When narco-related shootouts erupt in Mexico, citizens turn to social media to inform one another of “risk situations” in real-time, as local authorities and news outlets remain silent. The practice allows people to avoid gunfire in their communities without the help of official sources.
“This is how online communities that function as civilian alert systems are formed,” Andrés Monroy-Hernández, a researcher at Microsoft who is known for his work on the use of social media in war zones, told VICE News. “It helps not only to avoid the infamous ‘risk situations,’ it also helps people to not feel alone during harsh events.”
But what happens when the internet isn’t available to people when they need it most?
Take for example the evening of June 5, when residents of Altamira and Tampico, in Tamaulipas state, took to social media to report encounters with armed groups that were unfolding in the streets of their cities.
“Tampico, a trailer driver was executed in Monte Alto behind a tire shop, for resisting,” user @Adamgelio tweeted.
“#Tampico #altamira #SDR in progress #FF are pulling civilians out of their vehicles #bloqueos they are on the hillside in hiding,” @ALPHA28 said, using hashtags that have become common in a country that is still in the midst of war.
An #SDR is a situación de riesgo, or “risk situation,” while #bloqueos means roadblocks. #FF in this instance stands for “federal forces.”
The Altamira encounter ended with five casualties and various cargo trucks engulfed in flames. Egidio Torre Cantú, the governor of Tamaulipas, said the following day that one of the dead was identified as the local leader of a criminal group.
But many citizens were unable to update reports toward the end of the encounter or receive updates on their timelines. Several of them eventually managed to get enough of a signal to post complaints, indicating that the internet had failed, or that their cellular signals had somehow been blocked during the shootout and roadblocks.
“I don’t want to seem like I am exaggerating but just at this moment of insecurity the internet is failing,” a user named @Gerardo_GlzH tweeted.
“#Tampico typical there is an #SDR and the internet is failing,” @MaarLoop said.
“This usually happens in Tampico,” a local journalist who requested anonymity told VICE News. “The network becomes saturated when there are encounters.”
This phenomenon has also occurred in other regions of Mexico plagued by violence.
So who’s to blame?
Telcel, a telecommunications company that has a virtual monopoly on cellphone service in Mexico, maintains that service was uninterrupted in Tampico and Altamira on June 5.
“There was no failure,” Telcel spokeswoman Araceli Ruiz told VICE News.
Mexico lacks an entity that can effectively regulate the telecom juggernaut. Its government hasn’t conducted a formal investigation of service shortages, yet experts suggest that the intermittent network failures are due to saturation, meaning too many people are trying to connect to social media platforms on their phones at any given time.
Conspiracy-minded Mexicans have suggested that criminal organizations are somehow blocking the signals, but Alberto Islas, a security analyst and the director of the firm Risk Evaluation, told VICE News that this idea doesn’t really make sense.
“The cartels are looking for a safe way to communicate among each other, and they use cutting-edge technology during their communications,” he said. “During an encounter, I don’t think it would do much good” for them to block public signals.
Drug gangs that operate in the region have demonstrated that they are capable of setting up sophisticated communication networks on their own. In 2011, the Mexican navy dismantled one such network, which included signal repeaters, antennae, high-potency amplifiers, and solar panels.
Meanwhile, independent scholars and analysts warn that Mexico’s government could soon have the ability to temporarily shut down telecom services in the country if it is deemed necessary by the authorities.
Carlos Brito, a member of the organization Network in Defense of Digital Rights, told VICE News that a current telecom reform package proposed by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto would give the government greater access to flip off the switch.
The country badly needs to reform the telecom industry, with users complaining of inefficiency and high prices. But the proposed bill, which is currently being discussed in Mexico’s Senate, includes an article that would obligate providers to block electronic communication signal in “events and places that are critical for public and national security, upon authorities’ request.”
For citizens, the causes behind the failures they report are almost irrelevant, because the outcome is the same: when there is no signal, they cannot get informed. This is a severe hindrance when local media and security officials avoid publishing information related to violent events.
“It is a violation from a traffic management perspective, and from the perspective of signal annulment,” Brito said. “The UN and the human rights rapporteur have said that annulation is not justified under any circumstance, even in the event of an attack on public or national security.”
For now, citizen-led efforts to stay informed during drug-war battles remain unprotected and unregulated.
Photo via Flickr