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Media as Both Weapon and Defense in the Mexican Drug War

• March 11, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Mexican Army soldiers during a confrontation in Michoacán in August 2007. (Photo: Public Domain)

The impact of social media and the press on the drug war, and vice versa.

The recent capture of drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera in Mexico was a rare victory in the war on drugs in that country. The Sinaloa Cartel and others like it have been blamed for a majority of the tens of thousands of kidnappings and 100,000 homicides recorded in Mexico since 2006.

The Mexican press has suffered great losses during the years of drug-related violence. When cartels commit crimes, the reporters who cover them often face threats. Cartels also often want to use the press to broadcast their own messages of intimidation to the public—if news outlets comply, they may suffer retaliation from rival groups. According to the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, 88 journalists were killed in Mexico between 2000 and the end of 2013, and 18 others have disappeared. The group blames those deaths and kidnappings on not only the criminal organizations in the country but on the “complicity of corrupt local, and sometimes federal, officials.”

A new article by Paul K. Eiss in Latin American Perspectives entitled “The Narcomedia: A Reader’s Guide” summarizes the recent history of the very fraught relationship between cartels and the press in Mexico. For many years, drug traffickers have terrorized both their rivals and the public with their “narcomensajes” (narcomessages). “A hand-written sign, crudely scrawled on paper or cardboard, it bears menacing though often opaque messages … making their acts of violence at once legible and cryptic,” Eiss writes. These may be banners hung in public places, or small signs placed over the bodies of their victims. “Sometimes they identify the violence as a punishment meted out to informers, extortionists, kidnappers, or competing dealers.”

As the mainstream media self-censored its coverage of cartel violence, anonymous blogs and social media filled the vacuum. Some people wanted to see the grisly photos and videos of cartel crime scenes, and social media allowed them to see what the traditional press would not show.

The cartels took advantage of new media technology as it became available, to more efficiently spread their messages of terror. In 2008, when the Dallas Morning News received its first DVD depicting the execution of four gangsters by a rival group, the killers also posted the video to YouTube. The video, as many more to come would be, was removed by YouTube administrators, but only after many people watched.

In 2010, one of the last Mexican newspapers brave enough, or stubborn enough, to still cover cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, finally gave in. El Diario de Juarez published a front-page editorial in the form of an open letter, with the headline, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US?” It pleaded with the cartels to tell the Diario journalists what they could do to continue to work without being intimidated or killed. The editors published the letter just a few days after one young photography intern working for the paper was shot and killed, and another intern injured. The cartels never did answer the editors’ plea.

As the mainstream media self-censored its coverage of cartel violence, anonymous blogs and social media filled the vacuum. Some people wanted to see the grisly photos and videos of cartel crime scenes, and social media allowed them to see what the traditional press would not show. Other people used social media to simply get information about how to avoid encountering violence in their day-to-day lives. In late 2011, The New York Times reported on how people in border towns were using Twitter in the absence of local news. Twitter was how people in Veracruz knew to avoid a downtown area where gangsters dumped dozens of bodies of their enemies on the street during rush hour. Hashtags for different towns have turned “connected reports by individual Twitter accounts into an ad hoc news service.

Of course, cartels take advantage of the same technology—to intimidate, to mug for the camera, and brag about their spoils. And for the average Mexican citizen, writing (even anonymously) on blogs or social media brings its own risks. As the Times recounted in 2011, two writers for local blogs that covered cartel violence were murdered in Nuevo Laredo, with notes left on the bodies accusing them of being “Internet snitches.” And in Veracruz, after panic broke out following (false) rumors of an impending attack on schools there, two people who passed the rumor along on Twitter were charged with terrorism and sabotage by the state government there.

Years of violence and terror can really take their toll on a population. In fact, a group of researchers from the University of California-Irvine and Microsoft Research have studied the social media coverage of cartel violence, and they say that social media patterns in Mexico show that numbness and desensitization have taken hold over the years. In their paper “’Narco’ Emotions: Affect and Desensitization in Social Media During the Mexican Drug War,” which will be presented at the end of April at a conference on human-computer interaction, Munmun De Choudhury, Andrés Monroy-Hernández, and Gloria Mark studied the Twitter messages concerning four Mexican cities, compiled using those hashtags.

Networked citizens in Mexico use social media to inform and warn each other about threats to their safety, as mentioned above, but they also use it to vent their anger and to grieve together. And just as social media is an effective tool for quickly exchanging information within a community, it can also be a way to take a group’s emotional temperature from afar. The researchers looked at Twitter messages and local blog postings archived over two and a half years of intense violence, from 2010 to 2012. (The list of “narco words” that the authors compiled for their Twitter analysis, which would flag a tweet as being drug-war-related, is pretty dark stuff. “Encintado” is a dead body found suffocated in packing tape; “enocobijado” is a body found wrapped in a blanket; “encajuelado” is a body found stuffed in a car trunk.)

The group followed the homicides in each town and the social-media reactions to the crimes. Then they measured the level of emotion expressed in the posts, by, for instance, calculating the ratio of negative-emoting words to total words. They found that, over time, the frequency of the postings did not decrease, but the level of emotion in them did. They theorized that long periods of protracted violence in Mexico may have caused “emotional numbness or desensitization” in the population.

The authors concede throughout the paper that they can’t necessarily infer a causal relationship in their data between the patterns in the Twitter posts they looked at and the posters’ collective desensitization. However, they write in the paper’s introduction, “the results do suggest a significant link between exposure to violence due to the ongoing urban warfare in Mexico, and anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptomatology gleaned from social media.”

There’s no doubt that ongoing violence causes anxiety and trauma in a population. But specifically where the public sharing of information is concerned, another factor is vital to consider: fear. Another theory, besides the “desensitization” one, is that social media posts have become more flat in tone over time, more likely to be purely informative as opposed to emotionally charged, because the posters fear attracting attention to themselves—lest they themselves become the next targets.

The authors briefly mention this as an “alternative explanation” toward the end of their paper: “It is also possibly that people have started to self-censor their Twitter posts out of fear of retaliation—an aspect that may manifest as desensitization,” they write. This rings more true. Look at what happened to the blog writers in Nuevo Laredo. And retaliation from criminals isn’t the only threat; There is the legal threat to consider. The Veracruz state government did eventually retract its highly publicized terrorism charge against the people who tweeted a false rumor back in 2011. But representatives from other state governments said at the time that they were considering similar laws. Might those combined and varied threats make Twitter users in Mexico more likely to think twice about what they’re saying, and how they’re saying it, before pushing “send”?

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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