Mexico’s drug cartels have long been associated with grisly violence. But killings and intimidation have escalated significantly in recent years, among rival groups as well as against government forces attempting to crack down on lawlessness. Since Felipe Calderon became president in 2006 and declared war on the cartels, nearly 30,000 people have been killed. Last year, a Pentagon study warned that Mexico was on the verge of becoming a failed state.
In 2010 the violence began to seep into previously untouched areas. The resort town of Acapulco, a popular cruise ship port of call, has seen an uptick in drug-gang shootouts, beheadings, and kidnappings — including of a group of 20 tourists from the neighboring state of Michoacan, out on a guys’ vacation. Their bodies were later found in a mass grave, apparent victims of a fatal case of mistaken identity. The cartel wars spilled over the border in September, when American David Hartley was shot and killed while jet-skiing on a Texas lake that borders Mexico, an attack that officials believe was also due to mistaken identity. (See the BBC’s report on the underlying reasons for the exponential rise in violence.)
Yet even as drug violence engulfs more people’s lives, on-the-ground reporting has grown scarcer. That’s because journalists, too, have become targets: Mexico has become one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. In August Mexican reporters took to the streets to protest the kidnappings and murders.
That’s how “narco blogs” such as El Blog del Narco have grown in significance, with their dispatches from the front lines of the drug war. El Blog del Narco posts graphic videos and photos of killings, some of them apparently from the cartels themselves. The anonymity of the blog format protects these citizen journalists — in the case of El Blog del Narco, an anonymous computer-security student in northern Mexico — who are motivated to tell people what was really happening in their country, because the media was too intimidated to do it. Launched in March 2010, the site brings in about 3 million unique visits every month and more than 27,000 Twitter followers — almost but not yet matching the total number of drug-related deaths thus far.
Posting materials that may have come from the cartels opens the blogger to criticism that he’s providing them with a platform or, worse, acting as their mouthpiece. But the blog contributed to the major arrest of a prison warden by posting a video of the warden describing how inmates linked with the Sinaloa cartel would be set free at night and given guns and cars to carry out hits.
The government is making an effort to reform the prison system, constructing a new academy to train prison guards. But the institutions of law enforcement are deeply flawed. Many of Mexico’s poorly paid police officers, who don’t qualify for minimum wage or a 40-hour-maximum work week, rely on bribes to supplement their paychecks. Although Calderon has tried to reform the federal police by purging corrupt officers and raising pay, the municipal police remain a weak spot, and reform is slow in this federation of 31 states and 2,456 municipalities.
For that reason, traditional journalists may not come out of hiding anytime soon. Mexicans who want to know what’s going on in their communities may have to rely on narco blogs for the real story — or some version of it.