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The Dark Web and a Journalist Murder
Exclusive: The Mexican government found info from a "dark net" on a Mexican journalist killing and arms sales. But is it just a scam using Mexico's tragedy?
The two assassins rained bullets on journalist Nelson Matus Peña in broad daylight as he got into his car in the parking lot of a department store in his hometown of Acapulco. Soldiers were close by and arrived to try and give Matus first aid, but he died of his wounds at the scene. The killers escaped.
Ten days later, on July 25, Mexico’s undersecretary for public security brought up the murder in a press conference of the Mexican president “Tragically, we have the murder of a journalist in this period,” General Luis Rodríguez said. He confirmed that state prosecutors were investigating the hit, but he mentioned no advances.
The fact nobody had been arrested was unsurprising. Since 2000, more than 150 journalists have been murdered in Mexico and only about ten percent of the cases have been solved.
References to Matus’ killing, however, were discovered by Mexican government investigators in a different department. Looking into arms trafficking and how cartels acquire heavy weaponry, the investigators ventured into the ominous world of the dark web - the digital network of hidden domains and users. And here, they not only found a potential sale of an anti-tank weapon. They also discovered an alleged conversation about the assassination of Matus in which a hit man was supposedly recruited to carry out the murder.
In the misty world of the dark web though, things are often not what they seem. Scammers offer false information about hit men in order to lure people into handing over thousands of dollars worth of bitcoin. Some people with twisted intentions want to take someone out and end up losing their money.
If this is another scam, albeit an elaborate one, then it’s damning on the state of Mexican journalist murders. There are so many killings that have so few leads they can be used by bad actors claiming to be behind them. And utilizing a slain Mexican journalist in this way is to sully his name.
Yet there are concerning details. The conversation about Matus’ murder is time-stamped as taking place before the assassination. If it’s not authentic it would have had to have been manipulated. And the arms sale coincides with a weapon that appears to have turned up in northern Mexico.
After getting the messages, I independently verified their source on the dark web. While the Mexican government already has the material it’s unclear if it has got to the state prosecutors. I understand this is sensitive information and the family are grieving. Yet whatever the truth, I believe it’s of enough public interest and relevance to merit publication. The images are unedited screen shots although I have left out details on the users and dark web addresses for security reasons.
The messages begin with the time stamp of June 25, which is 20 days before the killing. “Hi, There is a journalist who irritates me, and I want him dead,” a user says. “My boss gave me the assignment to assassinate him, but he permits me to outsource the work. Due to his escape from two previous assassination attempts in 2017 and 2019, I need two experienced hitmen to go after him and fire simultaneously. I’ll pay $80,000 for the job. Anyone interested should message me.”
Matus, who edited an online news outlet called Lo Real De Guerrero, had indeed survived two attempts on his life in 2017 and 2019. However, a payment of $80,000 would be extremely high by Mexican standards. There are thugs on the street who will kill someone for as little as $100. Still, there are teams of professional killers in Latin America who carry out high-profile assassinations across borders for tens of thousands of dollars.
Several people appear to offer to do the hit including one who says, “I have a partner we can go there and do this. I ask for a 0% advance, but I need to see proof of funds in escrow before I start. You won’t be disappointed if you give this job to me.”
An escrow is a third party who will store money and release it upon satisfactory completion of a job. The dark web has its own escrow services that store money for shady deals. (Although some of these escrows can themselves be shady).
The alleged contractor goes on with more details. “I have his picture, and his home address, but he does not live there he is hiding. He is a journalist for Lo Real de Guerrero so maybe you can wait for him at the work address and then follow him from there to a place where you can shoot him. If he does not come to work you will need to find another way to track him down and kill him. Yes, escrow is fine with me. I will use the built-in escrow on this site but I will only send the funds to any of you who successfully completed this work.”
The conversation then goes into private messaging in which an assassin is supposedly selected. On July 4, another user inquires how the job is going and the supposed hit man confirms he is on the case. “I got the fake documents and I am flying there in the next few days with my partner. I have a connection there to get unregistered automatic guns to use for this, and we are going to steal some car. This will go well.”
The message thus implies the assassins are coming from outside of Mexico, possibly from the United States, to commit the murder. There is a huge number of paid hit men within Mexico. However, I have found evidence of former U.S. soldiers coming over the border to do work for cartels. And buying automatic weapons in Mexico is easy, as I detail in my book Blood Gun Money.
Matus was killed at about 3 pm on July 15, a Saturday. At the time stamp of 11:13 PM, the supposed assassin writes an entry. “The work is completed! I found him in Acapulco, and drove after him a while until got the moment to shoot him in the parking lot of some store. We shoot them dead, he dropped dead we are sure he can’t be brought back in hospital. Please check and convince yourself he is dead. I sent you a few pictures of him at the position before we quickly drove away, but you can verify on your own with the morgue or in any other way to see if he is dead. Please send me the bitcoin.”
The following day at the time stamp of 11:16 pm, the supposed contractor replies. “Thank you! He is dead, good job. I got the pictures, and I also checked with my people and they confirmed he is dead. I send you bitcoin from escrow.” The conversation ends.
Heavy Weapons Sales
The same dark web address has various discussions about selling weapons. One that was picked up by the Mexican investigators is time stamped April 27. A buyer in Austin, Texas, is looking for an AT4, which is a shoulder fired anti-tank weapon, an M240 military machine gun, and “Willie Pete” grenades that unleash white phosphorous smoke.
While cartels can buy Kalashnikovs, AR-15s and even 50 caliber rifles in U.S. shops, the weapons mentioned are true military grade and are not for sale to the public. An alleged seller however offers the machine gun for $8,000 and anti-tank weapon for $1500. A supposed deal goes through five days later.
At this time, there was intense fighting between cartels over the border in Tamaulipas, Mexico, involving improvised armored vehicles, known as monstruos. The AT4 would be effective against them, the Mexican investigators reasoned.
On May 30, a few weeks after the deal was supposedly made, news outlets reported on the photo of an alleged Gulf Cartel operative with an AT4. The Russian Embassy in Mexico insinuated it had come from Ukraine. However, it seems far more likely it was from an illegal source closer by.
Dark Web Assassins
There are certainly drugs, guns, stolen goods and other illegal commodities sold on the dark web. The Rand Corporation has identified millions of dollars in sales in narcotics alone. Yet, the hiring of assassins is more dubious. A New York Times story in 2020 concluded they were blanket scams “robbing” warped buyers.
Even when this is the case, police in various countries have arrested people for the intention of bumping someone off. A jury in England in February found a middle-aged mother guilty of paying 20,000 Euros to kill a colleague at a factory she had a fling with and make it look like an accident.
In 2022, police in Romania bust five men alleged to be behind a murder-for-hire site called Besa Mafia. They had reportedly taken over half a million Euros worth of orders but not actually delivered. Playing with the crime of murder for fraud is itself a dark crime.
Still, there is at least one case where a killer was hired on the dark web to really carry out a killing. In Russia, a hacker recruited a teenage assassin and paid him to shoot a female detective. When the killer confessed to police, he described it as like playing a video game.
If the dark web conversation about shooting Matus is shown to be fraud it would help if the state prosecutors could actually find who did carry out his murder. I have covered the killing of Mexican journalists for two decades and it’s tragic how it just carries on with so much impunity despite demonstrations and pressure.
On the flipside, the specter of true murders being planned on the dark web is a horrific notion. If it were to become a widespread phenomenon it would really be a nightmare that has come true.
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