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Mexicans are using Twitter to avoid drunk-driving checkpoints. Drug cartels might be using it too. Does that justify restricting social networking sites?
MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Mexico has racked up its fair share of menacingly named outlaws in a three-year drug war: the Zetas, Aztecas and even a band of female assassins called the Panthers.
Now, if the government gets its way, another name will also make the wanted list: los Twitteros.
That’s right. Twitter users are fast becoming public enemy No. 1, at least in Mexico City, where they have angered authorities by warning one another of roadside "alcoholimetro" — or Breathalyzer — checkpoints set up by the police.
But the case against the Twitteros is about more than alcohol.
Mexico is, after all, a country at war — at least according to President Felipe Calderon, who launched the crackdown on drug cartels shortly after taking office. Three years later, the streets of border cities like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana remain full of soldiers. In many ways, the government is still playing catch-up to the nation’s criminals.
In this context, the issue of the Twitteros has quickly expanded into an argument over whether public safety takes priority over free speech in a country struggling to contain serious social ills. Fearing that kidnappers and drug cartels use Twitter, Facebook or MySpace to communicate, the Mexican government is considering a bill to restrict social networking websites and to set up a police force to monitor them.
The Twitter feed in question, Anti Alcoholimetro, doesn’t hide its intent. On any given night, a dozen people write in listing the time and location where they saw a police checkpoint, helping others to avoid it.
The government’s response has been erratic. At first, city officials said tweeting the location of police checkpoints was a crime, akin to helping someone break the law, and vowed to find a way to prosecute Twitteros. But after a media frenzy, they quickly backed down.
“We’re not taking any action against the Twitteros,” said Othon Sanchez, director of preventative programs for Mexico City’s public safety office.
“I don’t think it’s a crime to say, ‘Hey, I just passed Reforma Avenue and there’s an alcoholimetro,’” he said. “But it is an irresponsible act because here in Mexico drunk driving is a serious problem. We see it on a daily basis.”
In fact, Sanchez said the Twitteros had been a blessing in disguise: their tweets have helped publicize the alcoholimetros and spurred his office to launch its own Twitter campaign in support of the program.
Yet the right to tweet is far from guaranteed, even in the relatively liberal capital of Mexico City. Article 320 of the city’s penal code prescribes prison terms of up to five years for those who “in any way help a delinquent avoid investigation by the authorities or escape their actions.”
If that seems vague, it is. But federal lawmakers are quickly working on specific legislation to track down and punish Twitteros who break the law or help others escape it.