Mexicans turn to social media for news about drug crimes

McClatchy NewspapersMay 31, 2011 

DURANGO, Mexico — The messages brim with urgency as they pop across computer screens and into cell phones, made all the more stark by their brevity.

"Gunshots heard along Guadiana Blvd," one Durango resident reported on his Twitter account one recent night. "Three burned-out trucks along the highway to Flor," read another post.

With many of Mexico's conventional news outlets no longer willing to risk reporting on the Mexico's ongoing drug wars, a growing number of Mexicans in this country's northern cities are turning to Internet tools to keep abreast of the conflict raging around them.

They post on Twitter and then retweet what others have posted. They turn to Facebook for news through status updates and links to other sites. Increasingly, they follow crime blogs that specialize in news about narco violence. Some blogs have become popular enough they carry advertising.

Some analysts say the online media tools are helping to fill an informational black hole that opened when drug traffickers began targeting news reporters and their publications.

Around midnight Sunday, assailants tossed a grenade at the offices of the Vanguardia newspaper in the city of Saltillo, the seventh attack on media installations in the northern city in the past two years.

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission puts the number of murdered journalists at 66 since 2005, although other watchdog groups put the number killed or disappeared for reasons related to their profession at a little more than half that.

But others worry that reliable news is still hard to come by as crime bosses, corrupt officials and interested parties put their own spin on events.

"We have passed from a climate of too little information to a climate of information chaos," said Maria Elena Meneses, an expert on new media at the Mexico City campus of the Monterrey Institute of Technology.

Meneses said Mexicans hungry for information have flocked to social media for information on everything from roadblocks, to public gunfights, carjackings and kidnappings.

"Citizens have organized themselves to tell each other what is happening. 'There's trouble on this street, there's a blockade on that one. They are robbing people. They are taking their vehicles,'" Meneses said.

That kind of urgent first-hand reporting has become rare as the news media in northern Mexico print and air little of what their reporters learn, sticking only to the blandest of reports.

"What many newspapers do is only publish official news releases," said Aleida Calleja, a media expert who recently became president of the Mexican Association for the Right to Information, an advocacy group. "Obviously, journalists don't investigate deeply because it puts their lives at risk."

In the numerous cities and towns where organized crime is strong, particularly in the north, crime bosses often signal to newspaper editors what they want — and don't want — to see in print.

"They pass along what should be in the edition for the next day," Calleja said.

The Mexican Foundation of Investigative Journalism, an advocacy group, conducted a six-month study in 2010 that found that in some of Mexico's most violent states, local media report as few as 5 percent of the crimes that occur.

That's opened the field for a handful of blogs that have emerged in the past 18 months to chronicle Mexico's drug war. The blogs routinely post videos and photos that to some seem to glorify the grisly acts of gangs and show their prowess at killing.

The most widely read of the blogs, el Blog del Narco, has become such a source of videos and photos of organized criminal actions that U.S. counternarcotics officials and drug war analysts routinely monitor it.

The blog, which began in March 2010, says it is run by "two young people" who are "not for or against any crime organization" but simply want Mexicans to see "the terror that the country is suffering through."

The anonymity of its authors, though, has left some to wonder if the blog is also spinning on behalf of one or another of the major crime groups.

"They say they are citizens on a mission, but they don't give their names," Meneses said. "That's the problem with these social networks. The internet is a formidable tool, but it depends on how you use it."

Other Spanish-language blogs carry names like Narco Tijuana, Narcotrafico en Mexico and Narcoguerra (Narco War).

Government agencies are seeking to catch up, with many state and city officials opening their own Twitter accounts.

"Our objective is to provide opportune and truthful accounts," said Fernando Rios, who tweets for the Durango state secretariat of public security. "What happens is one person says (on Twitter), 'I hear gunshots near my house' and the next person says, 'Listen, my friend says there's a gunfight,' and another says, 'The lead is really flying.' And the rumors just take off."

Since Rios began the secretariat's Twitter account earlier this year, he's picked up about 6,500 followers. Nearly daily, he posts safety suggestions, asks for anonymous tips against criminals, and gives terse updates on violent crime.

"Shots heard on Amapola Street," he posted recently. "Law enforcement is on the way."

On another day, he urged residents to "back your vehicle into the garage so that nothing blocks your vision of the street."

While such small news alerts and tips may calm some nerves, few Durango residents are under any illusions about the hidden, larger story of violence in the city. Since late April, seven mass graves have been found here, and more than 300 corpses unearthed.

The mass graves are only part of the panorama of ghastly violence from turf wars between crime gangs. In attempts to terrorize their foes, gangsters behead their enemies, toss grenades into crowded venues, and use overwhelming force to control territory.

When a drug gang ambushed a convoy of rivals in the Pacific coastal state of Nayarit on May 25, killing 29 people, soldiers found some 1,000 shell casings at the scene, testament to the firepower the assailants used.

Traditional media covered the ambush, but for greater details and a plethora of photos, Mexicans had to turn to one of the blogs.

ON THE WEB

Blog del Narco

NarcoTijuana

Narco Trafico en Mexico

NarcoGuerra

BorderLandBeat

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Check out this McClatchy blog: Mexico Unmasked

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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