Officially, the Mexican Drug War has been ongoing since December 2006 when the Mexican military became involved, but unofficially it has lasted longer. For innocent bystanders, mobile technology has been a way for people to avoid gunfire in their communities and identify "risk situations" (situaciónes de riesgo) through social media rather than local authorities and new media, who often remain silent on these issues.
While online communities functioning as civilian alert systems aren't unique to Mexico, they are invaluable in situations where violence erupts among rival drug cartels. Experts say it can also help people feel less alone during these dangerous times.
On the night of June 5, residents of Altamira and Tampico, in Tamaulipas state, began reporting their encounters with nearby armed groups over social media platforms, such as Twitter, hashtagging #SDR for situación de riesgo. The entire incident ended with five casualties, one of whom was a local leader of a criminal group, and several cargo trucks on fire.
Government policy concerning criminal activity is to not name specific groups in the media, according to Mexico's Interior Ministry after asked for information on another incident in late June that resulted in the deaths of 22 gang members.
Yet many in the area were unable to access the online reports to keep safe, something that local journalists admitted could happen during emergency events. Some residents suspected that their cellular signals had been blocked during the shootout between the cartels.
However, Telcel, a telecommunications and cellular monopoly in Mexico, stated that their service had no failure, but without government regulation of this service, it's tough to say what the cause of the signal blockage was.
Some Mexicans suggested that the cartels could block cell phone signals, but one security analyst, Alberto Islas, the director of the firm Risk Evaluation, said that the conspiracy theory doesn't make sense.
Because the cartels need to use cell phones to communicate with one another, as well, it's possible that the signal was blocked for some, but that they used a cellular repeater (or wireless cellular signal booster) to increase their own signals. These types of devices are useful in remote areas, locations with extreme weather conditions, and regions with unreliable cell phone signals.
Mexicans in these areas face several risks, besides the immediate danger from the drug cartels, according to independent scholars like Carlos Brito, a member of the organization Network in Defense of Digital Rights. The government could deem it necessary to cut off cell phone communications for all citizens in order to thwart the drug lords; as a result, however, they also remove the ability to communicate for citizens looking to warn others of the danger. For now, however, the ability to stay informed is in the hands of these citizens, as the government and other authorities have not offered any regulation concerning these events.