Dear Border Authorities…

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Dear Border Authorities at a US-Mexico crossing:

You should NEVER trust Google Translate to do your translating for you.

I mean… c’mon guys, it’s not like you don’t have a bunch of Mexicans waiting around to get a permit from you. All you had to do is ask if what your sign says made any sense or not. For all you non-bilingual folks, the part in spanish says “Speed of bump in the front.”

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Twitter saves lives in Mexico

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Twitter saves lives in Mexico ”

http://www.americasquarterly.org/node/2576  , published on Jun 10th, 2011. Please feel free to visit and comment.

Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

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The situation of widespread violence in our border states stemming from drug cartel wars and the federal government’s attempt to combat them is well known.  But I would like to share a story of success that truly symbolizes the strength we can find in social unity when coping with the present state of instability.

The people of Monterrey (located in the northeastern part of Mexico) used to consider the southern part of Texas both their playground and their place for shopping. Even after NAFTA made most consumer products readily available within Mexico, the custom of taking a weekend trip to the Rio Grande Valley or destinations such as San Antonio, Austin or Corpus Christi remained.

That is, until people became too afraid to travel on the Mexican highways near the border. The past couple of years have seen a sharp decline in tourists willing to risk their lives to pass through towns like Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Río Bravo, and Matamoros—all overrun by the cartels. In Monterrey, too, people are less willing to be out on the town after hours. They are afraid of being caught in the middle of a fight between rivaling cartels or criminals and authorities.

However, due to the proliferation of new social media (specifically Twitter) people are now better equipped to cope with their fears. Local anonymous heroes have emerged and created accounts such as @TrackMty, @SPSeguro and @MAGS_SP that are used to warn people about risk zones and specific attacks in real time. Each citizen who follows these users becomes a non-official reporter. And with the widespread popular response to these new accounts, the result is eyes and ears everywhere of people willing to invest a couple of minutes to warn others of danger and lessen the possibilities of innocent people being caught in the crossfire.

Here’s how it works. The person witnessing an attack tweets it to one of these accounts, which is then re-published to a massive audience.  Thanks to this non-paid service we have been able to avoid a number of risky situations by rerouting our course while going from point A to point B. For example, in a matter of seconds, a warning shared by @TrackMty reaches a 40,000-person audience.

The local newspaper EL NORTE, spearheaded a similar strategy for securing highway travel during holiday seasons by promoting the use of a series of hashtags (keywords) on Twitter such as #carreteralaredo and #carreterareynosa (the highways to Laredo and to Reynosa) for reporting incidents on these main roads going to major border towns.

I have witnessed this Twitter warning system firsthand. In traveling through Laredo with my family recently I felt a bit more protected every time a notification came in from a traveler a few miles in front of me noting that there was no danger ahead. With no hidden agenda and nothing to earn from it, users I have never met such as @Gabsinelli, @labellayellibro and @lacandanosa kept me and my family safe during the trip. All I can do is publicly thank them for it. Following suit, I repaid the favor and used the appropriate hashtags to provide similar information for the benefit of those traveling behind me.

The social media boom has sparked revolutions in some countries. In Mexico, it brings us together and provides an opportunity to show solidarity in our common challenge facing urban violence. When credibility in state and municipal law enforcement is as tarnished as it is in Mexico, civil society finds new ways to try to secure itself.  

To all of those who selflessly participate in this chain of collaboration and communication for the better good, thank you.

*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.

As a general rule… On that magic river

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As a general rule, people born north of the Río Bravo (or Río Grande as some call it) have zero tolerance for any food which is mildly spicy. They even have a name for the effect it causes: “The revenge of Moctezuma.”

People born south of the Río Bravo on the other hand, have trouble taking down processed, deep-fried junk food. We don’t have a name for it but we can certainly smell it after about an hour of eating.

Conclusion: there’s something magical about the water in that river that requires further study with regards to its adverse effects on stomachs’ capacity to process food.