Life, Death, Twitter

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In the past it might have seemed like an awful prank by an anonymous poster. But since the recent murders of four people in Nuevo Laredo because of their social media use, a threat posted this week on #Reynosafollowa Twitter hashtag used by residents of Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande from McAllencreated a panic.

The message from an anonymous user called @Jarochitoenfugo was chilling.

 Nuestro amgo @theelteto fallecio el dia de hoy, lamentamos su partida fue uno de los mejores tuiteros de #reynosafollow

English translation:

 Our friend @theelteto died today. We lament his parting he was one of the best twitter users on #reynosafollow

Tuiteros, as Twitter users are called in Spanish, began sending a flurry of messages on the #Reynosafollow hashtag: Is @theelteto okay? What happened?

About an hour later @theelteto sent a message that he was indeed alive:

BUENAS TARDES A TODOS HNS D #REYNOSAFOLLOW #MTYFOLLOW #MATAMOROS Y TODOS LSO TAG HERMANOS GRACIAS X PREOCUPARSE X MI

English translation:

Good afternoon to everybody at #Reynosafollow… And all of my hashtag brothers. Thank you for worrying about me.

Just months ago, the death threat would have been viewed as some macabre joke. That was before bodies with messages threatening social media users began to appear in recent months in the city of Nuevo Laredo, which is also in the state of Tamaulipas like Reynosa. The first two social media murders occurred September 13th, when two bodies were found hanging from a bridge. The third murder occurred on September 25th, when the body of a newspaper employee was found decapitated with a message saying that her involvement with a Nuevo Laredo chat room had led to her demise. In early November, another grisly death in Nuevo Laredo was accompanied by a message warning people not to use social media to report drug cartels to the authorities.

In 2010, Tamaulipas began to experience unprecedented levels of violence after the Zetas clashed with the Gulf Cartel over smuggling territories. The Mexican government sent in the military and gun battles in the streets became a common occurrence. Media organizations have been attacked with grenades and reporters killed and kidnapped. Increasingly, Twitter and other social media programs are the only way for citizens to get information about gun battles and other attacks going on in their cities. But now social media users are also being attacked and silenced.

A #Reynosafollow user with the twitter handle @MrCruzStar says people in Reynosa using Twitter to inform the community of gun battles and other crimes never imagined they themselves could be targeted. “I never thought I was in any kind of danger until the reporter and activist was killed in Nuevo Laredo,” he wrote in an email.

Twitter users using the #Reynosafollow hashtag are advised not to use their true identities on Twitter and to mask their IP addresses. @MrCruzStar doesn’t use his real name in his Twitter and Gmail accounts as a security precaution. “Many types of people are monitoring the #Reynosafollow hashtag,” says @MrCruzStar, “Including the narcos, the police and the media.”

In mid-November @MrCruzStar and other Twitter users in Northern Mexico circulated a manifesto online, asking for justice in the murders, and that the Mexican government protect their freedom online. They also asked for help from the international community of journalists and social media users to create an international organization that could function as a watchdog to exert pressure on the Mexican government to investigate the deaths.

“Please don’t leave us alone,” they write in the manifesto. “We need you now more than ever.” The group lists an email [email protected] for anyone interested in helping.

Sergio Chapa, the interactive editor with KGTB 4 news in the Rio Grande Valley, has been following the #Reynosafollow hashtag on Twitter since it first started in February 2010. “The growth has just exploded,” he says. “It’s one of the busiest hashtags in Mexico and it’s really set an example for many other cities in Mexico who now have city-based hashtags such as #Mtyfollow and #Matamoros.”

Since the inception of #Reynosafollow, Chapa says he’s seen leaders emerge such as @MrCruzStar who consistently provide accurate information and remind new users that the Twitter feed is used solely to advise citizens of gunfights in the streets and other dangers in real time. Sometimes cartel members infiltrate the site and insult people or even threaten users as they did earlier this week, Chapa says.“Usually those accounts are shut down fairly rapidly,” he says.

In Reynosa, @MrCruzStar says Mexicans have been abandoned by the media and by local authorities so social media has become one of the only means left to communicate and keep communities safe. “Anonymity and social media are our tools,” he says.

The threat this week against @theelteto, one of the more active members of #Reynosafollow, brought home the danger of the drug war not only in the streets but now also in cyberspace. @MrCruzStar said the group would try and take more precautions to remain absolutely anonymous. “We can’t dismiss it anymore as an idle threat,” he says of the recent death threat. “But we have to continue. We have to keep our virtual community strong because everyone else has abandoned us.”

Last night a gun battle raged in Reynosa for at least three hours. The next day it went unreported in Reynosa’s daily newspapers. #Reynosafollow had it, though—one user even circulated a video.

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.