Mexican prosecutors duped in drug war by YouTube hoax

Just as the Mexican government appeared to be growing savvy in using social media to fight the drug war, prosecutors mistook a man on YouTube for a cartel leader and put $2.5 million bounty on his head.

What would you do if you suddenly saw your face pictured alongside Mexico’s most-wanted and most-feared drug traffickers?

A factory worker from the Mexican state Baja California was faced with that scenario this week after Mexico’s federal prosecutor’s office was duped into thinking his vacation photos on YouTube were of the leader of the Arellano Félix Cartel, also known as the Tijuana Cartel. The office said it had verified the photos before reposting them on its Most Wanted website, offering a 30 million peso ($2.5 million) reward for the man pictured.

The photos went viral on Tuesday as newspapers across the country ran them on their front pages as truth. The Monitor published a story about the photos Wednesday.

In fact, they were a hoax. The factory worker's friends had uploaded them to YouTube in 2009 with the label “Pictures of the Engineer" – a reference to cartel kingpin Fernando Sánchez Arellano, known as “the Engineer."

The incident has proven a sore embarrassment to the Mexican government just as it appeared to have grown savvy in using social media to fight the deadly drug war. While the drug gangs themselves have for years used YouTube and other Internet mediums to send messages to rival gangs or authorities, this week's incident appeared to underscore the government's weakness on the cyber front of the drug war.

The prosecutor’s office did not escape ridicule from the media. On Friday morning the daily Reforma newspaper ran this headline above the fold: “Cyber Prank Displays [Federal Prosecutor’s Office’s] ‘Intelligence.’ "

Local Baja California media report that the young man in the photos, who has remained anonymous, rushed to the police station to prove his identity. The federal prosecutor’s office on Thursday took the photos off its website, issuing a statement saying that they were wrongly attributed to Mr. Sánchez Arellano.

“Federal Prosecutor Arturo Chávez Chávez ordered the security protocol to be reviewed in order to prevent this situation from being repeated,” the office said in a statement.

Perhaps in the prosecutors’ defense, the similarity of the factory worker's pug nose, hairline, and even eyebrows to that of Sánchez Arellano is uncanny. But as to how officials could have so erringly verified the photos remained in question.

The federal prosecutor’s press office told the Monitor earlier this week that the YouTube photos were discovered by cyber police, a division that monitors the Web for criminal activity and has expanded since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006.

As the drug war has expanded to the online world, investigators have increasingly turned to social media in investigations. This poses its own unique hazards, warns security expert Jose Ramos.

Social media may be an endless source of information, he says, though it is also filled with false leads.

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