Drama and Danger in the World of Social Media

Drug cartels in MexicoI’ve blogged before about how social media has had a major (positive) impact on political and social movements, such as the “Arab Spring” uprisings and the democracy movement in Moldova. But recent news out of Mexico shows how the same social media can contribute to additional fear and violence in a society that already has more than its share of drama and danger.

In recent weeks, CNN has reported that social media is causing citizens living in the regions of Mexico beset by dangerous drug cartel activity to be injured – or even killed. In the border city of Nuevo Laredo, the bodies of a man and a woman were found hanging from a highway overpass, with threatening notes nearby promising a similar fate to other so-called “Internet snitches.”

According to the CNN news story, the two people were killed for messages they had posted online pertaining to drug violence in areas of Mexico where the professional news media are no longer able to do their job.

Because drug trafficker threats have essentially silenced reporting activity in these border regions, the local citizens have resorted to filling the information gap by using social media like Twitter and Facebook to convey the latest information to their fellow citizens.

The notes affixed to the dead bodies in Nuevo Laredo appear to have been left by members of two notorious drug cartels that are intimately engaged in the region’s bloody turf wars.

The killings point to a dangerous new front that’s opened up in the drug wars: In the absence of credible news reporting, many residents of the borderlands have turned to social media platforms for learning and sharing information. Using #hashtags that tie Twitter posts together has become an important “sorting” mechanism by which postings from individual Twitter accounts can be bundled into a sort of jerry-rigged news service. Many examples of “news report bundling” exist, such as for cities like Monterrey, Veracruz, Saltillo and Reynosa.

Andrés Monroy-Hernández of MIT’s Media Lab has studied this phenomenon, and declares that these ad hoc news bureaus have been effective.

“Most of the information is reliable, and the information that is not often goes ignored … [these bureaus] serve as curators and do a decent job at it,” the Mexican native asserts. He also points out that about half of the Twitter messages are actually retweets, meaning that people are cooperating with one another in spreading the information.

But the startling events of last week remind us that local residents who are using social media to navigate the chaos of the drug wars are themselves becoming targets in the drama.

Even the Mexican government is in on the action. Recently, it charged two Veracruz citizens with “terrorism and sabotage” for passing along rumors of a pending cartel attack on a school that resulted in an outbreak of panic at the school property.

The Mexican government’s action set off a wave of criticism from all sides. Amnesty International went on record stating that the drug war “creates a climate of distrust in which rumors circulate on social media as people try to protect themselves, because there is no reliable information available.”

The chaos that is enveloping Mexico – and the tragic consequences that stem from it – seem hard to imagine happening so close to the U.S. border. It’s also a reminder that the “brave new world” of social media can harbor grave dangers in addition to great promise.

And in this case, it can even get you killed.

Yet Another Headache for the U.S. Auto Industry

Several Mexican drug cartels are very active along the U.S. border.
Several Mexican drug cartels are very active along the border -- and U.S. auto parts plants are getting caught in the crossfire.
Now here’s an interesting confluence of events that at first blush seem totally unrelated to each other: the U.S. automotive industry and the Mexican drug wars. As if the auto industry didn’t have enough problems on its hands, now it’s finding itself in the crosshairs of the Mexican drug cartels’ shootout with the government in towns along the U.S. border.

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico is a factory town that happens to have its share of U.S.-owned auto supply factories, drawn to the region by cheap labor rates averaging less than $1.50 per hour. Always a tough city, Juarez has gotten a lot more dangerous in recent months. The raging violence peaked several months back with drug gangs killing six police officers in one single week before the Mexican government sent military troops in.

Civilians and foreign nationals are also at risk, it turns out. In January, a plant manager for Detroit-based auto parts manufacturer Lear Corporation was kidnapped on his way to work in Juarez, and a $1 million ransom was demanded for his release. Shortly before this drama unfolded, the firm’s local facilities were attacked by a band of gunmen armed with assault weapons; reportedly, they were after employees’ Christmas bonuses plus proceeds from the plant’s ATM machine.

Auto parts maker Delphi has also reported a number of disturbing incidents, including the attempted kidnapping of one of its female executives.

So, in addition to being faced with a blizzard of bad news on the domestic front stemming from the collapse of automotive sales, the auto parts manufacturers are encountering an entirely different set of bad conditions on the border. In response, they’re taking special precautions, including adding more security (and vetting security personnel more carefully), removing ATMs from plants, restricting local personnel travel to daylight hours only, and even going so far as to keep their CEOs away from the region entirely.

But you can only wonder how much longer things can go on like this if the Mexican government doesn’t gain the upper hand in quelling the danger and the violence — and soon. After all, there are nearly 1,000 auto parts makers in the country, ~70% of which are subsidiaries of U.S. companies. That makes it very hard for the military to patrol so many locations against the seemingly random attacks, kidnappings, and other acts of violence.

At some point, the prospects of cheap labor and low costs will run smack up against basic safety, security and peace of mind. Other Latin American countries face similar issues … so might this mean a shift of some of these operations back to the United States? Now, that would be an interesting twist!

We shall see.