Thirty years behind bars for a few misinformed tweets? It's a possibility for the so-called Twitter Terrorists of Mexico.
In a case that has riled human rights groups and users of social networking sites, the state of Veracruz on Mexico's gulf coast is pursuing tough charges including terrorism and sabotage against a man and a woman who spread rumors of an attack by drug gangs on a primary school.
The messages, the government alleges, caused hysteria among parents in the state's port city of the same name, Veracruz. Many rushed to pull their children from classes on Aug. 25, just days into the school year. More than two dozen car accidents were linked to the rumors, the Veracruz state interior secretary told reporters.
Thus, Gilberto Martinez Vera (@gilius_22) and Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola (@MARUCHIBRAVO) are in jail facing charges that carry a maximum sentence of 30 years.
Does the punishment fit the crime?
The pair's lawyer said the state government is unfairly seeking to make an example of Martinez, 47, a math teacher, and Bravo, 57, a well-known journalist and radio commentator.
The case also underscores what can happen when traditional media censor themselves to avoid the ire of the drug gangs, leaving a frightened public to search for vital information from other sources.
As drug-related fighting has increased in Veracruz in recent months, attorney Fidel Ordonez argued, more citizens are turning to Twitter and Facebook to update one another on violent incidents. Social networking often fills a void left by largely silenced local news media, he said.
This new channel of information, however imperfect, is protected free speech, Ordonez said from the Veracruz capital of Xalapa, but such speech is now under attack by the government. On Monday, his office asked a federal judge to have Martinez and Bravo released.
"There was no intent on their part to generate this situation," the attorney said. "They simply informed, incorrectly, but they informed."
The port has been on edge lately. In mid-August, suspected cartel members tossed a grenade outside the Veracruz aquarium, killing a man and injuring a woman and two children. Few details about the incident made it onto the evening news in Veracruz. Social networking sites, however, were full of reports about it.
Verifiable information was by all accounts scarce on Aug. 25, a Thursday, when confusing messages began appearing on Twitter and Facebook in the morning about supposed attacks against schools in Veracruz.
By evening, state authorities had arrested Martinez outside a school where he teaches. The following afternoon, Bravo was stopped and arrested a few blocks from her house.
"It was exactly them," reads the claim filed by the state on Aug. 31, "who by acting falsely within the social networks, provoked the tumult, disorder and anxiety among society in general."
Martinez had tweeted about a supposed attack at a primary school in the municipality of Boca del Rio, next to the city of Veracruz. His tweet said: "They took 5 kids, armed group, total psychosis in the zone." He cited a sister-in-law but later said he had misidentified the school, and then mentioned another, all of which added to the confusion.
Despite protests from Amnesty International and an online campaign in support of Martinez and Bravo, Veracruz does not appear to be budging in its efforts to pursue the terrorism charges against them.
The state prosecutor warned that all "cyber-terrorists" would be investigated in Veracruz and named 15 other Twitter users who "dis-informed" the public with the "intent of causing harm and sowing fear." Most of these other accounts were erased or had certain tweets erased, the prosecutor said in a statement.
Roman Cotera, an economist in Xalapa and active Twitter user, said that Martinez and Bravo might have passed along rumors about violence at Veracruz schools, but the impulse was legitimate. More than 40,000 have died in Mexico's drug war, many of them civilians caught in crossfire.
"Everyone feels persecuted now," Cotera said in a telephone interview. "On one side it's the violent incidents, and on the other it's the repression on the part of the state."
Citing his Twitter timeline, Cotera added, "Already today, Monday, we've had four dead in the port of Veracruz, and no official information from the government."
Hernandez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City bureau.