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World

Examining The Role Of Citizen Journalism In Mexico

ARUN RATH, HOST:

On the other side of the border, where south Texas meets northeastern Mexico, the city of Reynosa is in chaos. It has been since the drug cartels sent police and reporters running. Accurate information about the hazards in the town was hard to come by. That's when citizen journalists took to Twitter to share the cartel activity they were seeing. They use the same hashtag for their updates - #ReynosaFollow. It was a triumph of average, everyday citizens rising above their dangerous situation. That is until it all fell apart. That story is told in the latest edition of Texas Monthly by writer Eric Benson.

ERIC BENSON: It started about a month after this sort of pretty violent split between the Gulf Cartel and their former enforcement wing, which is a group called Los Zetas. And there was a group that was really just citizens looking out for each other tweeting with the hashtag #ReynosaFollow.

So if there is a shootout taking place somewhere, you know, citizens will see that and start tweeting. You know, I see there's a situation of risk in this area of the city and sometimes we'll take a picture of it. And then there were people like the man who I sort of profile in this piece who tweets under the name @MrCruzStar, and he's also called Chuy, although that's not his real name. And what he would do is if he saw three kind of verifiable reports, he would consider tweeting it himself. And a lot of people follow his accounts. So his account is one that's given extra emphasis by people who follow #ReynosaFollow.

RATH: And eventually, things started to go sideways with hashtag #ReynosaFollow on a number of fronts. First, can you talk about how Mexican law enforcement got involved?

BENSON: Well, what people in the #ReynosaFollow community started to notice as it got more popular - everyone who tweets pretty much is anonymous. And anonymity means that anyone can be involved and anyone can say, you know, whoever they are. And so Chuy started to notice that people were popping up on #ReynosaFollow who seemed to have a real agenda that was aligned with the government. There were these anonymous users who would say things like don't be a coward, denounce the cartels. And that didn't seem like what had been going on before with just the citizen journalists like Chuy.

RATH: And there was also a rift that developed between different #ReynosaFollow factions as well.

BENSON: Yeah, the rift was between people who were like Chuy and like another man who I spoke to for the piece. Those people believe very strongly that #ReynosaFollow should only be used for informing people about situations of risk, not naming cartels or things like that. But the government is involved in a shootout with criminal organizations. You know, citizens should stay away or things like that. And there was another faction that was much more aggressive in the way that they tweeted, and they were very vocally anti-cartel, even sometimes mentioning individual people who they thought were involved with the cartels and denouncing them publicly on Twitter.

RATH: And then finally the cartel, it seems, responds. It looks like there's a murder that they're involved with. Can you explain what happened?

BENSON: Yeah, there was a woman who tweeted. Felina is kind of what she was known as. And in October of last year, her account was taken over late one night, and there were a few - there were four tweets kind of in succession saying friends and family, my name is Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio. I'm a doctor. Today, my life has come to an end. Then the next two tweets read (reading) I have nothing else to say, but do not make the same mistake as I did. You do not win anything. To the contrary, I now realize that I found death in exchange for nothing. They are closer than you think. And then there was a final tweet (reading) close your accounts. Do not risk your families as I did with mine. I ask for forgiveness. And then at the bottom of that tweet there were two pictures. The first was a picture of her looking into a camera, and the second picture was of her on the ground apparently dead and murdered.

RATH: Now, to be clear, no one is certain that a murder actually occurred. This was an anonymous account and there was no body recovered.

BENSON: That's right. It's getting into the real murkiness of the Twitter space there. And it's a murkiness that goes pretty deep into a lot of things that are happening in Mexico.

RATH: Well, even without knowing, what has been the effect of this on the citizens tweeting about what was going on?

BENSON: Well, the effect has been to silence a lot of people. And it means that people even like Chuy, who's been a very active tweeter since the beginning of #ReynosaFollow, kind of have to think a little more about who's watching what he's tweeting. And whatever happened with Felina, that effect is very real.

RATH: That's journalist Eric Benson. His new story can be found in the latest Texas Monthly. Eric, thanks so much.

BENSON: Thanks, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.