I was still a teenager when I started traveling abroad. My first trip was a harebrained decision to spend a summer hitchhiking to the North Pole with my lovely Alabama girlfriend Chris. We actually made it as far as Montreal. The next hitchhiking extravaganza was to Mexico City with my most adventurous school buddy, Robert. After all of our possessions were stolen by our host in San Antonio while we looked at the Alamo, we were assaulted by a knife wielding desperado at the Nuevo Laredo foot bridge who got Robert's watch. We still made it all the way to Mexico City!
I hadn't thought about that bridge, or Nuevo Laredo for that matter, in a number of decades... until this week. I just finished all the details of a trip to the Yucatán-- from renting a great house in Mérida to navigating the treacherous waters of airline booking. (I paid $540 directly on the Continental Airlines website after a Continental phone rep assured my-- several times-- that the cheapest tickets were $1,260.) This week something far worse than being robbed at knifepoint happened on that Nuevo Laredo bridge. The last time I wrote about Mexico it was to mention how safe the tourism bureau claims it is:
[W]e acknowledge there are some issues in some pockets, in some specific locations. To give you an example, Mexico has 2,500 counties. Eighty of those have issues. So does that mean that the entire country has issues? Of course not. Eighty of 2,500 is less than 5 percent. Ninety percent of Americans go to six destinations. The tourist destinations are very far from where we have these issues.
...For us in Mexico, when we talk about the U.S., we don’t say the U.S., we say Orlando, L.A., Washington. If something happened last week, if there was a shooting in East L.A., does that mean you can’t go to Washington? Of course not.
Apparently Nuevo Laredo is one of those pockets with issues.
Placards left with the tortured bodies of two people hanging from a Nuevo Laredo overpass warn that the same fate awaits social media devotees who keep information flowing by text, Twitter, blogs and other means as gangsters muzzle the news media in much of Mexico.
"This is going to happen to all the internet busybodies," said one of the notes signed with a Z, presumably for the Zetas gang that controls Nuevo Laredo. "Listen up, I'm on to you."
Many Mexican newspapers and broadcasters have self-censored under constant gangster siege. Reporters have been killed, newsrooms attacked. Government officials often prove less than forthcoming with timely and accurate information. Twitter, Facebook, blogs and text messaging all have filled the void, becoming primary news sources in scores of Mexican communities, even for family members in the U.S., as gangs battle cartel rivals and security forces.
The messages found in Nuevo Laredo on Tuesday, with the bodies of a man and a woman in their 20s, directly threatened two popular blogs that specialize in reporting gang-related violence.
A post on one of those blogs, Al Rojo Vivo, counseled readers on Wednesday, "Don't be afraid to inform ... It's very difficult that they know who is informing. They are only trying to frighten society." The blog is carried by the website of the Monterrey newspaper El Norte.
While valuable to many residents, social networkers also spread rumors that have panicked communities. Prosecutors last month jailed and charged two people [a math teacher and a grandmother] with "terrorism" for tweeting false reports of gangster attacks on schools in the Gulf Coast port of Veracruz.
Social media reports of other gangster attacks emptied the streets of Veracruz's capital, Xalapa, and other towns last weekend. Suggesting that the terrorism charges were overblown, Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte nevertheless announced Tuesday that he would propose a new state law against "upsetting the public order."
But governments elsewhere have turned to social media in efforts to keep people informed. City officials in Reynosa, on the Rio Grande downriver from Nuevo Laredo, began tweeting several years ago to warn residents of gangster roadblocks and shoot-outs, blandly referring to them as "risky situations."
Early this year, mainstream media executives agreed with federal officials to scale back on coverage of the criminal slaughter that has killed more than 40,000 people in less than five years.
Many newspapers no longer print photographs of murder victims nor report the contents of threats or other messages left with bodies or in public places. Executives reason that publishing specifics-- including the beheading, dismembering or flaying of victims-- only encourages the gangsters and helps them spread their propaganda.
But Blog del Narco, the second site threatened by the Nuevo Laredo messages, religiously carries close-up shots of the carnage, as well as messages left with bodies or elsewhere. Many of the blog's anonymous posts seem likely to have been penned either by the gangsters themselves or investigating police.
The blog Wednesday published the text of a banner draped by a local criminal syndicate in the violent city of Apatzingan, in western Michoacan state. The sign warned residents to avoid Thursday night's public celebrations that kick off Mexico's Independence Day.
"Be alert for possible threats from the Zetas," reads the banner, signed by local gangsters who call themselves the Knights Templar. "Together we can guard our city and our people from persons who only want to cause harm."
Bloggers, of course, aren't the only people who need to be alert in regard to the Zetas. Yesterday they killed the family of a policeman in connection to the deadly fire-- 52 people died-- they had set at a casino in Monterrey August 25. Is Mexico becoming a failed state? Is it already a failed state?
The murder of the family came on a day of violence in and around Monterrey, in which at least 15 people were killed.
Monterrey and the state of Nuevo Leon have seen rising bloodshed as the Zetas and Gulf cartels vie for control of trafficking routes to the US.
The casino attack was one of the deadliest episodes of violence since President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on drug gangs in late 2006.
Gunmen burst into the crowded casino in broad daylight and doused it in petrol before setting it alight.
Panic ensued as people rushed for the exit. Many were overcome by smoke as the building was engulfed in flames.
The attack caused outrage in Mexico, a country that has become accustomed to drug-related violence, with around 40,000 killed in less than five years.