Cartels & Twitter: The Consequences of Citizen Journalism

Nov 19, 2011

My family has a long history with the border town of Laredo, Texas. As a child my mother moved around a lot along with her six older siblings, as part of an Air Force family. Laredo just happened to be one of the towns that stuck. Two of my aunts and one of my uncles still call it home, along with their families. As a born and bred New Englander, it's pretty much another planet to me. 

When I was a little girl and we would head to Laredo for a visit, it often meant a trip "across the river" to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. If you were in the market for inexpensive brand name perfume, enormous bottles of pure vanilla extract, or questionable prescription drugs, Nuevo Laredo was the place for you. But I was just a kid then so I  was mostly interested in cowboy boots and Mexican sundresses...oh, and burro rides.

My Aunt Kim still likes to tell people about how all the old men on the streets would stop us, completely in awe of my then-very-blonde hair and blue eyes. They either though I was good luck or very bad luck. I'm still not really sure.

Going "across the river" isn't an option any more. The violence of the drug cartels means no more cheap vanilla for us, but it's had much more devastating consequences for the people who actually live in the bordertowns of Mexico. That violence has often leaked over to journalists, many of which have been scared out of covering the cartels. This threat of violence is something journalists across the world have often lived with, but now it's gone beyond the professionals. With pesky reporters out of the way, bloggers and social media users have now become the targets of The Zetas -- an especially violent cartel my aunt is too afraid to speak of when she's back home (and, may I remind you, she still lives in the U.S.).

According to NPR:

"The Nuevo Laredo blogger murders were particularly horrific. First, the mutilated bodies of a young man and woman were found hanging from a pedestrian bridge. Next, the corpse of a blogger who went by the name Laredo Girl turned up, with her head detached. And last week, another man was discovered beheaded.

The ultra-violent cartel, the Zetas, left written messages at each crime scene: This is what happens to bloggers and Twitter users who post information on the cartel's illicit activities. The brutal intimidation campaign has worked."

Over the summer, we all watched the Arab Spring unfold. People across the globe effectively used social media to organize revolutions. In England, people used the same networks to organize what turned into violent riots, and subsequently, the clean up efforts. Here on our own shores, the Occupy Wall Street movement also used social media to garner support and get organized. And just a few minutes across our border, people are being murdered for Tweets.

This is an entirely new frontier in the world of citizen journalism. As we've all lamented the demise of journalism and shrinking newsrooms, ordinary people have picked up the slack all across the globe using their Twitter and Facebook accounts. (Remember the guy who Tweeted about hearing a chopper near his house and it turned out to be the Blackhawks landing in Osama Bin Laden's back yard?) But we probably never imagined that while we were busy checking Perez Hilton's blog there were people being beheaded for what they said in a chat room.

So the next time you're posting about what you ate for lunch, or how bored you are at work, you might want to think about the true power of the tools you're using.