The Role of the Internet in the Mexican Drug War

The President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, has been trying to crack down on drug cartels in Mexico for the last five years. The drug cartels have fiercely fought back and about 40,000 people have been killed. Because of all these deaths, and because of the ever increasing presence of cartels throughout the country, many people in Mexico believe that the drug war has been unsuccessful thus far.  Nevertheless, although the government has had a hard time cracking down on the cartels, today it appears that at least one Internet activist (or “hacktivist”) group, Anonymous, has won a small battle with a drug cartel.

Social Media and the Cartels

Drug cartels have had a strong presence in Mexico since the 1980s. However, the Mexican government did not take a serious role in combating the cartels until 2006, when President Calderon was elected. Currently about 50,000 Mexican troops and federal police are deployed throughout Mexico in order to identify and arrest cartel members and their leaders. As of 2010, more than 2,600 cartel members have been arrested as result of these efforts.

Although the Mexican government has devoted a great deal of resources to the drug war, the result of these efforts has been less than promising. One core problem is the corruption that has plagued Mexico for so many years. This makes it quite difficult for Calderon to combat the cartels, as cartel leaders can simply pay off underpaid government employees not to turn them in.

The cartels’ tactics against many of their enemies have also been brutal. Cartel members will kill anyone they suspect of fighting against them, often in gruesome and grotesque manners. Images of their murder victims are often published in Mexican newspapers and on television. These images have struck a nerve amongst Mexicans. In fact, in some cities people have fled en masse to escape the violence. The residents who cannot flee live in constant fear for their lives and often have to pay off cartel leaders for protection.

The Role of Social Media and the Internet

Since the drug war started in 2006, journalists who have reported unfavorable stories about drug cartels have been targeted by the cartels. Over time, many journalists stopped publishing stories in fear for their lives. Recently, however, hacktivists have picked up where the journalists left off. These hacktivists post stories and statistics to social media websites about drug related violence in Mexico. Unfortunately for many of these activists, cartel leaders have been able to identify some of them and kill them.

Although hacktivists have been generally unsuccessful at playing an influence in the drug war in Mexico, it does appear that one hacktivist group, Anonymous, has won at least one battle with a cartel. Anonymous is a loose thread of activists who use the Internet to promote particular social goals by taking down websites, collecting confidential information and threatening to release it, and encouraging its members to take actions against entities (both private and public) it finds to be anti-liberty. As its name suggests, members of Anonymous do this anonymously. They originally only worked online, but they have started to work in the real world for social activism.  One of their early projects targeted Scientology where they would wear Guy Fawkes masks (popularized by V for Vendetta) and played Rick Astley's "Never gonna give you up" outside their meeting places.  The Guy Fawkes mask has doubled as both a way to remain anonymous in the real world as well as give some indication of their anti-authority ideology.  The mask has proliferated to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Anonymous came directly involved in the Mexican drug war when one of its members in Veracruz, Mexico was kidnapped by the Zetas cartel. In retaliation, Anonymous posted a video to YouTube and threatened to release the names and address of taxi drivers, journalists, and police officers who are working with cartel leaders.

I was very curious about how the interaction between Anonymous and the Zetas would play out. I suspected that, based on past behavior of cartel members, that they would identify and kill suspected members of Anonymous, and attach notes to them, warning other Anonymous members not to release the names. However, quite surprisingly, the situation ended with very little violence. The Zetas let the Anonymous member go free. And in response, at least some Anonymous members have decided not to release the names of individuals working with cartel leaders.

So why did this situation end peacefully? Perhaps for the Zetas drug cartel, it is easier for them to fight an enemy they know than an enemy they do not know. No one really knows who members of Anonymous are, how many of them are out there, and what they are capable of. I imagine that even if the cartel leaders knew they could scare some members of Anonymous into not publishing the names, they could not scare all of them. And knowing this, they decided it was better to give in and release the Anonymous member than to risk the names of people being released to the media. Still, my suspicion is that while Anonymous won this battle, the conflict between the two groups has not been resolved. Members of Anonymous can still post those names, and I imagine that cartel leaders are currently in the process of finding out who these people are. I suspect we shall be hearing about new conflicts between these two groups in the not so distant future.

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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