Mexican Cartels Open New Front In War: Online

Originally published on November 18, 2011 8:02 pm
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In the last nine weeks, in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, one cartel has signaled a new front in its war. It murdered four people in gruesome fashion for allegedly using social media and blogs.

NPR's John Burnett has the story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Nuevo Laredo blogger murders were particularly horrific. First, the mutilated bodies of a young man and woman were found hanging from a pedestrian bridge. Next, the corpse of a blogger who went by the name Laredo Girl turned up, with her head detached. And last week, another man was discovered beheaded.

The ultra-violent cartel, the Zetas, left written messages at each crime scene: This is what happens to bloggers and Twitter users who post information on the cartel's illicit activities. The brutal intimidation campaign has worked.

FATHER GIANANTONIO BAGGIO: I assure you that people like me, we stay very away from using the Internet for those kind of things.

BURNETT: Father Gianantonio Baggio runs a migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo and occasionally uses social media.

BAGGIO: It was a message to everybody. And what it means? It means that we are at war. We are under siege.

BURNETT: Mafia turf wars have raged off and on for six years in the city across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas. The local traditional media, which have had reporters killed and grenades tossed into newsrooms, have simply stopped reporting on the violence. So the Internet became the last refuge for citizens desperate to find out what's going on in their city.

PEDRO: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: They would name such and such a colonia where a shootout was happening, so people would be informed, says a taxi driver and avid blogger named Pedro. They used to be very specific about which corners and which houses where the narcos were selling drugs. And that's what angered crime bosses, says Juan Carlos Romero, who works with a free press advocacy group in Mexico City called Article 19. Romero says in Nuevo Laredo, alert bloggers effectively became informants.

JUAN CARLOS ROMERO: (Through Translator) Because the information that circulates on websites and in social media tells how and where the narcos operate. Besides, these sites also allow people to denounce traffickers to the authorities. That's why organized crime wants to control this information on the Internet.

BURNETT: Online free speech advocates say the situation in Nuevo Laredo is unprecedented. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reports that of the 42 journalists killed worldwide in 2010, six worked for online media. In Nuevo Laredo, they were simply social media users. A researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists says this is the first time it's documented organized crime trying to silence an entire online community. There's a strange paradox here regarding the public and private lives of Nuevo Laredoans. Citizens are starting to come back out after dark, evidenced by this high school marching band practicing in a downtown plaza a couple of nights ago.


BURNETT: But when they return to the safety of their homes and lock the doors and boot up their computers, that's when they're afraid.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: We don't post anything that happens anymore concerning the violence, says a college student. We have to be so careful. The Zetas have singled out a popular local website called Nuevo Laredo Live.


BURNETT: The masthead now bears an epitaph for the chatroom moderator, Laredo Girl, who was murdered. The website warns users to use great caution in what they post, but people still seem to be blogging. Someone reported hearing two explosions near Colonia Guerrero in the middle of the night. Someone else writes: They were definitely not firecrackers, and afterwards, lots of soldiers raced past. And here's a message that reads: Greetings to the valiant bloggers in Nuevo Laredo, please be careful. God bless you all. John Burnett, NPR News, Laredo, Texas.


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