The Extraordinarily Dangerous Life of a Social Media Activist Taking on Mexico’s Narcos
A Facebook fan page with 615,000 followers is the narcos' ultimate enemy in Tamaulipas, Mexico, but the dangers posed to activist administrators, and those around them, make every post a risk.
Illustration by Matt Rota, photos courtesy Valor Por Tamaulipas
This article first appeared in the Colombian edition of VICE Magazine
I wrote to The Administrator—the only name I have for him as I don't know his real identity—to check if he'd have the time to read the few questions I'd sent to his encrypted email server. I didn't expect much from his answers: In the past, he'd start most of his replies with "for security reasons..." before responding in the negative to my requests. On other occasions, he'd answer dryly, bluntly. Seldom would he offer the type of answers that journalists look for in order to craft a good story.
The story I was chasing was one about him, the page admin of Valor Por Tamaulipas (VxT, translated as Bravery for Tamaulipas). An anonymous figure with a price on his head—600,000 Mexican pesos, about $32,000—he may have done more damage to criminal groups like Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel with a Facebook fan page than has been inflicted by the Mexican military. While the cartels have enough weaponry—RPG-7s, .30-caliber machine guns, and even monster "narco-tanks" armored with metal plates—to withstand any assault, the reports about their activities broadcast to the page's 615,000 followers are a direct attack on their reputation and their attempts at control through fear and intimidation.
Every Tweet and every post draws blood from the narcos, a little at a time.
On this occasion, however, his reply was neither in the negative or positive...
VxT: Something happened and there is a lot on my plate. I'll see what I can do.
I asked him what happened. Could it be an RS*? A kidnapping? A high-level assassination somewhere in the region? Maybe in Ciudad Victoria or Nuevo Laredo? All these potential scenarios are alarmingly frequent for activists like him. But instead he replied:
VxT: They murdered Miut3.
The details around this are murky—one series of events claims that two white vans arrived at the Tierra Santa clinic in the city of Reynosa, around 11 AM on October 15 , 2014. Doctor María del Rosario Fuentes had just finished her shift when the vehicles arrived. She barely had time to protest when armed men jumped out of the vehicles and dragged her, along with another doctor and a nurse, into the vans. They then sped off. Another version of events reported by the media, and one The Admin seems to stand by, is that Fuentes was actually going to her job in the medical department of a maquiladora (textile factory) when she was kidnapped. Still, the result was the same: the assailants—presumably members of the Gulf Cartel—checked the victims' mobile phones and noticed that Dr. Fuentes' Twitter handle was Felina (@Miut3). Felina was dangerous to the cartels: a relentless activist, a Twitter user who denounced kidnappings, shootings, killings, and all the activities that occurred in the Reynosa region. She had worked with Bravery for Tamaulipas, but lately had been reporting independently. Very few people knew her identity, and presumably no one in the criminal gangs did... until that moment.
That same night the doctor who was kidnapped alongside Fuentes was released. He would later tell the authorities that she probably "wouldn't come back."
At 5:06 AM the next day the first tweet arrived:
@Miut3: FRIENDS AND FAMILY, MI REAL NAME IS MARÍA DEL ROSARIO FUENTES RUBIO. I AM A DOCTOR, TODAY MY LIFE HAS ENDED.
It was published from Fuentes' Twitter account, hacked into by the kidnappers. Two minutes later...
@Miut3: IT RESTS FOR ME TO TELL YOU NOT TO MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE I DID, YOU WON'T ACHIEVE ANYTHING, QUITE THE OPPOSITE, TODAY I REALIZE THAT
@Miut3: I FOUND DEATH IN EXCHANGE FOR NOTHING @Bandolera7 @civilarmado_mx @ValorTamaulipas THEY'RE CLOSER TO US THAN YOU THINK.
Her final tweet said: "#REYNOSAFOLLOW CLOSE YOUR ACCOUNTS DON'T ENDANGER YOUR FAMILIES LIKE I DID, I BEG YOUR FORGIVENESS." Two photos were attached to the post: on the left, a resigned Dr. Fuentes was set against a dark background, nearly impossible to identify; on the right, her body was on the ground—her face bloodied, her hands on her head, and her eyes wide open and lifeless.
But that wasn't sufficient proof for the authorities. She is not officially dead, just "disappeared." The authorities have yet to find her body and verify the homicide.
October 17, 2014
VxT: She was a comrade, a person who for 2 years collaborated with me in Responsabilidad por Tamaulipas (Responsibility for Tamaulipas). She was a person who had my affection and my respect.
RR: And you stayed in contact?
VxT: Why do you think her loss pains me so much? She didn't know me, or at least I never shared my identity with her. But I did know who she was, I chose her to help me with VxT, and then I pushed her out to protect her. But it turned out to be a poor decision, it made her get close to people who were not trustworthy.
