The Growing Mexican Cartel and Vigilante War in Cyberspace: Information Offensives and Counter-Offensives
Robert J. Bunker
This short essay blends traditional Mexican cartel analysis indicative of earlier Small Wars Journal writings by this author with advanced (5th dimensional) warfighting concepts. These concepts have utility for engagement with non-state (new warmaking) entities. They are being increasingly discussed now that cyberspace and ‘dual dimensional’ operations are more frequently breaking out in the Mexican conflict.
The criminal insurgencies in Mexico are rapidly evolving with regard to media (informational) based conflict . This is an outcome of an action-reaction (offensive and defensive) dynamic of the conflict that has transcended older forms of media (newspaper, radio, film, and television) into new media forms (websites, blogs, texts, tweets, et al.).
Earlier analysis of elements of this theme— focusing on cartel use of instrumental and symbolic violence to shape the conflict environment and two concepts of communications theory— can be found in John Sullivan’s November 2010 “Cartel Info Ops: Power and Counter-power in Mexico’s Drug War” MountainRunner and April 2011 “Attacks on Journalists and ‘New Media’ in Mexico’s Drug War” A Power and Counter Power Assessment” Small Wars Journal essays .
For a comparison of the components relating to this conflict refer to Table 1. Old Media vs New Media. That table provides a general overview of the difference between older and newer media forms. Overall the newer cyber-media form is far superior to the older media form as would be expected of a more networked, dynamic, and entrepreneurial set of informational technologies. However, it is still considered inferior to the ‘industrial media’ by much of the status quo and older aged cohorts due to its anonymity of reporting, lack of accountability, and more illegitimate nature (e.g. most of the blogs post pictures with no concern over copyright issues).
The Mexican cartels and, more recently, cyber-vigilantes (both bloggers and hackers), have been involved in a number of identified information offensives/counter-offensives. It should be noted that these engagements are increasingly taking place in both human (4th dimensional) and cyber (5th dimensional) space. The hybrid expression of this is ‘dual-dimensional’ operations— ones that have both forms of dimensionality present . These more complex operations are also now taking place in the conflict with the cartels. In addition, disruptive targeting—also known as ‘Bond-Relationship Targeting (BRT)’— is being widely utilized by the cartels and directed against Mexican society . The basic timelines in this information-based conflict are as follows:
Time 1: The First Cartel Information Offensive
The initial cartel information offensive sought to establish a climate of fear and compliance in their areas of operation. Tortured and brutalized victims were left out in public areas with graffiti scrawls, body writing/carving, and signs/banners attached to their lifeless bodies. This leveraged traditional media forms and helped to create turf/drug market control and initially establish cartel/gang reputations as deadly killers . This was combined with a ‘dual-dimensional’ initiative to utilize new forms of media and merge them with ghastly images of ‘on camera’ torture and killing. YouTube and other social media platforms were then utilized from about 2005-2006 on as a conduit for the transmission of this information . The disruptive effects on Mexican society are readily apparent and have resulted in an assault on the bonds and relationships that hold that nation together—the relations between the people, the government, and law enforcement/the military are becoming increasingly frayed. It has been combined with unrelenting corruption to graft cartel and gang influence, authority, and elements of narcoculture (narcocultura) throughout that country.
Time 2: The Second Cartel Information Offensive
The cartels then sought in the various towns and cities to suppress and co-opt information produced and distributed by journalists/reporters and their employers. This has resulted in the targeting of media personnel, their families, and their places of work via threats, beatings/torture, kidnappings, killings, and workplace drive-bys/bombings. At least thirty Mexican journalists have either been killed or kidnapped and remain missing since 1992 . The targeted killings have been recently increasing with eleven killed in 2011 alone . As a result, the freedom of the press has been severely compromised in Mexico. Old media forms of reporting on narco-violence has virtually ceased in many of the cartel controlled cities or is being manipulated by the cartels for propaganda and psychological warfare purposes directed at opposing cartels, the Federal government, and the Mexican public.
Time 3: The First Vigilante Information Counter-Offensive
A response, or counter, to the second cartel information offensive was implemented by concerned Mexican citizens. They established social media networks— derived from websites, such as Blog del Narco that came online in March 2010, texting, and tweeting— that bypassed the cartel assault on press freedoms in Mexico. Many of these networks are city based and allow for real time reports to be filed in order to alert others to cartel violence, roadblocks, and patrols taking place in specific locations . While the concerned citizens engaging in these social networks typically viewed themselves as non-combatants, they could also be interpreted as ‘passive combatants’ (they reported on cartel activities only to protect other citizens) or even, and probably more accurately, as ‘active combatants’ or ‘cyber-vigilantes’ (who reported on cartel activities which may then allow Mexican authorities to arrest or kill cartel operatives) . Still, because of the anonymity of reporting and complex nature of the social media networks (which could be hosted outside of Mexico and whose location/ownership could remain hidden), they posed a significantly ‘harder media target’ for the cartels to contend with.
