MEXICO CITY – Mothers rushed to pull their kids out of school, shopkeepers slammed down their metal gates, and bus drivers radioed one another about streets to avoid after false rumors of shootouts and gunmen traveling in a caravan in a Mexico City suburb began circulating on social networks.
The false reports of violence and impending attacks in Nezahualcoyotl soon included nearby suburbs and at least one borough in the capital, spreading panic and prompting police to take to the streets in force while officials turned to Twitter, television and even hand-distributed flyers to deny the rumors.
Twitter and Facebook are often used to warn of gunbattles and other dangers in Mexico's violence-wracked cities, but the last two years have also seen social networks used to spread false warnings that have caused chaos in several cities. Mexico City has avoided large-scale violence, although drug-related killings and other crime have hit some of its suburbs, like Nezahualcoyotl.
In Nezahualcoyotl, to the west of the capital, authorities have received more than 3,000 phone calls with false reports of violence since Wednesday night, when the rumors began, city council spokesman Luis Percastre said Friday.
"They told us an indoor farmers market had been set on fire and we went to check -- and nothing, it was working fine. Then someone else called to report a bank on fire and we also went -- and nothing," Percastre said.
Authorities deployed all police officers available throughout the crowded suburb and even called in two state police helicopters to patrol, he said. Prosecutors said five men had been arrested on charges of disturbing the peace Thursday night by running into a bakery shouting that members of criminal groups were coming to the area to cause problems.
Percastre said the rumors first began spreading on Twitter and Facebook late Wednesday after pedicab drivers fought with members of an activist group known as Antorcha Campesina, or Farmers' Torch, over who could operate a taxi base in the neighboring town of Chicoloapan. At least one person was killed.
Shortly after the clash, people began tweeting that vehicles were being set on fire and that Nezahualcoyotl "was a lawless city," Percastre said.
One tweet read: "Warning: Cd. Neza has been taken by masked gunmen, cutting phone lines." Another warned of gunfire: "Don't get close to the train tracks, there is shootings, they are stealing everything."
"These are people with dark objectives who tried to destabilize the city and were able to instill fear in people and make them take refuge at home for a few days because they started a psychosis," Percastre said.
On Thursday, several schools suspended classes, some businesses remained closed and pedestrian and motor traffic declined notably in Nezahualcoyotl, a city of 1.1 million people, as rumors gained strength and began spreading to the neighboring Mexico City borough of Iztapalapa.
Iztapalapa's borough government said in a statement Friday that its emergency center had received more than 1,300 phone calls echoing the rumors. Officials have been handing out flyers that say none of the rumors were true. "There were no acts of violence or disorder against families, schools or businesses in Iztapalapa. For your peace of mind, say no to rumors," the flyer says.
Last year, two people in the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz were detained and accused of terrorism and sabotage after re-tweeting rumors about gunmen attacking schools and kidnapping children. The rumors helped set off chaos, and numerous traffic accidents occurred as panicked parents rushed to get their children. The two were later released after pressure from freedom of expression groups led prosecutors to withdraw criminal charges.
In 2010, a wave of messages about threatened violence shut down schools, bars and restaurants in the central city of Cuernavaca. Months earlier, rumors about gunfights in the border cities of Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa caused widespread fear and the suspension of classes.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, wrote that rumors spread because they are credible in areas like Nezahualcoyotl, which has seen shooting attacks on bars and the dumping of bodies with signs of torture on the streets.
"People are afraid because there is violence," Hope wrote in a column posted Friday in Animal Politico, a blog about politics and security. "If we want to reduce the fear, then we must lower the levels of violence."