|More than 36,000 people have died in drug violence since 2006 [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]
The images are gruesome and unedited: a dead man in a sports jersey with his face covered in dried red blood and grey sand; a woman hanging from a rope above a busy urban over-pass and naked bodies lined up on the ground displaying clear, uncensored, signs of torture.
You have reached Mexico's narco blog: Click to continue.
"The narco blog uses much of the information citizens upload to other social networking sites," says Pedro Perez, president of the democratic union of journalists in Tamaulipas, one of the states on the US-Mexico border hit hardest by drug violence. "Organised crime gangs don’t use it [social media] to inform, they use it for issuing threats."
Some recent headlines from the site include: "Entire town taken hostage by Gunmen in Chihuahua"; "Eleven year old arrested in Acapulco with AK 47"; "Sinaloa cartel welcomes new police chief with tortured body"; and "Mass narco grave, 60 bodies found, total 148 corpses". Al Jazeera decided against publishing pictures from the blog.
Violence linked to Mexico's drug war has claimed more than 36,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon declared all-out war on cartels in December 2006.
While much of Mexico's mainstream media, especially television stations and local newspapers, has shied away from covering killings and naming the cartels involved, the narco blog and its anonymous curator, publish graphic details of spiraling violence.
"Individuals journalists are doing the best they can, but in general I don't think the media has done a fair job in covering drug violence," says Lucila Vargas, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina who studies Mexico's media landscape. "The media in Mexico are commercial enterprises and their first concern is with the bottom line," she told Al Jazeera.
|Most mainstream media companies in Mexico have an agreement not to publish information which could endanger security forces [Reuters]
Like most large scale industries in Mexico, the media - particularly television stations - are highly concentrated in a few hands. Mexicans are more likely to own a television set than to have access to running water but two TV stations - Televisa and TV Azteca - control 94 per cent of television entertainment content, according to the Mexican Right to Information Association.
While experts and average people criticise the mainstream press, there is clearly an appetite for the narco blog's coverage.
"International media outlets use the images and information from the site to report on what is happening," Perez told Al Jazeera. And that isn't surprising; followers of the Twitter page and Facebook group linked to the site include the US FBI, Mexico's Department of Defence and major international news outlets.
The narco blog has broken some major stories, including a video where a prison warden exposed her alleged system for setting inmates free at night to carry out murders for a drug gang. Security forces arrested the warden after the blog published the video.
"I was very impressed with it [the blog], it seems realistic," says Homero Gil de Zúñiga, director of community, journalism and communication research at the University of Texas in Austin, adding that verifying information posted on this and other blogs is difficult.
The curator is allegedly a computer security student in his twenties from northern Mexico, Associated Press reported, based on an interview with the man who answered the blog’s e-mail address.
"We decided to tell people what is actually happening and tell the stories exactly as they happen, without alteration or modifications of convenience," the blog's alleged author told the website Boing Boing.
But that raw methodology has many critics. "The narco blog is available to anyone, even my grandchildren," professor Vargas told Al Jazeera. "It has definitely crossed the line. I don’t know what else you can do that is more graphic.
There is plenty of research showing that prolonged exposure to violence de-sensitises people."
A narco salon
In addition to the occasional scoop, and pictures of pop stars attending lavish parties with alleged drug lords, the blog has plenty of claims and counter-claims from people purporting to represent various cartels.
In mid-April, gunmen exchanged fire and burned buildings in the border towns of Miguel Aleman and Ciudad Mier.
In a message posted on the blog, a purported spokesman for the Gulf cartel blamed soldiers linked to the Zetas - a gang comprised of former military operatives who once provided security and muscle for the Gulf cartel - for the shootings.
"We don’t brag about being brave," said a member of the Gulf Cartel in a separate posting aimed at Heriberto Lazcano, an alleged Zetas leader. "You are the ones who brag [that] roosters are tested [by] fighting, not speaking."
|Many Mexican are unhappy with how politicians have been handling the drug war [Reuters]
Think of the blog as a 19th century French salon where hit men, bandits, dealers - and the people affected by their violence – congregate to discuss ideas and actions. It is Mexico’s deadly version of "he said, she said". But since other media sources don't usually quote cartel members, citizens seem interested in what the digital hit men are saying.
In March, most of Mexico's news media, including the two leading TV stations Televisa and TV Azteca, agreed to a series of guidelines for reporting on the drug war. The news organisations promised not glorify drug violence, publish cartel propaganda or broadcast information that endangers the operations of security forces.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, (CPJ) supports the reporting guidelines, but three leading Mexican publications, Reforma, Proceso, and La Journada, refused to sign onto the deal, as reporters said it paved the way for self-censorship.
"In terms of the profession, probably the decision [to implement guidelines] was the right one," says Zúñiga from the University of Texas. "But there is going to be a niche for information [about cartel violence] and I’d anticipate that the blog is going to increase its followers."
Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s president, welcomed the agreement, stating that: "Media participation is crucial in building state security policy."
Mexico has become one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists: Between 2005 and 2010 at least 66 reporters were killed, with 12 more disappeared, according to a report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). There have only been convictions in 10 per cent of the cases.
Violence, fear and impunity don’t just hurt reporters and their families, they decimates the quality of coverage.
"Local journalists have made a pact to just cover official acts like government activities, local policemen and local activities, things that are not dangerous," says Perez, who has been threatened by cartels while working with journalists in one of the most violent border-states. "We would like to be heroes, but we are being shot at by criminals."
A 2010 analysis of drug war coverage from the Fundacion MEPI, and investigate journalism center, found that regional newspapers in Mexico are failing to report most execution style killings linked to cartels. Journalists interviewed for the study said threats, bribes and other forms of pressure influenced their decisions not to cover killings or name the suspected cartels involved.
"Organised crime members have tried to bribe or influence traditional media [and] that is the importance of social media," says Raul Trejo Delabre, an independent media analyst in Mexico City.
"Thirty three million Mexicans use the Internet everyday," he told Al Jazeera, adding that average people use Twitter, Facebook and cellphone text messages to warn their friends about shoot-outs in the neighbourhood. The blog gets at least three million hits per week, the anonymous author told Associated Press in 2010 and the stats are likely higher now.
Regardless of the role of citizen journalism in keeping people informed or the journalistic ethics behind drug war coverage guidelines, Lucila Vargas doesn't think the policy will make much of a dent in the violence engulfing Mexico. "Journalism is only part of the popular culture landscape, which includes film, music and TV programmes and all of these have been glorifying the violence," she told Al Jazeera.
And, as parts of Mexico descend into a real-time version of an uber-violent Quentin Tarintino film, the popularity of sites like the narco blog seems to be increasing.
"Bad news sells newspapers," says Zúñiga, "but good news won't sell as many."
You can follow Chris Arsenault on twitter @AJEchris
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies