Monday, December 6, 2010

Traffic Tweets in Mérida

By Craig Reck
In Mexico

IIJ Foreign Correspondence Intern
E. W. Scripps School of Journalism

It's the holiday season in the United States. The Black Friday deals are gone, presents are being wrapped and people are making plans for New Year's Eve. As everyone prepares for their end of the year celebrations, law enforcement officials are likely preparing for the parties as well.

Traffic checkpoints are not uncommon in the United States. Local police officers can be seen waiting for bar patrons to leave their favorite watering hole. Highway patrolmen set up the orange cones along the roadsides. These efforts have a clear purpose of reducing the number of accidents caused by revelers who couldn't resist the alcohol-infused Egg Nog.

But what if there were check points every day? Is there a need for daily traffic stops? How would the general populous react to the constant police presence?

That is exactly what citizens of Mérida, Mexico have to deal with. Some check points stop drivers, while others let them pass through without a second glance. Some people say the retenes (Mexican check points) are used to catch drunk drivers, which is a believable reason. So why are there retenes in the middle of the day that let cars pass through anyways?

I can't say. Both the Mérida municipal and Yucatán state police departments refused to give me an interview. I was told the retenes are a sensitive matter of security. In fact, I was warned not to take pictures of the check points because it is disrespectful to the officers and I might lose my camera.

So I turned to the Internet for answers, and I was amazed at what I found. The Twitter user "retenesmerida" is adding some transparency to the clouded work of Mérida's police check points. One of the co-founders agreed to an interview, but only through email. Anonymity is a priority for retenesmerida.

Since September of 2009, retenesmerida has informed its followers of the numerous locations of check points around the city. But retenesmerida isn't exactly doing all of the work. All sorts of Twitter users report checkpoint locations to retenesmerida by adding an "@" before the user name. An example would be:

JoeSmith @retenesmerida Check point on Main St. between Oak and Elm. They're stopping everyone.

JoeSmith's notification is then retweeted by retenesmerida to its more than 6,000 followers. But now there's more to this online informant. The co-founder said, "It has converted into a type of megaphone that users send reports about other happenings in Mérida, like general news or transit or accident reports."

Even though they are doing nothing illegal, the retenesmerida co-founders remain anonymous for fear of intimidation and harassment. There are currently no Mexican laws against the sharing of retenes' whereabouts via the Internet, nor has one been proposed.

Until it's legally or physically stopped, this Twitter user, and its more than 6,000 followers, will continue to provide transparency to the roadways of Mérida, Mexico.

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