Mexican supporters of an shadowy Internet hacker movement are appealing to their colleagues to call off a threatened cyberattack against the Zetas drug cartel, fearing retaliation from the Mexican crime syndicate known for cutting off people's heads.
Activists associated with the so-called Anonymous movement say that on Friday they plan to expose collaborators of the drug gang, which they have accused of kidnapping one of their Mexican supporters.
However, the administrators of a website called Anonymous Latin America want the cyberattack canceled.
"It is a controversial, very high-risk operation, in which we would prefer not to take part," they said this week, warning of "an imminent and real danger of the large scale loss of human life."
They said they are "thinking first and foremost" about younger, less experienced supporters of the group who "do not know how to protect their identity correctly."
"If somebody carries out an action in the name of Anonymous, the criminals will not have the capability to distinguish" those who took part from those who did not, they said. "We are all in the same boat, and we will float or sink together."
The cyberattack against the Zetas, known by its Twitter hashtag #OpCartel, "is a very dangerous idea," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a specialist on cartel violence and government response.
"I understand that people are really grasping for ways to resist the cartels ... but this will provoke great violence and retaliation," she said Wednesday.
Releasing personal information - like home addresses, phone numbers and bank or email account details - online is something Anonymous hackers have done repeatedly, targeting individual law enforcement in New York and Arizona.
In the threat against the drug cartel, the stakes may be much higher for the hackers.
"We have seen reports that Los Zetas are deploying their own teams of computer experts to track those individuals involved in the online anti-cartel campaign," said analyst Ben West of Stratfor, a private-sector intelligence firm.
Over the past three months, three Mexican bloggers who anonymously published information online about the cartels have been murdered, he said.
Nonetheless, other Anonymous hackers have vowed to press on with the operation.
"#OpCartel is more alive than ever and as I told others in private, the war against corruption is on both sides of the spectrum. We are going to WAR!" states a Twitter posting from an account used by the hacker known as Sabu.
The row underlines the fragmented and murky character of a movement with its most celebrated hackers keeping their real identities hidden even from their closest colleagues.
It also highlights the risk that young computer enthusiasts can get pulled into illegal and dangerous acts of protest online.
The original call for action came in a video posting last month.
Using Mexican slang but speaking with a Castilian Spanish accent, the hacker, dressed in the signature Anonymous black suit and tie and a mask, accused the Zetas of kidnapping one of the group's supporters during a street protest in Veracruz.
If he was not released by Nov. 5 or was harmed, the video threatened to release online lists of "taxi drivers, journalists [and] police officers" who work for the cartel - along with details of "their cars, houses, bars, brothels and everything else in their possession."
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