Mexico's bogus Twitter armies

Moments before the presidential debate began Sunday night, social network coordinators of candidate Enrique Pena Nieto got together to coordinate spamming Twitter with favorable comments.

One of the coordinators taped a minute or so of the meeting on his or her cell phone and posted it to YouTube. Roughly, here is what the chief organizer said:

"We are about to start the presidential debate. We already have the team here, we're organized, and everyone has their coordinator, but now we need to get to work..." 

"We have two hashtags. All negatives should be turned around immediately. Then please! All are in line with their coordinators. We have to tweet all at the same time using the hashtag #EsmomentodeMexico. And we must re-tweet the candidate. Your account is @EPN, in case anyone does not know."

In effect, the mediosyciudadanos.com website notes that it was obvious that many Twitter users backing Pena Nieto were using exact phrasing, in one case posting: “Josefina is falling apart” in reference to ruling party candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota. 

Before anyone gets too worked up over this amping up of the message, know that political operatives from all sides are doing tricks on the public.

The website notes that this week it’s become clear that operatives have set up fake Twitter accounts for Aristegui Noticias, which has nothing to do with the prominent journalist Carmen Aristegui, and fake accounts for the Milenio, El Universal and Reforma newspapers. 



A most uncomfortable video

I don't know how much longer this video may be available for viewing, so watch it quickly. It has caused a firestorm in Mexico over the last few days (I just returned to the country Sunday). In the video, children portray criminals, corrupt politicians, beggars and prisoners. It is a fierce commentary on everyday life.

The video is sponsored by a social movement calling itself Our Mexican Future. Last week, politicians from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the ruling National Action Party and the Labor Party demanded removal of the video from the internet, saying it involved minors in the portrayal of criminal acts.

For those who don't speak Spanish (sorry! No English subtitles), the video concludes with an appeal from the children to the presidential candidates for July 1 elections not to seek power for power's sake but struggle to resolve Mexico's problems. The video went viral after its release earlier this month, quickly racking up 2.7 million hits on YouTube.

But some websites are taking the video down, apparently bending to those stung by its portrayals.

The video is living up to its name: Uncomfortable Children.



Scenes from a war on Mexican media

On the night of Nov. 5, 2011, 18 men armed with AK-47s broke into the installations of a newspaper in Codoba in Mexico’s Veracruz state. Over the course of a few minutes, they strong-armed employees, trashed the newsroom and doused the building with gasoline.

Closed-circuit video cameras at the paper, El Buen Tono, captured the assault. Look at minutes 3:25 through 6:30 to see most of the action.

While the attack was bad enough, what happened a day later was even more revealing of the criminal assault suffered by parts of Mexico’s media. Prosecutors in Veracruz state confiscated the video. The supposition of local journalists is that they did so to prevent airing of the video to help the public identify the mobsters. It is a further sign that organized crime has literally “captured the state” in places like Veracruz, part of the Zetas cartel turf. With prosecutors in their pockets, the Zetas enjoy vast impunity. 

El Bueno Tono said it received the video anonymously.

The excellent website of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas said a dozen journalists and designers quit El Buen Tono after the assault, fearing for their lives.



Bullying journalists in Ciudad Juarez

The municipal police in the border city of Juarez are increasingly taking to bullying reporters. Unlike some border towns (Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros), Juarez has a fairly thriving press with a corps of brave and feisty journalists. But the police seem to have been given a green light to begin pushing journalists around. The move recent case came Friday night. According to an account in El Diario, reporter Joel Gonzalez arrived at a street sign where police had stopped a Hummer with Texas license plates and detained a woman who was driving.

When Gonzalez approached police and began asking questions, they arrested him and accused him of interfering. The El Diario story quoted Gonzalez on what happened next:

"The cop said to me: 'I'm going to teach you to respect this badge, so that you know who we are; we are the Municipal Police. Do you think it would be a big deal for me to just kill you? I would kill you if I wanted to. And I said to him: 'You can't do anything to me because I haven't committed any crime.' And then he said to me: 'As far as I'mconcerned you are just a f---ing criminal, the minute I bring you here in the patrol car, you are nothing but a f---ing criminal," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was finally freed but only after being required to pay 320 pesos, or about $25.

El Diario cites several other cases of police bullying of journalists in the city. The most recent case before Gonzalez occurred last Tuesday. When Proceso Magazine photographer Raymundo Ruiz arrived at a house where police were arresting three people, the newspaper said Ruiz was hit in the face, leaving him bleeding from the mouth and nose.

Just two days earlier, two reporters from the Norte newspaper found themselves on the unfriendly end of police weapons. Police ordered one at gunpoint to erase images that he'd taken of them.

Homicides have fallen sharply in the city across the border from El Paso, Texas, but it's coming at some cost.






The Tarahumara and famine

Fotos Despensas Sierra Tarahumara
It was early last Sunday when I first saw tweets mentioning a possible famine affecting the Tarahumara Indians up in Chihuahua state.

It looked like potentially very interesting story. First, it involved the Tarahumara, famed for their prowess as extraordinary long distance runners. Many of them still live in cabins in the remote Western Sierra Madre, practicing subsistence farming.

