Hiding Behind the Web

Article excerpt

Byline: Arian Campo-Flores

Like a journalistic Zorro, a Mexican blogger works where reporters fear to tread. Is he doing a public service, or is he just a tool of the cartels?

After all the bloody mayhem that had taken place, the July 17 edition of the daily newspaper Primera Hora was filled with very bland stuff. Among the top stories: the federal government was pledging aid in the wake of Hurricane Alex; an Amber Alert system was being set up; a new multilane bridge was rising according to schedule. Nowhere in the paper's pages was news of the vicious clash a day earlier between drug cartels and the Mexican military. The street battle--in Nuevo Laredo, the paper's home turf--had lasted five hours, shut down large swaths of the city, and left at least 12 people dead and 21 injured. Not a word of this appeared in Nuevo Laredo's other dailies either, or on its radio or television stations. The reason: in Nuevo Laredo, the press doesn't report what the cartels don't want people to know.

Local residents were able to get an idea of what was going on, however, by logging on to blogdelnarco.com. There, they learned which streets to avoid and where the wounded were being treated. They read that the American consulate was urging people to stay indoors and that Mexican soldiers had arrested members of the Zetas, a brutal drug-trafficking group. They saw photos of avenues blocked by big-rig trucks commandeered by the cartels. They saw video footage of bullet-riddled pickups and bloodied corpses. They found, in other words, a trove of valuable reporting--all of it compiled by a college student working anonymously out of his bedroom somewhere in northern Mexico.

The Blog del Narco has become the go-to site for cartel-related news in Mexico, drawing about 3 million hits per week. Its followers include not just ordinary citizens, but also members of the military, police, and trafficking organizations locked in a four-year war that has cost some 28,000 lives. At a time when the cartels have scared much of the Mexican media into submission--when papers like El Diario de Juarez feel compelled to publish front-page pleas to the cartels to "explain what you want from us"--the narcoblogger, like a journalistic masked crusader, has stepped into the void. Yet the Blog del Narco has also triggered controversy. The site has become a gallery of gore, and a tool the cartels use to project power and sow even more fear.

NEWSWEEK communicated with the narcoblogger by e-mail and Skype. Though he won't divulge his identity--which he says only four people know--he describes himself as a computer-science student at a university in northern Mexico. He administers the site on his own, he says, from a laptop he totes around wherever he goes, and squeezes his work between classes, meals, and trips to the gym. Every day, he receives 70 to 100 e-mails, some of them containing graphic photos and videos. He posts whatever he receives, unedited and unverified. Partly to protect himself, he remains agnostic about the cartels. "I try not to attach negative adjectives to them," says the blogger, who adds that he hasn't received any threats so far. "I'm neither in favor nor against what they do."

The torrent of postings periodically yields important nuggets of intelligence, which appears to be furnished by both the authorities and narcotraffickers. "I look at it as kind of a technological yard sale," says George W. Grayson, a Mexico specialist at the College of William & Mary. "A bunch of junk shows up, but you find some things that are pretty interesting." The blogger may have helped crack one case, after he posted a video confession implicating a prison warden who allegedly freed armed inmates at night so they could carry out cartel-ordered hits. Sometimes users' comments show they're privy to inside information. On Sept. 2, someone going by the name "Caramuela" advised that the authorities would soon take down Sergio Villarreal Barragan of the Beltran Leyva cartel. …