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Mexican Drug Cartels Are Using Social Media Apps to Commit Virtual Kidnappings

Facebook and WhatsApp are being used to trick people into ponying up cash for safe relatives.

Virtual kidnapping in Mexico City isn't new, but social media is taking it to another level. Photo via Flickr user Design for Health

On November 27, 2007, a series of phone calls cut a congressional session in Mexico City short. The lower chamber of Congress was meeting when, at around 1 pm, a member of then-President Felipe Calderon’s party received a phone call from someone claiming to be holding his children hostage. Not long after, another member of the party received a similar phone call and heard a female voice screaming “Mama!” in the background while a man demanded a wire transfer. Several other legislators received calls of their own, with one fainting and resolving to wire the $20,000 the voice on the other end of the line requested—the same voice her colleagues would hear in the hours to follow. Eventually, the president of the lower chamber closed the session, blaming an apparently troublesome cleaning solution that had been used on the carpet in the room earlier that day.


As it turned out, the kids were not actually being held hostage, but the incident was noteworthy in Mexico only in that it targeted a group of legislators while they were doing government business. “Virtual kidnappings,” as the fake hostage-takings are known, have been commonplace in the country for more than a decade. In the 2007 case, authorities later concluded that the caller had been inside the chambers because he provided specific details about his targets’ appearances and actions. With 2014 already on track to surpass last year’s kidnapping total of 1,698, the threat of abduction remains very real for people living in Mexico. And the proliferation of social media has armed criminals with new tools that help make their claims of kidnapping credible to potential victims in a way that traditional phone calls cannot. In July, Mexico City’s Police for the Prevention of Cybercrimes issued an alert: the number of extortions via the popular messaging application WhatsApp had spiked. The agency outlined tips residents should follow to protect themselves, which included refraining from posting mobile numbers on social media networks and keeping profiles private.

To carry out a virtual kidnapping using WhatsApp, a criminal doesn’t have to work very hard. He obtains a person’s phone number—most often through an open profile on Facebook—and begins to research the target. He can then select a friend or family member and easily download photos and collect information about the places that person frequents. That information is used to persuade a target that the criminal either has the person already or can easily harm them if he doesn’t receive the requested compensation. He doesn’t have to spend time observing a target, nor wasting cell phone minutes (which remain pricey in Mexico); he only needs Internet access and a small data plan. He can send dozens of similar texts to different marks within minutes.


So as the way we communicate changes, encompassing new mediums that emerge to satisfy postmodern needs, criminals are finding ways to exploit every new avenue. In Mexico, petty thugs and sophisticated cartel organizations alike have learned to subvert these technologies to their purposes. Some claim the government has been slow to catch up, while others argue officials have capitalized on these very platforms to push their own agenda. All the while, citizens—who know they are no match for fighting the cartels—are unrelenting in one mission: to keep each other, and the world outside of Mexico, informed about what’s really going on in their country.

According to Carl Pike, assistant special agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Operations Division in Mexico, People tend to stereotype—and underestimate—the Mexican drug cartels. “They almost equate them to the old mafia movies, like for some reason they think criminal organizations don’t evolve and they’re not current,” he tells me. “It’s not that at all. Especially when you talk about the Mexican cartels, they’re just as savvy as any corporation or any government in the world in what they would use. So when the kids are using WhatsApp or whatever the latest communication is, that’s what the cartels are using, too.”

In 2010, when drug war violence became especially rampant and the Mexican press was gagged by frequent attacks and killings, citizens started turning to websites like El Blog del Narco to find out what was really happening. Anonymous witnesses of violent crimes and body dumps began relaying accounts, sometimes with photo and video evidence, to the site’s founder, who posted submissions indiscriminately. The blog soon boasted a strong following both in and out of the country.


And the cartels took notice.

They started sending graphic photos and videos, sometimes accompanied by threats. The mangled bodies they left on streets in one city could now be seen across the country, and the messages they wrote on giant banners and hung in public places—known as narcomantas—began to reach vastly larger audiences. Cartels wanted the Mexican public to see what they were capable of so rival groups would stay off their turf and citizens would think twice before supporting an insurgent. In effect, sites like Blog del Narco served as free propaganda machines for the cartels.

