MEXICO CITY – Think before you tweet.
A former teacher turned radio commentator and a math tutor who lives with his mother sit in a prison in southern Mexico, facing possible 30-year sentences for terrorism and sabotage in what may be the most serious charges ever brought against anyone using a Twitter social network account.
Prosecutors say the defendants helped cause car crashes and panic as parents in the city of Veracruz rushed to save their children because of false reports that gunmen were attacking schools.
Gerardo Buganza, interior secretary for Veracruz state, compared the panic to that caused by Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” But he said the fear roused by that account of a Martian invasion of New Jersey “was small compared to what happened here.”
“Here, there were 26 car accidents, or people left their cars in the middle of the streets to run and pick up their children, because they thought these things were occurring at their kids’ schools,” Buganza told local reporters.
The charges say the messages caused such panic that emergency numbers “totally collapsed because people were terrified,” damaging service for real emergencies.
Veracruz, the state’s largest city, and the neighboring suburb of Boca del Rio were already on edge after weeks of gunbattles involving drug traffickers. One attack occurred on a major boulevard. In another, gunmen tossed a grenade outside the city aquarium, killing a tourist and seriously wounding his wife and their two young children. On Aug. 25, nerves were further frayed when residents saw armed convoys of marines circulating on the streets, making some think a confrontation with gangs was imminent.
That is when Gilberto Martinez Vera, a tutor at several private schools, allegedly opened the floodgates of fear with repeated messages that gunmen were taking children from schools. “My sister-in-law just called me all upset, they just kidnapped five children from the school,” Martinez tweeted.
In fact, no such kidnappings occurred that day. Defense lawyer Claribel Guevara said the rumors already had started and that Martinez Vera was just relaying what others told him. She said he never claimed to have firsthand knowledge of the incident. But in a subsequent tweet about the kidnap rumor, he said, “I don’t know what time it happened, but it’s true.” He also tweeted that three days earlier, “they mowed down six kids between 13 and 15 in the Hidalgo neighborhood.” While a similar attack occurred, it didn’t involve children.
Prosecutors say the rumors were also sent by Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola, who has worked as a teacher, a state arts official and a radio commentator. She says she was just relaying such messages to her own Twitter followers.
The pair’s cause has been taken up by human rights groups that call the charges exaggerated. Amnesty International says officials are violating freedom of expression and it blames the panic on the uncertainty many Mexicans feel amid a drug war.