Back to mobile

Hacktivists and Los Zetas Fistfight in Cyberspace

by Published on
Wikimedia Commons
Anonymous Protest

Mexico’s sanguinary drug war has taken a strange twist. Instead of the streets of Juarez or Matamoros the battle has been played out in cyberspace over the last month between the world’s most feared group of hackers Anonymous and Mexico’s most notorious cartel Los Zetas.

The battle between Anonymous and Los Zetas was sparked by an alleged kidnapping in Veracruz of a hacker in early October by the cartel. Shortly thereafter, a video was uploaded to You Tube by Anonymous Veracruz declaring hackers would release dozens of names on November 5 of Zeta collaborators if the hacker was not released. It became known as Operation Cartel.

Then a tweet circulated widely on November 3rdunder the Twitter hashtag #opcartel and the handle @Sm0k34n0n announced that the kidnapped Anonymous member had been released. Will Anonymous’ Operation Cartel be called off now that the hacker has been released? Maybe or maybe not. The diverse and decentralized international community of hackers involved with Anonymous is neither easy to define nor predict.

To make matters even stranger, and more convoluted, a 28-year old Texan, Barrett Brown, who is a collaborator with Anonymous said Thursday that he alone will release the information and face the wrath of Los Zetas. Yesterday, Brown characterized the hacked information as about 25,000 documents, including information about an U.S. district attorney on the Zetas payroll.

 “… the release is mostly made up of Mexicans with ties to the Zetas cartel. There is one United States district attorney on the list, however. The DA has worked with another organized crime outfit that may or may not be peripheral to the Zetas, but which is probably not connected in any significant way.”

Brown wrote Thursday night that he’ll release the information so that Anonymous hackers in Mexico are not preyed upon and killed by Los Zetas, “…those who have been in possession of the e-mails have promised to provide them to me alone, which is to say that everything that proceeds from now on is my own work, and not that of Anonymous. Any reprisals against anyone other than myself, then, will have no effect.”

Is Brown insanely brave or just smacked out? I mean literally. A recent profile in D Magazine paints him as an exceedingly intelligent yet self-annihilating fellow with a propensity for opiates.

All of this online battling could have very real and deadly consequences.

In September, 39-year old Maria Macias who worked for a newspaper in Nuevo Laredo was found decapitated. Macias was an active member of an online community site “Nuevo Laredo en Vivo” which posted information about crimes and urged people to report criminals to the police and army. Her body was found lying in an intersection, next to computer keyboards. A sign next to her read: “OK Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and social networks, I am Laredo Girl and I am here because of my reports and yours.”

Two men were also found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo, allegedly because of their connections with social media sites.

Yesterday Brown told Atlantic Wire he was still committed to releasing the information about Los Zetas.

“I’m armed,” he told them, “And where I’m at, it would be a difficult place for the Zetas to do any loud attack on me and escape alive. It would be difficult for them, so I’m not particularly worried about it.”

Brown did admit it was an inconvenience though. After the interview he tweeted: “Now my weed dealer won’t come by because he’s afraid of the damned Zetas.”

The whole thing has become increasingly surreal and carnival-like, especially with Brown’s intervention. Is it all an elaborate put on?

It may be but the stakes are still real. The cartels run sophisticated surveillance networks and monitor and participate in social media sites in Mexico. Organized crime cartels such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas have systematically targeted and killed journalists across Mexico, creating a vacuum of information. They are now trying to do the same with social media. The only place Mexicans have left to share information and make sense of the government corruption and violence plaguing their country is through social media. The idea of Anonymous, faceless hackers who can reveal confidential information to the public about high-level corruption between the cartels and the government is an intoxicating thought. For once there’s some kind of satisfying justice for a country drowning in impunity. But can they do it without bloodshed?

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.