After one of their members held hostage was released, Anonymous is redirecting Operation Cartel away from the Zetas, but Barrett Brown, who has been speaking for the group's plans, says he's still ready for battle. After announcing a November 5 release of 25,000 emails containing the identities of over 60 individuals with ties to the Zetas on Thursday afternoon, Brown is now saying that Anonymous Iberoamerica, the collective's Spanish-speaking faction that initiated Operation Cartel, is taking a step back. Thursday night, the Zetas cartel released an Anonymous-affiliated hostage — whose capture initially sparked the operation — carrying a horrifying warning that turned the operation on its head.
On Thursday night, Brown posted about the hostage release on Pastebin saying that the operation would go on because the Zetas didn't know that they were releasing the hostage that Anonymous wanted freed. But Brown told The Atlantic Wire on Friday, "It turns out that the person was known to the Zetas and was sent back with a note in their pocket saying for every name we publish they're going to kill ten civilians starting with this person. So that changes things. In terms of releasing those names of the Zetas, it's apparently off for now." He later added, "Now, we have this truce with the Zetas."
Brown has vowed to pick up the mission of confronting drug lords and exposing cartel collaborators on his own, however. "I'm taking this upon myself," Brown said, explaining that he was working with CNN to investigate the activities of a United States District Attorney who's been identified in the hacked emails. Two of his collaborators are working with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Brown says. "It's no longer an Anonymous operation on my end. That will be made clear, but this is gonna be more of a long-term thing." That means that the planned release of the emails on November 5 has been called off, though Brown says that the collective has some other festivities planned on what he calls the "Anon holiday."
Brown's back-and-forth raises some red flags for us. As we reported on Thursday, Brown's very public affiliation with Anonymous goes back nearly two-years, but he's often referred to as an official spokesman or former spokesman. He is neither. This is also the second time that Anonymous has cancelled the operation. Brown confidently told us on Thursday that they had changed their mind, and now he says, they've changed their mind again. It seems suspect, but in our experience covering the hacktivists, they tend to be a pretty chaotic bunch.
For now, however, Brown's story appears to check out. Anonymous Iberoamerica confirmed the release of the hostage as well as an end to their involvement in the operation on their official blog. We spoke with other Anonymous sources who also corroborated Brown's version of the events, though debate remains amongst the hacktivists. "There's a big debate going on now in the Anon community about how the handle this. Whether we should continue with the op anyways," a hacker who goes by the handle Anarchymous told us. "If anything is released it is completely Barrett's baby now. No longer Anonymous'."
Brown's commitment to go after the cartels has so far won him a lot of friends among Mexicans sick of the cartels. A quick Twitter search of Brown's mentions show both gratitude and doubt about his vowing to carry on the operation. But if he keeps his word and does reveal the identities of cartel members and, more importantly, those in the Mexican government who collaborate with them, the implications could be dramatic. Arjan Shahani explains in a new post on the website of the policy journal Americas Quarterly:
If the campaign is successful, the actions initiated by Anonymous and supposedly continued solely by Brown, could lead to a nationwide political scandal at incisively interesting pre-election times for the country. … For now, Mexico anxiously waits to see what Barret Brown will do. Many champion this effort as a new and creative means to tackle a problem that for too long has been a tragedy of the commons in Mexico.
Of course, this is all assuming that Brown manages to avoid getting himself killed by the brutal drug lords before he can actually release any of the information. Brown sounded bold on the phone with The Atlantic Wire. "I'm armed," he said, "And where I'm at, it would be a difficult place for the Zetas to do any loud attack on me and escape alive. It would be difficult for them, so I'm not particularly worried about it."
That doesn't mean he's not inconvenienced. Brown tweeted a few minutes after we got off the phone with him: "Now my weed dealer won't come by because he's afraid of the damned Zetas."
Update: We've learned since originally posting this item that Brown recently secured a six-figure deal with Amazon's publishing wing to write a book about Anonymous. Adrian Chen at Gawker likens Brown's recent eagerness to talk to the media about the Anonymous-Zetas saga in order to promote his book. We have no idea if this is what Brown is doing, but it's worth making note of the deal either way. It's also worth noting, as The Guardian has, that no police report was ever filed for the original kidnapping.