Time 4: The First Cartel Information Counter-Offensive
In September 2011, two incidents occurred that represented the initial cartel counter-offensive against the Mexican citizen/cyber-vigilante social networks. The first incident took place on the 13th and is linked to Los Zetas:
The mutilated bodies of two bloggers were hung from a passenger overpass in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo last month, with a sign attached saying, “This will happen to all Internet busy bodies.” .
“This happened for snitching on Frontera Al Rojo Vivo,” read a note attached to the man’s leg. Another, on the overpass, said: “This will happen to all the Internet snitches (Frontera al Rojo Vivo, Blog Del Narco, or Denuncia Ciudadano). Be warned, we’ve got our eye on you. Signed, Z.” 
The next incident involved “La ‘nena’ de Laredo” (“Girl from Laredo”) whose severed head wearing headphones was found next to a computer keyboard on 24 September. Her death is also attributed to the Los Zetas cartel . The intent of this new counter-offensive is to attack the perceived weak point of the social networks— the actual blogger physically in a cartel area of operations. The rationale is that, if enough of them are identified and tortured/killed, the bloggers too can be intimidated and neutralized just as have mainstream journalists and reporters.
Time 5: The First Vigilante Information Offensive [or a Cartel-on-Cartel Information Offensive]
In what mirrors the initial “Time 1: The First Cartel Information Offensive”: “…two pick-up trucks were left abandoned on 20 September 2011 in broad daylight on a busy Veracruz boulevard with 35 bodies in their beds and on the ground…” . A few weeks later 46 more bodies were found in stash houses in Veracruz. Five hooded men dressed in black then appeared in a social media video distributed on 25 September and claimed to be “‘Mata Zetas’ (‘Kill Zetas’) [who] are the ‘armed wing of the people’ and that their ‘only objective is to wipe out the Los Zetas cartel’” . These vigilantes (‘anonymous warriors…proudly Mexican’) are suspected of being linked to the Sinaloa cartel— blood feud rivals to Los Zetas— and, for that reason, it is unknown how to characterize this operation. It can be viewed either as a ‘vigilante information offensive’ or a ‘cartel-on-cartel information offensive’. Federal Mexican complicity and indirect support of the Sinaloa cartel has also been suggested in this matter, but no definitive proof has as of yet surfaced to support these allegations. Further, eight of these ‘vigilantes’ were said to be captured and tied to the New Generation cartel who are known Sinaloan allies .
Time 6: The Second Vigilante Information Counter-Offensive
In a strange twist in October 2011 the hacker group Anonymous then threatened the Los Zetas cartel for kidnapping one of its members from a street protest in Mexico. It did so via an online video  of one of its members wearing a Guy Fawkes mask as seen in the 2006 movie V for Vendetta. He further “…underlines the group’s international ties by speaking Spanish with the accent of a Spaniard while using Mexican slang.”  If the member is not released, Anonymous intends to start hacking into secure websites/protected accounts and release sensitive information pertaining to the members of the Los Zetas cartel and those who work with them such as co-opted journalists, police officers, and taxi drivers. This counter-offensive escalates the war in cyberspace by moving away from licit information reporting to illicit information acquisition. To give it more credence:
….Anonymous followed up its threat to the Zetas by defacing the website of former Tabasco state prosecutor Gustavo Rosario Torres, accused by anti-crime activists three years ago of discussing a $200,000 cocaine deal with a deputy on audio tape. With a Halloween background, a message splashed above the group’s signature on Rosario’s homepage read: “Gustavo Rosario is Zeta.” 
How this engagement will further develop is unknown but a 5 November ultimatum was given to Los Zetas. It is quite likely the initial pretext for the counter-offensive, the kidnapping of an Anonymous member, was fabricated and meant to cause initial ambiguity and discord within the ranks of Los Zetas. See this from a twitter thread:
@Sm0k34n0nStarting today #OpCartel begins. Heads up #Zetas! Love, @Sm0k34n0n @anonkitsu @AnonSyndiv cc @AnonymousIRC @YourAnonNews @MotormouthNews
@AnonKitsuCountless people live in fear everyday because they fear #Zetas. There was no kidnapped #anonymous member but this one still has targets set
@Sm0k34n0nLos #Zetas are the most dangerous drug cartel in Mexico. We dont take kindly to this is my crew #OpCartel .
