MEXICO CITY — With all the worldwide fascination it's attracting, the armed conflict in Mexico's western state of Michoacan may seem as violent as that of Syria or Afghanistan.
The carnage from what's now considered the front of Mexico's gangland wars has been relatively light. Killings and injuries have tallied in the dozens, at most, since the region flared up in recent months. That's amid seven years of war that's left more than 100,000 people dead or disappeared.
Still, photos, videos and text feeds from the “war” in Michoacan's Tierra Caliente, or Hot Country, have multiplied exponentially in recent months as the so-called self-defense militias have wrested control of town after town from the Knights Templar gang.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have become as essential to the warriors' arsenal as assault rifles, rakish garb and macho swagger.
Take this video, below, of self-proclaimed members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. They're masked and armed to the teeth.
That was a response to this next guy, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, a senior leader of the Knights Templar gang. His YouTube appearance below is titled with a death threat to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Now, as the self-defense squads take over streets and country roads in defiance of gangs — and sometimes local police and federal government forces, too — there's even more action on the social networks.
Here's a firefight, allegedly between the self-defense groups and their rivals, the Knights Templar. The image is a still, but the live rounds popping in the audio seem unmistakable.
Twitter's been popping, too. Here's a recent post by a user from the gang-dominated town of Apatzingan, in Michoacan.
— freedd (@federico_121) January 12, 2014
In English, it reads: "The community vigilantes detain Mujica municipal policemen!!!"
Then again, social media has been playing a big part in Mexico's hyper-violence from the beginning.
Bodies have been hung from bridges, left on road sides, and stuffed into parked cars for the sole purpose of getting an accompanying message — usually scrawled ungrammatically on cardboard — to enemies, the government or the public.
Images of grotesque scenes are quickly uploaded to online networks.
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Blogs and websites dedicated to the crisis carry snuff videos of victims being interrogated or killed, sometimes butchered alive with machetes, axes or hunting knives. Among the best English-language sites to catch the latest grisly violence is Borderland Beat. Relative newcomer Narcconoticias currently leads the Spanish-speaking pack.
But the internet's role has expanded as both gangsters and government have sought to control or quash mainstream media coverage of the bloodshed.
Conversely, citizens and local governments for years have used social networks and mobile text messages to send warnings of criminal attacks and other risky situations in besieged areas.
Recent Knights Templar efforts to command the conversation about them include appearances on foreign television. The following interview with gang leader Gomez was included in a report on the conflict aired Jan. 28 on Britain's Channel 4 News.
While readily admitting to being a criminal, Gomez modestly confides to the reporter that he's been afflicted with “altruism” since he was young, which spurs his actions.
The self-defense militias maintain a Facebook page, Valor Por Michoacan, which carries details of their exploits and explains their cause to the world. The page has thousands of likes.
A similar Knights Templar page was dismantled months ago. But a self-proclaimed Templar gunman, who calls himself Broly Banderas, has become a Facebook sensation by posting beefcake and Rambo-esque photos of himself on his Facebook page.
There's a purported interview with young Banderas, 24, in which he says he joined up with the Templars for the fame and the women.
"Before I was very lonely and it was sad for me," he tells an interviewer of his teenage years working menial jobs in a candy store, a bakery and businesses in Apatzingan, his hometown. "Truth is I don't want to be that person again. It was humiliating, sad, ugly."
"Now, man, I have more women than I can handle," he says. "And although they know that I go around with a lot of others they still follow me and even fight over me. Some even come from far away to be with me a while, just to make love.”
So Banderas has traded a pathetic past for the pirate's life. Fair enough. Such psycho-sexual motives undoubtedly feed the ranks on all sides of Michoacan's madness. They've done so in conflict everywhere, throughout time.
Some fans question that it's women's attention he seeks, however, and have mocked him with jabs at his masculinity.
"What diet do you follow?” an anonymous reader asked in the comment section of the interview.
"How do you care for your hair, trim your eyebrows? What kind of lip gloss do you use? Why do you wear pink underwear?"
Social media can be such a vengeful gift.
But Michoacan's madness isn't just another tacky reality show.
Take a few minutes to watch this English-subtitled video of a Methodist minister recounting how he was allegedly nearly executed by the Knights Templar a few weeks ago, after being kidnapped along with his wife and two young daughters near the gang's bastion of Apatzingan.
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