Monday, September 26, 2011

Mexican newspaper editor decapitated in warning to social media sites

In another blow to freedom of expression in Mexico, the decapitated body of a newspaper editor was found in the border city of Nuevo Laredo on Saturday, along with a message saying that she had been killed because of her use of social media sites to denounce crime. A sign, propped next to her body, gave the username she supposedly used online, and addressed website Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and “social networks,” saying “I’m here because of my reports, and yours … [and] for trusting in the Ministry of Defense and the marines.” It was signed with the letter Z, which stands for the Zetas drug gang, Mexico’s most violent criminal organization.

Nuevo Laredo en Vivo is a local site which includes phone numbers for giving tips to the authorities, and a neighborhood watch-style section about crime, where people can post information such as locations where drugs are sold, and where drug gang lookouts are stationed, and sightings of any suspicious activity, according to Borderland Beat.

The victim has been identified as Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro, editor of newspaper Primera Hora. Her death comes two weeks after the tortured bodies of two young people, a man and a woman, were found hanging from a bridge in the same city. A message hanging next to them said that they had “snitched” via another website, and said “this will happen to all Internet snitches.” It was also signed by the Zetas.

The Zetas appear to be trying to intimidate those who use social media sites to report on organized crime. Sites like Blog del Narco, which was named in the bridge message, have become an increasingly important source of information on organized crime, and some even feature videos put online by the criminal gangs themselves. A Saturday piece in the New York Times, written before the discovery of Macias’ corpse, highlighted the importance of social networking sites like Twitter for exchanging information on the increasingly violent drug conflict, when traditional media sources have often been intimidated or corrupted into silence. The newspaper notes the use of networks like Twitter to share warnings on criminal activity, reporting that, even before police or press had arrived at the scene, Twitter users were telling people to stay away from the location in Veracruz where cartel gunmen dumped 35 dead bodies on Tuesday. Dubbing the trend “the explosion of electronic crime-sharing,” the NYT contrasts this to the role of social networks in the Arab Spring, or in Chinese protests:
In those countries, social networks have been used to route around identifiable sources of repression and to unify groups dispersed over large areas. In Mexico, Twitter, Facebook and other tools are instead deployed for local survival.
The issue has received even more attention following the case, now dropped, against two Twitter users who were facing long jail terms on terrorism charges after spreading false reports about cartel activity on the site, which authorities said had caused panic that contributed to car accidents.

Although Macias’ murder appears to be linked to her use of online forums, her job as a journalist likely played a part in sealing her fate. The killing follows the murder of two female journalists in Mexico City less than a month previously, and the killing of a radio journalist in Sinaloa state days before that. All three deaths have been linked to organized crime. In Veracruz, Daniel Flores GuillĂ©n, a journalist with a local newspaper, has been missing since September 22.

News briefs
  • Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding announced that he would step down in November, after four years in power. He will be succeeded by whoever his Labour Party selects as leader in its conference that month, prior to a general election in 2012. Golding’s reputation was tarnished by his government’s unwillingness to arrests crime baron “Dudus” Coke, whose extradition was requested by the U.S. in August 2009. InSight Crime sets out the details of Golding’s involvement with Coke, pointing out that a vast majority of the Jamaican public think Golding lied in an enquiry over the case, according to polls. Meanwhile the Jamaican Gleaner argued that the prime minister’s departure was a master stroke for the Labour Party, allowing it to rebuild its reputation ahead of next year’s election.
  • In Bolivia, there were violent clashes as police broke up protests by indigenous groups who oppose the building of a road in a protected rainforest area. AFP news agency reports that tear gas was fired close to the village of Yucumo, in the north-east of the country some 150 miles from La Paz, and that protest marchers heading to the capital were stopped and were loaded onto buses by police, who said they would take them back to their home towns. The marchers had reportedly managed to take Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca hostage, forcing him to march with them, and broke through police lines. This is another sign of tensions between populist President Evo Morales, elected as the country’s first indigenous president, and the indigenous groups that had formed his support base, as Morales pushes through plans that many indigenous groups criticize as harming the environment.
  • Conservative commentator Mary Anastasia O’Grady, of the Wall Street Journal, asks which way Peru’s new President Ollanta Humala is going to turn on the economy. Humala presented a much more leftist face when he ran for the presidency in 2006, before overhauling his image and moving towards the center for this year’s election. O’Grady questions how deep this conversion goes, criticizing Humala’s failure to give a strong denial when she asked him in a recent interview whether he would alter the constitution. As a candidate, he had proposed to change the constitution and increase state control over the economy, and at his inauguration, the new president promised to “honor the spirit” of the 1979 constitution, now defunct, which contained provisions for large-scale land reform. For O’Grady, the president now seems to be intentionally leaving a certain ambiguity around the subject of his economic plans. However, as she points out, Humala’s actions, in the form of appointments to crucial economic posts, indicate that he intends to govern as a Lula-style centrist on the economy, while carefully moderating his rhetoric to try not to antagonize his supporters on the left.
  • The U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control issued a report on “Responding to Violence in Central America.” It highlights the fact that violence, as represented by murder rates per capita, is more intense in some Central American countries than it is in Mexico, though the region gets far less attention (and U.S. cash) than its northern neighbor. The report states that it will not recommend large amounts of new U.S. aid, instead calling on the countries of Central America to generate more of their own funding for security. This echoes Hillary Clinton’s comments at a Guatemala City conference in June, when she called on the rich and businesses in Central America to pay their fair share of taxes to bankroll the fight against crime in the region. Instead of fresh funds, the report focuses on partnerships with agencies in the isthmus, such as installing law enforcement bodies linked to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in all countries of the region, and increasing support for programs to protect witnesses, judges, and prosecutors, in order to strengthen justice systems.
  • In Colombia, police seized a submarine belonging to the FARC guerrilla group, which was intended to be sold to drug traffickers, namely Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, according to reports. The vessel was found near the Pacific port of Buenaventura. Smuggling drugs in submarines, or semi-submersible vessels via the Pacific to Mexico or Central America is an increasingly popular method for Colombian traffickers, as the vessels are difficult for the authorities to spot.
  • In some brighter news from Colombia, the LA Times has a feature on the increase in home ownership in the country, which it attributes to rising security.
  • In Venezuela, Leopoldo Lopez officially launched his bid for the presidency, after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights overturned a ban on him running for public office. He hopes to be picked as the candidate of the opposition coalition MUD for the elections, to be held in October 2012.
  • The New York Times reports on a protest by teachers in Acapulco, south Mexico, against extortion by criminal gangs. Exortion is becoming an increasingly contentious issue in Mexico, as gangs turn to the crime as an easy source of revenue in the face of crackdowns on drug trafficking.
  • Also in Mexico, a new study by the government reveals that many police officers still earn less than $350 a month, with state officers in the troubled border state of Tamaulipas on the lowest salaries in the country. These low wages are thought to be a key factor in driving corruption.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that arrests of illegal migrants on the U.S.-Mexican border has declined by a third in two years, to reach its lowest level in 40 years. The newspaper comments; “the real immigration story these days is how many fewer illegal migrants are trying to get into the land of the free.”