MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Mexico has racked up its fair share of menacingly named outlaws in a three-year drug war: the Zetas, Aztecas and even a band of female assassins called the Panthers.
Now, if the government gets its way, another name will also make the wanted list: los Twitteros.
That’s right. Twitter users are fast becoming public enemy No. 1, at least in Mexico City, where they have angered authorities by warning one another of roadside "alcoholimetro" — or Breathalyzer — checkpoints set up by the police.
But the case against the Twitteros is about more than alcohol.
Mexico is, after all, a country at war — at least according to President Felipe Calderon, who launched the crackdown on drug cartels shortly after taking office. Three years later, the streets of border cities like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana remain full of soldiers. In many ways, the government is still playing catch-up to the nation’s criminals.
In this context, the issue of the Twitteros has quickly expanded into an argument over whether public safety takes priority over free speech in a country struggling to contain serious social ills. Fearing that kidnappers and drug cartels use Twitter, Facebook or MySpace to communicate, the Mexican government is considering a bill to restrict social networking websites and to set up a police force to monitor them.
The Twitter feed in question, Anti Alcoholimetro, doesn’t hide its intent. On any given night, a dozen people write in listing the time and location where they saw a police checkpoint, helping others to avoid it.
The government’s response has been erratic. At first, city officials said tweeting the location of police checkpoints was a crime, akin to helping someone break the law, and vowed to find a way to prosecute Twitteros. But after a media frenzy, they quickly backed down.
“We’re not taking any action against the Twitteros,” said Othon Sanchez, director of preventative programs for Mexico City’s public safety office.
“I don’t think it’s a crime to say, ‘Hey, I just passed Reforma Avenue and there’s an alcoholimetro,’” he said. “But it is an irresponsible act because here in Mexico drunk driving is a serious problem. We see it on a daily basis.”
In fact, Sanchez said the Twitteros had been a blessing in disguise: their tweets have helped publicize the alcoholimetros and spurred his office to launch its own Twitter campaign in support of the program.
Yet the right to tweet is far from guaranteed, even in the relatively liberal capital of Mexico City. Article 320 of the city’s penal code prescribes prison terms of up to five years for those who “in any way help a delinquent avoid investigation by the authorities or escape their actions.”
If that seems vague, it is. But federal lawmakers are quickly working on specific legislation to track down and punish Twitteros who break the law or help others escape it.
“We have to regulate these websites to make sure there aren’t people breaking the law, making death threats or committing crimes via electronic means,” said Nazario Norberto, a federal representative and member of the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD).
Although Twitter asks users to abide by local laws, it and other social networking websites are currently completely unregulated and un-policed in Mexico, according to Norberto.
He says his bill is still in the works, but is modeled in part after a controversial Spanish bill that would allow judges to shut down websites that, according to the government, help people break copyrights and other laws.
The Spanish bill has already drawn fierce criticism from civil liberties groups. But Norberto denies his bill would restrict free speech. Instead, he argues, it would keep Twitteros from sharing private government data about the location of alcoholimetros.
“This isn’t public information because the federal police and public safety officials set up these roadblocks without telling anyone where they’ll be,” he insisted. “That’s the whole point.”
If passed, the bill would do much more than prevent Twitterers from revealing Breathalyzer checkpoints. It would also create a “cybernetic police force” to scour the web for crime, including kidnappings and drug activity, Norberto said.
His bill reflects a growing fear in Mexico that kidnapping rings and drug cartels are using social networking sites like Twitter to do business.
“It’s a way for drug cartels to locate targets,” said Ghaleb Krame, a security expert at Alliant International University in Mexico City.
“Facebook and Twitter have lots of weaknesses,” he said. “For instance, criminals can find out who are the family members of someone who has a high rank in the police. Perhaps they don’t have an account on Twitter or Facebook, but their children and close family probably do.”
Indeed, a recent string of killings suggest drug cartels are more web-savvy than the police. In December, a marine was killed during an operation to capture one of Mexico’s most wanted drug lords, Arturo Beltran Leyva, who also died in the shootout. Less than a week later, gunmen attacked the marine’s home, killing his mother and three relatives.
“How did they know where his parents lived?” Krame asked, suggesting that the cartel could have used websites like Facebook to track down the family. “Drug traffickers have an intelligence network and, as far as I know, at this moment in time it’s more effective than ours.”
While he seconds Rep. Norberto’s call for police to mine Twitter and Facebook for data, Krame said any attempt to restrict social networking websites would be a mistake.
“We have to play within the rules of the game,” Krame said. “These are open sources. If we try to regulate them we’re just going to end up like China battling Google.”
“We can’t go down that path,” he added. “It would be absolutely anti-democratic.”