with Scott Stewart
Anonymous vs. Zetas amid Mexico's cartel violence
The online activist collective Anonymous posted a message on the Internet on Oct. 31 saying it would continue its campaign against Mexican criminal cartels and their government supporters despite the risks.
The message urged inexperienced activists, who might not be practicing proper online security measures, to abstain from participating. It also urged individuals associated with Anonymous in Mexico not to conduct physical pamphlet drops, participate in protests, wear or purchase Guy Fawkes masks, or use Guy Fawkes imagery in their Internet or physical-world activities. Guy Fawkes was a British Roman Catholic conspirator involved in a plot to bomb the British Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605. The British celebrate the plot’s failure as Guy Fawkes Day each Nov. 5. In modern times, the day has come to have special meaning for anarchists. Since 2006, the style of the Guy Fawkes mask used in the movie “V for Vendetta” has become something of an anarchist icon in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
It was no coincidence, then, that in an Oct. 6 video Anonymous activists set Nov. 5 as the deadline for Los Zetas to release an Anonymous associate allegedly kidnapped in Veracruz. The associate reportedly was abducted during an Anonymous leaflet campaign called “Operation Paperstorm.”
The Oct. 31 message acknowledged that the operation against Los Zetas, dubbed “Operation Cartel,” would be dangerous. It noted that some members of the collective would form a group of trusted associates to participate in a special task force to execute the operation. It asked supporters to pass information pertaining to drug trafficking to the Operation Cartel task force for publication on the Internet via a software tool developed by Anonymous that permits the anonymous passing of information.
When discussing Anonymous, it is important to remember that Anonymous is not a hierarchical organization, but rather a collective of activists. Individuals who choose to associate themselves with the collective frequently disagree over issues addressed by the collective and are free to choose which actions to support and/or participate in.
With Nov. 5 approaching, and at least some elements of Anonymous not backing down on their threats to Los Zetas, we thought it would be useful to provide some context to the present conflict between Anonymous and Los Zetas and to address some of its potential implications.
The Mexican port city of Veracruz has been the epicenter of this event. Veracruz has been a busy place over the past few months in terms of Mexico’s cartel wars. The port serves as a critical transportation hub for Los Zetas narcotics smuggling. Because of this, STRATFOR has identified Veracruz as a bellwether for determining Los Zetas’ trajectory in the coming months.
In a major recent development in Veracruz, the Sinaloa cartel began an offensive into the Zetas stronghold using the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG), which, under the name “Matazetas” (Spanish for “Zeta killers”), conducted high-profile body dumps of more than 50 alleged low-level Zetas operatives on Sept. 20 and Sept. 22. On Oct. 25, Mexican marines arrested Carlos Arturo Pitalua-Carillo, also known as “El Bam Bam,” who was the Zetas’ plaza boss in Veracruz. The Zetas in Veracruz thus are feeling pressure from both the Mexican government and the CJNG.
The Anonymous Internet collective entered this dynamic in August with its activities in Veracruz. It is common knowledge that members of local, state and federal governments in Mexico support various cartel groups. In the state of Veracruz, it is generally believed that some members of the state government support Los Zetas, the dominant cartel there. In response to this corruption, some who have associated themselves with Anonymous launched Operation Paperstorm. These activists distributed leaflets throughout Veracruz denouncing the state government for supporting Los Zetas. They conducted leaflet distributions Aug. 13, Aug. 20 and Aug. 29. They also released videos on the Internet on Aug. 26 and Aug. 29 condemning the Veracruz state government.
Activities outside Veracruz also played a part in setting the stage. On Sept. 13, the bodies of two people who had been tortured and killed were hung from a pedestrian overpass in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state. Signs left with the bodies said Los Zetas had killed the pair because they had posted information pertaining to the Zetas on blogs that specialize in reporting on the Mexican cartels. On Sept. 26, the decapitated body of Marisol Macias Castaneda was found in a park in Nuevo Laredo. Macias, who worked for a local newspaper, allegedly posted on cartel blogs using the nickname “Laredo Girl.” A message found with her body said the Zetas killed her due to her online activities.
Following the death of Laredo Girl, Anonymous claimed responsibility for a distributed denial of service attack against the official website of the state of Veracruz. Although her murder occurred outside of the state, Anonymous said its attack on the Veracruz website was in response to Laredo Girl’s death. This indicates that activists understand that Los Zetas are active in both areas and suggests that Veracruz state-based activists are driving the Anonymous campaign against Los Zetas.
Significantly, some individuals associated with Anonymous already were unhappy with the state of Veracruz over its decision to prosecute two individuals who had posted kidnapping reports on Twitter on Aug. 25 that proved false. According to the reports, a group of children had been abducted from a Veracruz school. The inaccurate reports allegedly caused some two dozen traffic accidents as terrified parents rushed to the school to check on their children. The so-called Twitter terrorists initially were charged with offenses that could have carried a 30-year sentence. Some associated with Anonymous, which has absolute freedom of speech on the Internet as one of its foundational principles, took umbrage at the prospect of such stiff penalties — especially given the stark contrast with the impunity enjoyed by many cartel figures in Mexico.
STRATFOR began to focus on the story following the Oct. 6 release of the video in which Anonymous activists threatened to release information about individuals cooperating with Los Zetas if the Zetas did not release the Anonymous activist kidnapped during Operation Paperstorm. In light of the approaching Nov. 5 deadline, we published an analysis of the topic on Oct. 28; the topic subsequently received a great deal of media coverage.
