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updated 9/27/2011 5:42:13 PM ET 2011-09-27T21:42:13

The killing of a Mexican woman purportedly in retaliation for her postings on an anti-crime website has left stunned chat users and employees at the newspaper where she worked worrying about their own safety in the violent border city of Nuevo Laredo.

Press freedom groups condemned the slaying of Maria Elizabeth Macias, whose decapitated body and head were found Saturday next to a message citing posts she wrote on "Nuevo Laredo en Vivo," a website used by Laredo residents to denounce crime and warn each other about drug cartel gunfights and roadblocks.

Some bloggers vowed to keep up the fight against powerful drug cartels but warned users to trust no one.

"If we want to regain our peace and our freedom, we always have to fight on, I wouldn't ask anybody to take up arms, clearly, but with our reports, we can do them damage," said one poster logged on as "anon9113," who quickly added a note of distrust, "don't become friends with anybody on here ... we have to be careful with something as simple as giving out personal information."

Another poster agreed. "Exactly, this (Macias' death) should not be in vain, we should make it an example." Others said that despite the risk, they would continue reporting. One user posted that he had seen four drug-gang lookouts in a compact car near a gas station, and gave part of the car's license plate number.

Mexican citizens, including journalists, have been increasingly relying on social media chatrooms and sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, in the face of rampant censorship and threats of violence, Carlos Lauría, the senior Americas program coordinator for New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists, told msnbc.com on Tuesday.

Local media outlets, whose journalists have been hit by killings, kidnappings and threats, are often too intimidated to report the violence, he said.

"The press is terrified and in the absence of press reports, citizens are turning to social media to fill in the void," Lauría said.

Story: Woman decapitated in Mexico for web postings

'This is what will happen'
Macias had previously been identified by an official in Tamaulipas state as Marisol Macias, who had worked as a newsroom manager for the Nuevo Laredo newspaper Primera Hora. But an editor at Primera Hora said Monday that Macias was the daily's advertising supervisor. The editor would not give his name for security reasons.

The editor said the killing apparently was not related to Macias' job at the daily, which, in the face of intimidation and threats by drug gangs, had stopped even reporting on drug violence two years ago.

"We were taken by surprise, because since about two years ago, we don't even do crime reporting," said the editor. "We don't have a crime reporter."

He said police have not talked to the paper, nor given it any information on the killing. The paper, according to weekend editions posted on its website, has not even reported on her death.

The gruesome killing may be the third so far this month in which people in Nuevo Laredo were killed by a drug cartel for what they said online.

Earlier this month, a man and a woman were found hanging from an overpass in Nuevo Laredo with a similar message threatening "this is what will happen" to internet users.

"Watch out, I've got my eye on you," the placard said, according to photos from the scene.

However, it has not been clearly established whether the two had in fact ever posted any messages.

Bloody fist tightens
Nuevo Laredo, located across the border from Laredo, Texas, has been dominated for about the last two years by the violent Zetas drug cartel.

The message found next to Macias' body on the side of a main thoroughfare Saturday referred to the nickname she purportedly used on the site, "La Nena de Laredo," or "Laredo Girl." Her head was found placed on a stone piling nearby.

"Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and social networking sites, I'm The Laredo Girl, and I'm here because of my reports, and yours," the message read. "For those who don't want to believe, this happened to me because of my actions, for believing in the army and the navy. Thank you for your attention, respectfully, Laredo Girl...ZZZZ."

The letter "Z" refers to the Zetas.

It was unclear how the killers found out her real identity; the newspaper editor said he did not know, but some posters suggested it could have been through someone she worked with.

"Cartels have so much control that even one of two people who knew who she was, was enough to target her," Lauría told msnbc.com.

Story: Families struggle to find Mexico drug war's missing

Mexico's Human Rights Commission says eight journalists have been killed in Mexico this year and 74 since 2000. Other press groups, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, cite lower figures, and numbers differ based on the definition of who is a journalist and whether the killings appeared to involve their professional work.

About 42,000 people have died since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army to control drug gangs in late 2006.

"The stability of Mexico's democracy will ultimately depend on the restoration of the media's ability to report the news without fear of reprisal," Lauría said.

The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report, as did Reuters.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: Drug flow from Mexico on the rise

  1. Transcript of: Drug flow from Mexico on the rise

    HOLT: must come down.

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: For the men and women patrolling along the Southwest border, there are signs of a growing challenge to stem the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico . US officials say the supply for Mexican traffickers is actually increasing. NBC 's Mark Potter has the latest in our special series, MEXICO , THE WAR NEXT DOOR .

    MARK POTTER reporting: In the dark of night on a lonely road along the Rio Grande , US border patrol and Texas agents seize another load of marijuana, along with two suspected Mexican smugglers. How much do these weigh?

    Unidentified Man #1: Probably about 50 pounds or so.

    POTTER: Each. This year, border patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley alone have seized a record nearly 500 tons of marijuana from Mexico .

    Mr. ANTHONY COULSON (Retired DEA Supervisor): We have more drugs available now, more drugs are coming across the border, and more drugs available. So the strategy with Mexico isn't working.

    POTTER: Despite Mexico 's vicious five-year drug war in which an estimated 40,000 people have been killed, US officials say they have seen no drop in the supply of illegal drugs produced or shipped by Mexican traffickers. According to a Justice Department report released this month, "Mexican-based cartels control distribution of most of the heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine available in the United States ... Moreover, production of these drugs in Mexico appears to be increasing." The DEA reports that since the Mexican drug war began in 2006 , seizures in the four US border states of California , Arizona , New Mexico and Texas have gone up dramatically for marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. The US drug czar says Mexican troops are too busy to control the rise in drug production.

    Mr. GIL KERLIKOWSKE (Office of National Drug Control Policy Director): President Calderon has used military forces to help to reduce violence. And therefore, they're not as available to do things, for instance, eradication of marijuana.

    POTTER: With so many drugs coming across the border in south Texas , a big cottage industry has sprung up here on the US side of the river. Home and business owners often rent out their properties to smugglers who need a place to temporarily stash all their drugs before moving them around the country.

    Unidentified Man #2: There's the weed.

    POTTER: A former US drug czar accuses current administration officials of trying to play down the threat posed by smugglers along the border.

    General BARRY McCAFFREY, Retired (NBC News Military Analyst): Law enforcement is routinely shot at or intimidated. It is an extremely serious situation, and it's getting worse. And we're in denial.

    POTTER: US officials insist they are addressing the threat, and say they've greatly increased law enforcement capabilities along the border amid concerns that a growing drug supply from Mexico could lead to more addiction with huge costs to American families and communities. Mark Potter , NBC News, McAllen, Texas .

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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