Online news sites as battleground for Mexican drug war

I’m in Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Part of my work here has been to investigate and highlight the cyber-attacks that the award-winning weekly local newsmagazine Ríodoce has encountered in its coverage of the violent drugs war here.

But discussing the experiences of online editors at other publications here has shown just how intertwined the Net, the work of reporters, and the drug war have become.

Like many newspapers, Noroeste (“Northwest”) has a public discussion section underneath the online versions of its articles. Most pieces get a handful of comments. Discussions of the drug war can get more. And sometimes, members of the cartel themselves step in to comment.

The result is a verbal battleground between different gangs, seeking to turn the newspapers into a place where they can boast or threaten each other, or passersby.

Noroeste has over 500 employees, working on three local editions across the state of Sinaloa. Even so, the level of participation in these forums means they cannot monitor or screen every comment. Like almost all Internet publications, they use retrospective moderation, relying on their users to flag unsuitable messages.

But simply the act of removing a comment can cause trouble. When Noroeste‘s administrators removed one message recently, I was told by the newspapers’ director, the next comment was aimed at one of the newspaper’s editors more directly. “You did not publish our message,” it said. “We know who you are. And we know where your wife is. Watch out.” The wife’s movements as described by the commenter were recent, and accurate.

In Sinaloa, journalists take such threats very seriously. In September 2010, two cartel members opened fire with AK-47s on the reception at Noroeste‘s Mazatlan regional offices. The publication’s staff was directly threatened in a cartel message scrawled on a blanket at the scene of the crime — a “narcomantas.” At the time, the attorney general stated the attack might have been due to the newspaper’s “refusal to publish certain information.” Both the region’s other major daily newspaper, El Debate, and Ríodoce also experienced attacks.

Journalists here risk their lives for reporting on forbidden topics — or even just photographing the wrong bystander at a crime scene. Noroeste‘s experience shows they also face retaliation for simply trying to prevent their own websites from becoming the Internet equivalent of narcomantas.