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Outrage over 'Twitter murder' in Mexico

Sonya Angelica DiehnOctober 24, 2014

The gruesome murder of a citizen journalist in Mexico published on Twitter points to deep-rooted impunity - but it also shows how social media can continue to play an important role for freedom of information.

Mexiko Proteste vermisste Studenten 15.10.2014
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido

Horrific. Awful. Sad. So upsetting. These are some of the words that appeared on social media platforms in reaction to news of the "Twitter murder" of citizen journalist Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio.

Under the handle of "Felina," Rosario posted alerts on violent incidents and encouraged victims to file police reports in her northern Mexico city of Reynosa, including over the Valor por Tamaulipas Twitter platform.

But after repeated threats and an apparently coincidental kidnapping, on October 16 Felina tweeted: FRIENDS AND FAMILY, MY REAL NAME IS MARÍA DEL ROSARIO FUENTES RUBIO. I AM A PHYSICIAN. TODAY MY LIFE HAS COME TO AN END.

This was followed by two tweeted photos: one of a middle-aged woman looking into the camera; then one of the same woman dead, with a gunshot to her face.

The posts have since been removed and Twitter has shut down the account. Although such graphic photos publicized over a social media platform make this case exceptionally lurid, the murder of citizen journalists in Mexico is unfortunately not an isolated phenomenon.

"We are seeing more cases like Rosario," said Daniel Kapellmann, an IT consultant and blogger based out of Mexico City.

The before picture was retweeted with a caption, translated as: "In Tamaulipas, they have murdered cyber-activist Felina @Miut3, who denounced organized crime." The after picture is too gruesome to show, but was retweeted by several accounts in Mexico directly after first appearing on Twitter.

Cartel-controlled regions

Along with other northern Mexican states like Sinaloa, Veracruz and Guerrero, Tamaulipas - where the murder took place - is deep in the grip of drug cartels.

For decades under the again-ruling PRI party, organized crime became deeply entrenched and infiltrated high levels of government, especially in certain regions. Despite an anti-drug-trafficking offensive launched by the previous administrations that ruled for 12 years until 2012, drug cartels continue to essentially govern in some areas of Mexico.

Rival cartels in Tamaulipas had enforced a blackout over negative news in the traditional media - which is also closely tied to the government - so citizens turned to social media for information about cartel-related violence in their region.

A certain level of anonymity encourages people to participate in crowdsourcing efforts, like the one Rosario posted to and helped administrate, Kapellmann told DW. Social media has been gaining importance as a "new track" for finding and sharing information - and this represents an important phenomenon in the region, Kapellmann added.

As was the case in the Arab Spring, people seeing others participate in protest and action over social media channels can help break down a barrier of fear, unravel the spiral of silence, and unite people for social change. But "due to the magnitude of the problem, not everyone feels encouraged," Kapellmann said.

A shop in Tahrir Square with Arab Spring protester walking past with Egyptian flag (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Social media played a crucial role in the Arab SpringImage: Getty Images

Deadly country for journalists

Reporters Without Borders has called Mexico "one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists" - it's the deadliest nation for reporters in the Americas, ahead of Colombia and Brazil. According to the organization, more than 80 journalists have been killed in Mexico over the past decade, and at least 17 have disappeared.

The Committee to Protect Journalists rated Mexico as number 7 on its "Impunity Index" - just better than Afghanistan and worse than Colombia in prosecuting murders of journalists.

Although some steps have been made toward accountability, "Efforts of authorities to prosecute those who target journalists have not paid off," said Juan Tadeo Ramirez Cervantes, a lawyer and blogger also based out of Mexico City. A new federal office specialized in prosecuting those who attack journalists "cannot get any convictions," Ramirez told DW.

But Ramirez described this problem as "not specific for journalists," pointing to a mere 14 percent conviction rate on cartel-related violence.

Kapellmann put it this way: "How can the government protect journalists if it can't protect its citizens, or even politicians?"

It's a sad state when merely speaking freely has become a form of activism, Kapellmann added.

Student disappearances spark uprising

Recent developments in the Mexican state of Guerrero illustrate the extent of the problem.

As students at the Ayotzinapa rural teachers' college at the end of this September commenced their annual fundraising campaign - timed to commemorate 46 years since the massacre of students at Tlatelolco in Mexico City - local police ambushed several buses in the city of Iguala, killing six students and "disappearing" 43.

Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa (Photo: Alejandrino Gonzalez)
Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa remain at largeImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Alejandrino Gonzalez

The mayor of Iguala had reportedly ordered the police to attack. So far, 53 have been arrested in conjunction with the event, including 36 police officers. The mayor of Iguala and his wife remain fugitives.

On Thursday (23.10.2014), the governor of Guerrero announced he would step down in light of accusations that he knew of corruption and collusion with drug traffickers (which he denied).

Public outrage in Mexico has gradually been building over the incident, and protests erupted over the past several weeks as thousands took to the streets including in Iguala, Guadalajara and Mexico City, demanding government action toward the return of the 43 students still missing.

Making the movement global

Social media is playing an important role in the protest movement, Kapellmann said. "Social networks are being exploited for organizing and making demands," he added.

Crimes like the one in Ayotzinapa, grim as they are, have the potential to bring people together, Ramirez added.

Thousands participated in a march in Acapulco for the missing students October 17, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Henry Romero)
This protest in Acapulco was among many that have erupted across Mexico demanding action around the missing studentsImage: Reuters/Henry Romero

Yet Ramirez also pointed out that international attention - which was a decisive factor in change during the Arab Spring - has been lacking over events in Mexico. A Twitter storm around the hashtag EPNBringThemBack, which was intended to pressure the Mexican president into locating the students, trended in Mexico but not internationally, he pointed out.

Social media does indeed have a special role in democratizing information, including in light of increasing organized crime, Ramirez said - but it needs to be empowered, he added. Aside from promoting quality education for all Mexicans, increased Internet access needs to break the dominance of government-manipulated television. But most importantly, he thinks, this struggle needs to be globalized.

"It's imperative that the world know about grim prospects for social media and freedom of information, and join bloggers and activists in Mexico in raising our voices against it."