RR: I'm very sorry. The risks in what you do are big, but no one deserves this for doing the right thing.
VxT: She had a kid, a daughter. She was a very special person for her family. I know they'll miss her. I'll miss her, terribly.
RR: Will you be able to go to the ceremonies, to the wake? Keeping your safety in mind.
VxT: No, I can't go. In any case they haven't found the body yet. The criminals have it.
RR: Sorry to ask, do you think there is any chance they'll find her?
VxT: In that area it's common to cook** the victims. I don't know what will happen.
Even for a middle-aged Colombian, someone who has lived through the days of the political genocide of the Patriotic Union and of the violence caused by Pablo Escobar, it would be difficult to understand what it was like, and still is, to live in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. In the northeast of the country, and neighboring the United States, it's a place that reminds one of Wild West movies: the dusty Sierra Madre, the arid planes full of cacti, and the lands the Rio Bravo flows through on its way to the Gulf. It's also a land of outlaws.
The recent history of Mexican drug-trafficking and its wars is so long and complex that it takes on the feel of an epic. It contains, necessarily, a fair bit of speculation, since there aren't historians documenting what happens within the criminal organizations. But it goes, more or less, like this: Since the 90s, the Gulf Cartel operated in Tamaulipas, focusing on the traffic of cocaine backed by Los Zetas, a group of mercenaries with military training that served as its armed wing. When the cartel's leader, Osiel Cárdenas, was arrested in 2003, the hierarchy of the organization split, presenting an opportunity for the Sinaloa Cartel—the largest in Mexico, led by Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán—to advance from the West Coast toward the Gulf region.
The war between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels caused the undue increase in strength and influence of Los Zetas. Osiel Cárdenas was extradited to the United States in 2007, which prevented him from running the organization's affairs from prison, and Los Zetas began to carry out activities usually reserved to those of a cartel proper. The violent break-up between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel reached its climax in 2010. "This was the period of the grenade attacks, the clashes between each groups' armed men," one of the region's other activists, @MrCruzStar, told me during a Skype interview, as if consulting a history book. Since then, with the state divided among several factions, the violence has become a permanent fixture.
Locals tell of checkpoints on country roads and even within city limits, gunmen checking drivers' IDs—and their mobile phones, denying entry to anyone from their opponents' territories. Whole families became fragmented, some having to escape their neighborhoods because one of their relatives—sometimes merely in-laws or distant family memebers—came from an area controlled by a rival cartel.
"Those who didn't leave paid the consequences: disappeared relatives, kidnappings, torture, and executions," recalls The Administrator. The media also remembers the shootings, the disappearances, and the attacks with machine guns and grenades.
Closer to the activists' hearts was the assassination of La Nena de Laredo, María Elizabeth Macías, author of the blog Nuevo Laredo en Vivo (Nuevo Laredo Live), whose headless body was found one early morning in 2011, in the city she took her online pseudonym from. Next to her was a sign that read "I am La Nena de Laredo and here I am because of my and your reports..." A year later, in the same city, two activists were hung from a bridge after being tortured and executed. A cardboard sign stuck to one of the bodies said, "This will happen to all the internet agitators. Check yourselves... I'm on to you, sincerely Z." The signature, "Z," is a commonly used abbreviation for Los Zetas—which means "The Zs."
Despite these killings, on January 1, 2012, someone created the Facebook fan page "Bravery for Tamaulipas." At that moment, The Administrator emerged. He was one more activist among all those who denounced the criminal gangs. On the page, The Administrator recorded the disappearances, noted the daily RS that occur in the city, and listed the various businesses that deal with the criminals. The Administrator forms part of a loose band of Twitter users like @Agente_Rey, @Bandolera7, and @MrCruzStar, who have been denouncing crimes in Reynosa since 2010.
The Administrator doesn't want to be a hero, and even less a martyr. That's why, like all the other activists, he's kept his identity a secret. All he wants to do is to leave the hopelessness, the fear, and the silence behind. He wants to help the people, and he feels the need to spread word of the realities of life in Tamaulipas, a state that proves how far the savagery of the cartels can go. According to The Administrator, there have been numerous shootouts in the middle of the street since 2010, disappearances (4,875 between 2011 and 2014), the deaths of innocent people completely unrelated to organized crime, and checkpoints set up by criminal gangs. The military, he notes, has also taken over parts of the city at points, though seemingly with little effect on the situation. Tamaulipas is a place where seeing certain types of vans drive past instils fear in all passers-by. In the words of The Administrator, it is "the perfect narco-government that you (Colombians) managed to resist for 20 years."
