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Veracruz panic started before 'terrorist' tweets, reports say

September 9, 2011 |  2:02 pm

Twitter users jailed veracruz Cracks are appearing in the case against the Twitter users in Mexico accused of terrorism for spreading rumors of an attack.

Local reports and claims suggest that the "panic" that spread over rumors of child abductions at school campuses started at least two hours before the online messages that could put a man and woman behind bars for 30 years.

The Veracruz government has not responded to the claims. 

One news story said the rush started after principals began calling parents to ask them to fetch their children, contributing to the swirling confusion in a city on edge over an increase in narco-related violence.

This video report in Spanish by the local Televisa affiliate shows parents running to reach campuses after they received calls from administrators. "They told us to come for our children because there could be some kind of attack, that it wasn't official," one parent said on camera.

No attack was actually confirmed, but earlier in the day a car caught fire near one Veracruz school and reports of a helicopter flying near another campus reportedly ignited the rush to yank kids from classes just days after the start of the school year (link in Spanish).

On Thursday and Friday, the Veracruz state interior secretary's office and the Education Ministry did not respond to repeated calls and emailed questions from La Plaza requesting official verification of what happened on the morning of Aug. 25.

Gov. Javier Duarte's administration released several statements after the incident saying it would go after all "cyber-terrorists" in Veracruz through its new "cyber-police" force. (Government statements in Spanish are here and here.)

The day after the incident, while authorities located and arrested the second so-called Twitter terrorist, state education authorities toured campuses and reassured principals and parents that all was in order. Duarte, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, spoke at a breakfast sponsored by the state teacher's union and called for "responsibility" and unity in Veracruz society.

Federal judge agrees to review case

Gilberto Martinez Vera, a teacher, and Maria de Jesus "Maruchi" Bravo, a journalist and commentator, have been behind bars since Aug. 26 and their case won't be reviewed by a judge until at least Sept. 23.

That day, a federal district judge in Veracruz is expected to rule on a release request filed by the pair's attorney arguing that their constitutional rights were violated when Veracruz authorities arrested them because of their online messages.

Raising the stakes against the Duarte administration, the latest federal document on the case includes tough language warning Veracruz state authorities that they themselves can potentially face federal charges if their charges against the Twitter users are proved false.

That document, obtained by La Plaza, is in Spanish and available here. The state's charges are available as a document here. The office of state Interior Secretary Gerardo Buganza, meanwhile, did not respond to a question about that language in the federal court document.

"What the state is saying is a lie," the Twitter users' attorney, Fidel Ordoñez, said in an interview   Thursday from Xalapa, the state capital. "It's a lie that there were 26 car accidents. It's always been a lie. What they want to do is make an example of someone so that the people of Veracruz will silence themselves on the social networks." 

Witnesses say panic started 2 hours before first tweet

Separate reports point to more inconsistencies in the state's argument that Martinez and Bravo started the panic via their postings on Twitter and Facebook.

A story in the local newspaper Imagen (link in Spanish) from a Boca del Rio neighborhood noted that one stampede of parents started about two hours before the day's first tweet from Martinez. By 9 a.m. on Aug. 25, a Thursday, witnesses told the paper, parents were already rushing to the Luis Pasteur primary school after word somehow spread that kids were being kidnapped from campuses.

Though the source of the rumor remains unclear, it wasn't until 10:57 a.m., the paper said, that Martinez (@gilius_22) tweeted that he was "confirming" an attack at a school he identified first as Jorge Arroyo, then later corrected as Alfonso Arroyo.

By then, one witness told Imagen, "there were women crying, children crying, the people ran past from one way to another, a woman at the corner started vomiting from the stress."

But a Veracruz government spokeswoman dismissed the report in Imagen, pointing out that Bravo publishes a column with the newspaper, and therefore it was presumably defending her.

"The fact is they used strategies of massive reach," Sandra Garcia, a Veracruz state public information officer, said Wednesday.

Activists focus on Veracruz case

Internet activists in Mexico have been rallying around the Veracruz case as a sign of what they call creeping government repression aimed at social-networking sites. Internet and citizen journalism, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, have become "a rising force" in Mexico.

Several Mexican states are now said to be considering laws seeking to criminalize the sowing of "panic" on social-networking sites.

Twitter and Facebook have become the primary source for news on attacks and narco-blockades in some violent regions of Mexico where traditional news outlets and governments increasingly silence themselves in the face of threats from drug gangs.

In cities such as Reynosa, Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Juarez and Matamoros, citizens update themselves on raging gun fights without much help or corroboration from official or traditional news  outlets. Veracruz is "relatively new" to the practice, via the local hashtag #verfollow, said Jesus R. Robles, a human rights activist in Mexico City. 

Rumor inevitably overtakes fact in some cases, he said, as the school incident in Veracruz demonstrates.

Those cities "have had an experience, and they construct their own rules as they go along, they self-moderate," Robles said. "Veracruz has been doing this for four, five months at most. They need to have a discussion about how to have auto-control."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Gilberto Martinez Vera and Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola behind bars in Veracruz. Credit: Milenio

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