NEW: A website claims an alleged abduction victim has been released
NEW: The website also says Anonymous is not releasing information for the time being
Barrett Brown says he expects to receive e-mails naming Zetas affiliates
Analyst: Inside Anonymous "there has been disagreement" about the purported plan
A Texas man who is a self-proclaimed supporter of Anonymous says he’s joining the hacking ring’s purported fight against one of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels.
Barrett Brown, 30, told CNN that in the next two days he expects to receive thousands of e-mails naming alleged Zetas drug gang affiliates that he’s been told were taken by hackers from a Mexican government website.
“It’s possible this is all a big hoax, (but) I’m more involved in this because of the possibility of striking a blow against the Zetas. … The issue to me was more about how do we do this operation. I’m intent on what we could do with the information when we release it,” Brown told CNN in a telephone interview Thursday.
The Dallas resident, who describes himself as a former member of Anonymous and has frequently spoken publicly about his involvement in Anonymous activities, posted a YouTube video Wednesday explaining why he planned to join the effort.
“I’ve decided to support the operation, which I understand is controversial for a number of reasons. In this case, there are lives hanging in the balance, in that those who are identified are likely to be killed,” Brown says in the video, leaning back in a leather desk chair as he smokes a cigarette.
He told CNN he learned about the so-called OpCartel after Mexican members of Anonymous reached out to him in an online chat forum.
In the video, Brown says he wants to help Mexicans in their effort to stop cartel violence. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says more than 43,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon began a crackdown on cartels.
Some Mexicans have decided to take matters into their own hands, Brown says, doing what they can to stop the Zetas.
“It’s Mexicans themselves who started this operation, who conceived it. It’s not a bunch of stereotypical computer geeks sitting somewhere else in safety. These are people on the ground,” he says.
The purported threat against the Zetas began in early October with an online video of a masked man warning that the names, photographs and addresses of cartel supporters in the Mexican state of Veracruz can be published “if necessary.”
The video demanded the release of a member of Anonymous who had allegedly been abducted by the Zetas in Veracruz. A website purporting to be an official site connected with Anonymous in Latin America said early Friday the person who had been abducted had been released, “bruised … [but] alive and well”. CNN could not verify that the abduction took place or that the alleged kidnap victim had been released. A Veracruz government spokeswoman said no such kidnapping complaint had been registered with local officials.
This week, another video purportedly from Anonymous surfaced, vowing to continue the campaign – but warning of the possible risks.
“This is not a video game. It’s a dangerous operation that puts at risk the lives of you and your loved ones. Don’t identify yourself as a member of Anonymous. You should never do it, but even less right now,” a masked man in that video says.
It’s unclear whether Anonymous is behind either online video, or what the organization plans to do. The hacking group has no clear leader and no central official website.
The website claiming to be an official site connected with Anonymous in Latin America also said Friday that no information on the Zetas would be released – for now.
“A message has been sent to us, that if Anonymous reveals a name related with the cartel, the family of the kidnapped Anonymous member will suffer the consequences, for every cartel name that is revealed, 10 people will be put to death. … The collective Anonymous has decided by consensus that the information that we have available will not be revealed for the time being, now that we understand that we cannot avoid the threats that involve innocent civilians that don’t have anything to do with our actions,” the site said.
But other online posts – which CNN was also able to independently verify – have said the operation is moving forward.
“Looking over the forums of Anonymous discussions, it is clear that there has been disagreement over whether or not to pursue and publicize information on the cartels,” Ben West, a tactical analyst for the STRATFOR global intelligence firm, wrote in an e-mail to CNN Thursday night. “Many Anonymous members seem to be aware of the threat that the Mexican cartels pose and seem disinclined to risk the consequences of incurring the cartels’ wrath.”
Earlier Thursday, a security analysis from the intelligence firm said it seemed likely that some members of the organization would move forward with the purported plan.
“Anonymous’ collective nature means activists can select the actions they participate in, including Operation Cartel. It would only take one dedicated individual to continue the operation,” the analysis said.
Brown, the Texas man, said he planned to use a computer database to methodically sift through the e-mails he receives, verify them with the help of an experienced journalist and a cartel expert and then possibly release names – or entire e-mails – in small batches over time.
“If we have 100 names, we’ll release 30 or 40 names that seem right,” he told CNN.
Brown’s online video – which showed his face and was posted under his own name – is notably different than many Anonymous posts, which commonly feature men in Guy Fawkes masks.
He told CNN Thursday that he was not afraid to come forward.
“I don’t feel I should be. I should have the right and the ability as someone who is a fairly public person to work to ID criminals in a foreign country without having to worry about being murdered,” he said.
Brown also said he had weighed the possibility of wrongly identifying someone, or causing killings.
“Both my grandfathers were bombers in World War II (and) they killed innocent people and did it with less information. I’m more confident about the ratio. I’d be surprised if many people (in the e-mails) were incorrect,” he said.
While whether – and who – Anonymous planned to attack remained unclear, some self-proclaimed members of the group were already declaring at least one victory.
Last week and this week a former Mexican state prosecutor’s website was apparently hacked, with bold letters stating he “is Zeta.”
Late Thursday night, the website featured a picture of a Mexican Day of the Dead offering and the words, “Anonymous Mexico OpCartel continues.”
In the past few years, Anonymous has taken credit for disrupting a number of prominent websites, including those of PayPal, Master Card, Visa and the Church of Scientology.
In September, the group claimed it was targeting the Mexican government, launching attacks on a range of official websites, including those of Mexico’s defense and public safety ministries.
The Zetas started with deserters from the Mexican Army, and quickly gained a reputation for ruthless violence as the armed branch of Mexico’s Gulf cartel. It split off into a separate drug-trafficking organization last year.
In recent months, the Gulf coast state of Veracruz has become a frequent site of clashes between armed groups as drug-related violence grows. In September, 35 bodies were abandoned in a roadway during rush-hour traffic in a popular tourist area there, two days before a meeting of high-ranking state prosecutors and judges.
CNN’s Rene Hernandez, Doug Gross and Nick Valencia contributed to this report.