Mexico’s Narcoblog: state failure and information flows

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As suggested by recent terrorism charges laid against two citizens warning others about violence in Veracruz via twitter, social media and the Internet are increasingly important as information sources for Mexicans frustrated by an official vacuum regarding the country’s ongoing drug war. Key amongst these information sources is anonymous clearinghouse El Blog del Narco, (narcoblog) (warning – graphic images), which publishes images and news items on the nation’s drug war. It claims to be a blank slate, free of journalistic overtones, existing only to equalise the flow of information on Mexico’s increasingly lethal and chaotic drug war. For narcoblog, this means publishing images, videos and text sent by anonymous citizens.  These include images of grisly executions arguably sent by drug cartels as a warning. The anonymity of the posters makes this impossible to verify, but the accompanying text suggests it is the case.

The founders of the site claim that their aim is to make up for the shortfall of accurate information on this issue in Mexico. They claim the government has failed to manage the flow of information to its people and has a vested interest in promoting the drug war as won, therein hiding the truth of the matter: that the country is spiralling further into violent chaos. In the face of the declining standards of journalism in the country (due largely to the increasing deadliness of the profession) narcoblog now serves as the premier online portal for news about Mexico’s drug wars – it has about 3 million unique site visits per month. Although its impossible to tell how many of these are domestic news consumers, its likely that a considerable proportion are, given the site’s Spanish language content and local relevance.

This raises interesting questions in International Relations in terms of the literature on state capacity. Despite the now overwhelming amount of literature on the role of the Internet in political ‘revolution’ there is little work on its place in mapping state capacity or lack thereof, and the resultant multiplying effect it may have on state failure or state fragility.  Recent Shirky v Morozov style debates regarding the merits of the Internet in effecting political change or political repression miss the role of the Internet in states which are neither wholly democratic nor wholly repressive – but it’s these states that arguably cause the most trouble for policymakers. Bimber (2003), for example, argues that the Internet opens up a ‘post-bureaucratic’ model of governance. In narcoblog, though, we are seeing the Internet used as a mode of ‘anti-governance’. So the site is not only an alternative channel of information which citizens can use to hold governments accountable. It also enables chaos and fear  by broadcasting images of terror posted by the drug cartels—arguably furthering their aims in doing so. At the same time, it reflects a reality which the government refuses to acknowledge.

The literature on failed or fragile states cannot account for the role of the Internet in this sort of state breakdown. There are no commonly agreed features of fragile states which refer to changes in the nature of a state’s hold over communication and information flows.  This means work on the role of the Internet in either exacerbating state failure in the sense of Mexicans using the Internet as an information feed which confirms their worst fears about government incapacity, or the drug cartels using it to inspire fear and maintain their position.

Interestingly, the failure in communication in this case regards communication about an existential threat – the drug war. We could draw a long bow and make comparisons to the criticism levelled at the Japanese government’s apparent failure to manage information effectively after the recent tsunami and any role the Internet may have played in informing or disinforming citizens disenchanted with official government flows.  We are not talking here about state propaganda: we are talking about the Internet opening up alternative information flows—for good and/or bad—to a populace not being served by the state and what it means for ongoing citizen trust in that state. In the case of narcoblog, these alternative flows open up national space to the propaganda of the existential threat – the ‘enemy’.  The impact this has on state capacity and state identity is unquestionable, but how to categorise it in IR? Any thoughts on state fragility and information flows and the role of information control and legitimacy and the Internet age?

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3 Responses to Mexico’s Narcoblog: state failure and information flows

  1. Ben Turner says:

    I see the internet as an alternative information flow for IR as being this: it is an extra-government public space. Some argue that the Catholic church provided extra-government spaces for those in Latin America to organize and share information outside of their regimes. Some say that mosques and churches do/did the same in the Middle East and eastern Europe. I would say the internet provides the same contribution in some communities: it’s a place for dissidents to find each other and organize outside of government control (depending on which country it’s in).

    • sarah logan says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ben, and thanks for drawing analogies with transnational religious institutions and information flows – really interesting. In the Mexican case, whats distinctive, I think, is what we mean by ‘dissidents’ – so the organisation here (on the part of the cartels whose images narcoblog transmits) is very loose, but the transmission of information is still arguably effective. The organisation almost comes from the mode of transmission rather than the ‘dissidents’ themselves.

  2. Claire says:

    Congratulations on starting the blog. I’d be interested in how the internet is used in current public action over corruption in India, too.