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      Cartel Kidnapping Spreads Terror on Twitter

      Cartel Kidnapping Spreads Terror on Twitter Cartel Kidnapping Spreads Terror on Twitter Cartel Kidnapping Spreads Terror on Twitter
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      Cartel Kidnapping Spreads Terror on Twitter

      By Shannon Young

      Dr. Maria del Rosario Fuentes always had her phone in her hand. Many of her friends, colleagues, and relatives had no idea it was her portal into a parallel life.

      To many people who knew her, Fuentes was a 36-year-old general practitioner and mother in the Mexican border city of Reynosa. But on Twitter she was "Felina," a citizen reporter who hid behind a Catwoman avatar and used the handle @Miut3 to post information about cartel shootouts in her violence-plagued city, located just across the Rio Grande from Hidalgo, Texas.

      The warnings — intended to help her fellow citizens avoid stray bullets and risky situations — were mixed with romantic quotes and greetings to her favorite followers. Then, suddenly, she fell silent.

      On October 15, Fuentes was kidnapped by a group of armed men outside her workplace. She was unmasked as Felina early the next day. The last tweet published from her account contained two photos. In the first, she gazes into the camera with a sad and heavy look, her usual eye makeup washed away by tears. In the second, she is lying in a pool of blood with vacant, open eyes.

      With these images came a warning: "Close your account. Don't risk your families as I have. I ask for forgiveness."

      The gruesome images have amplified the message of fear and reinforced the belief that speaking out on Twitter about Mexico's cartels can get you killed.

      Two weeks after the tweets were first published, Fuentes's body still has not been found. Fuentes, who often worked anonymously to draw attention to missing persons cases, has become one of the tens of thousands of people in Mexico who have been "disappeared" since former president Felipe Calderón launched a militarized war on drugs in 2006.

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      To find out more about Fuentes — and what happened to her — VICE News interviewed multiple sources who knew the doctor personally or professionally, and others who were long-time "Felina" followers. Fearing the same fate that befell Fuentes, these individuals all requested anonymity.

      Though the sources have helped shed light on the chain of events that led to Fuentes being abducted, it's still unclear exactly how and why she was targeted. What is certain, however, is that her disappearance has sown terror in Reynosa's community of Twitter activists.

      Friends describe Fuentes as "a friendly, cheerful person" who was devoted to her family. The doctor worked nights at a hospital in Reynosa, and days as an occupational health specialist at a local maquiladora, or border manufacturing facility.

      A friend, "Jacobo," said Fuentes often coordinated aid efforts in Reynosa. In September 2013, she helped mobilize the response to flooding caused by Hurricane Ingrid in southern Tamaulipas.

      Throughout her work and altruism, she managed to keep "Felina" a secret from friends and colleagues.

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      "She always had a phone in her hand," said a person who knew Fuentes professionally, but only found out she was "Felina" after reading about her abduction and apparent murder in a local newspaper.

      Felina's role on social media was invaluable in Reynosa, the most populous city in Tamaulipas, a northeastern state that abuts the Gulf of Mexico and has a lengthy border with Texas.

      In 2010, the powerful Gulf Cartel — which previously maintained virtual control over Tamaulipas — split with Los Zetas, a paramilitary group that served as its armed wing. The result was urban warfare.

      Cartel threats, a substantial government propaganda campaign, and violent attacks have silenced local media from reporting on organized crime, and Tamaulipas — like much of Mexico — is rife with official corruption and systemic impunity. Citizens feel abandoned by the institutions charged with ensuring public safety.

      According to Mexico's National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), in 2013 the national impunity rate reached more than 93 percent. Crimes often go unreported in the country due to the perception that local officials and organized crime are two facets of the same power structure. When crimes do get reported, official investigations often go no further than filing the requisite paperwork.

      In that climate, Tamaulipas residents turned to social media to inform each other about violence in the streets. Online forums and blogs were initially popular, but Twitter soon became the preferred method for relaying real-time information about how to avoid shootouts. The hashtag #ReynosaFollow was often used to localize reports.

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      "Felina" not only reported real-time risk situations, but also persistently called on locals to send anonymous tips about organized crime activity to military hotlines, sometimes offering to act as an intermediary for the hesitant. She was known to publish celebratory tweets when alleged cartel members were killed, and was openly supportive of the armed forces.

      Some sources say her approach may have angered criminals and increased her risk of exposure. "She loved to be social, but she was careless about her security in this regard," one person said.

      There are two competing theories about why Fuentes was abducted. The first theory is that her kidnappers somehow identified Fuentes as the person behind @Miut3, tracked her down, then killed her in reprisal for her online activity.

      The final tweets sent from the @Miut3 account all used the #ReynosaFollow hashtag, guaranteeing that the citizens who maintain the local alert system would quickly see them.

