This story was produced in partnership with the Guardian, where a version of this story also appears.
In 2010, the birth year of the popular and controversial website Blog del Narco, Mexico’s tumultuous drug war reached a turning point. Monterrey, an economic engine of the country and once famously known as the safest city in Latin America, was engulfed by narco blockades and gun battles. In the neighboring state of Tamaulipas, the leading gubernatorial candidate was assassinated, and the border cities of Camargo and Mier became ghost towns.
In the first two months of 2010, eight journalists were kidnapped in the border city of Reynosa. The offices of news organizations across northern Mexico were attacked with grenades and strafed with gunfire. Only two of the kidnapped reporters survived. When the reporters returned to their newsroom at El Milenio in Mexico City, their editor Ciro Gomez Lleyva wrote what was essentially the obituary for press freedom in his country. “In more and more regions of Mexico, it is impossible to do journalism. Journalism is dead in Reynosa, and I have nothing more to say.”
As Mexico’s media outlets stopped reporting on the cartels and the government remained silent, Blog del Narco, launched in March 2010, began to fill the void (Read Rory Carroll’s exclusive interview with Blog del Narco’s founder). The blog featured raw photos and videos of executions, and gun battles uploaded by anonymous contributors. Within months Blog del Narco was one of the most visited websites in Mexico with three million monthly visitors. The blog documented the drug war in all its horror: photos of decapitated heads, mutilated torsos and other stomach-jarring acts of violence committed by organized crime to induce terror among the population.
Frightened and curious Mexicans read Blog del Narco to understand what was happening to their country “We were living in some kind of low intensity war,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville who studies organized crime in her native Mexico. “We had never seen houses burnt, people massacred like this before. It was deeply frightening.”
Anonymity became the only safeguard for freedom of expression. Blog del Narco posted every grim corpse photo and every gory account of assassination without attribution. It was unclear whether the stories were ripped from other websites or were original reporting. And it seemed like no moderator existed. “The site was a mess,” Correa-Cabrera said.
But everyone read it anyway. It was gruesome, but the violence needed to be documented, because it was happening. “If anything, Blog del Narco is an account of the facts. Proof that it happened. Because if we do not acknowledge what is happening in our country, then we can never change it,” Correa-Cabrera said.
The cartels tried to dispatch Blog del Narco much like they had Mexico’s other media outlets. The blog suffered hundreds of cyber attacks. Anonymous and unsubstantiated rumors began to circulate that the site favored one cartel over another. In 2011, the website suffered a debilitating cyber attack and was offline several days before it switched servers. Then a man and woman were killed and hung from a bridge in the border city of Nuevo Laredo with a sign warning that they had been killed for working on anonymous websites like Blog del Narco. “This is what will happen to all the Internet snitches. Be warned, we are watching you, Sincerely Z [Los Zetas].”
Since the dark days of 2011 and the crippling cyber attack, Blog del Narco has redoubled its efforts. This week the website’s moderators released their first book “Dying for the Truth: Undercover Inside the Mexican Drug War,” published by Feral House. In the book, written in Spanish and English, the anonymous authors of the blog document the dissolution of their country in 2010 by starting with an apology, “We are well educated and don’t tend to curse, but we’re going to say this because it’s the way it is: Our country is fucked. It has been for a long time.”
The book is divided into short chapters that report month by month the bloody battle for territory by organized crime during 2010 and the first two months of 2011. The photos are as gruesome and as graphic as they are on the website. The text gives concise explanations of events, including transcriptions of narco messages left behind on the bodies.
Nothing in the book is attributed. Some of the chapters are remarkably detailed. In one chapter titled “Gubernatorial Candidate is Murdered with His Team Members,” the authors explain how Rodolfo Torre Cantú, Tamaulipas’ leading gubernatorial candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was ambushed in June 2010 by Los Zetas cartel outside the state’s capital. The chapter describes how the hit men slept in a motel near the ambush site and how the cartel’s leader at the time, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, personally supervised the massacre of Torres and his campaign team. Three graphic photographs in the book document the massacre.
Three years later, the gubernatorial candidate’s murder, like thousands of others in the last six years, has yet to be investigated by Mexican authorities. The country’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto, anxious to suppress the growing conflict, is increasingly adopting a policy of silence. Gone are the press conferences touting the deployment of more troops or the capture of a drug kingpin that were common under the previous president, Felipe Calderon. Attacks against the press are once again on the rise and recent gun battles raging across northern Mexico are scarcely reported by the media.
Someday, when the violence ends, historians won’t have much information to help explain the bloodiest era in the country’s history since the Mexican Revolution. What they will have is Blog del Narco.