Frustrated residents of border states where The Zetas and the Gulf Cartel were waging a brutal turf war began turning to Twitter to fill the void of information left by the mute government and press. Hashtags became a key standard for reporting crime in those cities. Eventually, residents created a set of acronyms to denote what they saw. For example: SDR means “situacion de riesgo” or risky situation; CO means organized crime; and FA means armed forces.

Cartels also turned to social media for information, and they didn’t always like what they saw. In September 2011, horrified Nuevo Laredo residents found two corpses hanging from a pedestrian bridge with an accompanying sign that read, “This will happen to all the Internet snitches” and named El Blog del Narco and a popular forum for denouncing cartels, Frontera Al Rojo Vivo. The two bodies showed signs of torture, and the woman was disemboweled. (The founder of Blog del Narco would later tell the press that the couple had been contributors to her blog.) Two weeks later, a reporter’s tortured and dismembered body was dropped on a busy avenue in Nuevo Laredo with a mouse, keyboard, and headphones—along with a note that said she’d been killed for posting on social media.


“When [cartels] intimidate the media, they’re not intimidating the media to stop reporting on their actions; they’re trying to coerce the media to report on the action that they want them to report on,” says Tristan Reed, a Mexico security analyst at the Austin-based global intelligence firm Stratfor. “It’s not about downplaying the violence in Mexico. It never was—otherwise they wouldn’t be posting execution videos to YouTube or dumping 35 bodies on a major highway. It’s about controlling the information.”

Cartel members took matters into their own hands and started going online to broadcast messages. They began posting videos of torture and executions on YouTube. These are engineered mostly to intimidate, but their media campaign also includes examples of the “good” the cartels do and the perks that come with thug life.

The Gulf Cartel has circulated a series of videos of its members distributing consumer goods in impoverished areas under its control. In one video, members give out cakes to small children. In another, they provide free dinners for a community and in a third, they are seen offering relief to victims of the tropical storms that hit Mexico last fall.

On Facebook and Twitter, organized crime members regularly post photos of their gold-plated weapons, expensive cars, exotic cats and lavish lifestyles. This usage of social media for propaganda might be one reason behind the decline of narcomantas in Mexico. An investigation by Mexican newspaper El Universal found that while an average of 1.7 narcomantas appeared daily from 2006 to 2012, only one was reported every five days from 2012 to 2014. That could mean that the cartels' social media fear campaign is having an impact.


New mediums have also lent members of organized crime in Mexico novel ways to keep in touch with one another. Diversifying their communication is essential so that if one channel is intercepted by law enforcement, business can continue. They use email, Nextel radios, burner phones, social media and messaging apps. The DEA recently found that a southern California distribution group that was moving ecstasy was regularly using Xbox consoles to communicate.

“Who would have thought that you could get on the Xbox, put on whatever game and then get into that game room and you can be sitting in Miami, Florida and have a conversation with somebody in Bogota, [Colombia]?” the DEA’s Carl Pike asks. “That was one of the most eye-opening moments.”

The DEA is currently investigating how criminals are using Snapchat, which offers obvious benefits to organized crime members who might want to share important but damning information—or send a quick threat that a victim won’t be able to show authorities before it disappears. And according to the Mexico City cyber cops who issued the WhatsApp alert, at least some of those contacted do actually pay up.

“For it to be a successful scam, the culprits have to put on a theater; they have to intimidate their target,” Reed says. “The more information they know, the more realistic their threat is going to appear to the target.” When someone posts on Facebook that he is traveling, for example, that person becomes an easy mark. “If we can keep him isolated we can call his family, who knows he’s traveling to Cancun, and say he’s been kidnapped.”


This method of targeting both the victim and the family—instead of merely threatening a family without ever interacting with the supposedly kidnapped person—has become increasingly common. In December 2013, extortionists forced a Guatemalan woman in Playa del Carmen to travel to Cancun, where three other virtual kidnapping victims were already waiting in two hotel rooms under threats. The culprits, who according to media reports were calling from a Tamaulipas prison, forced the woman to do their work by proxy and collect more information about the other victims. Earlier that month, criminals virtually kidnapped an American man who was in Cozumel for an Ironman competition.

