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The Digital Citizen and the Drug Cartels

BY Nick Judd | Friday, September 30 2011

María Elizabeth Macías, described in reports as a local journalist in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, has become the most recent person to die in what appears to be a brutal counteroffensive by drug cartels against locals who meet online to share information about criminal activity in their neighborhoods. While working at a local newspaper, Macías saved her crime reporting for the Internet, where she wrote under the nom de plume "La Nena de Laredo," or "the girl from Laredo."

Macías was active on a site called Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, or NLV, where users reported areas of high drug activity, encouraged one another to report crimes to the authorities, and swap other information about how to survive in a country where organized crime has cowed police and media alike.

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Hannah Stone describes Macías' murder as a moment of significance in an ongoing battle for control of Nuevo Laredo's image, its streets, and its psyche, waged between the Zetas drug cartel and anonymous citizens who dare to connect and speak openly online. Here's Stone on Macías, and on two others found dead earlier this month:

Clearly, the work of NLV and other similar websites is bothering the Zetas, who have gone out of their way to send an intimidating message to the sites’ users in the most extreme way possible. The three killings stand out for their use of exaggerated violence and heavy symbolism. Macias’ head was placed next to a keyboard, computer mouse, headphones, and speakers, while the other two corpses had ears and fingers cut off. These are killings intended not just to get rid of the victim, but to graphically display the extent of the Zetas' power. It can be read as following in the tradition of cartel killings in Mexico, where physical mutilations serve an almost ritual purpose as well as providing a warning -- for example, cutting the throat of police informants.

President Richard Nixon declared "war on drugs" in 1971. Some 30 years later, with reports of escalating violence along the U.S.-Mexican border and rising power of the cartels in South America, it doesn't seem as if state actors have prosecuted this war with much success. Are networked citizens — the same type of people who overthrew governments in the Middle East and stood in Puerta del Sol in Madrid — capable of succeeding where presidents have failed?