Cyberspace has become a new battleground in Mexico's drug war, as cartels and armed vigilante groups take their turf war to social media.
And in drug war 2.0, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are powerful new weapons used by vigilante groups seeking to counter the influence of the brutal and surprisingly cyber-savvy Knights Templar cartel in Michoacan.
A new joint study by the University of California Santa Barbara, the National Autonomous University of México (UNAM) and Microsoft titled Participatory Militias: An Analysis of an Armed Movement’s Online Audience, monitored the Facebook page "Valor por Michoacan (VXM)" (Courage for Michoacan) for nine months and found it represented an influential weapon in the vigilante strategy to win public favor by informing people about street shootouts, criticizing cartel leaders, and denouncing corrupt politicians.
According to Microsoft researcher Andres Monroy-Hernandez, the vigilante group's Facebook acted as an authoritative source of information, substituting for the government and traditional media on multiple occasions.
“For example, we found that many Mexican media publications such as Proceso magazine where using this Michoacan page and others in Tamaulipas to generate their own articles, using screenshots and posts whenever their reporters could not get access or had not arrived at the place where the action was happening,” Monroy-Hernandez told Fusion. He said the page attracted followers because it was perceived as authentic and democratic. Page administrators acted as moderators and not agenda-setters.
How VXM and its audience signaled the major drug war events in Michoacan.
According to the study, posts on the Facebook page “usually made requests to the public for some sort of action,” such as attending a demonstration or reporting on a robbery. The page also encouraged community engagement by asking the public to help identify suspects in crimes.
Popular posts also recommended safety measures and warned people — in real time— to avoid certain areas where narco shootouts were taking place.
“They would use their own vocabulary and set of acronyms to talk about events,” said Monroy-Hernandez. “For example, instead of writing balacera, which means shootout, they would write SDR an acronym for situación de riesgo or risk situation. As violence spreads we can expect this type of online activity and vocabulary to spread as well.”
Narcos also have to use their own jargon. Business Insider recently cited an alleged email from a Homeland Security investigation that deciphers a system of codes that some cartels use to communicate. For example, “I’m on my way” in narcotalk is “the beer are cold.” The phrase “they are following me and I have the money with me,” would be written “Let’s go to the movie theater,” according to the Business Insider report.
Social media is increasingly common with the younger generation of cartel leadership, the so-called narco juniors who are the sons of top cartel bosses. They use platforms such as Instagram and Twitter to boast their wealth and status. The former head of the Knights Templar, the recently captured drug lord known as “La Tuta,” was another big proponent of social media, going online to make announcements and discredit his enemies with audios and videos.
While fighting the drug war in cyberspace might seem safer than the streets, it's not entirely without risk.
“Tracking a Facebook post or tweet back to a server, computer or smartphone is fairly easy, especially in smaller areas,” Rodrigo Samano, director of Mexico City cyber security startup ISLA, told Fusion.
Samano said cartels have highly trained tech experts working as cyber hit men. And sometimes careless Internet users make the cyber-narcos' job even easier by inadvertently geotagging their photos or simply by providing personal information on Facebook.
The Zetas are also known for hiring black-hat hackers to target anti-cartel bloggers. A social media user known as @Miut3 was geolocated and murdered for posting on the “Courage for Tamaulipas” Facebook page and tweeting information on violent incidents in the northern city of Reynosa. New missing person reports suggest cartels could be kidnapping and enslaving young computer engineers and telecom experts.
According to Monroy-Hernandez, The VXM Facebook page has been knocked offline several times. He said it's impossible to know who's behind the cyber attacks. "Users could also be reporting the page as inappropriate," he said.
Facebook did not respond to Fusion’s request for comment about the page.
Despite the ongoing attacks, the Facebook page grew because site administrators created a sense of solidarity and a “highly participatory online space” that "helped to provide a more complete picture of what was happening in Michoacan,” according to the study.
Still, the self-defense groups are not necessarily the good guys in Mexico's drug war, which is far more nuanced and complicated than simple narratives suggest. Indeed, the study notes some of the vigilante groups on Facebook might be trying to subtly indoctrinate their followers.
A VXM meme with vigilante leaders replacing President Enrique Peña Nieto in Time.
Overall, however, social media is helping to change the narrative of the drug war, according to UCSB researcher and study coauthor Saiph Savage.
“Social networks are shifting the power of narrating ideology, which no longer belongs exclusively to leaders and organizations,” she told Fusion.