Nobody doubts the desperate situation in Mexico, with a drug war that has claimed the lives of(at least) 40,000 people in the past five years. Border towns such as Juarez have played host to 8,000 deaths in the past three years alone and the violence has spread to previously safe cities such as Veracruz.
The pervasiveness of death has been accompanied by a vicious cycle of ambiguous, unreliable information and fear.
Commenting on the Anonymous announcement, Deborah Bonello, a Mexican reporter wrote in The Guardian:
“The ability to distribute information that is unvetted, unverified and often from unnamed sources across a plethora of platforms is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because information is harder to suppress and control, but a curse because of the opportunity it creates for propaganda and misinformation that is then reported by the media and acted upon by the public as fact.”
She was talking about the drug cartels, but the quote could have been applied equally to Anonymous. After the announcement, Stratfor analyst Ben West released a video report stating any attempts by Anonymous to expose the Zetas could be met with a “risk of abduction, injury and death”.
The rather tenuous link West made between evidence of the use of “computer scientists” by the cartels to engage in cybercrime, to track Anonymous attackers, and then to follow up with assassinations was ignored by all later reports.
The Anonymous story then became even more confused as the operation – scheduled for November 5 – was called off. The kidnapped Anonymous member was apparently returned along with a threat that the Zetas would kill ten people for every name of a Zeta associate released by Anonymous.
There has been no evidence produced that there was a kidnap in the first place, nor of the subsequent release of names or the threat of follow-up deaths.
But this is not the end. Barrett Brown, a former member of Anonymous, declared last week that OpCartel was still on. Brown further claimed to be in possession of emails linking US officials and others with the Zetas. Barrett Brown is writing a book about Anonymous, but is viewed with scepticism by others in Anonymous and on Twitter.
Other than releasing names (Dox) of individuals likely to be involved with the Zetas, it was never clear what Anonymous would be able to do. But, like all other businesses, drug cartels are increasingly using technology as the basis for their operations.
It is this dependence on computers and networks that makes them potentially vulnerable to groups such as Anonymous (and of course governments that are fighting them legitimately).
The Stratfor analysis claimed the drug cartels were using hackers of their own to engage in cybercrime. They are using sophisticated electronics and communications networks, and using social media to track victims.
The use of social media especially has escalated recently with cartel members misdirecting the police by reporting a shootout on Twitter and then carrying out an operation elsewhere.
The rapidity of news spreading on Twitter also caused panic when two Veracruz residents tweeted that gunmen were kidnapping children from schools. It later turned out to be a false alarm and the two residents were arrested and charged with terrorism and sabotage.
They were later released after protests from internet-freedom and human-rights activists.
Given moves by the drug cartels to control media, including social media, it’s possible the Zetas and other drug cartels would be concerned about possible attention paid by groups such as Anonymous.
The “Anonymous brand” brings with it media and public attention. The web defacements and DDoS attacks are little more than inconvenience for the targets but serve to publicise significant societal issues. This is something Anonymous itself recognises.
Another campaign that never materialised was #OpFacebook. The initial suggestion was that Facebook would be brought down or attacked on November 5. Anonymous denied this later, saying on Twitter that the group would not “kill” the messenger.
Anonymous thrives on pushing its message over whatever media it can, including, as in the case of Operation Paperstorm, paper.
The difficulty with all Anonymous campaigns is sustainability. Having brought the Mexican situation to the public’s attention, the meme just as rapidly dissipates as newer events take centre stage. But there are plenty of reasons why the Americans should care about this.
If you believe Fox News, it would appear the human misery brought about by drug cartels is causing tens of thousands of Mexicans to flee across the border.
More importantly, the drugs that are being fought over in Mexico are largely destined for the USA and will continue to bring untold ruin in their wake.