Preview: Life on the Line: Tweeting the Drug War

Life on the Line: Tweeting the Drug War
Saturday, March 9, 3:30PM – 4:30PM
Austin Convention Center, Room 5ABC

The complex relationship the United States has with its southern neighbor, Mexico, is the often the subject of reports on crime, immigration and human and drug trafficking. What is often neglected in coverage is how this surge in crime has impacted the institution of journalism in the border region between the United States and Mexico. According to the International Press Institute, Mexico is the most dangerous country to practice journalism. In 2011, over 100 journalists were murdered, and even more journalists are victims of intimidation and censorship every day.

The Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, is considered the most dangerous for journalists, due to strict censorship of the media by the main drug cartel, Los Zetas. “There is a complete censorship of the media in the state of Tamaulipas; that is a hallmark of the Zetas,” explains Melissa del Bosque, an investigative reporter at the Texas Observer. Del Bosque is headlining the “Life on the Line: Tweeting the Drug War” panel at the SXSW Interactive conference. “The Zetas have expanded into other areas and you see that same methodology in new places with a media blackouts.” del Bosque continues, “now, there is no organized crime reporting in Zacatecas.”

Los Zetas are sophisticated enemies to free speech. The drug cartel runs with the efficiency of a multinational corporation, with cartel members assigned as liaisons to local reporters, websites that provide up-to-date information on verboten topics to cover, and monitoring of journalists in their offices and homes to ensure compliance. In an environment of fear and violence, how do these communities communicate information on crime or shootings?

Melissa del Bosque, staff reporter at the Texas Observer
Melissa del Bosque, staff reporter at the Texas Observer.
“Everyday citizens are having to come up with their own ways to get the news out,” explains del Bosque. Locals are turning to social media tools, particularly Twitter, to share information. “At first they used Twitter to report things like gun battles on the streets, to keep their family members safe,” she continued. For example, the Twitter hashtag #ReynosaFollow, is used to report in the community of Reynosa, an industrial city just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, the citizen journalism under media blackout has evolved into much more than just tweeting shootings. “Citizens work around organized crime by posting information to Facebook and Twitter, posting videos and eyewitness accounts,” says del Bosque.The censorship by organized crime has inspired everyday people to take great risks to keep information free.

Defying the drug cartels does not come without a price. There are numerous cases where social media users have been executed for not abiding censorship. In response, “international journalism groups are helping the communities, like the one in Reynosa, to figure out how to safeguard their anonymity, using techniques similar to those used in Syria,” says del Bosque. From using special apps to hiding IP addresses, the Mexican citizen journalists are on the forefront of developing techniques to hide their identity. As organized crime continues to grow in influence in Mexico and abroad, the challenges for free and open journalism will continue.