“Social media has really helped out virtual kidnappings—it’s provided a wealth of information that extortionists need,” Reed says. “Research on your target is critical for an extortionist or kidnapper and platforms like Facebook or Twitter feeds have placed all the information they need in one place.”

Many virtual kidnappings are executed by men and women sitting in Mexican prisons, while others are carried out by low-level criminals on the streets. But that money is eventually filtered up to the cartels, Reed says, because the extortionists usually belong to a gang that has ties to broader criminal organizations.

“Drug trafficking is still the bread and butter for organized crime in Mexico, but the collection of other activities makes up a substantial portion of the profits,” he says. “Things like extortion and kidnapping are critical for cartels to continue to operate.”


Social media’s emergence has helped criminal organizations enforce their rule, but it can also provide authorities with valuable information. When top Sinaloa cartel leader “El Mayo” Zambada’s son, Serafin, was arrested late last year, media outlets reported that the younger Zambada had regularly posted details of his lavish lifestyle on Twitter that helped authorities track him down. Similarly, Jose Rodrigo Arechiga-Gamboa, who was part of the enforcement unit of the same cartel and is known as “Chino Antrax,” was located at least in part because of his frequent activity online.

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at the University of Texas-Brownsville who studies organized crime violence in Mexico, says Mexican government agencies do use social media to their advantage, but not necessarily to track criminals down.

“The state’s agenda is not necessarily clean and good and white—it should be, but it isn’t,” she says. “Much of the time there’s misinformation or conflicting messages and there are agendas that are meant to divert attention from things and to manipulate public opinion. That becomes very apparent when you curate the information on certain platforms.”

In an upcoming study, Correa-Cabrera and her colleagues will argue that after years of tracking social media sites like Valor por Tamaulipas, they’ve found elements that suggest the participation of the state to justify public action, specifically the legitimization of the federal government’s national security strategy, which involves the militarization of the country. Correa-Cabrera and @MrCruzStar, one of the best-known citizen reporters in Tamaulipas, believe that many of the users who post to the site have connections to the Mexican army and want to perpetuate the cartel threat in the state to justify an escalated military presence.

Correa-Cabrera has been closely following the rise of citizen reporting in the border state of Tamaulipas, where hashtags like #Reynosafollow (referring to the city of Reynosa) have been successful in creating a place that citizens can turn to for reliable, real-time information on violence and crime. She says across all platforms, citizens pioneered the usage of social media to inform each other about the situation in Mexico, and the narcos and government followed. The latter two have vastly greater resources and can therefore push their messages more successfully than citizens, however.

Undeterred, Mexicans continue to take to social media platforms to inform each other—and not just about violence. With attention refocused on President Enrique Peña Nieto’s energy, telecommunications, and education reforms, the administration has enforced a policy of silence on crime and violence. Mexican authorities are becoming increasingly blatant in their attempts to control the information that makes it out to the public, making alternative outlets more important than ever.

When Sinaloa’s state government passed a law in August that would have effectively prohibited journalists from reporting on crime, the backlash on social media was at least partly responsible for the law’s repeal. And when the Mexican Congress considered a telecommunications reform package earlier this year, a social media campaign that went viral encouraged the Senate to remove or amend some of the more problematic provisions from the legislation.

The original law would have struck a serious blow to net neutrality and allowed authorities to block cell phone reception for individuals and for entire areas, like, for example, the site of a protest. The current law, which was signed in July, requires cell phone providers to keep all records on users’ activities for two years, and allows any law enforcement agency to access that data without a court order. In a country with rampant corruption, particularly among local police, citizens are worried about being watched and retaliated against for their comments, or for denouncing abuse by authorities.

“The anonymity lent by social media continues to be a great shield against censorship,” Correa-Cabrera says. “Recently the Mexican government has had a greater capacity to censor the media—the newspapers, for example are toeing an editorial line that is very different from that during the previous administration; the criticism is very limited. So social media is still an important platform for citizens to express how they feel and not only to report violence, but to provide analysis and to express public opinion in a much more honest and free way in these moments in the country.”

Follow Priscila Mosqueda on Twitter.