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updated 11/2/2011 5:43:49 PM ET 2011-11-02T21:43:49

One of the world's most secretive movements is taking aim at a just as clandestine mafia, right out in the open.

Bloggers and tweeters claiming to belong to the hacker movement "Anonymous" say they plan to expose collaborators of Mexico's bloody Zetas drug cartel, even if some of them seem to have backed away from the plan out of fear.

Several news sites reported Wednesday that Anonymous has pulled back from its plans, including The Guardian in Britain. Its headline was: "Anonymous retreats from Mexico drug cartel confrontation."

The hacking debate is playing out on chatboards, websites and Twitter messages, many of them open to public view.

But just what they might do, as the claimed Friday deadline approaches, remains unclear, perhaps even to the loosely coordinated Internet community. Its participants generally hide their real-world identities even from one another, partly as protection from officials and prosecutors who often consider them outlaws.

Self-proclaimed members of a movement best known for hacking public corporate and government websites are now talking about attacking a drug cartel that largely shuns the Internet and has killed, even beheaded, ordinary bloggers for posting information about it.

"The problem is, hack what? There are no drug cartel websites, that I know of, that would be hackable," said Raul Trejo, an expert on media and violence at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Warning came in video
In an Internet video posted last month, a person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask claimed the Zetas had kidnapped a member of Anonymous in the state of Veracruz while he was handing out political pamphlets. The video doesn't give the victim's name, and prosecutors say they know nothing about the supposed abduction.

The speaker in the video said that if the kidnap victim is not released, Anonymous will post the names, photos and addresses of taxi drivers, police, journalists and others allegedly working with the Zetas. He did not say how the movement would get such information, but suggested it can locate and blow up cartel associates' "cars, houses, bars and whorehouses" starting Friday.

"It won't be difficult, we all know who you are and where you can be found," said the masked speaker.

Members of Anonymous are more of a volunteer crowd, and generally don't even know where their own colleagues can be found. The participants are known more for sabotaging corporate and government websites than for WikiLeaks-style exposes.

Matt Harrigan, chief executive of the San Diego, California-based security firm Critical Assets, said that "absolutely it sounds like their MO," but he noted it is a change from past activities.

In the face of a death toll of 35,000 to 40,000 people killed in drug violence in Mexico since 2006, "maybe you're seeing Anonymous making some sort of a sea change to more positive actions rather than focusing on the corporate greed piece, or just 'hactivism' against corporations," Harrigan said.

Not clear how many are involved
But given the diffuse nature of the group, it's not clear how many activists might be involved.

"Anonymous isn't just one collective with one common goal, so if a member of Anonymous has an idea or an objective or a goal, it can execute on that agenda, objective or goal, completely independent of anybody else," hoping others will join in, Harrigan said. "You won't really know until something happens whether or not the petition for participation was successful."

And whether it would work against a drug cartel is another matter, though Harrigan notes "any group of people in the modern day and age are going to use computers to communicate in one form or another — a smart phone, or a laptop, or a desk top — ... and by virtue of that fact, it makes them vulnerable in some regard."

Anonymous-style videos from Veracruz have been posted on the Internet for at least two months, but none before has drawn as much attention, and none of the others threatened violence, or promised to take on a drug cartel.

"What the video is announcing is not hacking, but rather much more violent acts," Trejo said.

Some tweeters using the threat's OpCartel hashtag said the whole idea is too dangerous to carry out.

"They denounced the op after safety concerns. They thought about it and saw it was too dangerous," posted a tweeter under the name GeneralSec. "DragnDon" tweeted back: "The fear that surrounds this idea is astounding. Fairweather revolutionaries?"

Fear would be well-founded. In September, police in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo found a woman's decapitated body alongside a handwritten sign saying she was killed in retaliation for postings on a social networking site. The message was signed with a "Z," the Zetas' trademark.

Earlier that month, the bodies of a man and a woman were found hanging from an overpass in Nuevo Laredo with a message threatening, "this is what will happen" to trouble-making Internet users.

'Prefer to die standing'
A statement posted late Tuesday on the Anonymous IberoAmerica website said, "We know we are risking our lives but we prefer to die standing than to live a whole life on our knees."

In a tacit acknowledgment of the Zetas' gruesome methods, the statement added, "You can't stop anonymous as it is a worldwide idea, a global spirit impossible to shot (sic), impossible to burn in acid."

