Need someone rubbed out but stuck for contacts? Just head to Facebook. According to an investigation by a Peruvian newspaper, contract killers are using the website to connect with clients, an illustration of just how far the use of social media by criminal organizations has spread.
Criminals have long been using social media to aid them in identity theft and local drug sales -- now evidence suggests the sites are being used to promote and offer criminal activities up to and including assassination.
After coming across a Facebook group which gangs in Trujillo, Peru, used to socialize and boast about exploits, regional newspaper El Comercio called one of the group’s followers, who had left his number on the page.
"I need a job -- a killing," said the reporter.
"No problem," replied the Facebook user, alias "El Loquito Incomprendido." "Tell me what you need and I’ll get it done quickly and easily."
The killing would cost 300 Peruvian soles ($110), the reporter was told.
"Los Pulpos" Facebook group page -- which according to El Comercio was used to recruit and spread propaganda as well as advertise services -- has since been closed down, but there is an abundance of similar sites. In Trujillo alone, Los Pulpos was vying for attention on Facebook alongside at least three other gangs with their own accounts, according to newspaper Peru 21, which reported teenagers were using the sites to ask for training on how to use guns.
"I want to learn how to be a hit man," wrote one on Los Pulpos' wall. "Someone train me. I am capable of killing whoever."
On the Facebook wall of rival gang La Jauria, a user identifying himself as "Pepe Escobar" boasted about a recent assassination: "Another dog has died," he wrote. "It was an easy little job with the guys. Something fast and straightforward."
Police told Peru 21 that the groups used Facebook and Youtube as tools to attract youngsters into their ranks. La Jauria had grown in numbers by around 40 percent in less than six months, according to police sources consulted by El Comercio.
InSight Crime Analysis
Online promotion is just one of a plethora of ways in which organized criminals have harnessed the power of the Internet to further their ends. Social networking sites contain reams of personal information about their users, which have become a major intelligence source for criminal groups. As highlighted by a US Drug Enforcement Administration report presented at a regional security conference last year, Mexican criminal groups use sites such as Facebook to spy on their members and seek out potential kidnap and extortion victims, searching for personal information such as addresses or family members' identities.
In a report for online magazine Security Management last year, analyst Brad Barker detailed how gangs can use Facebook to identify a high-profile or wealthy candidate for kidnapping, then glean information about their daily routine, social life, and associates. Alongside aiding kidnappings, the sites are also used to identify human trafficking victims, and to aquire the personal information needed for identity theft, a crime which has become a major problem in Mexico. Social media has also proved a highly useful tool for gang recruitment, and for issuing graphic threats against rivals.
As criminals have learned to take advantage of the Internet, so have those whose lives are impacted by organized crime. The use of blogs, Facebook groups, and Twitter to track local violence has exploded in Mexico, as traditional media have been cowed into silence. Such sites have proved a powerful tool, but the cartels have wreaked brutal vengeance against some social media users, most notably in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo in 2011. There are even some cases of videos uploaded to Youtube in which thugs explicitly threaten social media users who attempt to track crime online.
According to Baker, cartels are investing in IT training, learning skills that enable them to track down the source of information published online that adversely affects them. With IT training, says Brad Barker, gangs can use tools such as geo-location and IP tracing to "tag, track, locate and eliminate people that are blogging the cartel's activities."
Social media has also been incorporated into intelligence gathering by regional authorities, but they have been slow to catch up. A study released last month found Latin American governments were failing to keep up with criminals' increasing use of the internet. Governments have also failed to do enough to shore up their capability to battle other forms of cyber crime, stated the report, which was commissioned by the Organization of American States. "On the whole, political leaders are aware of the dangers of cyber crime and hacking but efforts are often restricted by the lack of resources dedicated to building cybersecurity capacity and shortage of specialized knowledge and expertise to implement technical policies," said the report, which looked at 20 out of the OAS's 32 member countries.
Aside from technological hurdles, the sheer breadth of ways criminals can take advantage of cyberspace -- as illustrated by the recent Peru examples -- poses legal and practical challenges for law enforcement. Cyber crime is defined as crime committed using computers or the internet -- of which identity theft and hacking are clear examples. But when do the online activities of a gang member socializing on Facebook step into criminal territory? How do police distinguish between simply distasteful Facebook posts or Twitter feeds and those which truly facilitate real-life offenses? Once criminal activity has been identified, how do they decide who they should go after?
The OAS study reported a rise in cyber crime of between eight percent and 40 percent in different Latin American nations from 2011 to 2012, and specifically noted local organized crime groups' adeptness at targeting specific weaknesses in their particular countries. That gangs now feel so comfortable online they will brazenly secure hitman work through Facebook should act as a wake-up call to governments across the region that modern and effective strategies are needed urgently to tackle evolving criminal techniques.