October 3, 2011 | By Eva Galperin

Freedom of Expression Under Attack in Mexico: Social Network Users and Bloggers Face Violence, Political Backlash

Update: A Spanish translation of this post is available here.

Chilling Speech Through Violence

Bloggers in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo are being terrorized by the Los Zetas drug cartel, which is trying to silence citizens who speak out against drug-related violence. On the morning of September 24th, police found the headless and mutilated body of a woman with a note referencing an alleged pseudonym, “La Nena de Laredo” (“Laredo Girl”), which she had used to post on Nuevo Laredo en Vivo ("Nuevo Laredo Live"). The woman, who has been identified in some reports as Maria Macias and in others as Marisol Marcias Castaneda, was reportedly an administrative manager at the Prima Hoy newspaper, and also moderated a chat room on Nuevo Laredo en Vivo.

The murder of "La Nena de Laredo" is the second such incident in the border town in as many weeks. On September 14th, police found two bodies hanging from a pedestrian bridge. Signs hanging near the bodies indicated that the still-unidentified man and woman had been killed in retaliation for denouncing the cartel’s activities on a social network. Because the bodies remain unidentified, it is impossible to confirm that the victims really did post to the social networking site, but the message to would-be bloggers, citizen journalists, and whistleblowers is loud and clear.

Throughout Mexico, traditional media outlets are no strangers to threats, kidnappings, and violence against journalists; such threats have often had the effect of forcing journalists to refrain from coverage of violence stemming from the drug trade. In some parts of Mexico, websites such as Blog del Narco and Frontera al Rojo Vivo and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are able to provide news about drug-related violence that is not being covered in local newspapers or on television. Posters sometimes use nicknames or pseudonyms to protect their identities, but the murder of "La Nena de Laredo" suggests that such measures are insufficient.

Pseudonyms, Tor, and HTTPS

EFF recommends that bloggers who are concerned about their security and safety should post under a pseudonym, use Tor to prevent eavesdroppers from seeing the sites they visit and prevent websites from collecting data that might reveal their physical location, and use HTTPS to encrypt their private communications when possible.

Some social media sites, such as Facebook and Google Plus, have policies that forbid the use of pseudonyms. These policies do not prevent users from making pseudonymous accounts, but they leave users vulnerable to account suspension. Both Facebook and Google Plus will suspend accounts if other users report them as pseudonymous or fake; it only takes a trivial effort by malicious parties to silence the opposition or quash dissent. Google Plus has instituted a grace period before suspension takes effect, which gives users the opportunity to export their data, but Google may not always apply its grace period consistently. Pseudonymous Facebook users may find themselves suspended without warning and without the opportunity to export their content or social graphs. Twitter, on the other hand, allows pseudonyms.

The good news is that Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus all support HTTPS. To be sure that your connection to these services is encrypted at all times, EFF suggests using the HTTPS Everywhere extension for the Firefox browser. Note that some third-party applications on Facebook can cause an encrypted connection to "break."

Many of the local forums and social networking sites that ordinary Mexicans use to exchange news about drug cartel violence offer limited support for HTTPS or do not support it at all. Users should be circumspect about posting to these sites, keeping in mind that their chat room conversations and login credentials may be intercepted and read. Administrators of such websites can help to protect their users by taking the following steps:

  • Support the use of pseudonyms in forums and chat rooms.
  • Encourage users to download the Tor browser bundle and use Tor when viewing or posting to your site.
  • Minimize logging. Do not log the IP addresses of visitors to your site.
  • Support HTTPS throughout your site.
  • Configure your site to use HTTPS by default.

It is unclear what level of technological sophistication the drug cartels have brought to bear against social media users at this time, but it is clear that the cartels have access to considerable resources.

Twitter Rumors Prompt Legislation

In the meantime, Mexican politicians are facing criticism for going after rumors of violence instead of pursuing the real thing. In August, Gilberto Martinez Vera and Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola were arrested in the state of Veracruz after they used Twitter to spread rumors of kidnappings and shootings at a local school. The charges against them included terrorism and sabotage, crimes that carry penalties of up to 30 years in jail. The arrest prompted widespread protests from civil liberties and human rights groups, who pointed out that the charges were vastly disproportionate to the alleged crime. The two were eventually released and the charges dropped, but not before Veracruz passed legislation creating a new offense of “Public Disturbance,” carrying a prison sentence of 1 to 4 years and a fine. Because the new additional the penal code was made after the incident had already taken place, Vera and Pagola cannot be charged with the new crime. The state of Tabasco has passed a similar law, mandating up to two years in jail for provoking “chaos or social insecurity” through telephone calls or online postings.

For now, individuals in Mexico using online platforms to criticize, satirize, or shed light on drug cartel violence are facing grave threats. EFF will continue to watch these developing threats to online freedom of expression in Mexico, encourage sites to take steps to protect the privacy and security of their users, and help users take steps to protect themselves.

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