- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2011

The decapitated and tortured body of a local blogger was found in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo this week, the latest victim of a bloody campaign by the country’s drug cartels.

The man was identified in a handwritten sign left by his killers as a manager of the social networking website Nuevo Laredo en Vivo (New Laredo Live). The site is used by residents to denounce drug crime and provide real-time warnings about roadblocks the cartels have set up or gunbattles they wage.

“This happened to me for not understanding that I shouldn’t report things on social networks,” reads the sign, identifying the man by an online name, “Rascatripas,” or “Belly Scratcher.”

In Twitter messages Thursday, Nuevo Laredo Live site managers denied the victim was one of them. They called him “a scapegoat” who had been killed “to silence the voices of Nuevo Laredo.”

Rascatripas, whose body was found by a statue of Christopher Columbus on a major thoroughfare in Nuevo Laredo near the U.S. border, is the fourth blogger to be murdered in the town this fall.

On Sept 13, the tortured bodies of a man and woman were found strung by their arms and legs from a pedestrian overpass. On a banner hung nearby was a message threatening two blogs, including the secretive Blog del Narco, a kind of YouTube of the cartel wars that posted videos of gunfights and executions. The site has since relaunched in a much tamer format.

Then, on Sept. 25, one of the managers of Nuevo Laredo Live, a journalist who had blogged as La Nena de Laredo, or Laredo Girl, was murdered. The decapitated body of Maria Elizabeth Macias was abandoned at the same Christopher Columbus statue where Rascatripas’ corpse would be found less than six weeks later.

The gruesome slayings highlight the way the Mexican cartels, having largely cowed the conventional news media in many border towns, are expanding their violent campaign to less formal media channels like social networks and blogs.

“There is a great deal of self-censorship and fear” in the Mexican news media, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who studies the cartels’ use of violence.

“Individual bloggers and social media users” have to some extent stepped into the void they left, and the cartels have launched “a systematic campaign of murder to intimidate them,” she said.

The drug gangs, which already use violence to control physical territory, “are now spreading their use of terror to try and control how their criminal organizations are described on the Web,” said Frank Smyth, a consultant and trainer on journalist security.

The battles between the cartels “are not just fought on the streets,” added Carlos Lauria, Americas program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “There are also battles for the control of information.”

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