Thus, it is far more plausible that Anonymous has simply come into this conflict, due to the new cartel policy of torturing and killing Mexican bloggers—as an offensive cyber-vigilante force. The other possibility is that the hacker collective is simply toying with Los Zetas and seeking media attention but this would potentially be a very dangerous game to play. Individuals identified as working with Los Zetas, and the Anonymous hackers involved, all potentially risk being killed.
Given the economic resources of Los Zetas and the other cartels, a future counter-move— regardless of Anonymous’ intentions— may be that of hiring additional cyber-mercenaries to bolster their defensive and offensive information operations capabilities . Blowback on Mexican bloggers may also take place. A near term incident in which someone turns up headless wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, as a warning to Anonymous, is not beyond the realm of possibility.
What is noticeably missing from the ongoing cartel and vigilante information offensives and counter-offensives is any meaningful form of participation from the Mexican Federal government. Creating laws—notably enacted only at the state level— to punish the malicious spreading of rumors and fear via social networking messaging (the “#twitterroristas”) is not however meaningful participation . While the Mexican government is quite comfortable with the ‘industrial media’ of the 20th century—it appears incapable of engaging in information operations leveraging social networking. At best it may be able to provide ‘journalist/reporter protection’ but even this appears problematic given the silencing of much of the free press in Mexico.
The Mexican state is increasingly falling behind the action-reaction dynamic of the conflict as the criminal insurgencies migrate into 5th dimensional (cyber) space. This is somewhat perplexing given Mexican military operations against Los Zetas telecommunications networks in ten cities in the state of Veracruz in September 2011, although once again such networks represent old media (communications) based systems used for operational control of the Los Zetas insurgent forces . Earlier though, from a December 2007 Naval Post Graduate school thesis, it was recognized that:
In summary, Mexico has significantly increased its efforts to counter drug trafficking activities, as well as, insurgent and paramilitary groups within the country. Nevertheless, Mexico’s military and law enforcement agencies have not established an Information Operations-based capability. Instead, Mexican government agencies communicate with the population primarily through the public affairs offices of each department. While this is a useful means to inform the public of government projects and military operations, it does not sufficiently strengthen the government’s relationship with the population. As a result, some efforts of government agencies are inadequate, thus overlooking an opportunity to positively influence public opinion….
The Mexican Federal government would thus be well advised to either stand up its own internal new media/social networking capability and/or immediately contract out to a specialized group or corporation in order to do so. Rather than create an overly centralized and hierarchical response coming out of Mexico City—which simply will not work—it should look to build a networked and distributed capability that would leverage the Mexican citizen/cyber-vigilante social networks already in existence. The intent would be to foster bottom up operational early warning and response, promote media flows necessary for Democratic governance, and, ultimately, rebuild trust across Mexican society by repairing the bonds and relationships being targeted by cartel activity.
Further, Mexico, as well as the United States, is going to have to learn how to appropriately operate in 21st century conflicts against non-state threats. Many of the old rules and underlying assumptions concerning both warfare and policing—such as dimensionality— are no longer valid. According to John Sullivan and Adam Elkus:
A focus on understanding cyberspace in its original meaning and incorporating time as a dimension of operations may seem pedantic or perhaps overly academic. But understanding cyber and temporal dimensions of operations means synthesizing a mixture of old and new ideas to gain a better understanding of the modern operational space—and is crucial to dealing with opposing force and environmental challenges .
This proposed approach may sound like a radical plan, but given the realities of 21st century conflict, it is far more sound than the current Mexican state trajectory of a) either ignoring cartel information operations altogether or b) responding to them from an ‘industrial media’ perspective. War and conflict are dramatically changing as witnessed by the criminal insurgencies being waged across Mexico. For the Mexican Federal government to remain relevant in this evolving conflict, it must develop a 5th dimensional (cyberspace) capability. Further, it must implement its own counter-informational operations leveraging the older media forms and then attempt to quickly learn how to engage in ‘dual-dimensional’ operations drawing upon the newer media forms to achieve synergistic effects.
As this essay was being concluded, two stories were developing. The first dealt with the ongoing Anonymous vs Los Zetas conflict. Conflicting reports have been circulating that initially Anonymous had called off their targeting of this cartel  and later that it was still a “go” . These reports were derived from Twitter feeds and social networking statements made by individuals said to be members of this hacker collective. The true status of the Anonymous ‘OpCartel’ counter-offensive is currently highly ambiguous.
