See below for author's note.
The cyber war between Anonymous and Los Zetas has reignited, with some new twists. The initial skirmish occurred in the fall of 2011. In the introduction of my article, “Cyberwar in the Underworld: Anonymous vs. Los Zetas in Mexico” that appeared in the Yale Journal of International Affairs, I provided the following account of the clash:
Los Zetas, a Mexican drug trafficking organization composed of former members of Mexico’s Special Forces, kidnapped a member of Anonymous, the global hacking group, in Veracruz on October 6th. In retaliation, Anonymous threatened to publicize online the personal information of Los Zetas and their associates, from taxi drivers to high-ranking politicians, unless Los Zetas freed their abductee by November 5th. The release of this information on the Internet would have exposed members of Los Zetas to not only possible arrest by Mexican authorities, but also to assassination by rival cartels. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Los Zetas then attempted to “reverse hack” Anonymous to uncover some of its members and to threaten them with death. As a consequence, a few members of Anonymous sought to call off the operation and disavowed those members who wanted to go forward. With time running out and locked in a stalemate, Los Zetas released their kidnap victim on November 4th with an online warning that they would kill ten innocent people for each name that Anonymous might subsequently publicize. Anonymous called off its operation; each side appeared to step back from the brink.
With the new Anonymous group focusing on the activities of Los Zetas in the small city of Acuña, Coahuila, the hacktivist collective is returning to the brink. The new clash between the two groups began only recently, with Anonymous striking first. In April, four college graduates from Acuña returned to their hometown to find it completely under control of Los Zetas. In response, they decided to form an Anonymous affiliate. According to a spokesperson for the group, “We were not here in 2005 when the Zetas arrived in Acuña. We were already gone to college, but every time we returned to visit, we would see and hear how quickly the situation was worsening in our town”. The group’s goal is to expose the Zetas' activities in the city and the gang's alleged ties to Mexico’s current governing party, Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). The group has branded itself as “Anonymous FreeAcuña” and began publishing photos of homes and businesses it says belong to cartel operatives on its blog, Facebook and Twitter.
Unlike the first clash, there are some notable differences. First, there appears to be no predicate event like the kidnapping of an Anonymous member. Instead, some young people returned to their hometown of Acuña and saw that Los Zetas had tightened their grip on it. Second, along with a video announcement from a masked Anonymous spokesperson declaring the operation, a blog and Twitter account linked to Anonymous FreeAcuña appeared suddenly. Members appeared to spread the word and recruit online in various forums. In fact, in the comment section of the online version of my Yale Journal of International Affairs article, someone claiming to be a part of Anonymous FreeAcuña left the following message on May 11:
We are an ANONYMOUS cell group in Acuña, Coahuila Mexico, border city with Del Rio, Texas. We are in the middle of cyber warfare with the ZETAS and already tangling with the Gulf Cartel:
freeacuna.blogspot.com is a diary of what we are doing. It is a bilingual blog that explains step by step who we are and what we do.
The third notable difference is the presence of the blog itself and the publishing of information about Los Zetas operations in and around the town of Acuna. The initial clash did not feature a blog that was maintained by Anonymous. Rather, information about Los Zetas and their collaborators appeared to be closely held by a few core members of the collective who communicated with a select few in the media and online. Now, Anonymous FreeAcuña is acting almost like a clearinghouse of information about the drug cartel. According to a spokesperson, “We get literally hundreds of pieces of information and we go through them carefully. If we cannot get at least two confirmations and a visual confirmation, we won't post it.” In some instances, it is feeding information to journalists and to the online media.
Finally, unlike the 2011 incident, there are no demands sought by Anonymous FreeAcuña. There is no captive to bargain for, other than town of Acuna itself. Even so, the group is not demanding that the drug cartel leave town or cease its operations in exchange for stopping the flow of information. It is merely publishing information that comes its way, hoping that some action will be taken. The group does claim a success in the arrest of Alfredo Andrade Parra, a major narcotics trafficker based in Acuña who was wanted on federal charges in Del Rio and San Antonio.
The differences between this current operation and the one in the fall of 2011 reveal the evolution of cyber war in the underworld. Anonymous FreeAcuña has opened another front in the cyber war against Los Zetas in less than two years. An important question is why did an Anonymous group return to battle Los Zetas in cyberspace?
