Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mexicans "Tweeting" for their Lives in Violent Cities

This article was published yesterday on the Security Sector Reform Resource Centre's website. I had a blast writing it. It's the first article I've written where I conducted all of the interviews--including one with the Reynosa municipal government--over Twitter. This is because Twitter is the only "emergency broadcast system" that Reynosa has. When drug violence flares up in Reynosa (as it often does) residents open their Twitter accounts to get the information they need to keep themselves out of the line of fire. When I asked if information about security emergencies like shootouts or "narco-blockades" was available on television or radio, tweeter @uateke told me, "Sure... you use your TV like a computer monitor and you connect it to Twitter and you pull up the hashtag #reynosafollow. Because you can't find any information anywhere else!"

To give you an idea of the sort of guerrilla reporting Reynosa's "tweeteros" ("tweeters") are doing, check out this video of a shootout, recorded on and tweeted from a cell phone during the narco-blockades:

Of course, all of the photos of the August 24 narco-blockades that appear in this article were pulled from Twitter.

Mexicans “Tweeting” for their Lives in Violent Cities 

By: Kristin Bricker, Security Sector Reform Resource Centre 

In some northern Mexican cities, shootouts and dumped cadavers have been relatively common occurrences since President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug trafficking in late 2006.  However, in mid-2009, drug war mayhem took a new twist: narco-blockades. In Monterrey and Reynosa, two northern cities notoriously replete with organized crime, drug traffickers began to organize blockades that paralyzed entire sections of those cities.  The blockades are sometimes in retaliation for the detention of important organized crime figures.  In other cases, they are organized to prevent the police and military from acting against drug traffickers.

Often, during the blockades gunmen order civilians out of their vehicles.  The gunmen then use the vehicles to block key roads or intersections, and sometimes they set the vehicles on fire.  Shootouts with automatic assault rifles are common occurrences at the blockades.

Narcos hijack buses to block an intersection in Reynosa. 
In Reynosa and Monterrey, citizens have begun to use the online social networking service Twitter to alert fellow residents of potentially dangerous situations such as shootouts and blockades. Twitter allows users to send out 140-character messages to their “followers.”  It also allows users to create topics called “hash tags” by preceding words with a hash symbol (#).  The way in which Twitter organizes information allows users to communicate and disseminate very short messages very quickly.

Reynosa’s “tweeters” began to use the hashtag #reynosafollow to communicate with each other about organized crime in their city.  Users “tweet” about violence, and, because violence has become so normalized in their lives, they tweet to let others know about the absence of violence.  On a normal day in Reynosa, it is common to see tweets such as “All calm downtown from heb Morelos to Tiburcio Garza Zamora and in the park #reynosafollow” or “#reynosafollow traffic stopped in front of military base, soldiers running everywhere.”  Tweeters often report the locations of possible shootouts so that others can avoid the area: “#reynosafollow shooting heard near Las Fuentes, Lomas Section, 2nd Rotonda… explosions.  Can someone else confirm?”

Smoke from hijacked vehicles set ablaze in narco-blockades.
During narco-blockades, Twitter becomes an indispensable tool.  Users tweet on their mobile phones using text messages or a data connection to report the locations of blockades and possible exit routes.  They even tweet photos and videos of the blockades that they record with their cell phone cameras.

Such was the case on August 24, when narco-blockades paralyzed major highways in Reynosa. Shootouts ensued, and an explosive devise set a factory on fire.  Tweeters began to report the movements of drug traffickers, police, and the military over Twitter:

“Siempre Natural in the park, people armed #reynosafollow 10 minutes ago.”

“They burned the Jabil warehouse with a grenade blast. #reynosafollow”

“The highway is still blocked. I had to double back because the soldiers ran us off #reynosafollow”

An explosive device set this warehouse on fire during the blockades
One tweeter even created a map of all of the reported blockades.  However, many of the reported blockades listed on the map were actually traffic jams that motorists mistook for narco-blockades, demonstrating one of Twitter’s biggest disadvantages: there are no official fact checkers, and false or unconfirmed information spreads just as rapidly as the truth.

During the August 24 narco-blockades, motorists used Twitter to help each other maneuver around the blockades, and alerted each other when blockades were lifted.  Family members tweeted questions about certain areas of the city, and then relayed that information to stranded loved ones via cell phone.  Students tweeted questions about the area surrounding their schools to see if it was safe to go home.  When stores all around Reynosa closed due to the chaos, citizens tweeted the names of stores that were allowing civilians to take cover inside.

Narco-blockade, as seen from a Tweeter's car.
So many residents turn to Twitter during narco-blockades and shootouts that even the Reynosa municipal government has created its own account.  When the city is calm, it tweets traffic reports and waiting times at the international bridges that connect the city to the United States.  During emergency situations, it tweets alerts and rumor control.  After last Wednesday’s narco-blockades began, it tweeted, “Dangerous situation in Granjas Económicas neigborhood and Villa Florida.  Blockades in various parts of the city.  Avoid travel in the area.”  It tweeted at least once every 15 minutes during the narco-blockades, providing updates on the situation.  It even responded to citizens’ and reporters’ questions via Twitter, and sent emergency response crews when residents tweeted that they needed help.  When the blockades were lifted, it reported traffic conditions as traffic patterns returned to normal.

Following the blockades, tweeter “melenanl” wrote, “Thanks to all of you who take #reynosafollow seriously and who use it responsibly.  Thanks to you my daughter and I made it home safely.”

Despite the shootouts, blockades, and explosions that rocked Reynosa last Wednesday, amazingly, only one civilian was killed. Twitter’s impact on that relatively minor death toll is debatable.  Despite its potential as a tool to rapidly communicate messages, photos, and videos that could keep citizens away from dangerous situations, its reach is limited.  In Mexico, where home internet service costs twice as much as comparable packages available in the United States, only 13.5% of Mexicans have internet in their homes. And only the wealthy can afford data (internet) service on their cell phones, which is necessary to receive Tweets on a cell phone.

When asked if an alternative emergency broadcast system via radio or television exists so that citizens who can’t afford internet can also stay informed of developments during dangerous situations, the Reynosa municipal government replied via Twitter, “At the moment we don’t have that sort of alert [system] for citizens.  Thanks for the suggestion.”
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