On March 10, a gun battle erupted in Reynosa, a border city across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. The battle raged all night. The events that followed illustrate the complexities of a drug war inflated with intimidation and speculation.
When the smoke settled, government officials stated the long gun battle, waged throughout the city, claimed two lives. Officials at the city morgue said the number was closer to 40.
The city’s newspaper, El Mañana, has long abandoned cartel news. Self-censorship among newspapers in border cities is common and, arguably, misunderstood.
For many at these border newspapers, journalism is a profession with minimal pay and high risk. A profession with many examples of fearless reporting who, in the face of intimidation, have been left dead, without justice, at the hands of killers who go on killing. In 2010, at El Mañana three journalists went missing in a wave of drug violence.
So, after an all-night gun battle in this border city, there was no official tally, or news about the violence in the region’s largest paper.
In the absence of newspapers, citizen journalists under the anonymity of social media have begun to report on the violence in their community. In Reynosa, individuals use the popular hashtag — or keyword — “#Reynosafollow” on Twitter. According to the study Narcotweets: Social Media in Wartime, a 16-month period between August 2010 and November 2011, this hashtag was used daily on average 337 times.
When the gunshots rung out last Sunday, the hashtag #Reynosafollow lit up. Among the tweeters, death counts totaled around a dozen. Spinning from tweets, blogs with different body counts started popping up.
Reynosa shootout March 10, 2013This video captures 15 minutes of the gun battle in Reynosa.
So, how can the official number be as little as two? Regardless of news suppression, it’s hard — if not impossible — to tell the official count when there are no bodies to be found.
Immediately following the shootout, the cartels collected their dead. It's the common practice.
But in a McClatchy newspaper blog, Mexico Unmasked Tim Johnson, McClatchy Mexico Bureau Chief, suggests a bigger problem than the disappearing bodies. How can a border city, with a collective population between Reynosa and McAllen of 1.7 million people, have no hard numbers?
Imagine that: A caravan of heavily armed civilians moving around the city, terrorizing the civilian population right on the border of Texas, and no one can provide trustworthy information.
What Reynosa citizens — and the rest of us interested in the border — lose with the anonymity of social media is the accountability of a byline and a news organization. A ubiquitous hashtag can be used by anyone, from a teenager peering through her apartment blinds to a rival cartel spreading misinformation.
But the problem is not only Mexico’s. As author Lee Maril suggests, there is a deeper blackout amongst American journalists as well. “American reporters located in American border cities have stopped reporting on drug-related violence across the border for the same reasons as their Mexican counterparts,” Maril writes.
It’s a bold claim. As a border journalism organization we, like many others, have covered the drug war. But to cover it as a beat, on a frequent basis, getting your hands dirty, is undoubtedly a risk one must seriously weigh.
Without official numbers from a newspaper or government, we are left guessing. It is part of a large unknown surrounding the toll of the drug war. And with every event like Reynosa, we learn that in the war, reliable information disappears just like the bodies.