Mexico drug war: Zetas' biggest rival may be social networks
The Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo has seen three brutal killings in an apparent campaign by the Zetas cartel against social media websites. What is it about these sites that makes the Zetas so angry?
The first two victims were found hanging from a bridge on September 13, with signs warning that “this will happen to all Internet snitches,” and naming the websites Frontera al Rojo Vivo, Blog del Narco, and Denuncia Ciudadano. One of the signs was marked Z, for the Zetas.
Less than two weeks later, the head and decapitated body of a woman were left close to another busy road in the city, with a message addressed to Nuevo Laredo en Vivo (NLV) “and social media sites,” saying “this happened to me because of my reports, and yours.” It was signed with the nickname that she used online -- “La Nena de Laredo” (the girl from Laredo), followed by “ZZZ.”
The bodies in the first killings have not been identified. The most recent victim, however, was quickly named as Maria Elizabeth Macias, who reportedly worked for a local newspaper. Her online identity, as La Nena de Laredo, has also seemingly been confirmed by the NLV website, which has put a tribute to her up on its logo, "RIP 1972-2011 NenaDLaredo."
Clearly, the work of NLV and other similar websites is bothering the Zetas, who have gone out of their way to send an initimidating message to the sites’ users in the most extreme way possible. The three killings stand out for their use of exaggerated violence and heavy symbolism. Macias’ head was placed next to a keyboard, computer mouse, headphones, and speakers, while the other two corpses had ears and fingers cut off. These are killings intended not just to get rid of the victim, but to graphically display the extent of the Zetas' power. It can be read as following in the tradition of cartel killings in Mexico, where physical mutilations serve an almost ritual purpose as well as providing a warning -- for example, cutting the throat of police informants.
It is unknown whether any of the Zetas' criminal operations were actually disrupted thanks to information posted on the site. What the deaths do make clear is that NLV is symbolically subverting the Zetas' authority. The website features general information about life in the city, but focuses prominently on the security situation. At the top of the homepage is a message urging citizens to report on organized crime, with phone numbers for the army and marines, and an online form for submitting anonymous tips. Users in chatrooms swap information on suspicious vehicle sightings, or name locations that should be avoided.
The dead woman was apparently an administrator on the site, and according to one user she was NLV’s “most important collaborator.” It seems to be this prominence, rather than her newspaper work, that put her in danger. One poster explained, “You could say she was a public figure.” Her messages, which have been prominently posted on the front page in tribute, urge other users to report crimes -- “yesterday the Ministry of Defense rescued six hostages [...] keep reporting thank you for your reports... :)” Another says; “soon theses rats [the Zetas] will fall.... keep reporting!!!”
One of the most irritating aspects of NLV, for the Zetas, was likely its use of interactive city maps which logged where drugs were sold, stash houses were based, and where the "halcones" (lookouts who give the Zetas street intelligence) stand watch.
After Macias’ death, however, this map was seemingly taken off the public side of the site, disappearing sometime between late Monday and Tuesday afternoon (see screengrab at original post, via Neglected War blog).
By allowing citizens to submit real-time, anonymous reports on the networks of activities that keep their business running, sites like NLV pose a threat to the group’s modus operandi. Unlike some Mexican cartels, the Zetas are fairly uninterested in winning “hearts and minds,” or offering public justifications for their actions. They rely on inspiring fear to control territory, and a large part of this is being able to force the people into silence.
The show of citizens grouping together to defy the criminal groups, prominently displayed on NLV, poses a challenge to the Zetas’ image. Much of the traditional forms of media have been cowed into silence -- according to the Associated Press, Macias’ newspaper, Primera Hora, featured only a small article on her death and did not name her. The AP spoke to an editor at the newspaper, who said that it had given up reporting on crime two years previously due to intimidation by drug gangs. This stands in contrast to the outpouring of tributes to the dead woman, and protests against the Zetas that could be found on the website. Many posters rail against the “ratazzz,” or rats, spelt with a z to represent the Zetas, who are “ruining Nuevo Laredo.” Online forums like NLV represent an arena of defiance that is difficult for the Zetas to control, and this is a challenge to their authority -- one that they are answering with an escalation of brutality.
However, on Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, users continue to post messages of defiance:
"If they took Nena down, it is because, thanks to pages and blogs like this, many [gang] lookouts have fallen, many are dead and others in prison. This tells us that reporting [criminals] is one of the paths, so, friend, keep reporting in memory of nena!"
--- Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.
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