Just as the Mexican government appeared to be growing savvy in using social media to fight the drug war, prosecutors mistook a man on YouTube for a cartel leader and put $2.5 million bounty on his head.
What would you do if you suddenly saw your face pictured alongside Mexico’s most-wanted and most-feared drug traffickers?
A factory worker from the Mexican state Baja California was faced with that scenario this week after Mexico’s federal prosecutor’s office was duped into thinking his vacation photos on YouTube were of the leader of the Arellano Félix Cartel, also known as the Tijuana Cartel. The office said it had verified the photos before reposting them on its Most Wanted website, offering a 30 million peso ($2.5 million) reward for the man pictured.
The photos went viral on Tuesday as newspapers across the country ran them on their front pages as truth. The Monitor published a story about the photos Wednesday.
In fact, they were a hoax. The factory worker's friends had uploaded them to YouTube in 2009 with the label “Pictures of the Engineer" – a reference to cartel kingpin Fernando Sánchez Arellano, known as “the Engineer."
The incident has proven a sore embarrassment to the Mexican government just as it appeared to have grown savvy in using social media to fight the deadly drug war. While the drug gangs themselves have for years used YouTube and other Internet mediums to send messages to rival gangs or authorities, this week's incident appeared to underscore the government's weakness on the cyber front of the drug war.