REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Four people have been killed in gruesome fashion in Mexico since September for posting about drug cartels on social-media websites, the headlines and news reports say.
Trouble is, the reports could be wrong.
Information is the latest battleground in Mexico's drug war, as a string of brutal deaths in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo has produced alarming reports that social networks are under attack by the infamous Zetas cartel.
Most of the reports, however, are not built on verifiable facts. And facts have become a rare commodity in many regions of Mexico that are dominated by drug cartels.
In each case, such as a man found decapitated near a monument in Nuevo Laredo on Wednesday, the victims have been left with hand-lettered messages suggesting that they were using Twitter and the local chat board Nuevo Laredo En Vivo to report on cartels.
In each case, the messages have warned against cooperating with the Mexican military and have been signed with multiple Zs, presumably referring to the Zetas.
But how can anyone know for sure?
Drug-war experts have long warned that the messages found on bodies, often called narcomantas, are used as propaganda tools by competing criminal groups, and that their contents, unless independently verified, cannot be trusted.
At the same time, traditional news outlets report less on cartel activity or killings out of fear of being targeted, and local authorities often keep everyone in the dark when it comes to crime.
So citizens in Nuevo Laredo and other violence-plagued cities have turned to social networks to keep abreast of dangerous goings-on in their communities. Using local hash tags such as #ReynosaFollow, people tweet the precise locations of shootouts, for example.
In Nuevo Laredo, criminals have responded to the crowd-sourced reporting with chilling warnings: dumping bodies in public.
The first case came in early September, when the bodies of a man and a woman were found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo along with signs saying they were killed for posting messages on the Internet related to criminal activities.
Then, in late September, a woman was found decapitated alongside a poster purportedly signed by the Zetas claiming she was killed for the same practice. That woman was identified as Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro by the Tamaulipas state government, which also said she was a journalist at a local newspaper. As The Times reported, Nuevo Laredo en Vivo identified Macias as fellow user "Nena de Laredo" and mourned the loss.
Then, on Wednesday, word spread about the man who had been found decapitated with yet another message warning social-media users.
With each case, facts remain elusive.
Two months after their deaths, the first two victims have yet to be properly identified. No names have been released, no exact ages given, and no independent verification has been made that they were, in fact, social-media users and were killed in retaliation for their online activity.
Several calls to authorities in Nuevo Laredo inquiring about the two victims were met with evasive responses Thursday. Municipal, investigative and public affairs officials reached on the phone declined to offer information on the case.
As for Elizabeth Macias, it remains unclear whether she was really a journalist or held another type of position at the Primera Hora newspaper, as some reports said. A woman who answered a call at the newspaper Thursday said Primera Hora was turning down all inquiries related to the case.
The man found Wednesday also has not been properly identified. Once again, there is no independent proof yet that he used social media to share information about criminal activity in Nuevo Laredo.
So who benefits from reports that say so? Cartels? Corrupt government or military forces? That isn't clear either.
Nonetheless, "tuiteros" across northeastern Mexico released a "manifesto" Tuesday demanding justice for the four victims in Nuevo Laredo. Reached by The Times via email, a leading user known as @NarcoNewsMX said that fellow Twitter users are as much in the dark the about the identifications of the victims as journalists or anyone else.
"We are tired of the impunity of the homicides and the horror that they sow in the population," wrote @NarcoNewsMX. "We also don't have exact information. That is exactly the point."
-- Daniel Hernandez
Image: A screen shot from Nuevo Laredo En Vivo showing a message posted by user NenaDLaredo on Sept. 7, 2011.