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.
'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.
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.