Cyberwar in the Underworld: Anonymous Versus Los Zetas in Mexico
Abstract—Little attention has been paid to non-state actors conducting cyberwars against each other and the disruptive effects these wars can have on nation-states. This article explores the online clash between the hacker group, Anonymous, and the Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas. This type of cyberwar was unique: it was an incident where two clandestine non-state groups used the digital domain to attack each other and it was largely a private affair. Yet the incident had public consequences that left the Mexican government as a bystander. Such criminal activity beyond the reach of government intervention blurs the line between public safety and national security.
In the fall of 2011, two clandestine non-state groups—a hacktivist collective and a Mexican drug cartel—stared each other down in the digital domain, with potentially fatal real world consequences for both sides. Los Zetas, a Mexican drug trafficking organization composed of former members of Mexico’s Special Forces, kidnapped a member of Anonymous, the global hacking group, in Veracruz on October 6th. In retaliation, Anonymous threatened to publicize online the personal information of Los Zetas and their associates, from taxi drivers to high-ranking politicians, unless Los Zetas freed their abductee by November 5th. The release of this information on the Internet would have exposed members of Los Zetas to not only possible arrest by Mexican authorities, but also to assassination by rival cartels. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Los Zetas then attempted to “reverse hack” Anonymous to uncover some of its members and to threaten them with death. As a consequence, a few members of Anonymous sought to call off the operation and disavowed those members who wanted to go forward. With time running out and locked in a stalemate, Los Zetas released their kidnap victim on November 4th with an online warning that they would kill ten innocent people for each name that Anonymous might subsequently publicize. Anonymous called off its operation; each side appeared to step back from the brink.
This was a cyberwar of a different kind. Most of the theorizing about cyberwar has centered on cyber attacks that cripple the digital systems critical for military, political, social, and economic operations of nation-states or the use of cyberspace to attack the infrastructure of modern society like power grids, financial systems, and emergency services. However, according to James Bosworth, an expert on organized crime and cybercrime, neither Anonymous nor Los Zetas: