The showdown has been called off at the last minute. The international hacker group Anonymous got what it aimed for and decided not to open a new war front in Mexico by renouncing to attack the drug cartel Zeta, as the narcos countered the cyber militants’ threat by promising mass murders in retaliation.
With an unusual move, a member of Anonymous has revealed how the group of hacktivists has abandoned the original plan to hit out at the Mexican narcos by publishing names, pictures and personal data about the vast network of people who are in the payroll of the crime syndicate and work as cab drivers, cops or journalists. These people represent the narcos roots in the texture of civil society in Veracruz state, a stronghold of the Zetas.
Last week Anonymous had announced it was ready to divulge such sensible information if the Zetas, one of the main drug cartels active in the area of the Gulf of Mexico, did not free by today 5 November a member of the group who had been kidnapped by the narcos.
Publishing such information would represent a formal report to authorities but it would also amount to a death sentence, since the reported people would instantly become targets for rival gangs fighting with the Zetas an all out war to control the $40 billion dollar drug trade between Mexico and the USA.
According to the British daily The Guardian, Barrett Brown, a member of Anonymous, has confirmed that the kidnapped person, a woman, has been freed as some rumours circulating on the Internet had been claiming in the last couple of days.
Brown stressed however that the freed woman brought back a message from the narcos, who warn that they are ready to kill 10 citizens at random for every name of their affiliates divulged by the hacktivist group.
Brown, who lives in Texas, says that Anonymous has obtained names and data about the Zetas affiliates through Mexican hackers who have broken into government computers and data banks. He also declared to be personally ready to face the obvious dangers that publishing the narcos’ affiliates name would imply and to be willing to carry on his conscience the responsibility of having those people killed by rival gangs.
He stressed though that the threat about random mass killings made him and other Anonymous members change their minds.
From now on, according to Brown, Anonymous will fine tune its strategy in Mexico, by trying to avoid any direct confrontation with the narcos and by rather insisting on the use of Internet as a means to spark mass protests.
Throughout this past week the Internet had been abuzz with comments about the Anonymous’ decision to take on the narcos, which had been announced last weekend through a video addressed to the people of the state of Veracruz.
In the past couple of months the Zetas have been hitting at cyber activists, engaged in divulging information through blogs and social networks about the drug war which has made more than 42,000 victims in the past five years throughout Mexico.
In a country where local authorities are often corrupt, where media dare not go into details about narco activities for fear of retribution and where armed thugs run their illegal trade in full daylight, subjecting every individual or enterprise to extortion and killing anyone who gets in their way, blogs and social networks have become the only means for citizens to stay informed– which often translates into staying alive. A good enough reason to drive many people to keep logging on to Internet sites like El Blog del Narco, Frontera al Rojo Vivo or Mundo Narco, while they well know that they are doing so at their own risk.
The narcos do not appreciate anyone talking about them or their business, naming names or alerting the population about their moves. To them, that is just another kind of “snitching”, as they explicitly stressed on placards found last September in Nuevo Laredo, next to the mangled bodies of citizens who had dared divulge sensitive information about the Zetas over the Internet.
The Zetas are a spin-off of the Cartel del Golfo, which used to be the most powerful drug syndicate south of the Rio Grande until five years ago, when president Felipe Calderon fielded the armed forces to fight the narcos. Since the day of the split, Zetas and Cartel del Golfo are locked in a gruesome feud, which has caused several hundreds of victims. In a few cases the gory killings carried out by Cartel del Golfo were portrayed on video and posted on the Internet.
According to accounts circulating on web social media and confirmed by the international security firm Stratfor, the Zetas kidnapped a member of Anonymous a couple of weeks ago during a street demonstration organized by citizens of Veracruz to protest against the deadly violence related to the drug war, which has turned once quiet cities like Nuevo Laredo into armed battlefields.
Anonymous is a group of hackers who fight for the freedom of the Internet and break into government and corporate information networks in order to expose wrongdoings and abuse, while they also use the Internet to foster forms of direct democracy.
Thus far, Anonymous has carried out mainly retaliatory actions against financial institutions or public agencies.
But last week the group also hit out at paedophile rings on a global scale, taking dozens of websites active in child pornography offline and denouncing over 1,500 users of such sites.
While it is clear that Anonymous militants must be computer and telecommunications experts, it is not clear at all who they may be. In their videos they always appear wearing Guy Fawkes masks, the same ones often seen in many cities around the world throughout this year at street protests of the Indignados and Occupywallstreet-like movements. Only the identity of very few members of Anonymous was exposed randomly in the USA, when they were tracked down by the FBI after some cyber raids. But rumour has it on the net that there are several thousands of them all over the globe.
Divulging identities, pictures and addresses of people who work for a narco cartel is therefore a way to formally report them to authorities and expose them to judicial prosecution, but it is also informally a way to serve them a death warrant
Because of the information they can publish online, Anonymous could represent a real threat even for the merciless, Mexican narcos, renowned for their slaughter happy philosophy and bloodthirsty killing rituals. And reason why could represent a threat should be very evident to anyone even just vaguely familiar with the Mexican drug war dynamics, which leaves no space for enemies.
Many of the victims of the drug warfare may be innocent citizens classified as collateral damage –like unwilling witnesses or unforeseen casualties of a shootout– but the majority of people killed by any narcos syndicate are members of rival cartels gunned down in the course of fire exchanges or caught, interrogated and then executed. Physical elimination of any enemy –and possibly of their relatives and friends too– is paramount to the game. Without exceptions .
This far Anonymous has publicized only one name: that of former Tabasco state prosecutor Gustavo Rosario Torres, taped some three years ago by anti-crime activists while discussing a $200,000 cocaine deal with a deputy. Last week Anonymous hit the Torres website by placing on its homepage, against a Halloween background, the message: Gustavo Rosario is Zeta.
But that was not the first anti-Zeta action. In September, Anonymous had already hit the official website of the state of Veracruz with a “denial of service attack”, following speculation that governor Javier Duarte financed part of a recent election campaign with funds received from the narcos. Denial of service attacks seek to clog websites and other Internet services by bombarding them with incoming traffic.
This tactic has often been used in Latin and South America by local chapters of Anonymous, which over the past year carried out attacks against institutions run by allegedly corrupt politicians in Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil.
The last one to bear the brunt of a similar attack was the Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, who, last Monday, was prevented from delivering a speech to the nation via the Internet because his government website was disabled for over two hours by Anonymous.
So no one doubted ever that Anonymous can keep its promises and that the group’s injunction against the Zetas should be taken seriously.
What was to be feared though was the narcos’ reaction.
And as some commentators had feared, the cyber militants’ ultimatum backfired against Anonymous when the narcos articulated their threat to retaliate by carrying out a long chain of murders and executions.
While they may not be able to track down members of Anonymous, the narcos are known never to refrain from retaliatory acts such as killing and maiming victims –even randomly– for the sake of spreading terror and in order to prove that any attack on them will have the worst possible consequences.
Evidently this was too much for Anonymous even if the cyber militants were ready to feed into the war among cartels, taking on their own shoulders the responsibility to divulge sensible personal information and condemning to sure death scores of people because of their liaison with the narcos.
Now that the worst scenario has been avoided, some questions still remain open.
Would the hacktivists be absolutely certain about the information they divulge? Can a group of private citizens really take on itself the responsibility of exposing the people they report to the danger of being killed? And if so, don’t the cyber militants know that many of those who work for the narcos do not do so by choice, but because they have been forced to cooperate by way of threats and blackmails?