MEXICO CITY—One of the world's most secretive movements is taking aim at a just as clandestine mafia, right out in the open.
Bloggers and tweeters claiming to belong to the hacker movement "Anonymous" say they plan to expose collaborators of Mexico's bloody Zetas drug cartel, even if some of them seem to have backed away from the plan out of fear.
Their debate is playing out on chatboards, websites and Twitter messages, many of them open to public view.
But just what they might do, as a claimed Friday deadline approaches, remains unclear, perhaps even to the loosely coordinated Internet community. Its participants generally hide their real-world identities even from one another, partly as protection from officials and prosecutors who often consider them outlaws.
Self-proclaimed members of a movement best known for hacking public corporate and government websites are now talking about attacking a drug cartel that largely shuns the Internet and has killed, even beheaded, ordinary bloggers for posting information about it.
"The problem is, hack what? There are no drug cartel websites, that I know of, that would be hackable," said Raul Trejo, an expert on media and violence at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
In an Internet video posted last month, a person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask claimed the Zetas had kidnapped a member of Anonymous in the state of Veracruz while he was handing out political pamphlets. The video doesn't give the victim's name, and prosecutors say they know nothing about the supposed abduction.
The speaker in the video said that if the kidnap victim is not released, Anonymous will post the names, photos and addresses of taxi drivers, police, journalists and others allegedly working with the Zetas. He did not say how the movement would get such information, but suggested it can locate and blow up cartel associates' "cars, houses, bars and whorehouses" starting Friday.
"It won't be difficult, we all know who you are and where you can be found," said the masked speaker.
Members of Anonymous are more of a volunteer crowd, and generally don't even know where their own colleagues can be found. The participants are known more for sabotaging corporate and government websites than for WikiLeaks-style exposes.
Matt Harrigan, chief executive of the San Diego, California-based security firm Critical Assets, said that "absolutely it sounds like their MO," but he noted it is a change from past activities.
In the face of a death toll of 35,000 to 40,000 people killed in drug violence in Mexico since 2006, "maybe you're seeing Anonymous making some sort of a sea change to more positive actions rather than focusing on the corporate greed piece, or just 'hactivism' against corporations," Harrigan said.
But given the diffuse nature of the group, it's not clear how many activists might be involved.
"Anonymous isn't just one collective with one common goal, so if a member of Anonymous has an idea or an objective or a goal, it can execute on that agenda, objective or goal, completely independent of anybody else," hoping others will join in, Harrigan said. "You won't really know until something happens whether or not the petition for participation was successful."
And whether it would work against a drug cartel is another matter, though Harrigan notes "any group of people in the modern day and age are going to use computers to communicate in one form or another -- a smart phone, or a laptop, or a desk top -- ... and by virtue of that fact, it makes them vulnerable in some regard."
Anonymous-style videos from Veracruz have been posted on the Internet for at least two months, but none before has drawn as much attention, and none of the others threatened violence, or promised to take on a drug cartel.
"What the video is announcing is not hacking, but rather much more violent acts," Trejo said.
Some tweeters using the threat's OpCartel hashtag said the whole idea is too dangerous to carry out.
"They denounced the op after safety concerns. They thought about it and saw it was too dangerous," posted a tweeter under the name GeneralSec. "DragnDon" tweeted back: "The fear that surrounds this idea is astounding. Fairweather revolutionaries?"
Fear would be well-founded. In September, police in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo found a woman's decapitated body alongside a handwritten sign saying she was killed in retaliation for postings on a social networking site. The message was signed with a "Z," the Zetas' trademark.
Earlier that month, the bodies of a man and a woman were found hanging from an overpass in Nuevo Laredo with a message threatening, "this is what will happen" to trouble-making Internet users.
A statement posted late Tuesday on the Anonymous IberoAmerica website said, "We know we are risking our lives but we prefer to die standing than to live a whole life on our knees."
In a tacit acknowledgment of the Zetas' gruesome methods, the statement added, "You can't stop anonymous as it is a worldwide idea, a global spirit impossible to shot (sic), impossible to burn in acid."
The movement, if it is one, may have more success than did the bloggers in Nuevo Laredo, who posted information on drug cartel shootouts and safehouses under online aliases. Somehow, and nobody has yet said how, the Zetas apparently found out their real identities.
The Anonymous IberoAmerica website says it will form a "special task force" by invitation only to find out and publish information about cartel collaborators, a potentially deadly undertaking since rivals often kill identified members of the Zetas. A statement posted in English stressed that "this is now international. This is global," suggesting outside resources were being brought in.
The website includes a series of security steps, such as urging members to send messages through a proxy server, and never to identify themselves as part of Anonymous.
The page also offers a supposedly secure widget to help protect users.
So far only one act has been attributed to the group: It apparently created a website decorated with jack o' lanterns that accuses a former state prosecutor of being a Zeta. The Tuesday statement also harshly criticized the Mexican government, accusing it of protecting or profiting from drug trafficking.
Perhaps the most telling detail is that the Anonymous IberoAmerica site is now soliciting anonymous tips on cartel collaborators. That suggests that, if the promised revelations materialize, they could be nothing more than common rumors or gossip sent in by tipsters or foes of those named.
Harrigan noted it would not be the first time "hacktivists" have taken up a fight with a violent organization.
Following the 9/11 attack, "a number of different hackers ... took it upon themselves to locate more information about this guy (Osama bin Laden), get involved intentionally in terrorist cell networks on the Internet, find encoded transmissions and assist the U.S. government in their case," he said.