The second story concerns the present status of Blog del Narco. Since about 24 October 2011, viewers have been having trouble accessing the site:
“The government and some individuals want to censor us, they've denounced us to Blogger, where the site is hosted for security reasons and because we do not have the resources for a dedicated server,” replied an anonymous representative via e-mail when the Knight Center asked what caused the site's technical problems .
The new site is MilCincuenta.com but technical issues appear to also exist. This development follows the earlier Los Zetas threats against a number of blogs in the Nuevo Laredo incident on 13 September 2011. Since that time, two of the blogs have been shut down after threatening messages appeared on them. The user was worried because the blog accounts had personal information in them . This marks two more victories for Los Zetas in the ‘Time 4: The First Cartel Information Counter-Offensive’. What the future status of Blog del Narco will now be is unknown, however, those behind it have shown no intention of shutting it down.
1. For an early example of social netwar breaking out in Chiapas Mexico in the mid-to-late 1990s and lessons learned, see David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla, “Emergence and Influence of the Zapatista Social Netwar.” David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla, eds., Networks and Netwars. Santa Monica: RAND, 2001: 171-199.
2. Access via http://mountainrunner.us/2010/11/cartel_info_ops_power_and_counter-power_in_Mexico_drug_war.html and smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/730-sullivan1.pdf respectively. See also the earlier MountainRunner publication by Matt Armstrong, “Mexican narcos step up the information war.” 6 November 2010, http://mountainrunner.us/2010/11/mexican_narcos_step_up_information_war.html.
3. These concepts date to the 1990s. See Robert J. Bunker, “Advanced Battlespace and Cybermaneuver Concepts.” Parameters. Autumn 1996: 108-120 and Five-Dimensional (Cyber) Warfighting. Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 10 March 1998: 1-42 and “Higher Dimensional Warfighting.” Military Review. September-October 1999: 52-62. They have since been applied to policing and SWAT operations. See Sid Heal, “Fighting in the Fifth Dimension”. OnPoint: A Counterterrorism
Journal for Military and Law Enforcement Professionals. April 2005;
John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Police Operational Art for a Five-Dimensional Operational Space.” Small Wars Journal. 23 July 2009, http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/274-sullivan.pdf; and Sid Heal, “Five-Dimensional Battlespace.” The Tactical Edge. Spring 2010, http://www.ntoa.org/site/images/TEArticles/Five-dimensional.pdf.
4. The environmental modification discussed in previous writings is one outcome of the application of bond-relationship targeting (BRT). This is implicit in works such as Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Societal Warfare South of the Border?” Small Wars Journal. 22 May 2011, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/societal-warfare-south-of-the-border. Also see the work of Dr. Gordon McCormick—his “Magic Diamond” counter-insurgency model focuses on the relationships between the insurgent force, the counterinsurgency force, the population, and the international community.
5. The earliest Borderland Beat (http://www.borderlandbeat.com/) postings date to mid-2009. These postings provide one of the best depositories of cartel violence imagery from the streets of Mexico.
6. For an initial analysis of cartel use of social networking, see Sarah Womer and Robert J. Bunker, “Sureños gangs and Mexican cartel use of social networking sites.” Robert J. Bunker, ed., Narcos Over the Border. London: Routledge, 2011: 81-94.
7. “27 Journalists Killed in Mexico since 1992/Motive Confirmed.” Committee to Protect Journalists, http://www.cpj.org/killed/americas/mexico/.
8. Jose Luis Sierra, “Dark September: Journalist’ Deaths Mount in Mexico.” New American Media. 28 September 2011, http://newamericamedia.org/2011/09/dark-september-journalists-deaths-mount-in-mexico.php.
9. Damien Cave, “Mexico Turns to Social Media for Information and Survival.” New York Times. 24 September 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/world/americas/mexico-turns-to-twitter-and-facebook-for-information-and-survival.html.
10. For the rise of vigilantism in Mexico, see George W. Grayson, Threat Posed by Mounting Vigilantism in Mexico. Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 15 September 2011, www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB1082.pdf.
11. Larisa Epatko, “Mexican Drug Cartels’ New Target: Bloggers.” PBS Newshour. 13 October 2011, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2011/10/mexico-bloggers.html.
12. J. David Goodman, “In Mexico, Social Media Become a Battleground in the Drug War.” New York Times. 15 September 2011, http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/15/in-mexico-social-media-becomes-a-battleground-in-the-drug-war/.
13. Her name is Maria Elizabeth Macias. She worked as an advertising supervisor at Prima Hora and moonlighted as a blogger. See “Bloggers and press freedom groups vow to fight on.” Borderland Beat. 29 September 2011, http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2011/09/bloggers-and-press-freedom-groups-vow.html. See Borderland Beat for other stories on this incident.
