To Battle Cartels, Mexico Weighs Twitter Crackdown

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Mexican drug cartels appear to have adopted a new technique to avoid military raids and police checkpoints: using Facebook and Twitter. And so now the Mexican government is trying to crack down ... on the use of Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook has been on the radar of government officials who believe that it has been used to facilitate the abduction of the relatives of powerful businessmen and politicians, with kidnappers allegedly using the social-networking site to discover the identities of a high-profile person's family members. Meanwhile, authorities, already peeved that ordinary citizens have been using Twitter to alert one another to the locations of Breathalyzer checkpoints via @antiaa_df, are now furious that drug dealers are using Twitter accounts to circumvent dragnets and communicate with one another.

"Twitter is a serious problem not only to Mexican law-enforcement agencies but to any law or intelligence agencies all over the world, because criminals, drug cartels and terrorist cells are getting more sophisticated in their methods of communication," says Ghaleb Krame, a security expert at Mexico's Alliant International University. Krame says criminal organizations are using Twitter and other social networks to communicate with one another through key words that mean something different to people outside their circles. For example, drug cartels will post videos of corridos, or ballads, about the narco world on YouTube with lyrics that contain subtle clues as to the current hierarchies of gangs — as well as threats.

Mexican drug cartels apparently use Twitter and Facebook not only to communicate with one another, but also to spread fear through local communities. Recently in the bloody border town of Reynosa, people associated with one cartel used tweets to terrorize Reynosa by posting messages that created panic among residents and halted normal activities as the threats circulated online. One such message read, "The largest scheduled shootout in the history of Reynosa will be tomorrow or Sunday, send this message to people you trust that tomorrow a convoy of 60 trucks full of cartel hitmen from the Michoacan Family together with members of the Gulf Cartel are coming to take the city and take everyone out alive or dead!" Schools and shops closed that day.

A contingent of the liberal Revolutionary Democratic Party has drafted a bill to closely monitor and regulate the use of Twitter and Facebook in Mexico. The bill would make sharing information that helps others break the law or avoid it a criminal act. (The social-media companies themselves are not targets of the bill, just their Mexican users; Twitter and Facebook have warned their users to obey Mexican law.) The bill's sponsor, Norberto Nazario, says he wants to create an online police force that would keep abreast of the ways drug cartels and kidnapping rings are using the Internet for crime. He adds that sharing information about the actions of police should be illegal, especially during the country's fierce drug war.

The bill is partly modeled on a Spanish bill that would allow that government to close down websites that facilitate the breaking of copyright and other laws. Both the Spanish and Mexican bills are controversial. Mexican Twitter users reacted with laughter and scorn when they heard about the bill, with many saying that the proposed legislation was just an excuse for the government to act as Big Brother. Instead of cracking down on Twitter and Facebook use, some analysts say that law-enforcement and intelligence agencies should adapt to the new technology by creating fake identities on the sites to track criminals down instead of seeking to regulate the sites.

Krame says that passing the bill would be the worst action the government could take in combating crime allegedly committed via Twitter and Facebook. Twitter, some observers say, has allowed citizens to become amateur journalists, thus fulfilling a huge need in Mexico, where many broadcast and print media outlets have refrained from publishing certain news stories because of the threat of retribution from the cartels. Four journalists have been killed this year because of reporting on drug-related issues.

For now, los Twitteros, as Twitter users are called in Mexico, will have to wait and see what happens when the bill comes up for a vote in the next few months.