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Feature 030512 Elkus & Sullivan

Monday, March 5, 2012

Mexican Drug Lords vs. Cybervigilantes and the Social Media

By John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus

The Mexican drug war cannot be understood without reference to the virtual dimension. Cartels are seeking to aggressively shape the use of information within the drug war to promote an image of themselves as a source of unstoppable power and influence. Their methods range from the classic "propaganda of the deed" -- killing for intimidation and effect -- to psychological operations against Mexican police, military, and the public. By doing so, cartels struggle for information dominance. Civil society and press coverage of the cartel war have been quite literally silenced, pushing reportage to the margins of social media. However, the entry of cyber-vigilante organizations and use of new media by cartel gangsters have created a new dynamic that could change the rules of the game.

First, it is essential to understand that advances in information, while hailed as revolutionary, also tend to be excellent tools for facilitating the violent coercion and destruction of human life. The Chinese "human flesh search engine," the informal name for crowdsourced cyber-vigilantism among the country's wired "netizens" is a massively parallel, largely self-organized sensor system for locating and punishing individuals who transgress against social norms. In his paper on cyberocracy, the RAND Corporation information theorist David Ronfeldt analogized the East German state as a kind of cybernetic entity that used a complex array of technologies for surveillance and control and large state bureaucracies to regulate social life on both the individual and societal level.

Small and dirty conflicts operate at a vastly smaller scale than nation-state conflicts -- hence the targets of coercion have always been granular.  Information is used to convince, coerce, and control individuals. If battle network systems allow the precise location, targeting, and destruction of increasingly smaller military targets, intelligence systems -- analog and digital -- have always been about creating a precision-guided system for guns, bombs, knives, and bare hands. Likewise, creating compliance has to do with legitimacy, but as the historical sociologist Charles Tilly famously argued it also has something to do with projecting an image -- and reality -- of control and ability to harm.

Cartel warfare is not just about crime. Rather, it is also about the generation of alternate systems of authority that enable resource extraction. The cartel war can be understood as a violent system of illicit elites (and their gun-toting pawns) contesting over the legal and illegal resources of the Mexican state. The information component of this conflict, as in other small wars, is principally about projecting an image of power and inevitability, which dissuades opposition, delegitimizes government and civil society, and ultimately compels acceptance of authority. While observers often do not see this as political, it is the most basic element of conflict politics. Ideologies are optional for those contesting authority.

The first -- and most basic -- element of cartel information operations is the creation of a perception of power and inevitability. While this is achieved mainly through symbolic barbarization including highlighting gruesome deeds, such as the now-infamous YouTube videos of beheadings, it is also achieved by direct instrumental attacks. These include physically coercing or eliminating journalists and activists who might spread messages contrary to the cartels' desires. The Knight Center's customized Google Map visualization of attacks on Mexican journalists shows that reporters from across a wide geographic cross-section of Mexico have been targeted for their reporting.

The result is that Mexican journalists increasingly censor themselves, knowing full well the costs of reporting on the brutal deeds of the drug cartels. Cartels thus create an information blackout -- which they themselves fill. Kept in a state of fear and anxiety, the public comes to accept cartel power. Social media, such as sites like the Blog del Narco and chatter on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, is one of the few means of getting contrary local information. Cartels have accordingly reacted by brutally killing those who they believe are snitching about them online.  Attacks on journalists are a key component of cartel info ops, however, the cartels don't simply seek to silence their critics and rivals, they seek to dominate the information space as part of the drug war's power-counter power dynamic.

Although the importance of legitimacy has often been exaggerated in recent popular literature on insurgency and counterinsurgency, it is still important as a supplement to coercion. Hence cartels pay attention to cultivating their own legitimacy and downgrading that of competitors. In this regard, the criminal insurgency waged by cartel criminal warriors shares components with classic insurgent art. Cartels use propaganda to try to turn public opinion against their rivals and the federal government, promoting themselves as an alternative source of legitimacy, attempt to shift negative attention to the operations of rivals and government security forces, and even orchestrate demonstrations to try to give off the appearance of popular support. While modern counterinsurgency theory often sees intimidation and legitimacy as inherent opposites, the cartels -- like many other violent elites -- see the hard and soft touch as two sides of the same coin.

One potent -- but mostly overlooked -- tool of cartel propaganda is the rise of narcocultura. The cultivation of a folk culture through the now ubiquitous narcocorridos (drug ballads) is but one element of an expanding narcoculture that glorifies the bandit, armed robber, and cartel kingpin. Narcocultura has even encompassed religious dimensions, as reflected in the cult of Santa Muerte and the seamless integration of folk religion with cartel themes. Narcocultura not only provides a cohesive element for criminal groups but also projects them as a force greater than yet another group of bad men with guns.

The entry of cybervigilantes is a new element in the cartel war's information campaign. Vigilante groups -- some genuine reactions to cartel excesses, others fronts for rivals -- have begun to target cartels. Vigilante reaction mainly occurs offline, but there is also a digital component. Given that cartel ambitions for control are predicated, in part, on the absence of contrary voices, website and social media that shine a light into their murky activities and undermine their political allies pose a problem for cartel members. Hence cartel members have responded by targeting anyone they suspect of posting or tweeting about them for execution.

The entrance of the cyber-vigilante group Anonymous into the cartel conflict is particularly interesting. After a Mexican member of the decentralized web collective was allegedly captured by Los Zetas gunmen, elements of Anonymous threatened to expose the identities of cartel gunmen and sympathizers. This campaign grew into a larger effort to use Anonymous' hacking and social search capabilities to unmask cartel names as a whole. The Zetas threatened to exact horrifying retribution on anyone who leaked their identities, and on their family and friends. Anonymous, already uneasy about the risks inherent in what they dubbed "#OpCartel," decided to back off. While they claimed that the kidnapped Anon had been released, this contention -- as well as the original kidnapping itself -- remains widely disputed.

However, the Mexican drug war has become internationalized, and the remnants of #OpCartel continue to involve themselves in ancillary campaigns against corruption in the Mexican government, and kidnappings and rapes of passenger bus commuters on Mexican highways. While these campaigns are not likely to have a decisive effect on the conflict itself, they have heightened the importance of information technology (IT) in the cartel war. The intelligence forecasting company STRATFOR reported that Mexican cartels have likely hired operational security specialists -- narcohackers -- to cope with the enhanced digital surveillance of their activities. STRATFOR itself became victim of a series of hacks, allegedly conducted by Anonymous, graphically illuminating the contours of cyber conflict -- narco and otherwise.

Longtime cartel-watchers already know the importance of information in Mexico's evolving cartel war. But the involvement of international activists points to a heightening of the ante, and the growing importance of social media as traditional media finds itself either co-opted or coerced by cartel operatives. But every action provokes a counter-reaction, and cartels have proved again and again that while perhaps ideas are immortal, the men and women who espouse them are not. The cartel war now has an evolving cyber dimension that promises to yield a series of information offensives and counter-offensives. The keyboard has become another weapon in the cartel war, but it will not displace the machete and the machine gun.


John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST). He is coeditor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006), and Global Biosecurity: Threats and Responses (Routledge, 2010). His current research focus is the impact of transnational organized crime on sovereignty in Mexico and elsewhere.

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is Associate Editor at Red Team Journal. He is a frequent contributor to Small Wars Journal, and has published at numerous venues including The Atlantic, Defense Concepts, West Point CTC Sentinel, Infinity Journal, and other publications. He blogs at Rethinking Security.

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