Was it a hoax, a self-aggrandizing publicity stunt, a real plot that fizzled, one that partially succeeded, or one that has yet to fully develop?
Whatever happened with “Operation Cartel” — a supposed plan from self-identified members of the hacktivist collective “Anonymous” to release identifying information online about associates of Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas on November 5, 2011— things decidedly did not go according to the stated plan.
For starters, the plan, announced in an October 6 YouTube video (but which did not achieve widespread publicity in the mainstream media until an October 28 report from global intelligence firm Stratfor), was abruptly canceled over fears of risk to innocent lives from retaliatory cartel violence, only to be re-started just days before its November 5 deadline.
The stated purpose of the operation, according to the speaker in the initial video, was to coerce Los Zetas into releasing an unnamed member of Anonymous Veracruz, Mexico, who had reportedly been kidnapped by Los Zetas while participating in another, real-life operation in the city some months earlier (i.e. Operation Paperstorm, posing flyers around the city in support of Anonymous and against other individuals).
But an official with the Veracruz state attorney general’s office couldn’t confirm any such kidnapping had ever taken place, Australian newspaper The Age reported, leading some tech writers and reporters, including Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin and Wired’s Quinn Norton, to doubt the authenticity of the operation in the first place.
Just before Operation Cartel was expected to take place on the weekend of November 4, someone identified as Silverfox posted on the Anonymous Iberoamerica blog saying that the kidnapping victim had supposedly been released by the cartel:
On this day, our Anonymous friend retained by the Zetas cartel has been released. We have taken great care to verify their identity through contacts with peers and friends and we can say that while bruised, he’s alive and well. They’ve (the cartel) sent us a message that if we release the name of the Anonymous member related to the cartel, the family will suffer anonymous retained, per each cartel revealed, ten people will be put to death. Not in our mind that the daily struggle we do for …
On November 6, someone else on the Anonymous Iberoamerica blog posted another entry alleging that members of the Mexican central intelligence agency, CISEN (Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional) had attempted to infiltrate the Anonymous group chat and shame the group into continuing the operation:
“Today, Sunday November 6, a suspected undercover agent CISEN (the intelligence agency of the government of Mexico) entered our chat to try to provoke an administrator into deterring the decision to suspend #OpCartel using standard arguments of users who post inflammatory messages (trolls)…This little incident probably would have gone unnoticed in other circumstances, but we confirmed what we suspected: the Mexican government is behind the promotion and dissemination to # OpCartel for purposes unknown (possibly neutralize Anonymous engaged in a war against criminal groups) ”
Further complicating things, former Anonymous public spokesman Barrett Brown, who had publicly announced he was joining Operation Cartel earlier in the week, posted a note on Pastebin on November 3 saying that the cartel had indeed released someone but that they weren’t aware it was the Anonymous member. As such, Brown vowed to continue Operation Cartel on his own, as a solo operation:
It appears that the Zetas concerned did not know that the individual was the Anon whose release had been demanded by those who instigated #OpCartel. As such, no bargain has been fulfilled. Meanwhile, those who have been in possession of the e-mails have promised to provide them to me alone, which is to say that everything that proceeds from now on is my own work, and not that of Anonymous. Any reprisals against anyone other than myself, then, will have no effect.
Later, Brown posted an update saying he had been misinformed, and that Los Zetas had released the person knowing of their Anonymous affiliation, again reiterating the Los Zetas threat not to publish information relating to the identities of both the victim and those whom Anonymous had planned to reveal as cartel associates:
As is now widely known, the kidnapped Anon was indeed known to the Zetas as such, contrary to my reports from last night, during which I was only in sporadic communication with the person’s friends. As the Zetas left a note with the person threatening to kill ten civilians for every name published, none of us will be proceeding with those particular names. Nonetheless, several of the 25,000 e-mails are being sent to Der Spiegel for confirmation, and in the meanwhile I will be going after other cartels with the assistance of those who have come forward with new information and offers of assistance. To provide information for this operation, which I’ll be conducting with additional help from certain media outlets, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On November 4, Gawker published a piece from tech reporter Adrian Chen, effectively alleging that Operation Cartel is in fact, largely a publicity stunt from Brown meant to drum up interest for his forthcoming insider book on Anonymous, for which he has reportedly received a six-figure salary from publisher, and onetime Anonymous enemy, Amazon.com.
Gawker writer John Cook also tweeted that Brown’s “Mexican ‘kidnapping victim’ is the ‘Canadian girlfriend’ of the internet,” to which Brown responded: “You guys also questioned the e-mails, which are going to Der Spiegel. Maybe Gawker is the ugly last resort girl of journalism.”
The same day, Brown posted an electronic “will” on Pastebin, advocating that his money be dispersed to “ten villages in East Africa, preferably Tanzania,” based on an essay contest in which writers are asked to explain how Brown’s money could be used to improve a village’s standard of living.
Finally, on November 5, Brown posted a name on Twitter: “Those in Asheville, NC should watch movements of District Attorney Ron Moore at this time. “
Brown later hosted a Q-and-A session in Tinychat in which he said the emails he obtained could prove that Moore had been collaborating with Los Zetas.
Moore on Sunday denied the allegations in a fax to local ABC News affiliate News 13, which reads as follows:
“This allegation is not true and it is the height of negligent and irresponsible journalism to promote this untrue and unverified gossip. Sadly, we live in a climate where elected officials are attacked in blogs by unscrupulous individuals who do not believe they should be held accountable for their libel. Respectable journalism should not promote this libel and sensationalize unverified gossip.”
Since the time that he announced his participation in Operation Cartel on November 2, Brown has been fending off a number of personal attacks on Twitter by those who claim to be either against him, against the operation, or against Anonymous. Several hackers have released information about Brown’s whereabouts, apparently in an attempt to expose him to Los Zetas or others seeking to cause him harm, although Brown has continually derided such actions as reckless and fruitless, saying he remains a step ahead of his attackers.
Later on November 5, Brown posted a YouTube video entitled “OpCartel Needs You,” featuring himself looking exhausted, haggard and desperate, saying that he has “names and other information” relating to individuals involved with the cartel and asking others to “get involved” to help bring them and the corrupt Mexican system down.
In it, Brown compares his experience and the experience of other Anonymous members in assisting the Tunisian revolution and other uprisings during the Arab Spring, which Brown earlier told TPM would make up the substance of his book, to what could happen in Mexico as a result of Operation Cartel.
“Large swaths of the press are now looking at the Zetas and looking at other cartels. We already have other volunteers including cartel experts, informants on the ground on both sides of the border, journalists - including from media outlets, large U.S. media outlets and some very respectable media outlets in Mexico city, which are very interested in pursuing this in a large, distributed way. By doing so, all these participants can help to incubate and serve as a catalyst for, a massive reaction by the Mexican people against the forces which have conspired to keep them in a state of poverty and insecurity on an increasing basis for years and years. This can all be reversed very, very quickly.”
We’ve reached out to Moore, Brown, CISEN and Der Spiegel for further information and will update when we receive a response.