He wasn't the first to make such a page, or to publicly attack the narcos, but he became, without a doubt, the most popular. The page took off. It had over 200,000 followers a year after it began reporting, with daily postings listing the latest disappeared, where shootings were taking place, or which areas to avoid because of increased criminal activities. According to some of the activists I spoke to, his reports had become for the locals more important than the TV news. Reading one of his reports before leaving the house could save their lives.
When he started out, the cartels seemed almost pleased by the idea of the page. They wanted someone to inform them of the movements of their rivals, according to The Administrator. He tells me that he received several messages from people associated with the cartels asking him for his cooperation. He refused to help them, blocked everyone connected to the drug-trafficking, and didn't respond to any of their messages.
"And that's when the problems started," he says.
At the start the threats were mild, but they escalated quickly. Within a short space of time there were ghost accounts writing to him that they wanted "his eyes as key rings." The biggest threat of all occurred in mid-2013: a flyer distributed throughout the Ciudad Victoria criminal underground. It offered 600,000 pesos to anyone who provided exact details on the identity of the admin of Bravery for Tamaulipas, or information about his parents, siblings, offspring, or partner. "This is just freedom of expression," said the flyer, "but in exchange for that a good amount of cash to shut the mouths of these fucking clowns who think they're heroes." A phone number, and a guarantee that the tip would be kept completely anonymous, were included together with the reassurance that the money would be handed over to whoever passed on the information.
According to a note he published around that time, The Administrator sent his wife and children to the States for their own safety. Then he continued with his reports.
Innocent lives were lost during this harassment campaign. In May 2013 a couple was kidnapped because the criminals—apparently Los Zetas—alleged the two were relatives of The Administrator. They weren't, claimed The Administrator in another message. He then blamed the abductors for the death of a relative of the kidnapped couple.
That same year, The Administrator temporarily retired for the first time, closing down his Facebook and Twitter accounts. He had received another threat: "They sent me a video of a woman being beaten and you could hear the voice of a man saying this would happen to anyone who continued helping me. They cut her head off in that video. What sense does it make to maintain a page to help others avoid risks when you yourself become a risk?" And then, with what happened to Fuentes...
He confesses that this sort of harassment in the past had caused him panic attacks. He couldn't walk calmly down the street. He was always looking over his shoulder, fearing whoever was behind him. He needed to take medication to calm his nerves, and his own mortality weighed constantly on his mind. Sometimes he found it impossible to live that double life. Now, though, he claims he's more "thick-skinned." With such a heavy burden, he frequently speaks to God, but there are few people to blow off steam with in his daily life.
RR: And do your relatives know you're the page admin? What do they think?
VxT: The only relative who knows, from the start has told me that I am responsible for anything that happens to my family. That's all he has said, although at least he still talks to me. This hasn't been easy for me, but I'm not here to complain or to reproach anything. I am alive, for the time being, and every day I stay here is another day we have outdone evil.
The Administrator doesn't say much about himself. Even less since Felina's disappearance. "It's not advisable to expand on this," he says when asked about his tastes, about whether he watches TV, about what he eats, about his day-to-day. "I know this interests you, but these facts give away too much information about me. I used to watch TV, I used to do a lot of things. I don't get the chance to any more. I work a lot, that's true, and that makes it hard for me to manage the page as I should."
There is no way of telling what The Administrator has for breakfast, what he does for a living, what route he takes to return home from work every night. Nothing. Aside from his dissatisfaction with the government and its current politicians, one of the few things he talks about openly is his routine of reading, without fail, the approximately 100 messages he receives on social media accounts and on his e-mail daily. Other activists, like @Agente_Rey and @MrCruzStar, report that they don't receive more than a dozen tip-offs a week, which indicates how much more popular and influential his page is.
The Administrator closely examines all of the information he is passed. He verifies that those who report disappearances are close family members of the missing, and that the details of the stories are consistent. Sometimes he asks for more information to make sure everything "fits" because, he claims, criminals sometimes try to pass on false information. According to him, on some occasions, the government or its agents, either hoping he missteps and reveals his identity, have passed on false leads.
On the subject of his personality, all that can be said is that his answers betray a certain paranoia, fueled by the threats and the attacks that have gotten close to revealing his identity. One such attempt happened in March: An email, "which looked like a genuine Facebook notification," stole his password and gained temporary control of two of his other pages (Hope for Tamaulipas and Bravery for Huasteca). He assures me the attackers didn't gain access to his personal information or that of his informers.
The paranoia is inherent, and it forms part of his nature. He is all too aware of the idea that Fuentes had been identified and threatened before her abduction: he bases his knowledge on the fact that, a few days prior to her disappearance, Fuentes received threats from user @Garzalaura142, who sent messages similar in tone to the last ones published on her account.
