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The Daily Need

Is the Internet the next battleground in Mexico’s deadly drug war?

A suspected member of the Los Zetas drug cartel is escorted by police in Mexico City in 2009. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

The hacktivist collective Anonymous — which has taken on big banks, police departments and e-commerce giants — briefly trained its sights this week on a new target: Mexico’s powerful and deadly drug cartels. And the confrontation, however short-lived, could have vast implications for the drug war that has ravaged Mexico and caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Members of Anonymous posted a message on YouTube in early October threatening to release personal information about journalists, police officers and others who cooperate with one of Mexico’s deadliest drug cartels, Los Zetas. The threat was in retaliation for what Anonymous claimed was the kidnapping of one of its members at a protest earlier this year.

After the message surfaced in the media this week, analysts warned that the informants would almost certainly be targeted for retribution by rivals of the Zetas, and that the Zetas themselves — a notoriously brutal gang responsible for beheadings and other acts of indiscriminate violence — would target members of the Anonymous collective. The hackers subsequently backed down.

Nonetheless, their original threat introduces a new and somewhat unpredictable element into Mexico’s bloody drug wars. Bloggers and other online activists have tried before to expose the activities of Mexico’s deadly cartels, with limited success. The hackers affiliated with Anonymous, however, have two powerful tools at their disposal that most anti-cartel activists do not: they’re skilled, and they’re invisible.

Anonymous “brings together a group of individuals with a higher skill-set and sense of operational security than the less savvy anti-cartel bloggers already active in Mexico,” Stratfor, the global intelligence firm, wrote in a report this week. “This higher skill-set means that Anonymous could contribute to the effectiveness of the online struggle against the cartels or at least bring more publicity to the issue.”

Their involvement, however, also makes them a potential target. “If Anonymous is able to increase the effectiveness of online operations seeking to expose cartel activities then that makes them and other anti-cartel bloggers in Mexico much higher profile targets than before,” Stratfor wrote.

The persistence of the drug cartels has flummoxed Mexico’s government, which has declared war on the cartels and has used the army to fight them, raising the level of violence to unprecedented levels. The cartels have enjoyed virtual impunity, even after acts as gruesome as beheadings, mass graves and shootings at birthday parties. The United States has conducted its own electronic surveillance on the cartels and pledged $1.3 billion to help Mexico’s government fight them, to little effect thus far.

The effect of the online activists on the conflict is hard to predict. Anonymity makes their information difficult to corroborate, and if they release the identities of the wrong people, innocent civilians could be targeted. Nonetheless, their involvement represents an escalation, of sorts, for the drug war. Even the cartels are now employing hackers to fight online attacks.

“We have seen reports that Los Zetas are deploying their own teams of computer experts to track those individuals involved in the online anti-cartel campaign, which indicates that the criminal group is taking the campaign very seriously,” Stratfor wrote in its report. “Those individuals involved face the risk of abduction, injury and death — judging by how Los Zetas has dealt with threats in the past.”

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  • Phil

    I know, let’s legalize drugs, tax them heavily, protect children from the sale of drugs and put the cartels out of business.