The Crossing of the Red Line in Cyberspace
One answer to the question about why Anonymous FreeAcuña reengaged in operations against Los Zetas is that there was simply nothing to stop it. An initial supposition in my original article was that there might be a type of mutually assured destruction that existed between Anonymous and Los Zetas that deterred each group from attacking each other in the future. Clearly, Anonymous FreeAcuña does not believe that it is crossing a “red line” nor does it believe that since 2011 Los Zetas have been able to develop the technological prowess to uncover the identities of a new group of hacktivists and target them. The group also believes it has adequate safeguards in place. According to its blog:
Upon entering FREEACUNA ANONYMOUS, we never cease to be ANONYMOUS, because wherever we are, 24 hours a day we are monitoring our environment. That is why personal safety becomes a habit of life. We teach our collective members the importance of not revealing that they belong to ANONYMOUS even to their closest loved ones. We train our group on how to stay anonymous while on the Internet being that Organized Crime as well as the Government have specialized teams whose sole duty it is to try to locate members of groups like ours since they afraid that their corruption will be brought to the light of truth. This is why ANONYMOUS FREEACUNA only has one official voice, that of member FREEACUNA @freeacuna on TWITTER. Why? So that only that person is the target of government, political parties and organized crime. All others within the collective spread the ‘voice’ of FREEACUNA within social networks and media. @FREEACUNA PRESS is the alternate voice of @freeacuna in case an emergency or special situation warrants it.
Moreover, it is apparent that the Mexican government has not increased its capacity to reform and strengthen law enforcement to a level that would preclude the formation of an extralegal group like Anonymous FreeAcuna. If the police in Acuna or in the state of Coahuila were up to the task, Los Zetas would have been unable to strengthen their grip on the town.
Without strong law enforcement institutions, individuals in insecure areas will at times take matters into their own hands. This sort of environment is ripe for the emergence of an Anonymous group. Anonymous is “a classic ‘do-ocracy’”. The term “means rule by sheer doing: Individuals propose actions, others join in (or not), and the Anonymous flag is flown over the result. There’s no one to grant permission, no promise of praise or credit, so every action must be its own reward.” Anonymous FreeAcuña started in this very fashion. A group of students saw an injustice and then linked themselves to Anonymous. It was not directed from the same Anonymous group that started the 2011 campaign nor was it directed from anyone outside the community of Acuña.
Nonetheless, the founders of Anonymous FreeAcuña have clearly embraced the ethos of internet freedom espoused by the larger Anonymous collective. In one of its blog postings that identifies a ranch used by the cartel in Coahuila, there is the following preface,
The main slogan of ANONYMOUS is “KNOWLEDGE IS FREE” this means that all that is hidden, all that is corrupt, all that is done to keep the people ignorant must come to light. All knowledge must be free, which brings us to today's topic - NARCO RANCHES outside of Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila but whose owners not only live in Acuña but are involved in the political circles of the city with friendly ties to the spheres of power in Saltillo, Coahuila.
The publishing of information about property and other features of Los Zetas’ network by individuals previously unaffiliated with Anonymous demonstrates that Anonymous is now a movement, not merely an organization. While the original Anonymous group began as a way to promote internet freedom, a split emerged over whether to pursue “morals motivated” operations to take on groups who were abusive of human rights and freedom or to stay dedicated to operations that promoted the hacktivist creed of “privacy for individuals, transparency for the powerful”. This split may still exist, but little can be done to instill discipline among the membership. It would appear that as long as liberating information leads to human liberation (as defined by the collective), any group can brand itself as Anonymous affiliate. “Cyber vigilantism” now appears to be an accepted approach within the Anonymous movement.
Vigilantes, however, still often pay a price for their activities. No matter the safety protocols that have been put in place by Anonymous FreeAcuña, Los Zetas will respond in a public or private way. Los Zetas have a “criminal brand” that includes their prowess in information operations and electronic warfare. They have a reflexive need to control information about them. By choosing to “out” the various parts of their organizational infrastructure, Anonymous FreeAcuña have struck Los Zetas in a vulnerable place. Aside from attacking them physically or undermining their finances, striking at their anonymity is acutely painful for the cartel. Los Zetas may now choose to carry through on their 2011 threat to kill ten innocent people or it may choose to issue another similar threat in an effort to coerce the new Anonymous group to cease its operations. A fear during the initial clash in 2011 was that Los Zetas would kill random people, place the symbol of Anonymous—Guy Fawkes masks—on the corpses and make it appear as though they had tracked down some members of the collective. They may also be able to “reverse hack” some members of the Anonymous FreeAcuña group or those who provide it with information.
No matter how Los Zetas respond, it will yet another demonstration of the weakness of the Mexican government; it is once again sidelined in this sort of conflict. The government is unable, or unwilling, to respond by taking action against Los Zetas or to persuade Anonymous FreeAcuña to allow the authorities to respond. Given the corruption of Mexican law enforcement and the penetration of Los Zetas into numerous areas of governmental authority, the actions of FreeAcuña may meet with limited success. However, given the latest split within Los Zetas, the publication of information about the activities of Los Zetas in the town of Acuna may leave it vulnerable to attacks by the opposing faction or rival cartels. The danger is an increased level of violence as one side attempts to protect its assets and as the other side attempts to gain an advantage. This will also have the additional effect of degrading public safety in Mexico even further. The mere creation of Anonymous FreeAcuña and its cyber vigilante activities is evidence that Mexican law enforcement is hollow and brittle.
