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Tweeting Danger

As journalists are killed in Mexico, ordinary citizens turn to social media.
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When Luis Cardenas Lopez saw government officials laughing at a tragedy in Juarez he got angry. The 27-year old communications student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico decided to start doing social and political commentary on YouTube about the escalating drug violence.

“I saw TV footage of President Calderon’s visit to Juarez after 16 teenagers were killed,” Cardenas says of the scene he witnessed three months ago. “A mother who had lost her two sons in the massacre stood up and told the president ‘you are not welcome in Juarez.’ Some of the officials at the meeting laughed at her,” says a still incredulous Cardenas. “She had just lost her two sons and I felt very angry when I saw that – I thought  ‘My God, what is wrong with this country?’ As a citizen of Mexico I felt I had to speak out.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5shqXXJ4U-s

Cardenas, like many Mexicans, is turning to social media to vent his frustration over the drug war and to help document the bloodshed that has only worsened since Calderon declared war on the cartels in 2006. As the violence has escalated in the last three months due to a split between the Gulf and Zeta cartels, media coverage has dimmed as journalists covering the drug war are threatened with kidnapping and death if they continue to document the violence.

Increasingly, ordinary citizens are filling in the gaps. They are documenting gunfights in their neighborhoods then uploading the footage to YouTube. Chat forum users advise each other when it’s safe to travel on highways or when to avoid a city because of drug cartel violence. Twitter users warn others about the locations of military soldiers or cartel members in their cities.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrtJAS1zZY8

Each morning Cardenas aggregates dozens of these tweets, news stories and YouTube uploads which he puts on his Web site and Facebook page. He also has a You Tube channel called Noticias Digital, where he does two daily broadcasts from his Mexico City apartment. A friend doubles as his camera man.

His broadcasts are often emotional and sometimes peppered with profanity. He’s been known to call government officials “the biggest shits in the world.”  Each day he cites the current tally of drug war deaths for 2010 (2,200 so far, he notes on March 24 the day of our interview via Skype), compiled by the newspaper El Universal, followed by political and social commentary about the drug war.

“There are a lot of things happening in this country – very scary things — and there is no analysis or commentary in traditional media about it,” he says.

He likes to joke about his two-man media outfit, which doesn’t make a centavo, he says. “I seem to be the only one crazy enough right now in Mexico to film myself on You Tube,” he laughs. “I think it happens a lot in more advanced democracies like the United States where people speak out about the government and have their own audience, but not here in Mexico.”

His family doesn’t like him speaking out about the violence, he says. Last month at least eight Mexican journalists in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, were abducted. One reporter died, and two were released. Five journalists are still missing, according to the Dallas Morning News.

The two journalists who survived the abductions took the next plane back to Mexico City. In a March 4 editorial, their media organization El Milenio declared, “Journalism is dead in Reynosa.”

Increasingly, journalists are quitting or self-censoring their work. Cardenas says he has a journalist friend, who was working in northern Mexico, but recently quit because he feared for his safety. “They have to face death and the worst aspects of humanity everyday,” he says. “And even worse they can’t say anything about it.”

Cardenas is quick to point out that he is not so brave just a “citizen doing commentary” as he puts it. “I don’t have reporters working for me, and I don’t pretend to supplant the work of journalists,” he says. “But I try to confirm everything that I receive before I put it out there.”

Twitter has been especially effective, he says, in documenting gun battles erupting across northern Mexico. In February, the Zeta and Gulf cartels, former allies, split. The ensuing uptick in violence has terrorized residents in the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, which border Texas. Viral emails purported to be from cartels circulate quickly among the populace of various cities. The emails threaten gun battles and the kidnappings of children if families send their children to school. Terrified residents keep their children out of school and lock themselves up at home.

Cardenas points to the importance of Twitter in helping citizens avoid gun battles and narco blockades on the highways. Twitter was the first to alert people to a March 19 gun battle between the Gulf Cartel and Mexican military that resulted in the deaths of two students caught in the crossfire at the prestigious Technological Institute of Higher Learning of Monterrey.

“The first reports came out over Twitter from students,” Cardenas says. “When you get five or six accounts all saying the same thing – it’s hard to doubt that the information is accurate.”

On a recent day, a Tec de Monterrey student warned on Twitter that the military were outside her dorm room.

“There are three military trucks parked outside TEC. This is not a paranoid joke. Send this news out via Twitter,” she wrote uploading a photo of the soldiers outside.

Cardenas says it is remarkable to what extent the cartels also use social media to communicate with each other and with ordinary citizens. He points to the chat forum on the newspaper El Norte’s web site that was set up for residents of the northern border states where the drug violence is at its worst.

“This is a very interesting forum because the cartels have sent two messages out to the people on this forum,” he says.

On February 28, a post was uploaded from the “The New Federation.” The post says the cartels have banded together against Los Zetas, former U.S trained government special forces that went into the drug business a few years back and worked as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel.

The disputed territory is in Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and other states along the Gulf of Mexico, which are experiencing some of the worst violence at the moment. There is no way of telling if it is authentic, Cardenas says, but he and many other Mexicans believe that the cartels have banded together to stamp out Los Zetas.

The New Federation post says that the turning point against the Zetas was the brutal killing of the teenagers in Juarez in January.

“The water that broke the dam for society was the death of the children at the party in Juarez,” they write.

They then direct people from Reynosa to keep their children out of school and to not go out into the streets until further notice.

People in Monterrey should “go about their business and not get too paranoid,” they advise.

“El Chapito (Sinaloa cartel), CDG (Gulf Cartel) and La Familia (Michoacan) in this agreement are going to respect the plazas, they are not going to charge more fees and they are going to prohibit the kidnappings,” the New Federation writes.

They also write that the media is remaining quiet as part of the agreement.  They then ironically give a tip of the hat to Grupo Reforma, the media organization that owns El Norte, for its chat forum “We give applause to Grupo Reforma for this space. There is no other, this is the only form.”

Cardenas says he feels relatively safe in his apartment in Mexico City. But he has received some threats online, which he deemed not to be serious.  “They just didn’t agree with my point of view,” he says.  “I like to confront ideas and create debate. My friends say I am crazy, but I try to speak from the citizen’s point of view. The government is supposed to protect us, but it hasn’t.”

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.