Mexico's Drug War, Online and Off

The drug war in Mexico isn't just happening on the streets, it's raging online, too. Last week, two bodies were hung from a pedestrian overpass in Nuevo Laredo, with notes attached, signed by the Zetas, threatening similar retribution against those who would use the internet to inform on the narcos. As the NY Times reported, these killings and threats come in response to a rising tide of information about the drug war transmitted on a collection of blogs and other sites that specialize in news about the drug war. 

When I was in Mexico last year researching the impact of new technology on civil society and social movements, these sites, particularly Blog del Narco, were mentioned frequently as valuable sources for news that the mainstream media wouldn't cover. Not surprisingly, the cartels have caught on.

Part of the value in these sites lies in the potential for informants, witnesses, and commentators to remain anonymous. And ironically, this latest incident may not mean that that anonymity has been compromised: the unfortunate individuals may or may not have been actual informants.  Regardless, a clear and gruesome message was sent, and the narcos will likely have their way.

Meanwhile, in Veracruz, an erroneous report on Twitter that narcos had taken hostages at an elementary school led to citywide terror a few weeks back. Four minutes after the initial Tweet, the state governor himself Tweeted, dismissing the claim as untrue, but his statement was lost amid the flurry of panicked activity, and it was too late to undo the damage. Those who wrote the initial Tweets have been arrested on charges of terrorism, which has in turn sparked blowback from Mexican defenders of free expression.

So, if the reliable online sources of news are silenced through violence, and unfiltered social media are liable to overflow with falsehood, how can we expect these and similar tools to have a positive impact in the drug war? Can we?

It's helpful to step back from assumptions that the internet, social media, mobile phones and other new technologies will play either an inherently positive or inherently negative role in taking on challenges. While technology based on a distributed network may tend to advantage distributed social networks, we can see here clear downsides to a fully democratic forum like Twitter, as well as the potential for powerful actors to undermine and compromise even the most diffuse networks.

As a point of reference and comparison, it may be useful to take a fresh look at how activists in North Africa leveraged new technologies in the years leading up to the "Arab Spring." As I wrote back in February, new media contributed to the uprising over the course of years, building the case against the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and creating a constituency for revolution. An excellent piecen in the current Technology Review offers a lot of new information and analysis on this subject, and confirms the idea that, while tools like Facebook and SMS were instrumental in facilitating protests and bringing people into the streets, it took a very long time to build the online networks that made it possible.

What's needed in Mexico is really not so different from a revolution. In certain provinces, particularly in the border region, the narcos control, either directly or indirectly, just about everything-- nearly every aspect of the state and society. The threat is less overt but equally pernicious, if not more so. For the legitimate, untainted elements of the government and the millions of law-abiding citizens to take back control of their homeland will require a sustained campaign of coordinated action, and incredible courage. That coalition will have to be build slowly, anonymously, and with utmost confidence among members. It may take some symbolic event akin to Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia to spark the public movement for change in Mexico, but before that day comes, some organizing structure will have to be built to mobilize law abiding citizens to concerted action.

In the Middle East and North Africa, we've seen that online tools can be used for exactly that. Whether these same tactics can be effectively translated to combat an enemy without a president or a uniformed army, but composed instead of a lawless band of vicious thugs is an open question. And overcoming the terrorist tactics employed by the narcos is a tall order. But these recent events shouldn't cause us to lose sight of the potential for new technology to be used to fight for the good guys.