Raúl Robles, a prominent Mexican hacker and cybersecurity expert, was eating breakfast with his father at a quiet café in a leafy neighborhood of the western city of Guadalajara when a masked gunman walked in and opened fire. Robles, 31, was reportedly hit five times and died at the scene. The killer escaped before police arrived.
The December 2 murder has shocked Mexico's hacker community but it has also provided a window on a murky world of intense rivalry and mutual sabotage where the death itself was seemingly announced beforehand in an online forum.
Robles, a resident of Mexico City, had been the target of several threatening messages on Hispachan, a site for completely anonymous Spanish-language discussion that has proven popular among hackers since its launch in 2012. All the threats have now been deleted.
"I'm gonna kill this faggot!! I know he's coming to my city and I'll kill him here," read the first threat posted in October, alongside an image of Robles.
The next warning came on the eve of the killing. "I'm sick of Raúl Robles, I have a gun and I'll steal his fucking car," it read. "I saw him eating breakfast in a café yesterday, he goes there very often, I'll wait and see if he comes tomorrow."
A third message appeared hours after the killing alongside an image of a handgun: "Like I told you, I'd had it up to here with the fat son of a bitch, that's why my heart didn't miss a beat when the time came to kill him."
Robles — who was known by the pseudonym MegaByte — was the CEO of Hacking Mexico, a cybersecurity firm that claims to provide training for agents from Mexico's federal Attorney General's Office and the National Security and Investigation Center. Having founded the company in 2012, Robles went on to become one of Mexico's best known hackers and would often run hacking courses and give speeches at conferences.
Robles was a controversial figure who faced accusations of humiliating and defrauding other members of the hacking community. On social networks such as Facebook and Taringa, several users published documents that appeared to indicated that Robles had lied about holding a master's degree and falsely claimed that his company was affiliated with Mexico's National Polytechnic Institute.
In an online community characterized by bravado and macho attitudes, Robles also loved to flaunt his apparent wealth by uploading YouTube videos of expensive watches, sports cars and fat stacks of cash. His Twitter profile pronounced his love of "weed, mezcal and oral sex."
One YouTube user named TechnoHack alleged that Robles had sexually harassed him or her by sending photos of his private parts. Another user, Petrovic Ígor, admitted that he and several others used to bully Robles on online software forums.
Daniel Rodríguez, a Mexican IT professional better known by his online alias Last Dragon, told VICE News that Robles often dismissed his critics as "blacks or indians" in a way that carried clear racist connotations.
Rodríguez accused Robles of trolling him on his blog, but said he was much nicer in person than his online persona suggested. Even so, Rodríguez said that the largely unsympathetic reaction to the murder was "justified, despite being politically incorrect."
According to Rodríguez, Hacking Mexico has often been involved in bitter disputes with rival groups such as Anonymous México that hacked Robles' company website in 2013 to highlight flaws in its security systems. He added that the Mexican Organization of Ethical Hackers got very upset when one of Robles' colleagues started trolling them online.
There is a "lot of tension" between members of Mexico's hacking community, Rodríguez stressed, but "the only thing everyone had in common was that they hated MegaByte."
Shortly after the shooting Guadalajara's attorney general, Eduardo Almaguer, told local reporters that Robles had used several different aliases and that a number of complaints had been filed against him in Mexico City for cyber crimes. He did not give details about the alleged crimes.
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Alejandro Torres, who works as an IT engineer at Hacking Mexico, told VICE News that while some Mexican hacker groups are dedicated to crimes such as online theft, he had never witnessed any illegal activity at Robles' firm.
As for the widespread criticism of his friend's online behavior, Torres said Robles had carefully crafted an egocentric and sarcastic persona on social networks in a bid to cause controversy and generate free publicity for his business.
"He was another person in real life," he said.
Robles' murder was the highest profile killing in a wave of violence that hit Guadalajara at the beginning of December, with 23 people slain across the city over two days in what analysts said could be an underworld power struggle unleashed by a series of recent arrests of leaders within the locally-dominant drug cartel. The fact that his death was foretold in a forum popular with hackers, however, meant speculation of who might be responsible in this case has inevitably focused on his many enemies in the community.
"Perhaps it was someone who felt offended by a comment some time ago and they held onto that feeling of anger until they had an opportunity [to take revenge]," Torres speculated.
He also suggested that the killing could have been related to a series of classes Robles was due to give this month on how to hack casinos. Torres said the course was intended to highlight vulnerabilities that hackers could take advantage of in the servers used by online casinos with the aim of helping the owners of the sites protect their businesses. "Maybe [the killer] was someone who didn't like that or whose interests could have been affected," he said.
Mexican casinos have long been linked to organized crime, most infamously in 2011 when 52 people were killed in a cartel attack on the Casino Royale in the northern city of Monterrey.
Torres also noted that Hacking Mexico was one of the first businesses in Mexico to provide training in cybersecurity, an area he said has drawn increasing public interest due to the violence and crime that has plagued the country in recent years in the context of multiple rivalries between different criminal groups and a much-questioned government offensive against them that made things worse.
Virtual kidnappings — in which criminals use personal information they find online to trick people into believing they've abducted a family member and then panic them into paying a ransom — have become increasingly common in Mexico in the social media age. Such tactics rely on lax security settings, deception and bogus threats, but they can be effective given that Mexicans live in a world where horrific violence dominates the daily news.
Robles' murder brought the two phenomena together.
"I feel a bit disturbed by what's happening in Mexico with all the crime and how easy it is for someone who decides to kill a person to buy a gun and kill them in a place that's supposed to be safe," Torres said.
But, he added, while the shock of Robles' death was still reverberating through the hacking community, he did not expect that it would prompt a new sense of fraternity among the rival hackers locked in feuds on online forums.
"It's always been that way on the social networks," he said. "That's not going to change."
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