New Questions, New Concerns
The current iteration of the cyber war between Anonymous and Los Zetas raises serious issues that require additional exploration. In some respects, the Anonymous FreeAcuña group is engaging in tactics that immediately preceded the kidnapping of the Anonymous member in 2011. At that time, Anonymous launched Operation Paperstorm in the Mexican state of Veracruz where portions of the collective felt that local government authorities were actively cooperating and shielding Los Zetas while prosecuting people who posted kidnapping reports on Twitter. Initially, the operation began as a leaflet campaign, denouncing the state government for its collusion with Los Zetas. The Anonymous member who was abducted was believed to have been distributing leaflets at the time. Now, rather than leaflets, Anonymous FreeAcuña is using a blog. However, the anonymity provided by the blog may be short lived. The blog site used by Anonymous FreeAcuña is not sophisticated and Los Zetas have demonstrated their ability to track down bloggers and those who merely post on blogs.
Also, as previously mentioned the new Anonymous group has not issued any demands on its blog; this is curious. The group may believe that it is merely filling the information gap as a type of group of citizen journalists and cyber vigilantes. It may also see itself as having nothing to lose by publishing the information as the cartel has already taken over the town. This was also alluded to in the group’s only known interview with the media. Put simply by the spokesperson, “We are not looking to destroy people, the Zetas and our corrupt government have done quite well doing this for decades.” In some ways, it as if the members of Anonymous FreeAcuña see themselves as a resistance group whose town is under occupation. But once again the lack of demands is striking; even resistance groups have goals that they espouse. Moreover, publishing information online about Los Zetas’ operations is the only method of coercion that the group has. By “outing” Los Zetas without any explicit demands it is unclear what, if anything, Anonymous FreeAcuña is trying to coerce Los Zetas into doing.
Beyond how the members of Anonymous FreeAcuña see themselves, the larger question about this latest cyber war is how the group acts if Los Zetas retaliated by killing people, whether they were members of the collective or not? The structure of Anonymous has its share of weaknesses that Los Zetas were able to exploit in a limited degree in 2011 incident. It has been assumed that Anonymous’ geographically dispersed membership and nebulous structure have been strategic advantages for the collective. But operationally, these characteristics have proven to be troublesome. Due to Anonymous’ loose structure, any operation can move forward or be cancelled in a capricious manner. Yet, the posting of information about Los Zetas’ operations has already crossed beyond the line drawn in 2011. Although the schism over morals motivated attacks seems to be irrelevant, it may only be so at this stage. In the 2011 clash, Los Zetas took advantage of these divisions by significantly raising the stakes. The attempt to reverse hack Anonymous and the threat to kill ten innocent people in the event of any subsequent release of information about the cartel quickly made it the first Anonymous operation where there was the potential for significant loss of life. This led to several Anonymous members to have serious misgivings about moving forward with the threat against Los Zetas while others wanted to move forward. The killing of people in Acuña by Los Zetas with “corpse messages” stating that the acts by Anonymous FreeAcuña are the reasons for the deaths may significantly alter the calculus by Anonymous FreeAcuña.
Several questions surround the scope and depth of Anonymous FreeAcuña’s operations. Can Anonymous FreeAcuña enlist more members from the core of the larger Anonymous movement? The Anonymous FreeAcuña group has said that it has contacts within the larger movement and has called for a broader campaign directed against the federal government of Mexico. Also, will other Mexicans who want to take a stand against Los Zetas or other drug cartels start their own Anonymous groups? In other words, Anonymous FreeAcuña may have paved the way for the possible proliferation of Anonymous groups acting as cyber-vigilantes. The emergence of Anonymous FreeAcuña is evidence itself of the inspirational quality of the Anonymous movement in Mexico.
There is little doubt that this is just the beginning of this clash between Anonymous and Los Zetas. The potential for this cyber war in the underworld to expand or to spill out into real world violence is high. In the meantime, it might be worthwhile to continue to check the comments section of this article….
 The author would like to thank US Army War College interns Kate Branson from Dickinson College and Douglas Steinberg from Bates College for their assistance in preparing this article.
 Paul Rexton Kan, “Cyberwar in the Underworld: Anonymous vs. Los Zetas in Mexico”, Yale Journal of International Affairs, (Winter 2013), URL: http://yalejournal.org/2013/02/26/cyberwar-in-the-underworld-anonymous-versus-los-zetas-in-mexico/
 Jason Buch, “Zetas have Anonymous Foes”, San Antonio Express-News, 1 June 2013, URL: http://www.expressnews.com/news/local_news/article/Zetas-have-Anonymous-foes-4566921.php
 Quinn Norton, “Inside Anonymous”, Wired, July 2012, 134.