advocacy and public campaigns can lay the groundwork for change concerning governments or companies, but these tactics can only go so far in the Mexican context.

Beyond continuing this courageous and often dangerous work, it is difficult to know how citizen media advocates can work against this form of repression. What is clear is that those who continue to report on drug-related violence must take strong precautions to protect their anonymity online. To learn more about how to improve security protections for one's communications online, see GVA's Guide to Anonymous Blogging.

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