A car left behind after cartel battles in Reynosa

Inconsistent reports about a March 10 gun battle in Reynosa, along the US-Mexico border, illustrate how little verifiable information is available on what is happening in that and other areas of Mexico, and how citizen journalists and social networks are increasingly the only sources left to catch a glimpse of what appears to be an all-out war.

By most accounts, for Reynosa -- which sits across from McAllen, Texas, in the embattled Tamaulipas state -- March 10 was brutal.

Agencia Reforma said that the shooting began around 7:00 p.m., and described the fighting moving from neighborhood to neighborhood without intervention from the security forces. Other news outlets, citing social media, reported that the city, which is part of a muncipality that has over 600,000 residents, was paralyzed by a series of intense gun battles involving grenades and automatic weapons; major roads were blocked; gunmen traveled in convoys of up to 30 vehicles; dozens were killed.

However, most major media was silent. According to one columnist, by 9:00 p.m. on March 11, just four of the biggest national media sources had reported on the story (Excelsior, La Reforma, MVS and Imagen), while Televisa, Milenio, El Universal, TV Azteca, Radio Formula, La Jornada, Proceso and others had not.

The first official statement on the shootings came the next day from the Tamaulipas Attorney General’s Office. It acknowledged two deaths: a minor and a taxi driver, both apparently killed by stray bullets. That was the headline in most of the news accounts in the hours that followed. The office added that seven people had been arrested.

There were further discrepancies between the official account and the stories circulating via social networks, as Proceso noted in its initial story about the events. The state attorney general’s office said that the confrontations began at 11:00 p.m., and described the participants as groups of “armed civilians,” not mentioning that they might be linked to organized criminal groups.

Two days later, a report by The Monitor, a McAllen-based newspaper, cited an anonymous Tamaulipas law enforcement official who described “four trucks full of bodies” used by the cartels to haul away their dead. The official said that some three dozen people had been killed, and called the official press release an insult to common sense.

The newspaper quoted Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera of the University of Texas at Brownsville, who expressed concern about the news “blackout”: “Not only are we seeing organized crime shushing the media, but now we are seeing the government at all levels put a lid on the media where you now have virtually no mainstream coverage of a battle of this magnitude.”

The fighting was thought to have been caused by a split between two rival factions of the Gulf Cartel, exacerbated by the killing of commander David Salgado, alias "El Metro 4," in January. Cartel lieutenant Mario Armando Ramirez Treviño, alias "X-20" or "Pelon," who used to head the Reynosa plaza, has risen to become the overall leader of the cartel and is reportedly working to eliminate his enemies, including Michael Villarreal, alias "El Gringo."

InSight Crime Analysis

There are two disturbing lessons in this story. One is that we do not know what is happening in Reynosa, much of Tamaulipas and many parts of Mexico. The fighting appears to be heavy, the casualties many. However, there is not any reliable information emerging from these battle zones.

Secondly, there appears to be a concerted effort by the government to keep a lid on this violence, and a decision on the part of the major media to comply with this strategy. The new administration has staked much on bringing about a speedy reduction in the rate of violence and renewing the country's battered image.

Indeed, this is a nationwide trend. Gone are the newspaper counts of homicides and blow-by-blow reporting of gun battles that dotted the Internet and dominated the airwaves during the previous administration. One media that continues its reporting of homicides, La Reforma, saw fit to bury (placing it on page 9a) what would have been an obvious headline just a few months ago: that murders related to organized crime, by its count, had actually gone up during the first 100 days of Enrique Peña Nieto's administration, compared to the last 100 days of the previous government.

There have been accusations before of the Mexican authorities acting to play down, or cover up, cartel violence in the past. Initial reports said that some 30 people had died in a clash in Luvianos, Mexico State, in August last year, though state authorities first denied that there had been a confrontation, then said that there had been one but that it had left no dead. A shootout in Choix, Sinaloa, in May of that year left 30 dead, according to local officials, though later reports revised the number down to 7 and then 13.

Of course, there is also the issue of self-censorship due to fear and possible reprisals. Increasing numbers of publications, fearing reprisals from drug cartels, have sworn off reporting on organized crime. Most recently, the Zocalo newspaper group announced it would end coverage of organized crime due to concerns over the security of its staff.

The same, local self-censorship was likely at work when local and national outlets reported on the violence in Reynosa. Some based their reporting on social media traffic, while many simply stayed silent or repeated the contents of the press release.

But this local self-censorship due to fear is different from a national, Mexico City-based news organization maintaining that only two people had died in what was obviously something close to a full-scale, multi-hour fightfight involving organized criminal gangs, the military and the police that paralyzed a municipality of over 600,000 people just across the river from the US. (There are close to three big headlines in that sentence alone.)

Thankfully, social media picked up the slack, in the best way it could. On Twitter, users posted images attesting to the violence: vehicles burnt and buildings peppered with bullet holes. A US-based reporter posted an image of a tire spike. In a video (see below), uploaded on the night of the battles, titled “Shootout in Reynosa March 10 2013,” 15 minutes of near constant automatic weapon fire can be heard. (See also this report by Harvard's Nieman Lab on social media filling the void.)

Leading reporting on the shootouts was a Facebook page called "Valor por Tamaulipas," which focuses on security issues. The amount of information available on this page gives an insight into why its administrators recently received death threats, with a flyer circulating in Tamaulpias offering a reward for anyone who could give information on their identity.