The Messenger

AAAOne wonders even now whether showing her picture could cause more harm, put more people in danger, spread the poison.

Her offense? She was an online chat room moderator in Mexico, using the Internet to crusade against her city’s organized crime. On September 24, she became the first confirmed social media correspondent to be executed by criminal interests, as they sought to keep new media silent.

When she was found dead–with horrific embellishments–it was noted that she was from Mexico’s area of “silent war,” at the border city of Nuevo Laredo. Though Nuevo Laredo is the busiest commercial port on the border, astride the Pan-American Highway, it suffers a special isolation. Its local news reporting has been so severely suppressed by criminal intimidation, for so long, that the outside world sees little of the city’s gang conflicts. In the news, the half million people trapped at Nuevo Laredo can seem eerily quiet. Or simply absent.

The silence made itself felt even as word went around the world about the social media killing–because half the world got her name wrong. Was she really Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro–or was she Marisol Macias Castaneda? In many global media she was one, but in many more she was the other, with no final word on which was right. Then the story vanished, for no further information was coming from the scene. Her personal details lay concealed in a half-million-strong citadel where even giving out a name could tumble you into the pit.

Online, she was known by a pseudonym, NenaDLaredo (GirlFromLaredo), keeping her identity veiled as she tackled issues the old-style media were avoiding. Notably, she denounced the Zetas, Nuevo Laredo’s dominant underworld cartel. Like a masked avatar, she urged fellow citizens to contact government tip lines with information about Zeta movements–though the dragons were closing in.

AAAOn September 14, ten days before she met her fate, Nuevo Laredo had produced two other corpses, of a young man and a young woman, who were pie-sliced and suspended from a pedestrian bridge, with a hand-lettered poster mounted beside the ropes. This gave first notice, saying that “Internet relajes (jerks, clowns)” should not disturb organized crime.

However, the two victims left as examples with the poster could not be verified as social media activists, for a dismal reason: They were never publicly identified at all. In Nuevo Laredo’s atmosphere of mystery, the two remained ghastly ciphers, their names and backgrounds unrevealed. Conceivably, their double murder could have been one more garden-variety underworld hit, dressed up post-mortem with a poster so the killers could use them as stage props for threats against the Web. In this vein, the male victim’s fingers were missing, as if fingerprints might reveal an identity unsuited to an anti-Internet message.

At every turn, the details of this story wreck the telling, overpowering with their horror–as the most primal savagery reacts against the quantum leap of electronic horizons.

AAANuevo Laredo had come early to cartel violence, baptized in the Nuevo Laredo War of 2003 to 2007, well before Mexico’s official “drug war” kicked off in late 2006. The city’s traditional media were long accustomed to staying discreetly dark on cartel crimes, as they faced cartel threats: “get aligned” with what the gang wants, take the envelope from the spying paymaster right in the newsroom, parrot back the caricatured gang “press releases”–or suffer the beatings, and then worse. The information vacuum was partially filled by improvisers in social media–tweeting alerts on firefights, using chat-room bulletins to finger gang lookouts, venting the general frustration.

AAAWhen the September 24 killing arrived, the killers left no doubt about the victim’s identity. There was a new poster now, propped beside the obsessively assaulted remains. Sneeringly, it used her chat-room code name–though the atmosphere of mystery still won some points. Her Web work was a sideline, and on the matter of her day job the obituary again blurred. Was she really a newspaper editor (as many of the worldwide conduits announced), or was she a less dramatic ad vendor at a local newspaper, as in others?

Either way, the killers didn’t seem much interested in her old-media activities. The crude poster, this time propped against a cement flower planter next to a Columbus statue on a public square, cited not only her Internet handle but the name of the Web site where she had kept up the heat on the Zetas. For good measure, the poster addressed its warning to “Redes Sociales”—“Social Networks.”

The signature “ZZZZ” was a common Zetas tag, though naturally it could have been faked by some rival gang (some of the wording reminded vaguely of an old effort by the Sinaloa Cartel). Yet the Zetas never denied the killing, or sent indignant counter-messages claiming the message wasn’t really theirs, as sometimes done elsewhere. The rules of murder-messaging left the boast to stand: We did do this. We are saying it: We own the Web.

So now it was confirmed. The killers were reaching through the glowing screen, to crush the messenger.



About Gary Moore

Investigative journalist, international and domestic issues,
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