Twitter users across the world witnessed a rare moment of disturbing brutality on Oct. 16, 2014. A social media journalist and doctor, going by the twitter pseudonym “Felina,” was killed and photos of her dead body were posted to her account. At the time of her death, she’d been reporting on the ongoing cartel violence happening in the brutal border town of Tamaulipas, Mexico.
The cartel members who killed her commandeered her Twitter account and posted photos of her dead body with the message, “Friends and family, my real name is Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, I am a doctor, today my life has come to an end. Shut down your accounts; do not risk your families’ lives as I have done. I ask your forgiveness.”
Though Fuentes Rubio’s story is tragic, it’s only one of many outlined by writer Ioan Grillo, author of “El Narco” and “Gangster Warlords,” who spoke to a packed house at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena on Jan 27.
“Because regular journalists have been so cowardly about even printing some basic stuff, due to threats from cartels, these citizen journalists like ‘Felina’ pop up,” he said. “In some cases they begin to attack and murder citizen journalists, but because they don’t always know who they are, cartels will murder anybody and say, ‘We’ve killed a citizen journalist,’ to create fear. “
In Fuentes Rubio’s case, the person they killed happened to be the real Felina, as reported by The Daily Beast. Her murder created shock waves throughout Twitter, as well as the online community Valor Por Tamaulipas.
“Due to the cartels connections within law enforcement and the government, they can sometimes figure out who these journalists are and it creates a horrific atmosphere of fear,” he said.
Grillo has been covering cartel violence in Mexico for 15 years. He’s travelled around Latin America getting stories of people inside organized crime groups, what is driving them and how they operate.
He has even met with drug dealers and murderers; something he now has in common with actor Sean Penn.
“I didn’t want to publicly criticize Sean Penn over this being that I’ve been around a lot of drug traffickers and murders and I didn’t wanna be a hypocrite and say I could do that and he can’t,” he said. “But it was quite bizarre. You had this Hollywood star who’s played gangsters interviewing this gangster who wants to get a movie made about him.”
Grillo went on to make an apt comparison between the actual violence happening in Mexico with how society uses it for entertainment value.
“There’s an issue when you have Hollywood stars doing this, because it creates a whole thing where violence becomes almost a form of entertainment,” he said. “You have this weird mix sometimes of movies talking about these guys, while the real thing is happening and there’s a real tragedy out there; the dimensions of those tragedies are huge.”
In his 15 years of covering Mexican cartel crime, Grillo realized that the trail of violence spreads way beyond Mexico. Honduras, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Brazil experience the same problems, and worse.
Not only are drug traffickers being killed, but innocent citizens are killed either by criminal gunmen or by the police and soldiers who are supposed to be fighting the criminal gunmen.
Frontline reported last year that from the years 2007 to 2014, 164,000 people were victims of homicide in the drug war against Mexican cartels. That number doesn’t include the homicides happening in the Caribbean.
One story that affected him greatly was of a mother in Monterrey, Mexico. She was a schoolteacher who had two sons, aged 15 and 18. At this time, the Los Zetas cartel became very powerful in Monterrey, and heavily armed gunmen began wreaking havoc all over the city.
“One night at 1 am about 15 men kicked in her door, tied up the family and tore up her home,” he said. “One man asked her which child was the eldest, and she refused to answer.”
Fearing for his mother’s life, the eldest boy named Roy raised his hand. One member said, “You’re coming with us,” and took the boy away.
Later the mother received a phone call demanding money in exchange for her son. She frantically ran to neighbors, family and friends begging for the money to get her son back. After she dropped the money at the location she was given, they disappeared with the boy.
“They never gave her back her son,” he said. Grillo paused for a moment to collect himself. “She called the number back and the number was dead. She searched for a long time and to this day has never found him.”
Grillo met the woman one more time two years later, in the midst of a huge story that came out of Mexico. In May 2012, CNN reported that 49 headless bodies were found on a highway outside of Monterrey with their hands and feet cut off.
He was taken to the building where the bodies were being held and ran into the mother. “She was there trying to see if her son was among the victims, which he wasn’t,” he said. “That lack of closure, the pain is so immense, never knowing, never having that closure to lay your loved one to rest.”
The issue of these kinds of forced disappearances in Latin America date back to the cold war.
“Back during the Cold War you had military dictatorships who would disappear people, and now these cartels are the ones disappearing people. “
The biggest unanswered question, Grillo believes, is what exactly this conflict is categorized as and when it will end. He spoke to a source at the Pentagon who told him, ““In terms of military history it’s not crime nor is it war… its some place in between.’”
Grillo stated that the movement of guns, money and drugs around the continent is not like a traditional war. This drug war is much more fragmented and there are so many different factions of who is fighting who and governments like the U.S. and England are powerless to deal with it.
Criminal militias are going into a town committing these kind of atrocities and even worse than regular armies, these are people who are governed in the world of organized crime.
Like traditional wars, the violence is unleashing refugees. In 2014, the New York Times reported that 67,000 unaccompanied minors came to the U.S./Mexico border, fleeing their home countries. Many of them showed clear evidence that they were fleeing violent gangs.
Grillo spoke to many of the refugee children to understand what they were fleeing from. In El Salvador, the gangs were clearing out entire neighborhoods. The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang was responsible for this in many cities.
As reported by NPR, the MS-13 gang wanted to create an area of the city that they controlled against the Diez y Ocho gang. By clearing the cities, it was easier to defend their chosen territory against rival gangs.
“Organized crime groups with this power are one of the big issues of the 21st century and it’s not just an issue of cops and robbers or even of drugs, but this is bigger than that,” Grillo said. “This is an issue of the world we live in today and these crime groups and the power they have to overwhelm governments.”
Grillo further stated that if the U.S. were to recognize that these are essentially conflict zones, the government would have to look a bit more seriously at these refugees, and what kind of responsibility they may have to do something about it.
“We really need governments and society to wake up and find some coherent policy to deal with this,” he said. “Hopefully in 10 years we’re not gonna come back and be talking about a million more deaths over something we can change now.”