As the day wore on, I saw this Spanish-language video of an activist in Chihuahua state suggesting that some Tarahumara had taken part in a mass suicide by jumping off a cliff because of famine.

That there is famine in that region is beyond dispute. It began with hard frosts in early 2011, and worsened with drought that officials now say is the worst in 71 years.

Let me open a little window into how my job works by describing why I did not rush on a plane to go up there _ which I certainly considered doing.

There were multiple factors. A Swedish television journalist friend and I mulled those factors over all day. If we went, we’d go together. The Tarahumara live in isolated areas far to the west of Chihuahua city. So that meant probably dedicating nearly a week to the story: A day to get up there, another day in the state capital for interviews, a third day to get out to Creel or one of the other towns closer to the area, and perhaps more time to physically walk to a village where the famine may be severe.

Compounding the planning was figuring how to do it safely. Parts of that region are overrun with gun-slinging dopers and bad guys.

By Monday, even as opponents of the federal government were opening up food drives for the Tarahumara (see #sierratarahumara on Twitter), the Calderon administration flatly denied that the Tarahumara were dying from famine. And photos all seemed to be taken from Chihuahua hospital ICUs with a few malnourished children. No photos of withered fields, emaciated adults or supposed mass suicide sites.

The (what seemed to me far-fetched) claims of a mass suicide got fuzzier by the hour. No one could say where it occurred precisely. 

So by the end of Monday, calculating the time, energy and possible danger a trip would potentially entail, and balancing those factors with no certain knowledge that Tarahumaras really are perishing, I decided to keep an eye on the issue but put it on a back burner. What’s really going on up there? Can’t tell you for sure. Given that it is an election year, such matters can also be manipulated for electoral reasons. For now, I’ll keep reading the Spanish language reports and work on other stories.

Earlier today, the Calderon government said it had delivered 14,000 meal packets to Chihuahua for distribution at 104 Tarahumara centers in the region. They sent the photo above.

Maybe its CYA, but the Cabinet-level official in charge, Social Development Secretary Heriberto Felix Guerra, said in a statement that the central government is offering “extraordinary help” to the Tarahumara and that no one will be left hungry or in need. 

Making judgments about all this is an inexact science. But until I have better evidence otherwise, I’m inclined to believe him.

Update: The Univision network has this English language post debunking the idea of mass suicide among the Tarahumara. As reporters, when we find one major aspect wrong with a story, we generally assume there may be more aspects that are inflated, exaggerated or incorrect as well. Univision quotes a journalist saying, "This (story) was driven by social media." It's a cautionary note about what shows up on Twitter. 


Carlos Slim's media ventures

Turns out the world’s richest man, Mexican multibillionaire Carlos Slim, has a deepening desire for involvement in media.

A spokesman for Slim confirmed to Reuters a few minutes ago that the tycoon is negotiating a deal with former CNN talkmeister Larry King on a web project.

"There are advanced talks between the Slim group and Larry's group," spokesman Elias Ayub told Reuters. 

This story first broke on thewrap.com website a day ago.

King is 78 years old, so a deal ought to come soon. King left CNN in December 2010. Before leaving CNN, King lobbed some questions Slim's way in the interview above. Among other things, he asks Slim why he doesn't live in a house that is 10 times bigger. Click here for a photo of King and Slim, showing they seem to be good personal friends.

Slim has a fortune that Forbes puts at $74 billion. He’s been reported to be the second-largest shareholder of New York Times stock, with as high as 8.2 percent of outstanding shares. In 2009, amid an extended advertising slump, Slim offered the Gray Lady a $250 million loan. The Times says it will repay the loan early this year.

Slim’s fortune was built in telecommunications, retailing, construction, banking, insurance, railroads and mining – and his net worth is equivalent to 7 percent of Mexico’s economic output.


Anger at the Televisa network

It’s a tiny but interesting civic protest.

Months after Spaniards began to gather in plazas to protest welfare cuts and politics-as-usual, and weeks after the Occupy Wall Street protest gathers steam, a small movement is developing in Mexico.

Its target is neither the federal government nor politicians.

Rather, it is Televisa, the network that is as powerful as any political party and that protects its financial interests by incessantly attacking enemies and critics. Televisa leaves Fox News and MSNBC in the dust in the way that it champions its favored political causes and financial interests. Televisa's influence in Mexico is so great that it's been called an "invisible tyranny" and a wielder of "frightening political power."

Now, sectors aggrieved by Televisa are going on the counter-attack.

The website televileaks.com is publicizing what is says are misinformation campaigns by Televisa to make sure no one else can wedge into the lucrative and concentrated television market. 

Another organization of academics, telecom experts and journalists has formed to challenge Televisa. It is called “Enough of Televisa’s Abuses.” The muscle behind the group comes from Simon Charaf, owner of a bar where a Paraguayan soccer player was shot in the head in 2010. Charaf felt that Televisa twisted coverage of the incident to pressure him to back out of a separate company in which Televisa had an interest.

