An announced operation against a Mexican drug cartel led to confusion, denials and threats. Meanwhile the cartels are stepping up their use of social media and new technology, as well as targetting anti-cartel bloggers and online activists.
Last month a group claiming to represent Anonymous in the Mexican region of Veracruz announced the beginning of Operation Cartel (#OpCartel), threatening to exposes members and associates of a Mexican drug cartel known as the Zetas. It came ostensibly in response to an Anonymous member being “kidnapped” on the streets of Veracruz whilst handing out leaflets.
Commenting on the announcement, Deborah Bonello, a Mexican reporter wrote in the Guardian:
“The ability to distribute information that is unvetted, unverified and often from unnamed sources across a plethora of platforms is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because information is harder to suppress and control, but a curse because of the opportunity it creates for propaganda and misinformation that is then reported by the media and acted upon by the public as fact.”
She was talking about the vicious cycle of unreliable information and fear that surrounds the drug cartels, but her words could equally have been applied to Anonymous themselves.
The video, which had been posted on October 6, began to get attention when the website of a former state attorney general was hacked, displaying a message alleging that he was a member of the Zeta cartel. Anonymous Mexico released a statement denying involvement in the operation. Meanwhile news of #OpCartel had reached the mainstream media, who gleefully published details of Anonymous’ latest showdown with forces of oppression.
Then, just days after it was announced, Operation Cartel was called off. The kidnapped Anonymous member was apparently returned by the Zetas, who subsequently threatened to kill ten people for every name of a Zeta associate released by Anonymous. No clear evidence has been produced that the kidnap had taken place at all, or of the subsequent release of any names or related deaths.
But conflicting reports continued to surface. Barrett Brown, a former member of Anonymous who is writing a book about the collective, declared that OpCartel was still on. He claimed to be in possession of emails linking US officials and others with the Zetas, which he planned to release. Other Anonymous members cast doubt on Brown’s claims. Following the Zeta’s threat to kill ten people, Brown has backed down from his threatened release of names.
Aside from releasing names of individuals likely to be involved with the Zetas, it was never clear what effect any Anonymous operation against the cartel would have. Like all other businesses however, the drug cartels are increasingly reliant on technology for their operations.
An analysis carried out by Stratfor claimed that the drug cartels were using hackers of their own to engage in cybercrime. They are reportedly using sophisticated electronics and communications networks, and using social media to track victims. The use of social media in particular has increased recently with cartel members misdirecting the police by reporting shootouts on Twitter while carrying out operations elsewhere. This new dependence on computers and networks might make them vulnerable to groups like Anonymous, as well as governments.
Just yesterday the moderator of a popular Mexican social network was brutally murdered, apparently as punishment for helping to tip off authorities about a local drug cartel. His decapitated body was dumped by a statue next to a message that read “This happened to me because I didn’t understand I shouldn’t post things on social networks.” It’s the fourth such murder related to use of social media in Mexico in the last three months.
The rapidity of news spreading on Twitter recently caused panic when two Veracruz residents tweeted that gunmen were kidnapping children from schools. It later turned out to be a false alarm, and the two residents were arrested and charged with terrorism and sabotage. They were subsequently released after protests from Internet freedom and human rights activists.
The Anonymous brand brings with it media and public attention. Anonymous members themselves recognise the website defacement and DDoS attacks are little more than inconvenience for the targets, serving primarily to publicise the issues the collective deem important.
Another mooted campaign that caused conflicting reports and ultimately never materialized was #OpFacebook, an operation to attack or bring down the social networking site on November 5. Some Anonymous members later denied this was ever a legitimate operation. Anonymous thrives on pushing their message over whatever media they can, including, as in the case of Operation Paperstorm, paper.
The difficulty with all Anonymous campaigns is sustainability. Having brought the Mexican situation to the public’s attention, the meme just as rapidly dissipates as newer events take centre stage.
Meanwhile the human misery is causing tens of thousands of Mexicans to flee across the border. The drug war in Mexico has claimed the lives of at least 40,000 people since 2006. Border towns such as Juarez have witnessed 8,000 deaths in the past three years alone and the violence has now spread to previously safe cities like Veracruz. The drugs that the Mexican gangs are fighting for control over are mainly destined for the USA.