Tweeting the Disappeared


A version of this story ran in the April 2012 issue.

Mexico is in the midst of a kidnapping wave. No one knows how severe
it is because Mexicans don’t trust the government or the police, which
often collude with drug cartels; so they often don’t report the
crimes. But anecdotally, Mexicans say the number of kidnappings and
disappearances is rising to unprecedented levels.

In northern Mexico, besieged citizens have turned to the social
networking service Twitter to find their loved ones. Working together,
they’ve formed an online citizens network that collects information
about the missing and “tweets” it, along with a picture of the victim,
into cyberspace. One Twitter user, who prefers to remain anonymous for
safety reasons, calls himself “Don Alejo” after a folk hero killed
near Ciudad Victoria in 2010 by cartel henchmen. He says the group has
collected approximately 250 names of kidnap victims so far. “The
problems really started to begin in 2009,” he says of his home state
of Tamaulipas. “Three busloads of people disappeared, and the
government did nothing about it, and the media were too scared to
report it.”

Since 2009, the network of citizens using Twitter to look for
kidnapped individuals has grown to cover several states, including
most of northern Mexico, Don Alejo says. On a typical day, Twitter
users across Mexico will send out a string of messages, each with a
description and a picture of the missing person. A typical notice
reads like this: “Disappeared Dulce Romero Ortiz in #Xalapa #Ver
06/07/2010 Have you seen her?” Each hashtag followed by a city name
means the notice will be disseminated to Twitter users in those towns.
Sometimes they get lucky. “We have found children with a parent in
another town and girls that have run away from home,” Alejo says. Last
year they helped locate a teenager from Tapachula, Chiapas, in
southern Mexico. “Thank you Twitteros for helping Lulu return to her
house safe and sound!” wrote one Twitter user beaneath a picture of a
pretty young woman in a turquoise top.

Because of their ability to organize online, social media users are
frequently threatened by criminal syndicates through Twitter and on
Facebook pages. Their online activity is constantly monitored. Some
social media users have even been killed in the border city of Nuevo
Laredo for reporting the movements of drug cartel operatives. Don
Alejo said the deaths frightened people in the network, but they won’t
quit. “I am threatened on a daily basis. But I do this because I love
my country. No one pays us a peso for this,” he says. “I get very
angry about what’s happening, and I want to help. It’s sad, but
nothing will change in Mexico until the government is free of
corruption. We live in the shadow of corruption.”

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