Online news sites as battleground for Mexican drug war

By Danny O’Brien/CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator on March 7, 2012 12:45 PM ET

Danny O'Brien, left, consults with Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas, outside the offices of Noroeste. (Ron Bernal)

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.


An appeal to all Prohibitionists:

Most of us know that individuals who use illegal drugs are going to get high - no matter what, so why do you not prefer they acquire them in stores that check IDs and pay taxes? Even if we could afford to put Narcs on every single corner, at least half of them would soon become dealers themselves. Gifting the market in narcotics to ruthless criminals, foreign terrorists and corrupt law enforcement officials is seriously compromising our future.

Why do you wish to continue with a policy that has proven itself to be a poison in the veins of our once so proud & free nation? Even if you cannot bear the thought of people using drugs, there is absolutely nothing you, or any government, can do to stop them. We have spent 40 years and trillions of dollars on this dangerous farce; Prohibition will not suddenly and miraculously start showing different results. Do you actually believe you may personally have something to lose If we were to begin basing our drug policy on science & logic instead of ignorance, hate and lies?

Maybe you're a police officer, a prison guard or a local politician. Possibly you're scared of losing employment, overtime-pay, the many kick-backs and those regular fat bribes. But what good will any of that do you once our society has followed Mexico over the dystopian abyss of dismembered bodies, vats of acid and marauding thugs carrying gold-plated AK-47s with leopard-skinned gunstocks?

Kindly allow us to forgo the next level of your sycophantic prohibition-engendered mayhem.

Prohibition Prevents Regulation : Legalize, Regulate and Tax!

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