After all the bloody mayhem that had taken place, the July 17 edition of the daily newspaper Primera Hora was filled with very bland stuff. Among the top stories: the federal government was pledging aid in the wake of Hurricane Alex; an Amber Alert system was being set up; a new multilane bridge was rising according to schedule. Nowhere in the paper’s pages was news of the vicious clash a day earlier between drug cartels and the Mexican military. The street battle—in Nuevo Laredo, the paper’s home turf—had lasted five hours, shut down large swaths of the city, and left at least 12 people dead and 21 injured. Not a word of this appeared in Nuevo Laredo’s other dailies either, or on its radio or television stations. The reason: in Nuevo Laredo, the press doesn’t report what the cartels don’t want people to know.
Local residents were able to get an idea of what was going on, however, by logging on to blogdelnarco.com. There, they learned which streets to avoid and where the wounded were being treated. They read that the American consulate was urging people to stay indoors and that Mexican soldiers had arrested members of the Zetas, a brutal drug-trafficking group. They saw photos of avenues blocked by big-rig trucks commandeered by the cartels. They saw video footage of bullet-riddled pickups and bloodied corpses. They found, in other words, a trove of valuable reporting—all of it compiled by a college student working anonymously out of his bedroom somewhere in northern Mexico.
The Blog del Narco has become the go-to site for cartel-related news in Mexico, drawing about 3 million hits per week. Its followers include not just ordinary citizens, but also members of the military, police, and trafficking organizations locked in a four-year war that has cost some 28,000 lives. At a time when the cartels have scared much of the Mexican media into submission—when papers like El Diario de Juárez feel compelled to publish front-page pleas to the cartels to “explain what you want from us”—the narcoblogger, like a journalistic masked crusader, has stepped into the void. Yet the Blog del Narco has also triggered controversy. The site has become a gallery of gore, and a tool the cartels use to project power and sow even more fear.
NEWSWEEK communicated with the narcoblogger by e-mail and Skype. Though he won’t divulge his identity—which he says only four people know—he describes himself as a computer-science student at a university in northern Mexico. He administers the site on his own, he says, from a laptop he totes around wherever he goes, and squeezes his work between classes, meals, and trips to the gym. Every day, he receives 70 to 100 e-mails, some of them containing graphic photos and videos. He posts whatever he receives, unedited and unverified. Partly to protect himself, he remains agnostic about the cartels. “I try not to attach negative adjectives to them,” says the blogger, who adds that he hasn’t received any threats so far. “I’m neither in favor nor against what they do.”
The torrent of postings periodically yields important nuggets of intelligence, which appears to be furnished by both the authorities and narcotraffickers. “I look at it as kind of a technological yard sale,” says George W. Grayson, a Mexico specialist at the College of William & Mary. “A bunch of junk shows up, but you find some things that are pretty interesting.” The blogger may have helped crack one case, after he posted a video confession implicating a prison warden who allegedly freed armed inmates at night so they could carry out cartel-ordered hits. Sometimes users’ comments show they’re privy to inside information. On Sept. 2, someone going by the name “Caramuela” advised that the authorities would soon take down Sergio Villarreal Barragán of the Beltrán Leyva cartel. “Your time has come,” the user wrote. Ten days later, Mexican marines arrested Villarreal.
he blog has also become a forum for traffickers to taunt each other and broadcast their brutality. Images on the site include corpses caked in blood and severed heads oozing brain matter. “There’s a calculated use by these groups to instill terror, much like the jihadist forums,” says Scott Stewart, an executive at Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm. Yet the swaggering exchanges between cartel henchmen (“get a f--king life?.?.?.?wannabe!” a Zeta partisan wrote in response to a rant by someone who signed “Gulf Cartel”) can “also be interesting intel,” says Stewart. “What are they saying to each other? And what are they claiming about the government or army?”
The social-networking features of the site help ordinary citizens keep apprised of potential perils. On June 9, a user alerted readers about a shootout in Matamoros. “They attacked the ministry of public security with machine guns and grenades ... at least 7 police dead ... at this moment in Matamoros there is no law,” the user wrote. The next day, someone else posted this message: “There’s a tense calm ... it looks like [the Zetas] came to Matamoros to demonstrate they could do damage but after the attack they left ... toward Valle Hermosa or Reynosa.”
Normally people expect the press to provide such news. But in many parts of Mexico, especially the north, the media effectively have ceased to function. More than 30 journalists have been murdered or have gone missing since 2006, according to a report released last month by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Media offices have been targeted by gunfire, grenades, and bombs. The attackers aren’t only cartel hitmen but also law-enforcement officers on their payroll. “There are vast regions of the country where the press is terrified,” says the CPJ’s Carlos Lauria. “They’re just unable to do any kind of basic reporting—forget about investigative reporting.”
For reporters on the front lines, the pressure can be excruciating. When Tabasco Hoy, a daily in Villahermosa, published stories about prisons controlled by drug gangs, Roberto Cuitláhuac, the paper’s crime editor, began to receive anonymous calls. “Stop writing [expletive],” one voice said. “We know where your son works. Next time, we won’t warn you.” A colleague of Cuitláhuac’s was murdered in 2007 for writing about narcotiendas—drugstores run by the cartels—so he took the threats seriously. These days, he uses extra locks on his home, regularly changes routes to work, and keeps colleagues informed of his whereabouts at all times. To minimize trouble, he and other staffers don’t publish accusations against drug lords. “There are many things we don’t make known,” he says.
While many of Blog del Narco’s readers are members of the media, the Mexican press is divided in its opinion of the site. One camp believes it’s a useful resource, and some reporters even submit articles they weren’t able to publish in their own papers. Others, however, maintain that it’s merely providing a megaphone for cartel propaganda. “Many media organizations don’t publish photos of executions,” says Adela Navarro Bello, a magazine editor in Tijuana. So “the narcotraffickers are using the blog to post their horrors. It’s a distortion” of journalism. The narcoblogger responds that “the violence that’s occurring in Mexico isn’t due to what [the site] publishes.” Besides, he says, he’s never claimed to be a journalist. “The fear people have is of not knowing,” he argues. “I help them inform themselves.” For his countrymen living in a news vacuum, perhaps any morsel of information is better than none—even if they have to wade through screenfuls of gore to get it.