In the midst of a drug cartel insurgency, border residents use Twitter to protect their families.
The splintering of the Zeta Cartel from its former ally the Gulf Cartel earlier this year plunged the state of Tamaulipas into an insurgency. As the narco-blockades and grenade assaults have escalated, so have the threats to journalists who are being kidnapped, threatened into silence or murdered.
Today, there is nearly a total blackout of reporting on the drug war among the regional media in Tamaulipas, which includes Reynosa, a city of more than 500,000 just across the Rio Grande from McAllen.
As the terror campaign intensified last February, residents turned to a social media program called Twitter to inform one another of impending danger. Using Twitter, residents can send a 140-character message or a photo on a cell phone or computer. They can also create topics using “hashtags” by putting the # character at the beginning of a word. Residents created the hashtag #reynosafollow to warn one another of dangers in the city. Shortly thereafter, the city of Reynosa created a Twitter account at @DIRGOBREYNOSA to alert residents of security risks and to dispel rumors. Using Twitter, the city government and residents can send a quick warning from anywhere in the city.
On August 24, at around 5:00 p.m. armed convoys of cartel members terrorized Reynosa with at least three blockades and grenade attacks on the Jabil maquiladora where hundreds of workers were leaving for the day. In the end, six people died, including an innocent motorist. Seven more were wounded. Twitter users throughout the two hour-long-battle posted photos and even tried to map the coordinates of the narco-blockades throughout their city. At one point, the map looked as if all of Reynosa was under siege. Some people stuck in traffic, had mistakenly thought there were blockades up ahead and in the hysteria of the moment reported it to #reynosafollow.
The city of Reynosa posted warnings throughout the battle. Altogether, more than 600 “tweets” were posted on the violence during the two hours of chaos. The next day, local media were silent on the gun battle. Following is an account of the battle of August 24 as it played out over Twitter on that day.
(Gun battle from hell in the Florida neighborhood. Help us!!1 Army report!!!!)
(Gun battle in Villa Florida. You can hear the gunshots…)
(Heavy gunfire in Granjas Economicas #reynosafollow confirmed it with my sister)
(Confirming a situation of risk in the Granjas and Villa Florida neighborhoods. Blockade on Boulevard Colosio and Libramiento)
(There’s something big burning by Jabil (a maquiladora) )
(A lot of movement of armed trucks on Hidalgo Boulevard)
(Confirm if the highway is blocked please!)
(They’re blocking the entire highway)
(Pearl colored Cadillac Escalade armed civilians in military uniform prowling the city center. Where exactly?)
(More than 10 trucks by the Soriana Riberena, all armed!)
(Armed heliopter in the area #Reynosafollow take precaution)
(Smoke in the Villa Florida neighborhood)
(Military just passed near Home Depot. They’re moving fast)
(Trapped by the childrens hospital. A helicopter is passing.)
(How horrible. The children are asking what’s going on. I tell them nothing. How defenseless we are!)
(Confirm blockades, arm yourselves people that’s what we’re here for. Start confirming zones and blockades/blockades that are cleared)
(Anybody who is in El Colosio neighborhood please report)
(Can someone confirm whether there are still avenues blockaded and which ones? I need to get on the highway)
(They’re burning the Jabil warehouse, a grenade attack. I’ve just been told.)
(In Puerta del Sol, a bad guy’s car crashes into a civilian driver …neighbors help)
(Someone please report if El Colosio is clear now. #reynosafollow or we don’t have reporters there?)
(Highway Matamoros-Reynosa clear. They’ve lifted the blockades but the traffic remains.)
(The situation at 6:50 p.m. Help me with information about where you are, greetings)
(We’re looking out for you friends. Thanks it looks like the worst has passed.)
(How difficult it was to order my kids to get on the floor of the truck. Today this happened to me)
(Thank you to everyone at #reynosafollow for your information. It helped me to alert my family in the street.)
The following day, the local newspapers and TV media were silent. Only a handful of newspapers outside of Reynosa reported on the chaos. An article in Mexico City’s el Universal reported that the military had forced local police to abandon their checkpoints at the outskirts of the city. (In Reynosa, the city’s police force is aligned with the cartels.) They also reported seven people had died. El Universal posted a YouTube link from a passing motorist, showing a man bleeding on the ground who had been shot in the crossfire. Using Twitter, YouTube and various blogs the residents of Reynosa pieced together the events of August 24th. It is a limited picture of events, however. Twitter is only available to those in Reynosa and other parts of Mexico who can afford the expensive data plans needed for web access on their cell phones. For instance, in a city of nearly 600,000, the city of Reynosa’s Twitter account only had 9,313 followers as of mid-September. It’s debatable whether Twitter is helping save lives in Reynosa, but at least it’s empowering citizens with information during a dark time in their city’s history.