This publicity has generated a very interesting response from Anonymous that emphasizes that it is a collective, not an organization. Some Anonymous activists began to back off the issue, erasing online user accounts formerly associated with the campaign, suggesting the operation against Los Zetas had been a hoax and claiming that no activist had been kidnapped. Other activists suggested that the campaign was dangerous, ill-advised and should be suspended. Still other activists became more strident and determined in their posts, urging that the campaign continue. As noted, Anonymous’ collective nature means activists can select the actions they participate in, including Operation Cartel. It would only take one dedicated individual to continue the operation.
The will to continue was manifested Oct. 29 with the hacking of the personal website of Gustavo Rosario Torres, the former attorney general of the Mexican state of Tabasco. The site was defaced with a message from Anonymous Mexico stating that Rosario is a Zeta. Rosario has long been accused in the Mexican and international media of protecting Los Zetas, and videos long have circulated on YouTube making the same charge. The hacking of his website thus did not provide any startling revelation; Anonymous will have to uncover and publish original and timely information if it hopes to do much damage to Los Zetas.
The determination by some activists to continue the operation against Los Zetas also was reflected in the tone of the Oct. 31 message. Some activists associated with Anonymous clearly feel compelled to continue with the campaign over what they have characterized as an outpouring of public support in the wake of the media coverage. According to their Oct. 31 video statement:
“We received many expressions of support and solidarity as well as the voices of people crying for help. We must remember that we are on the side of the people, and we cannot let down the people, especially in critical moments like the one they currently live in.”
We therefore anticipate that some Anonymous activists will continue the campaign. We also believe that Los Zetas will respond.
Mexico's various cartels long have used the Internet to trumpet their triumphs on the battlefield and to taunt and even degrade their enemies. The cartels have posted videos of the torture, execution and desecration of the corpses of rivals. They also frequently monitor narcoblogs and sometimes even post on them. As demonstrated by the September blogger killings in Nuevo Laredo, Los Zetas appear to possess at least some rudimentary capability to trace online activity to people in the physical world. They are known to employ their own team of dedicated cyber experts and to have sources within the Mexican government.
In addition to technical intelligence, the Zetas can use old-fashioned human intelligence to track down their online enemies. People sometimes discuss their online identities with family and friends, and such information can be overheard and passed to Los Zetas in return for money. This danger was recognized in the Oct. 31 video from Anonymous that urges participants in their campaign not to discuss their activities with anyone.
In past Anonymous actions, like the December 2010 attack against PayPal after the WikiLeaks scandal broke, the U.S. and British governments arrested numerous individuals associated with Anonymous who allegedly participated in the attacks. In June 2011, Turkey arrested dozens of activists associated with Anonymous actions conducted against the Turkish government in response to its plan to establish a national Internet-filtering system. This indicates that some activists associated with Anonymous are not nearly as anonymous as they would like to be. Every action on the Internet leaves some sort of trail, making it very difficult to be truly anonymous.
Like other Mexican cartels, Los Zetas do not take affronts lightly. Even if Anonymous cannot provide information that damages Los Zetas smuggling operations, the very fact that the collective has decided publicly to challenge Los Zetas will result in some sort of response. The big question is whether the Zetas possess the capability to trace the organizers of the Anonymous action?
One challenge with tracking an entity such as Anonymous is that it is intentionally amorphous. It is also as transnational as the Internet, and it would be unsurprising if many of those chosen to participate in the operation against Los Zetas are located in the United Sates, Europe and other areas that are outside the Zetas’ immediate reach.
The amorphous nature of Anonymous can also cut the other way, however. If Los Zetas abduct and execute random patrons at an Internet cafe, behead them and place Guy Fawkes masks on their heads, it will be very difficult to prove that they were not associated with Anonymous. Los Zetas also could execute random people and claim they had provided Anonymous with information in order to intimidate people from actually cooperating with Anonymous. As Anonymous noted in its Oct. 31 video, this is dangerous business indeed.
The Big Picture
How the Mexican public reacts to the Anonymous operation must be watched. The criminal cartels and their violence have deeply affected many people in Mexico’s middle and upper classes. STRATFOR talks to many people in Mexico who fear that they or a family member will be kidnapped. In many communities, especially places like Ciudad Juarez, Torreon, Monterrey and Veracruz, businessmen find themselves in a terrible bind. They face ever-increasing extortion demands from the cartels while their business revenues dwindle because the violence associated with those same cartels has frightened people into not going out. This is forcing many small businesses to close. It also is creating a great deal of frustration and resentment.
At the same time, Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and many media organizations practice heavy self-censorship to protect themselves. In the wake of the September blogger killings, some of the narcoblogs, like Blog del Narco, have exhibited strong signs of self-censorship inspired by fear. As a result, many Mexicans believe the mainstream media are not of any real assistance in the face of cartel violence.
Mexican citizens also are frustrated with their government, which, as noted, is well-known for corruption. This sentiment is feeding Anonymous’ original campaign in Veracruz. This frustration even has led some people to begin discussing the creation of vigilante groups to fight the cartels — though this has been attempted before in Mexico. As we saw in the case of La Familia Michoacana, which began as such a vigilante group, vigilantism frequently does not end well.
This is where Anonymous may fit in. With Mexican citizens unable to rely on their government, the media or even armed vigilante groups for assistance, they may embrace Anonymous, coming to view its form of cybervigilantism as an outlet for their frustration. If Anonymous is perceived as a safe way to pass information pertaining to cartel activities, we may see people from all over the country begin to share intelligence. Such human intelligence could very well prove to be far more damaging to the cartels than any information Anonymous activists can dredge up electronically. As this operation is becoming more widely publicized, the pool of people outside Mexico who might wish to participate will likely grow. The number of people inside Mexico who wish to provide information might grow as well.
Anonymous has taken on many powerful entities in the past, such as major transnational corporations and governments. But the repercussions from participating in such operations were never as grave for online activists as they are in this case. Being identified and detained by Scotland Yard or the FBI is a far different situation than being identified and detained by Los Zetas.