On Sunday, May 19th, in Tampico, Mexico, residents woke to a gruesome but common scene. Two dismembered bodies stuffed in black plastic bags were thrown from a truck onto a sidewalk near the river. A note left behind with the bags claimed the victims had been killed by “rats.” The story went unreported by news outlets.
Traditional news media in Tampico and across the northeastern state of Tamaulipas have almost entirely stopped reporting on stories of drug-related violence, fearful of threats of murder directed at journalists and their families by two of Mexico’s largest drug cartels, Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, which are carrying out a bloody war for turf, influence and smuggling routes north to the United States.
1) Saturday, May 18: Two black bags containing dismembered bodies were reportedly dumped on a sidewalk on the street Diaz Miron.
2) Sunday, May 19: Word breaks that the owner of a local eatery and two employees were executed. The owner of the food stand, Big Quesadilla, had previously been targeted for extortion by criminal groups.
3) Sunday, May 18: Trucks with loud speakers are parked in front of the town’s main football arena, Tamaulipas Stadium, which is controlled by cartels. The armed “hit men” announce upcoming events. Organizing a concert or activity at the stadium can cost up to $200,000; money that goes back to organized crime coffers.
4) Saturday, May 18: A kidnapped girl is “arrested” during a confrontation between authorities and cartels.
5) Sunday, May 19: The owner of a local flower shop, kidnapped last year and later released, was found executed.
6) Saturday May 18: Explosions, possibly from grenades, are heard in the city center
Desperate to fill the information gap, anonymous bloggers and social-media users have stepped in to keep residents apprised of the ongoing narco-war. These citizen journalists have created a detailed series of acronyms, hashtags and vocabulary to ensure that pertinent information on everything from kidnappings to gunfights and car thefts gets reported, somewhere.
Perhaps the most successful social media site tracking narco-violence across Tamaulipas is “Valor por Tamaulipas,” or “Courage for Tamaulipas.” Operating both on Facebook and Twitter, the anonymous administrator has a combined total of about 300,000 followers and curates hundreds of citizen reports of violence and danger each day.
“We all are at risk of being a victim of cartels,” Valor’s administrator tells Vocativ over email. “At least this is the way I feel.”
Nearly 58,000 people across Mexico were killed in violence linked to organized crime between 2006 and 2012, according to Mexican statistics.
“I’m fighting back. I’m doing something to show that the good people, we have dignity–and that there are some of us that will not give up our freedom so easily.”
The fight comes at a potentially dangerous price. The administrator had a $50,000 bounty placed on his or her head in February by cartel leaders.
“We all have fear of these people who operate without any kind of consciousness or moral restraint, but what else can we do?” Not surprisingly, the administrator declined to discuss how he or she remains anonymous and what steps are taken for protection.
On both Twitter and Facebook, users of sites like Valor are alerted to potentially dangerous situations through the use of the acronym SDR (Situación de Riesgo), or “risk situation,” in a neighborhood, highway or street. Though it is impossible to tell how many people have avoided death or injury because of the alerts, a typical post on Facebook will garner multiple comments and “likes.”
“There are several people who have said they turned away just one block from a gunfight because they read an alert,” the Valor administrator said. “Cars have been found by stolen-car alerts, people have known what happened with their lost loved ones.”
Valor’s network of eyes and ears recorded the tossing of the black plastic bags containing two bodies the night of May 18, and several users noted seeing state license plates on the car leaving the scene.
“A criminal group threw two black plastic bags with two people dismembered on the sidewalk of what was formerly the Plaza 20-30… by the street Diaz Miron… leaving behind an assertion (the people) had been killed by rats,” said a Valor Facebook posting left May 19th.
“If that’s what I saw (as well) I thought it was a dead dog,” one user responded.
That same weekend nearly a dozen cartel-linked crimes were recorded on Facebook and Twitter in just Tampico, the fifth largest city in Tamaulipas. The reports included the murders of local shop owners, the sound of grenades and the ubiquitous sightings of armed gang members roaming the streets.
None of these events were reported in the local newspaper, El Sol de Tampico.
In Mexico, which has more registered Twitter users than the U.S., social networking sites have also been key in providing information about the country’s 25,000 missing people. Many of the missing in Tampico are assumed murdered, kidnapped for ransom or abducted for failing to pay bribes to the cartels. The day after the bodies were discovered in the bag by the river, on May 19, word also got out that the owner of a local eatery called Big Quesadilla and two of his female employees had been gunned down.
“This week I received a citizen report saying (three people) were executed in one of their restaurants,” the Valor administrator tells Vocativ. “They got a bullet in their heads. The owner and two ladies that worked there. I know they were targeted–it was a wave of extortion that targets small and micro businesses in any kind of economic sector: beauty saloons, bars, stores, food production,” the administrator explains.
Valor isn’t alone in the social media war against organized crime and corruption in Mexico. A mobile app called Retio uses Google Maps to allow citizens to report shootings, murders and assaults, as well as traffic issues, across Mexico.
Citizen-driven blogs have also stepped in to provide information on cartel happenings. Perhaps the most infamous is Blog del Narco. Run by anonymous authors, the site accepts posts from citizens, police and even cartel members. The ad-driven blog frequently features grisly photos of massacres and murders, also obtained from citizen journalists or even the narcos themselves.
After two years of anonymity, the female administrator of the site and her male partner this week revealed they were forced to flee Mexico for safety.