He also has a near fanatic certainty that the government is as evil as the cartels, if not in terms of active criminality, at least for ignoring the realities in Tamaulipas. Even though he has little evidence to support the theory, he claims the government has started a social network control strategy in which the Army and Navy Ministry (Semar) and the National Defense Ministry (Sedena) take an active part monitoring activists. He makes it sound like a full-blown conspiracy. It's a view shared by others trying to tackle the cartels online.
The Administrator has misgivings these days even about some of his fellow online activists, and he suspects many have ties to the government. "They act in favor of the government," he says. "I published the details of a disappeared person and these activists called the family and offered them help from the Victim Support Institute, but only in exchange for my taking down the original post." He adds, "It makes me mad to think that Muit3 died in the middle of this governmental social media control strategy."
Rafael Luque, of the Secretaría de Gobierno (the Government Secretariat), had this to say on the matter of governmental involvement with online activism:
"The government does not have a stance regarding the social networks' activists. We don't condemn them, nor applaud them. We don't know if they've been threatened, as they claim, because they haven't reported it to the proper authorities.
"As for whether they help or not, I think it's a very inconclusive matter. For many, they are useful. For many others, they don't help at all, because they can distort the truth, exaggerate the facts, and issue alerts that on many occasions are unjustified... In fact, when they say something, next day the reporters from the Tamaulipas' Coordination Group (Grupo de Coordinación de Tamaulipas) expose them as wrong.
"In other words, it seems that the social networks have been infiltrated already by the criminal groups, and that's why [these activists] have lost so much credibility... We don't have any contact with them, nor do they try to contact us. It seems they have a mentality focused on attacking the three levels of the federal government, as well as the federal and state forces of the Tamaulipas' Coordination Group that fight crime and insecurity."
Those who visit the page Bravery for Tamaulipas on Facebook might feel that the reports posted are somewhat impersonal. Crimes which would normally provoke outrage are posted on the page with detached professionalism. The Administrator has fears about this: "I worry that I am becoming dehumanized, that I start to see certain crimes as a norm, and that worries me above any stress the page may provoke in me."
On occasions, he worries that he may cause more harm than good with what he posts.
@MrCruzStar: The gas station La Cucaracha in #SanFernando attacked. Teacher killed, her son injured, he's scorched alongside customers. #Reynosafollow unrelated to organized crime.
@MrCruzStar: 2 deaths, gunmen lock in teacher and a worker, set them on fire. Her son and a customer torched. #SanFernando #ReynosaFollow #Tamaulipas
These two tweets were posted in June 2013, two days after Bravery for Tamaulipas stated that the gas station Las Cucarachas was owned by a man who laundered money for Los Zetas. The following Saturday the gas station was attacked. Gradually the rest of the activists on the web revealed that the gas station in question actually no longer belonged to that person, but to a woman completely unrelated to the drug trade or Los Zetas. This was the woman who died in the attack.
@LaTecolotita: What will @ValorTamaulipas do now? How will you justify yourself? A death provoked by your stupidity.
Over the following days Twitter was used to protest against the irresponsibility of The Administrator in publishing false information. He tried to defend himself, but with the loss of innocent lives hanging over him, his comments only made him seem insensitive and unable to confront what had happened.
The Administrator would not back down. He published a long post in which he stated he would not be intimidated, that he'd continue doing the right thing despite the consequences, and that his information was always verified to the best of his abilities. The negative reactions, he says, are proof of how deeply his reports—and those of other citizens—can cut the criminals. "So the question is, should we keep silent or should we continue?" he wrote.
He has considered going silent on several occasions. Toward the end of 2014, The Administrator announced that he would pass on his page to someone else. Another anonymous admin would take his place, maybe someone with contacts within the government and SEDENA, who could pass on the reports to the authorities and encourage them to act. The page's followers were divided over whether this was a good or bad thing, but it didn't matter: the transition never took place.
The Administrator is still there, in the line of fire, despite knowing of very few cases in which his actions have directly saved someone's life; despite the growing risk that he could join the ranks of bloggers and activists executed across Tamaulipas; and despite not believing there is a workable solution to the conflict in his country.
VxT: What made me come back? I realized the page isn't mine, it belongs to the informers. I couldn't take something that doesn't belong to me away from them. The government is already copying the VxT model to inform and to receive tip-offs. They publish and receive information at a faster rate than I am able to. So it's not that I want to one day leave this, it's more that I will slowly become obsolete. And I prefer that to happen naturally. That's why I won't stop the page.
RR: Do you think then that what you do makes a difference?
I can't avoid imagining a deep sigh, two sunken eyes, the tired face of an unknown man grimacing as he read the question...
VxT: I'm not so sure about that.
*SDR stands for "Situación de Riesgo" (Risk Situation). It's the hashtag activists use to report activities such as kidnapping, murders, and shootouts. They usually use it alongside the name of the city (#SDRReynosa, #SDRVictoria).
**To burn or disintegrate a body with acid.