The movement, if it is one, may have more success than did the bloggers in Nuevo Laredo, who posted information on drug cartel shootouts and safehouses under online aliases. Somehow, and nobody has yet said how, the Zetas apparently found out their real identities.

The Anonymous IberoAmerica website says it will form a "special task force" by invitation only to find out and publish information about cartel collaborators, a potentially deadly undertaking since rivals often kill identified members of the Zetas. A statement posted in English stressed that "this is now international. This is global," suggesting outside resources were being brought in.

The website includes a series of security steps, such as urging members to send messages through a proxy server, and never to identify themselves as part of Anonymous.

The page also offers a supposedly secure widget to help protect users.

So far only one act has been attributed to the group: It apparently created a website decorated with jack o' lanterns that accuses a former state prosecutor of being a Zeta. The Tuesday statement also harshly criticized the Mexican government, accusing it of protecting or profiting from drug trafficking.

Perhaps the most telling detail is that the Anonymous IberoAmerica site is now soliciting anonymous tips on cartel collaborators. That suggests that, if the promised revelations materialize, they could be nothing more than common rumors or gossip sent in by tipsters or foes of those named.

Harrigan noted it would not be the first time "hacktivists" have taken up a fight with a violent organization.

Following the 9/11 attack, "a number of different hackers ... took it upon themselves to locate more information about this guy (Osama bin Laden), get involved intentionally in terrorist cell networks on the Internet, find encoded transmissions and assist the U.S. government in their case," he said.

Msnbc.com also contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Mexico violence

