Narco-blogger beats Mexico drug war news blackout
MEXICO CITY—An anonymous, twentysomething blogger is giving Mexicans what they can't get elsewhere -- an inside view of their country's raging drug war.
Operating from behind a thick curtain of computer security, Blog del Narco in less than six months has become Mexico's go-to Internet site at a time when mainstream media are feeling pressure and threats to stay away from the story.
Many postings, including warnings and a beheading, appear to come directly from drug traffickers. Others depict crime scenes accessible only to military or police.
The undifferentiated content suggests that all sides are using the blog -- drug gangs to project their power, law enforcement to show that it too can play rough, and the public to learn about incidents that the mainstream media are forced to ignore or play down.
In at least one case Blog del Narco may have led to a major arrest -- of a prison warden after a video posting detailed her alleged system of setting inmates free at night to carry out killings for a drug cartel.
The mysterious blogger hides his identity behind an elaborate cyber-screen. The Associated Press wrote to the blog's e-mail address, and the blogger called back from a disguised phone number. He said he is a student in northern Mexico majoring in computer security, that he launched the blog in March as a "hobby," but it now has grown to hundreds of postings a day and 3 million hits a week.
"People now demand information and if you don't publish it, they complain," he said.
Indeed, President Felipe Calderon has heard complaints that his government is not putting out enough information to allow people to function and stay safe.
"You authorities have placed Mexicans in the middle of a shootout where it's not clear where the bullets are coming from," journalist Hector Aguilar Camin said at a recent forum evaluating the government's strategy for fighting organized crime. "When it comes to information, the Mexican public safety agencies don't even shoot in self-defense."
The violence has killed more then 28,000 people and made Mexico one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists, which explains why Blog del Narco cloaks itself so heavily in anonymity.
"For the scanty details that they (mass media) put on television, they get grenades thrown at them and their reporters kidnapped," the blogger said. "We publish everything. Imagine what they could do to us."
Among his postings:
-- A video of a man being decapitated. While media only reported police finding a beheaded body, the video shows the man confessing to working for drug lord Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villareal, who is locked in a fight with both the Beltran Leyva and Sinaloa cartels;
-- The prison warden affair, which unfolded in a video of masked members of the Zetas drug gang interrogating a police officer, who reveals that inmates allied with the Sinaloa cartel are given guns and cars and sent off to commit murders. At the end of the video the officer is shot to death;
-- Links to Facebook pages of alleged traffickers and their children, weapons, cars and lavish parties;
-- Photos of Mexican pop music stars at a birthday party for an alleged drug dealer's teenage daughter in the border state of Coahuila, across from Texas.
"The girl wrote to me and told me, in a threatening way, to take down her photos," the blogger said. "But as long as I don't hear from her father, I won't take them down."
While there are numerous blogs on Mexico's drug war, Blog del Narco seems to be the first used by the traffickers themselves. The blogger said he provides an uncensored platform, posting photographs and videos he receives regardless of content or cartel affiliation.
It can be extremely gory, but his neutrality has helped build his credibility.
"We don't insult them, we don't say one specific group is the bad one," he said. "We don't want problems with them."
Critics say it's free public relations for the cartels.
"Media outlets have social responsibilities and have to serve the public," said Carlos Lauria, of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "This is being produced by someone who is not doing it from a journalistic perspective. He is doing it without any ethical considerations."
Blog del Narco's first posting concerned a small-town shootout in the border state of Tamaulipas that police wouldn't even confirm happened. The blog aired a resident's YouTube video of the crashed cars and corpses along the highway.
Soon Blog Del Narco was dominating Mexico's drug-war blogosphere.
The blogger maintains a Facebook page and Twitter account that includes CNN en Espanol, all major Mexican media, the FBI and the Mexican Defense Department among its more than 7,300 followers. Rusty Payne, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said "we're very aware of these kinds of things" but wouldn't say whether the DEA uses the information in its investigations.
Blog del Narco has also become a meeting point for people anxious to get information the mainstream media doesn't deliver, such as what streets to avoid during shootouts.
In Nuevo Laredo, where journalists have been attacked, 26-year-old storeowner Claudia Perez says she reads Blog del Narco to know when streets close, but can do without the gore.
"There are times when they do publish useful things, like such or such street is blocked," she said, "but they also put a lot of information about narcos and the ugly things they do."
Blog del Narco is registered with a U.S. company and all its blog-related payments are made with bank deposits, not a credit card, he said.
The blogger said he spends about four hours a day working on the blog and has recruited a friend to help after becoming overwhelmed with submissions.
Many of his videos are sent to him by readers, who know he will get them a much wider airing in Mexico, or are taken from YouTube. He regularly lifts news reports from other media sites without credit. He says mainstream media did the same with his content -- until the national Milenio Television network aired the prison warden video and credited Blog del Narco.
Its daily hits went up 30 percent.