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Drug cartels target social media users as international community addresses journalists' safety at UN anti-impunity conference

A man stands near signs reading
A man stands near signs reading "No more blood" during a gathering of human rights activists in Ciudad Juárez earlier this year

REUTERS/Gael Gonzalez

Last week, a young man and woman were found hanging from ropes off a pedestrian bridge in Nuevo Laredo, northern Mexico. Accompanying their lifeless, mutilated bodies were handwritten signs that declared the two were killed for posting denouncements of drug cartel activities on a social network. With few reporters daring to cover Mexico's ongoing drug war for fear of becoming victims themselves, the murderers appear to have a new target: those using social media networks to cover the story, say the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and ARTICLE 19.

"This is going to happen to all of those posting funny things on the Internet," one sign read, according to CNN. Another placard listed two blogs by name, Al Rojo Vivo and Blog del Narco, reported CNN.

Blog del Narco is a website that deals exclusively with news related to drug violence in Mexico. Its creator remains anonymous. On the Al Rojo Vivo forum, citizens can make anonymous tips.

The threat looked to be signed with the letter Z - a possible reference to the Los Zetas drug cartel that operates in the area. The victims' identities and connection to social media have not been confirmed.

It will be difficult to determine if the two victims actually posted anything about cartels on the Internet, as people don't usually use their real names online, investigator Ricardo Mancillas Castillo told CNN.

There are no witnesses, and it is a nearly impossible task to identify the perpetrators, he added.

With self-censorship a growing phenomenon in Mexico's traditional media, Mexicans have turned to blogs and social media sites to share information and report on the drug war and other violent acts, according to IAPA and news reports.

Spanish journalist Judith Torrea won the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom award at the best of the Blogs competition this year for Ciudad Juárez, en la Sombra del Narcotráfico (Ciudad Juárez, in the Shadow of Drug Trafficking) - a blog about drug cartel activities, government repression and police corruption in a region where many journalists are forced into exile for their coverage.

Yet, rather than offering protection for social media users, the government arrested Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola and Gilberto Martinez Vera on 25 August and charged them with terrorism and sabotage for posting false messages on Twitter about the possibility of an organised crime attack on a school in Veracruz - an overreaction on the part of the authorities, says ARTICLE 19.

ARTICLE 19 says the effect of targeting social media users, whether by the authorities or by the cartels, is that "few citizens will be willing to engage in online discussion and exchange. Online self-censorship will ultimately prevail."

The latest murders are a sign that cartels are also paying attention to coverage outside traditional media channels.

"This level of violence has clearly gone way beyond the press and has become a freedom of expression problem," Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in an interview with "Toronto Star".

"It's an attempt by the criminal organisations to take control of the information agenda. It's not only a war that's going on in the streets right now," he added.

The country's drug violence has reportedly killed more than 35,000 since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched an armed offensive against drug cartels five years ago. And as reported often by IFEX members, more journalists have been killed in Mexico than anywhere else in Latin America.

IAPA, through its long-running anti-impunity campaign, has been calling for crimes against free expression to be a federal offence. This case is no different. "It is necessary to defend the right of people to make any statement, opinion or expression, whether through traditional news media or the new online media, and this defence should be a commitment that all of us - society at large and the press - have to make together," IAPA said.

A significant number of IFEX members, including IAPA, CPJ and RSF, took part in last week's United Nations Inter-Agency meeting in Paris on "The Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity".

While welcoming "this unprecedented show of concern for press freedom issues on the part of the international community and UNESCO's achievement in bringing about this meeting," CPJ comments that "doubts linger as to whether this initiative will translate into concrete action."

Even at the meeting, CPJ noted that official delegates from Mexico expressed "vehement displeasure" that Mexico had been named as a place where impunity and violence against journalists reign.

IAPA's Jorge Canahuati told the conference that the greatest frustration in the Western hemisphere "is the indifference and lack of action on the part of many governments."

"Governments are aware of the problem," he said. "They diagnose it, they talk about solving it, but they don't have the determination and the political will to reform public policies, administer justice or create protection programmes."

IAPA recommends that investigations of crimes committed against journalists are free of any statute of limitations, that penalties for such crimes be strengthened, and that special jurisdictions are created for the prosecution of offences against freedom of expression.

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