Twitter Saves Lives in Mexico

June 10, 2011

by Arjan Shahani

The situation of widespread violence in our border states stemming from drug cartel wars and the federal government’s attempt to combat them is well known.  But I would like to share a story of success that truly symbolizes the strength we can find in social unity when coping with the present state of instability.

The people of Monterrey (located in the northeastern part of Mexico) used to consider the southern part of Texas both their playground and their place for shopping. Even after NAFTA made most consumer products readily available within Mexico, the custom of taking a weekend trip to the Rio Grande Valley or destinations such as San Antonio, Austin or Corpus Christi remained.

That is, until people became too afraid to travel on the Mexican highways near the border. The past couple of years have seen a sharp decline in tourists willing to risk their lives to pass through towns like Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Río Bravo, and Matamoros—all overrun by the cartels. In Monterrey, too, people are less willing to be out on the town after hours. They are afraid of being caught in the middle of a fight between rivaling cartels or criminals and authorities.

However, due to the proliferation of new social media (specifically Twitter) people are now better equipped to cope with their fears. Local anonymous heroes have emerged and created accounts such as @TrackMty, @SPSeguro and @MAGS_SP that are used to warn people about risk zones and specific attacks in real time. Each citizen who follows these users becomes a non-official reporter. And with the widespread popular response to these new accounts, the result is eyes and ears everywhere of people willing to invest a couple of minutes to warn others of danger and lessen the possibilities of innocent people being caught in the crossfire.

Here’s how it works. The person witnessing an attack tweets it to one of these accounts, which is then re-published to a massive audience.  Thanks to this non-paid service we have been able to avoid a number of risky situations by rerouting our course while going from point A to point B. For example, in a matter of seconds, a warning shared by @TrackMty reaches a 40,000-person audience.

The local newspaper EL NORTE, spearheaded a similar strategy for securing highway travel during holiday seasons by promoting the use of a series of hashtags (keywords) on Twitter such as #carreteralaredo and #carreterareynosa (the highways to Laredo and to Reynosa) for reporting incidents on these main roads going to major border towns.

I have witnessed this Twitter warning system firsthand. In traveling through Laredo with my family recently I felt a bit more protected every time a notification came in from a traveler a few miles in front of me noting that there was no danger ahead. With no hidden agenda and nothing to earn from it, users I have never met such as @Gabsinelli, @labellayellibro and @lacandanosa kept me and my family safe during the trip. All I can do is publicly thank them for it. Following suit, I repaid the favor and used the appropriate hashtags to provide similar information for the benefit of those traveling behind me.

The social media boom has sparked revolutions in some countries. In Mexico, it brings us together and provides an opportunity to show solidarity in our common challenge facing urban violence. When credibility in state and municipal law enforcement is as tarnished as it is in Mexico, civil society finds new ways to try to secure itself.  

To all of those who selflessly participate in this chain of collaboration and communication for the better good, thank you.

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*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.

Tags: Mexico, Social Media

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