As an example of Televisa’s style, it is reporting heavily on a scandal involving government corruption in the casino industry without ever noting that it has permits to operate up to 130 casinos itself.

Charaf said in a statement that “we have created this civic association so that those who suffer abuse, injustice, attack or mistreatment by Televisa, in conspiracy or under pressure from authorities, will have a platform to air their grievances…”

Joining Charaf in the association are former Telecom Secretariat official Purificación Carpinteyro, legislator Javier Corral y media investigator Raúl Trejo Delarbre.


Selling Mexico's beaches, not mayhem

Liberan Tuiteros6
The photo above is of the two "Twitter terrorists" leaving their prison yesterday at 4 p.m. Authorities in the state of Veracruz decided to drop terrorism and sabotage charges against Maria de Jesus Bravo (below left) and Gilberto Martinez nearly a month after accusing them of creating chaos on the streets of the Boca del Rio district of the port.

Liberan Tuiteros1 The two used Twitter and Facebook Aug. 25 to propogate and repeat accounts that gangsters were shooting at schools in the district. Rumors were rampant that day, beginning around 8:30 a.m. Martinez's tweets came several hours later. In any case, authorities were enraged, claiming that false accounts on Twitter and Facebook contributed to "hysteria" that led parents to crash their cars in the rush to get to the schools. The two could have faced up to 30 years in prison.

In reality, there probably is a bit of hysteria in Veracruz these days. But it's not from accurate or inaccurate tweets. It's because gangsters are at war. On Tuesday at around 5 p.m., criminals halted traffic on a major roadway in Boca del Rio and dumped 35 freshly killed bodies on the pavement. A group calling itself Gente Nueva, or New People, claimed that the victims were from the rival Los Zetas band.

With such a major display of brutality and terrorism on the streets of Mexico's oldest port, the governor decided to drop the case against the "Twitter terrorists" and focus on the evident criminality rampant in the city. Here's my story from yesterday. The AP photo below is of the street scene following the discovery of the bodies.

Mexico Drug War_Nost
My colleague Bill Booth over at the Washington Post took an interesting slant in his story today about the killings. He contrasted it was President Felipe Calderon's current trip to the United States. Calderon's agenda included a number of important events, including speaking at the U.N. General Assembly and at the Council of the Americas. But he scheduled events in New York City and Los Angeles to help promote Mexican tourism. At both events, sponsors showed the upcoming TV program, "Mexico, The Royal Tour," in which Calderon dons scuba gear, rappelling harnesses and other togs to show off Mexico's wonders to host Peter Greenberg (AP photo below). The program is certainly well done. Regular readers will remember this post a few days ago with a promo for the show. But it's been a headspinning week for intersecting themes in Mexico. Just as Calderon touts his country's wonders, gangsters bloody Veracruz streets with a gruesome display of barbarity. And as Veracruz's leaders go after citizens who threaten the image of their state, those who are the real danger let loose with their wrath. And so far, there have been no arrests.

TV Touring with Royal_Nost


A new law against 'alarming' tweets

A couple of hours ago, Veracruz state legislators approved a bill that would punish those who “disturb public order” with one to four years in jail.

Doesn’t sound like much, except there’s a huge backstory. In late August, Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte ordered terrorism charges brought against two local people who posted false tweets about alleged mayhem and shootings at schools in the Boca del Rio district.

The two were hauled off to prison for their tweets. The terrorism and sabotage charge carried a potential 30-year sentence for the two.

Perhaps Duarte thought he’d gotten rid of some troublemakers and the matter would die down, but no. The story bounced around the world. Type the name of one of the jailed tweeters, María de Jesús Bravo, into Google and you get 318,000 hits. Veracruz was ridiculed for jailing people like Bravo, a grandmother, while a lot of gangsters are on the loose, setting bombs and gunning people down, and rarely getting brought in by the police.

Looking to lighten the sentence on the two tweeters, and take some heat off his own back, Duarte proposed a lesser crime. Problem was, the crime was not on the books. So he proposed a new one, disturbing the public order, and that’s what sailed through the state legislature on a vote of 33-14 after a little more than an hour of debate today.

Fellow members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, backed Duarte’s plan and belittled those who said it would stifle freedom of speech.

“Freedom of expression does not consist of insulting, lying and broadcasting things that agitate society,” legislator Carlos Aceves Amezcua told elgolfo.com. 

Protesters who held up placards in the chambers evidently didn’t agree. Click here to see a photo. One said: “I don’t bring chaos. I don’t bring death. We are not terrorists.” Another said simply: “Free the Twitter users.”

The new law takes aim at those who falsely divulge information of a bombing, attacks by gunfire or other incidents that cause alarm, unease, panic or uncontrolled and anarchic movement of people.

Now that the new law will go into effect, it’ll be quite some legal trick to figure out how to apply it retroactively to people for actions that weren’t a crime at the time they were carried out.


Google's view of Mexico

Here is a short video with John Farrell, identified as Google's representative in Mexico, explaining the internet company's view of the growth potential in Mexico and Latin America. He says Latin America is Google's fastest growing region, faster than China.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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