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  1. Doctors and nurses of the Medical Specialties Hospital hold a candlelight protest against violence in Mexico's Ciudad on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010. Last Dec. 2, Dr. Alberto Betancourt Rosales, a trauma and orthopedic specialist from this hospital, was kidnapped and his body was found two days later. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An investigative police officer stands by a vehicle that was allegedly abandoned by assailants suspected of shooting two of their fellow officers in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Dec. 6. One investigative police officer died in the shooting, according to police. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The bodies of three men lie together after being placed in the back of a funeral home's pick-up truck after they were killed by unidentified gunmen in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, Mexico, Dec. 5. At least 11 men were killed during the first weekend in December in drug cartel violence, authorities say. (Bernandino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A soldier escorts Edgar Jimenez Lugo alias "El Ponchis" as he is presented to the media in Cuernavaca, Dec. 3. Soldiers arrested the 14-year-old suspected drug gang hitman in central Mexico late Dec. 2 as he attempted to travel to the United States. Jimenez, a U.S. citizen, is believed to work for the South Pacific cartel in Morelos state, outside Mexico City and is allegedly part of a gang of teenagers committing brutal murders to eliminate rivals. (Margarito Perez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Members of a forensic team work in a mass grave Nov. 29 in Palomas in Chihuahua state, just across from the Big Bend National Park in Texas. Troops, acting on information obtained from several captured drug hitmen, dug out 18 bodies from 11 graves, police say. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexican federal police escort Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, 32, the alleged leader of the Aztecas cross-border drug gang, Nov. 28. The gang is suspected in dozens of killings, with Gallegos linked to last January's killing of 15 youths at a Ciudad Juarez party and in the March murder of a U.S. consulate employee in that city, regional security chief Luis Cardenas Palomino said. (Marco Ugarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Mexican soldier crouches inside a tunnel found under the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Nov. 26. U.S. border agents said they had found a half-mile-long tunnel under the border and seized a significant amount of marijuana at the San Diego area warehouse where it ended. That tunnel, which measured 1,800 feet and was equipped with a rail system, lighting and ventilation, yielded some 30 tons of marijuana, one of the largest such seizures on the border in recent years. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A forensic worker places stickers reading "Impact" around bullet holes on a car window at a crime scene in Guadalajara, Nov. 22. According to local media, three men riding in the car were shot by unknown assailants. (Alejandro Acosta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Christians pray for peace at the Macroplaza in downtown Monterrey on Nov. 13. More than 30,000 people have been killed across Mexico in drug-related violence since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his military-led crackdown against the cartels. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Galia Rodriguez, 8, daughter of reporter Armando Rodriguez who was killed in Ciudad Juarez, takes part in an anniversary in the journalists's park in the border city on Nov. 13. Two years earlier, suspected drug gangs fatally shot Rodriguez, a Mexican crime reporter who worked for El Diario de Ciudad Juarez. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks by a banner hung by suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang at a pedestrian bridge in Monterrey, Nov. 6. Suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang hung messages between trees and over bridges in Reynosa and in cities across northeastern Tamaulipas state, celebrating the death of rival Gulf Cartel gang leader Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas, who was shot dead by marines a day earlier. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A forensic investigator looks in a car where bodyguard Carlos Reyes Almageur lies dead on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico, Nov. 4. Carlos Reyes Almageur, a body guard for Mauricio Fernandez, mayor of the municipality of San Pedro Garza Garcia, was shot to death by unidentified assailants, according to police at the scene. (Carlos Jasso / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Family members and friends mourn during the Oct. 25 funeral of a victim killed at a family birthday party, in Ciudad Juarez. Families mourned the victims of the massacre, one of Mexico's worst shootings, as Ciudad Juarez residents expressed outrage at the surging violence. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. People clean a blood-stained patio at a home in Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 23. At least 13 young people were shot dead and 15 wounded in an attack on this house during a 15-year-old boy's birthday party. (Raymundo Ruiz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Morgue workers place a coffin containing an unidentified body into a grave at the San Rafael cemetery on the outskirts of the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 22. The bodies of 21 men and four women, killed in drug-related incidents, were buried after being held in the city morgue for several months without being claimed by relatives. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Seized weapons are shown to the press in Mexico City on Oct. 22. The arsenal, allegedly seized from the Zetas drug cartel and found hidden in a horse trailer, included high-power rifles, grenades and ammunition. Two people were arrested in connection with the seizure. (Miguel Tovar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Soldiers unload 134 tons of marijuana to be incinerated at the military base Morelos in Tijuana, Oct. 20. Soldiers seized the drug earlier that week in Mexico's biggest-ever pot haul, the army said. Heavily armed soldiers raided a series of homes in a poor suburb of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, Calif., and came under fire at least once as they took the drugs and arrested 11 suspected traffickers. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. People gather around a peace dove made out of candles in the patio of the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon during a protest against violence and in memory of slain university student Lucila Quintanilla in Monterrey, Oct. 15. Once an oasis of calm, Mexico's richest city has become a central battleground in the country's increasingly bloody drug war as cartels open fire on city streets and throw grenades onto busy highways. (Edgar Montelongo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A forensic expert looks at a bag containing a human head with a written message on it outside the newspaper Frontera in Tijuana, Mexico, Oct. 12. (Alejandro Cossio / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mexican police agents look at a man's corpse on a street of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 4. Since the Mexican government declared war on the drug cartels in late 2006, violence has claimed nearly 30,000 lives. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - 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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    The blindfolded and hand-tied bodies of 72 people thought to be migrant workers lie at a ranch where they were discovered by Mexican marines in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, Aug. 26. The marines came across the bodies after a series of firefights with drug gang members. (Tamaulipas' State Attorney General's Office via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Residents attend a downtown public funeral service for Edelmiro Cavazos, mayor of the tourist town of Santiago, some 18.6 miles away from Monterrey, Aug. 19. Drug hitmen have killed at least 17 mayors across Mexico since early 2008, according to media tallies. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A gold-plated, engraved and diamond-inlaid handgun is on on display at the Museum of Drugs in Mexico City, Aug. 18. Gold-encrusted weapons, children clothes decorated with LSD-laced stickers and religious paintings packed with cocaine offer a glimpse into Mexico's growing drug culture in this unique museum. (Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Editor's note:
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    The grandmother of police officer Jose Ramirez grieves over his body after he was killed by unidentified gunmen while on patrol in Las Joyas neighborhood in Acapulco, Mexico, July 17. Ramirez's grandmother did not give her name, citing security. Three other officers in the vehicle were also killed in the attack. (Bernardino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tape used to cordon off a crime scene lies surrounded by blood in Ciudad Juarez, Jan 31. Suspected drug hitmen burst into a party and killed 13 people, most of them teenagers, in one of the world's deadliest cities. (Alejandro Bringas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Police officers investigate the scene of a car bomb attack on a main avenue in downtown Ciudad Juarez, July 16. An armed commando set off a car bomb near three police patrol vehicles patrolling the border town, killing two police officers and wounding 12 others. Another grenade exploded when paramedics and journalists arrived, leaving three medical assistants seriously injured and a cameraman with minor injuries. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  2. Editor's note:
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  1. Image:
    Dario Lopez-Mills / AP
    Above: Slideshow (26) Mexico violence
  2. MM78 Mexican Cults
    Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images
    Slideshow (32) Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

Interactive: Mexico's bicentennial

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