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Terrorism charges for 2 in Mexico who spread attack rumor on Twitter, Facebook

September 1, 2011 |  5:19 pm

Twitter users jailed veracruz The government of Veracruz state in Mexico has jailed a man and woman on charges of terrorism and sabotage after they published rumors of an unconfirmed narco attack on a school on the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook (link in Spanish).

The arrests are sparking outcry from human rights groups and puzzling analysts over the question of whether Mexico is equipped to handle freedom-of-speech cases as they relate to the spiraling violence of the country's drug war.

Twitter and Facebook have become indispensable sources of news on attacks in communities where local news outlets are under the thumb of drug lords or no longer report on violent incidents. At the same time, attacks against or near schools have been reported since the start of the new school year last week, sometimes causing confusion or panic among parents.

In Veracruz, active Twitter user Gilberto Martinez Vera (@gilius_22) tweeted last Thursday about a supposed attack at a primary school in the municipality of Boca del Rio, next to the city of Veracruz. Martinez Vera's original tweet on the attack said: "They took 5 kids, armed group, total psychosis in the zone." He cited a sister-in-law but later said he had misidentified the school, and then mentioned another, all of which added to the confusion.

Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola (@MARUCHIBRAVO) reportedly made similar statements on her Facebook account, leading to reports of panicked parents rushing to the school mentioned in their messages. Her Twitter shows inactivity since Aug. 22.

The attack account could not be confirmed by authorities. The following day, Martinez, a teacher, and Bravo, a journalist and former state bureaucrat, were arrested in their homes.

Amnesty International in Mexico reports that the two were taken to the state capital of Xalapa and that they had not been permitted to speak with lawyers (link in Spanish). On Wednesday, a Veracruz judge ruled there was enough evidence to try Martinez and Bravo and ordered them held to face charges.

If convicted, they face 30 years in prison.

The case is confounding on several levels. Does spreading a rumor online constitute terrorism, even if broadly defined as the "sowing of fear"? If local media or state authorities have failed to quickly and accurately inform citizens on violent incidents or "narco-blockades" as they happen, can Twitter or Facebook be considered reliable or at least justified venues to keep people abreast of fast-moving events?

John Ackerman, editor of the Mexican Law Review, told La Plaza that the Veracruz charges point to a "worrisome tendency" to claim terrorism (as President Felipe Calderon did after last week's casino attack in Monterrey) in unprecedented incidents in the ongoing drug war.

"This has created a context of hysteria and fear and has led to totally absurd responses from the government," Ackerman said. "This shows the desperation." 

Drug-related fighting has surged in recent months in Veracruz, a port on the Gulf of Mexico, after a long period of relative calm. The state until recently was considered to be firmly under the control of the Zetas cartel. Journalists face constant threat. At least three have been killed in Veracruz since the start of the year.

Twitter users in Veracruz, who update security developments there via the hash tag #VerFollow, have protested the arrests of Martinez and Bravo and are calling for their release. But the state does not appear willing to budge.

Gov. Javier Duarte, in a widely reposted tweet, said late Wednesday (link in Spanish): "I am a Tweeter by heart, I am in favor of freedom of speech but I also defend our right to live in tranquillity and peace."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

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

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