14. “Mexican Government Examines Videos from Anti-Cartel Vigilantes.” Borderland Beat. 28 September 2011, http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2011/09/mexican-government-examines-videos-from.html. The source is EFE. See the embedded Mata-Killers video. Even earlier videos predate that one proclaiming the rise of the Mata-Killers. See “Mata-Zetas Release Video Accusing Officials as Supporters of Los Zetas, Mexico.” Latin America: Current Events & News. 19 July 2011, http://latinamericacurrentevents.com/mata-zetas-release-video-accusing-officials-as-supporters-of-los-zetas-mexico/10781/ and
and “Video en internet confirma existencia de grupo ‘mata zetas.’” Terra. 2 de julio de 2009, http://www.terra.com.mx/articulo.aspx?articuloId=842793&ref=1.
16. José de Córdoba, “Mexico Captures Alleged ‘Zeta Killers’.” The Wall Street Journal. 8 October 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203388804576616884152273092.html. See also Tracy Wilkinson, “Some welcome violence against cartel.” Los Angeles Times. 20 October 2011: A1, A6-A7.
17. Access via http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2011/10/online-hackers-threaten-to-expose.html. This link also provides a translation of the video. “Online Hackers Threaten to Expose Cartel's Secrets”. Borderland Beat. 29 October 2011. Mirror/synopsis to Dane Schiller Note 18.
18. Dane Schiller, “Online hackers threaten to expose cartel’s secrets: Group called Anonymous demands release of one of their own who was kidnapped.” Houston Chronicle. 29 October 2011, http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Online-hackers-threaten-to-expose-cartel-s-secrets-2242068.php.
19. Robert Beckhusen, “Anonymous Threatens Mexico’s Murderous Drug Lords.” Wired: Danger Room. 30 October 2011, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/10/anonymous-vs-zetas/.
20. “Hacking Grp Anon IRC-Gives 1st Zeta Name.” Borderland Beat. 30 October 2011, http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2011/10/hacking-grp-anon-irc-gives-1st-zeta.html.
21. According to STRATFOR “Since we have seen evidence of cartels employing their own computer scientists to engage in cybercrime, it is logical to conclude that the cartels likely have individuals working to track anti-cartel bloggers and hackers.” Ben West, “Dispatch: Anonymous' Online Tactics Against Mexican Cartels.” STRATFOR. 1 November 2011, http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20111101-dispatch-implications-online-tactics-against-mexican-cartels.
22. Tania Lara, “Mexicans accused of terrorism for spreading rumors on Twitter spark new law to limit expression on social networks.” Journalism in the Americas Blog. 26 September 2011,
23. EFE, “Soldiers dismantle telecom network used by Mexican traffickers.” Fox News Latino. 31 October 2011, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2011/10/31/soldiers-dismantle-telecom-network-used-by-mexican-traffickers/.
24. Saul Hiram Bandala-Garza and David Vargas Schulz, Information Operations, an evolutionary step for the Mexican Armed Forces. Thesis. Monterey: Naval Post Graduate School, December 2007, www.worldcat.org/wcpa/ow/214110691. The authors later provided suggestions for information operations capabilities to be developed by the Mexican navy.
25. John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Police Operational Art for a Five-Dimensional Operational Space.” Small Wars Journal. 23 July 2009, http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/274-sullivan.pdf.
26. Buela Chivis, “Anonymous Cancels Crackdown on Mexican Drug Cartel (ZETAS).” Borderland Beat. 1 November 2011, www.borderlandbeat.com/.../anonymous-cancels-crackdown-on-mexican.html.
27. “News/Anonymous to drug cartels: ‘The dice are already rolling’”. Dailydot. Via Twitter. 31 October 2011, http://www.dailydot.com/news/anonymous-latin-america-opcartel-names/. Note—even though this source has an earlier publication date than note 26 it is responding to claims made in it. Another video was also purported to be released by hacker group: Anonymous NO suspende #OpCartel,
28. Tania Lara, “Mexico’s Blog del Narco denounces attempts at censorship as website access hindered.” Journalism in the Americas Blog. 27 October 2011, http://knightcenter.utexas.edu/blog/mexicos-blog-del-narco-denounces-attempts-censorship-website-access-hindered.
29. Ibid. The original blogger message is “Mi blog lo elimine pero están usando mi dominio por métodos hacker para difundir un mensaje de un grupo delictivo.” Blogger. 23 September 2011, http://www.google.es/support/forum/p/blogger/thread?tid=663c508a4751f3f0&hl=es. See also ‘The Knight Center’s recommended 15 steps to help guarantee privacy and anonymity online when reporting on dangerous subjects’ at the end of the article in note 28.