After initial mixed signals, it appears that online hacker collective Anonymous has decided to take on Mexico’s most violent and feared drug cartel, the Zetas, which could put the drug gang in a tight spot.
In just the past few days, rumors of a showdown between Anonymous and the Zetas drug cartel have been the subject of a veritable media frenzy. Speculation about the scope of the confrontation abounds, fueled by several conflicting reports about the “hacktivist” group’s intentions.
The source of the confusion is a YouTube video (embedded below) which was posted on October 6 by one “MrAnonymousguyfawkes,” which shows a masked speaker accusing the Zetas in Veracruz of having kidnapped a member of Anonymous in that state. As retribution, the individual claims that Anonymous will expose Zetas-linked police officers, officials and journalists unless their associate is released. “You made a great mistake in taking one of us; release him and if something happens to him, you [expletive] will remember the 5th of November.”
The ultimatum received little attention from Mexican media until STRATFOR picked up on the story and published an analysis of the incident. In their report, the global intelligence company points out that any individual that Anonymous names as a Zetas collaborator will likely be killed, “whether or not the information released is accurate.” The report also notes that the move opens up the hackers to reprisal attacks, as the Zetas have been known to target their online critics in the past. Three individuals were tortured and killed in Nuevo Laredo in two separate incidents in September, with signs left next to the bodies accusing them of reporting crimes on Internet forums.
As news of Anonymous’ threat spread, they appeared to make their first move on October 28, when the group defaced the website of Gustavo Rosario Torres, a former state prosecutor from Tabasco. The page, which remained vandalized at the time of writing, features the message “Gustavo Rosario is a Zeta” imposed over an image of carved jack-o-lanterns.
Following this, two individuals identifying themselves as administrators of the Mexican affiliates of Anonymous distanced themselves from it and all actions related to “Operation Cartel,” or “#OpCartel,” as it has become known on Twitter. In an October 30 interview with Mexico’s Milenio, the individuals claimed to have canceled the operation, citing the risks involved.
Since then, Anonymous Mexico has reversed its stance, claiming on its Facebook page that the operation has been taken up again, although they warn less experienced members to stay away from it. In cooperation with Anonymous Iberoamerica, the largest Spanish-speaking Anonymous network, the group on Monday set up an online form where visitors can report individuals who have connections with the Zetas. In addition to this, a source close to the operation told the New York Times they were in possession of a “list of about 100 or so of the major contacts of the Zetas.” Armed with the names and personal details of these individuals, the hacker group seems to have thrown their hat into the ring and taken on the confrontation with their Zeta foes.
On one level, the incident can be interpreted as further proof that a new front in the “drug war” has opened up on the Internet. Increasingly, Mexican drug trafficking organizations have been using the web to threaten rivals, proclaim their innocence and brag about their exploits. Web page comments, YouTube videos and Twitter feeds have all been employed by Mexican cartels to communicate with the public. But as the deaths of the bloggers in Nuevo Laredo illustrate, this virtual battleground can have very real consequences.
On another level, the incident is an illustration of the role that fear plays in the Zetas’ exercise of power. Anonymous members' doubts about the operation are well-founded, as the Zetas are generally thought of as the most dangerous drug cartel in Mexico, who carry out brutal public revenge on their enemies. But as the hacking collective decided to go through with the operation, the Zetas could be in a highly vulnerable position. If they give in to Anonymous’ demands and free the kidnapping victim -- presuming he or she exists -- then they risk opening themselves up to further challenges to their authority.
This is especially important to the Zetas, as they don't have the support base that other groups (like the Sinaloa Cartel in the Sierra Madre, or the once-mighty Familia Michoacana in Michoacan) possess. Conversely, if they don’t turn over the kidnapping victim, then they risk damaging much of the connections that keep their business together in the Veracruz area.