      The last tweets, clearly not written by her, read in all-caps: "Friends and family, my real name is Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio. I am a doctor. Today my life has reached its end. I have nothing left but to say to you all, don't make the same mistake I have. You will gain nothing by it. To the contrary, today I realize that I have found my death in exchange for nothing. They are closer to us than you think."

      A tweet by @garzalaura142, which reads: "We are getting closer to several, watch out Felina."

      Other Twitter users connected to @Miut3 received taunting threats in the weeks before and after her disappearance.

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      [body_image src='//news-images.vice.com/images/2014/10/28/a-twitter-user-may-have-been-bludgeoned-to-death-for-reporting-on-crime-in-mexican-state-body-image-1414529756.png' width='1080' height='367']

      An account that used the name "Laura Garza" warned Twitter users on September 26 that they were being tracked down. "Now you all have your tails between your legs, because we are locating those who upload photos here," the tweet read.

      Shortly after 1pm, the day of the kidnapping, "Laura Garza" mockingly tweeted "Felinaaaaaa, haven't heard from you, where are you?"

      Narco-violence such as Felina's murder is off-limits for local news outlets. But some of Reynosa's newspapers, including El Mañana, broke their usual silence, giving the kidnapping and apparent murder some coverage. Some residents have questioned their intent.

      One local, who asked to remain anonymous, described the reports as a "two-sided message to warn everyone about what could happen to them if they keep reporting — a way of saying 'these are the consequences.'"

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      Tragically, it's not the first time a social media user in Tamaulipas has been murdered to intimidate an online community into silence.

      In September of 2011, Maria Elizabeth Macías Castro, a moderator of a forum known as Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, was kidnapped and beheaded. Her body was photographed with computer equipment, in the center of a traffic circle in the Tamaulipas border city of Nuevo Laredo. Like Fuentes, Macías encouraged citizens to report organized crime activity to the military.

      But some sources believe it was bad luck led to her kidnapping, and carelessness that may have led to her murder after she was already in custody.

      The Mexico City-based magazine Zócalo reported that Fuentes was abducted outside a private clinic at around 11am on October 15, along with two co-workers — a nurse who, like Fuentes, was leaving after the night shift, and a male doctor who was on his way in to work.

      Two vehicles of armed men reportedly intercepted the trio just outside the building. The unnamed male doctor was released within hours and fled Reynosa. The nurse reappeared several days later — then quit her job and moved back to her hometown, sources said.

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      A medical source who spoke with VICE News on condition of anonymity said that the three hospital workers were taken to a house where they were beaten and interrogated.

      Over the course of the questioning, the male doctor allegedly said the captors seemed angry about an incident that occurred while Fuentes was on duty at the clinic. According to the VICE News source, during a night shift, a young couple brought in a child (around four years old) who was having seizures. Fuentes administered a dose of medicine and later advised the parents to take the child to another hospital. The child died shortly thereafter. 

      The source also said Fuentes had another incident when she was either unwilling or unable to send an ambulance to pick up a criminal wounded in a shootout. It's unclear which incident specifically angered the kidnappers, but they allegedly questioned the three medical staff members trying to find out which doctor was responsible for the death of a patient.  

      According to the source, the abductors asked "Who did it?" and "Who treated him?" The male doctor, who had only just arrived at the hospital when he was snatched, insisted he had no idea what they were talking about. He was later dumped along a roadside, and returned to the clinic to warn other staff members that Fuentes and the nurse were in trouble. 

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      No further details of the kidnapping were available, and other doctors and staff members at the hospital where Fuentes worked were unwilling to talk. A local source told VICE News that a gag order has been imposed by the clinic's administration, and several employees have quit since the kidnapping out of fear for their safety.

      Jacobo believes that the kidnappers targeted Fuentes because of her medical work. In the process, they unknowingly abducted one of the city's most high-profile Twitter users, and only discovered her "Felina" alter ego after searching her phone.

      Jacobo said he had often warned Fuentes against leaving her accounts open to sites like Twitter and Zello — an app that allows people to use their smartphones like walkie-talkies to deliver voice reports to an online civilian radio network. "Felina" helped moderate the "MiReynosa" Zello channel.

      In Reynosa, Tamaulipas — the Mexican state with the highest kidnapping rate, according to the most recent federal statistics — residents told VICE News that abductors often scrutinize the cellphones of their victims, searching for information they can exploit. The three victims of this kidnapping would have been no exception.

      Twitter users who have participated for years in #ReynosaFollow remarked that the apparent murder of Fuentes caused multiple users to suspend their accounts or change usernames and the appearance of their profiles. However, the hashtag is still serving its purpose of alerting residents to security risk situations.

      "Fear is a natural way of protecting ourselves," as one #ReynosaFollow participant explained in the days after Fuentes vanished. "But, as scared as we are, we have to protect our city."

      Follow Shannon Young on Twitter @SYoungReports.

      Topics: reynosa, tamaulipas, mexico, twitter, gulf cartel, americas, crime & drugs, reynosafollow, maria del rosario fuentes, felina, miut3, valor por tamaulipas, laura garza

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