REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- A story that at first seemed to point ominously to a dangerous new development in Mexico's drug war was spiraling into confusion Friday as social-media users claiming ties to the hackers group Anonymous announced -- and then retracted -- a threat against the Zetas cartel in Mexico.
Some Twitter users who claim membership in the secretive hackers collective said they would be carrying out the attack against the ultra-violent Zetas by revealing the identities of the cartel's associates and businesses starting Saturday.
Adding to the confusion, the reason for the supposed cancellation of the attack shifted throughout the day. Did the Zetas release the Anonymous member allegedly kidnapped in Mexico, an abduction that purportedly inspired the hackers' threat? Or did Anonymous receive threats itself and cancel the operation for the safety of its members and their families?
In the dual worlds of shadowy cartels and shadowy hackers, there is almost no way of knowing, and no way of verifying such claims.
Anyone can claim membership of the leaderless hackers group. And anyone, in theory, can start a hash-tag on Twitter and call it an "operation" -- even before a single action is taken.
The Anonymous threat, if carried out, would raise the stakes considerably in Mexico's drug war. A public list of names and businesses allegedly tied to the Zetas probably would spark an immediate burst of violence wherever the Zetas operate as rivals or authorities sought weaken or even eliminate the fearsome cartel through force.
Yet warning signals on the legitimacy of the #OpCartel threat appeared early on but were largely ignored by U.S. and Mexican news media that chose to report it.
The original video (in Spanish) makes reference to a supposed kidnapping of an Anonymous associate, but it did not offer any proof that would permit reporters to independently verify it. Neither has the alleged kidnapping been confirmed by authorities in Veracruz state.
Several calls to the Veracruz state government Friday were not returned.
The video also does not appear similar to previous Anonymous announcements reportedly made in Veracruz, which make specific references to local politicians and news outlets. In contrast, the new video threat against the Zetas uses vague language and curiously praises "honest authorities like the army and marines."
If #OpCartel does not materialize, the buzz over the threat would raise thorny questions about mainstream media coverage of such threats and the amplification of random or unfounded claims made on YouTube and Twitter.
Several prominent Anonymous Twitter accounts, including AnonHispano and IberoAnon, have denied involvement and appear to be scrambling to police themselves, arguing to rogue Anonymous hackers now that the operation is dangerous and should not be carried out.
Yet others, like AnonymouSabu, say #OpCartel is still alive. One tweet said: "I don't speak for anonymous the same way you don't -- we are two individuals. Those who want to work on the op can, and will."
-- Daniel Hernandez