By Camilo Vargas
“Journalism died a long time ago here in Mexico,” proclaims the brash, anonymous author behind Blog del Narco, the best known of the blog sites that have emerged in Mexico vowing to fill the information gap left by mainstream media’s increasing reluctance to cover the country’s drug cartels.
Blog del Narco can be gruesome, sometimes gory, and is rarely shy about self-promotion. A book by the “fugitive reporters” of Blog del Narco, published this spring, boasts that the dramatic videos it posts, including executions and decapitations, are not there for shock value, but to help people learn the fate of their loved ones and “to show the undistorted reality of the situation.”
But the blog’s hype may be greater than its news value.
“The Blog del Narco provides a real service,” said Ana Arana, an investigative journalist at Mexico’s MEPI Foundation for investigative journalism. “But they’re basically reprinting some of the same stories that come out in the local regional media.”
Others who’ve studied the blog agree that much of its newsier content is simply lifted, without credit, from mainstream media, which have been intimidated into self-censorship but neverheless continue to do some reporting on Mexico’s drug wars.
For researchers and journalists, the blog can be a useful archive of material about the drug war. said Ioan Grillo, a British freelancer who’s covered the cartels since 2001 for outlets like CNN, Reuters, and Al Jazeera English.
But its raw videos, many of them apparently provided by the drug cartels, strike some as sensationalism, not journalism.
“These are definitely not freedom fighters,” said Grillo. Blog del Narco and others that try to imitate its work “are like a swtichboard for the cartels to put out their messages to other cartels and to the public,” he said.
Blog del Narco began its coverage in March of 2010, a pivotal year in Mexico’s drug war, as the cartels expanded from their initial enclaves in Jalisco to states like Tamaulipas, Veracruz and central Mexico.
The Blog del Narco’s first post was a homemade video that its author said showed the aftermath of a shootout between drug cartels in Ciudad Camargo. “Yesterday at dawn there was a shootout,” said a woman, whose face was never seen in the video. A bit later, she noted that the streets were abandoned. “People are scared, no one leaves their home.”
In posting that first citizen contribution, Blog del Narco noted that “The media are threatened from saying anything” about the cartels. “That’s why there’s no news that in Tamaulipas there was a shootout between drug traffickers.”
That kind of raw, unfiltered citizen reporting, on a topic that had become too dangerous for mainstream media to cover regularly, instantly drew attention. In August 2010, just a few months after the blog started, The Associated Press reported that it had interviewed someone who claimed to be its author. AP identified the person it spoke with as a twenty-something computer engineer living in northern Mexico, who described Blog del Narco as a hobby that demanded about four hours a day to aggregate content.
That content appeared to come from every side in Mexico’s violent drug war: drug gangs showing off their power, as well as law enforcement officers showing their capacity for response. Material from the drug cartels includes gruesome images of executions and interrogations. The mission in showing these, according to the blog, was to showcase what the media industry, threatened by all sides, could not.
Blog del Narco set the standard for dozens of other narco blogs that sprung up to cover the Mexican drug war. The news coverage model was to aggregate raw, and in many cases, gory content, and to pick news from other media outlets too.
The Blog del Narco was even running ads, showcasing Chevy truck ads along with videos of decapitations, interrogations and ‘narcomantas,’ cardboard signs left on victims with messages from the cartels.
The blog’s authors have claimed to be a twenty-something Mexican journalist who calls herself “Lucy” and an engineer who helps her with the site maintenance. They continue to portray themselves as Mexico’s best source for accurate coverage of the drug war. But as the site has developed, citizen contributions have become rare, while there is a abundance of gory material from the drug cartels, usually posted with minimal detail and little context or analysis.
The journalistic value in aggregating the cartel material is minimal, said Arana. When it comes to telling the story of Mexico’s drug war, “They’re not connecting the dots,” she said.
“It’s hard to do an analysis of everything out there, because there’s so much, and it’s so graphic and disturbing to go through all of it,” said Melissa del Bosque, a reporter from the Texas Observer who wrote about the blog for The Guardian.
In April 2013, the blog came under fire from other journalists like Michel Marizco, from the assocation of border-states public radio Fronteras Desk. Marizco criticized the blog for its systematic plagiarizing of stories that had been reported by mainstream Mexican newspapers, including La Prensa, Excelsor and the Diario de Guerrero. “The owners of Blog Del Narco maintain that journalists are not doing their job in Mexico,” wrote Marizco. “And yet, the same stories run word-for-word on both the blog and the websites of major Mexican newspapers.”
Around the same time, the blog’s authors suddenly lifted their curtain of anonymity a bit, apparently in order to promote a new book, “Dying for the Truth: Undercover Inside Mexico’s Drug War.” In telephone and Skype interviews with Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Texas Observer, and local Texas TV stations, Lucy concealed her voice and face while claiming credit for groundbreaking coverage of the drug cartels.
“Lucy” says she lives an underground life, running with her blogging partner from basement to basement, escaping threats from cartels and government forces alike. She also claimed that some of the blog’s collaborators have been gruseomely murdered. A spokesperson for Feral House, the book’s publisher, said that “Lucy” lives in extreme fear for her life. The advertisement for the book on the publisher’s webpage builds on the blog’s narrative, in a way that appears insensitive to the dozens of journalists who have already died covering the drug war.
The Blog del Narco’s popularity appears to be waning. The blog’s authors claimed to be one of the top sites in Mexico, with page traffic of up to 3 million per week. Today, Blog del Narco ranks as the 372nd most viewed page in Mexico, according to Amazon-owned site traffic monitor Alexa.
The blog took a break in April, around the time of the media blitz. When it came back on May 3, the site had undergone a facelift. But the contents remain the same: “news” lifted from other outlets and gory pictures. The blog hasn’t published any new videos or material from the cartels in months.
Camilo Vargas, Trevor Bach, Sadef Kully and Kathryn Brenzel reported on Mexico.