The Tamaulipas/Texas border runs from the sister cities known as the two Laredos to another bi-national borderplex; Matamoros/Brownsville near the Gulf of Mexico.
This particular stretch of border contains lucrative corridors for legal and illicit trade...and the Mexican side has seen some of the worst urban firefights in the ongoing drug war. Many of these shootouts occur in broad daylight and some can be heard clearly from the Texas side of the river.
IldefonsoOrtiz: When I was at the Herald, our office was in downtown Brownsville, a few blocks away from the bridge, and if you're hearing gunfire, you know something bad is happening.
Tamaulipas native Ildefonso Ortiz works as a crime reporter at the McAllen Monitor but was at the Brownsville Herald when violence along the border got out of hand.
Another Rio Grande Valley based reporter, Sergio Chapa, says the situation across the river changed dramatically in early 2010, when Gulf Cartel capo Osiel Cardenas was sentenced in Houston to 25 years in federal prison.
SergioChapa: That created a split between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel; former allies now bitter, bitter rivals and enemies. And what that did to our region was it just changed it forever.
Things got a lot more violent south of the border.
Chapa says one of the consequences was a media blackout in Mexico - as cartels bought off and attacked traditional media outlets into silence.
Chapa works for KGBT, the CBS affiliate in the Rio Grande Valley. He says the television station continued its coverage of events on both sides of the border.
SergioChapa: One of the things that became immediately obvious is we started getting a lot of interest on it - this is the same year we started on twitter and facebook and our station, KGBT, we saw enormous growth on twitter and facebook. And a lot of it was driven from people from Mexico wanting to know what was going on in their communities and in their neighborhoods that their local media couldn't report, but we were. So, they turned to us for information.
But Tamaulipas citizens have turned to social media to generate information as well. Twitter users in particular have developed their own alert system to warn each other about risk situations like shootouts, grenades, or the presence of large groups of armed men in plainclothes.
Chuy: "Aqui hay una completa censura..."
"Chuy" is an active member of the citizen alert system in Tamaulipas. He says social media is the only way residents can find out about risk situations in real time. But the fact that violent incidents aren’t reported in the traditional local media allows state government officials to dodge their responsibility to give explanations, and to call the citizen reports the product of "collective psychosis". Chuy says when journalists on the U.S. side of the border pick up, give credibility, and apply journalistic rigor to the citizen reports in Mexico, it helps to validate the information that officials often ignore or minimize.
The Texas-based reporters who cover the situation in Tamaulipas do vet the information which comes through the social media alert system and try to supplement it with official, on-record statements. That’s not always easy to do, according to crime reporter Ildefonso Ortiz.
IldefonsoOrtiz: Official channels are not going to put out what's really happening and that is one of the reasons there's such a gap in information. The military will put out a press release about 'we seized this, we seized that' and if it's about a firefight, it has to be big enough and it'll be about three days later. From the state officials? You're never going to get a press release. It's vary rare and only when it's a positive thing.
Another complication is the de-facto ban many Texas outlets have placed on their reporters crossing into northern Mexico for work-related purposes. But again, social media users in Tamaulipas help to fill in the gaps, as "Chuy" explains.
Chuy: The disadvantage of the Texas reporters is that they aren't on-the-ground here. They often seek information through official channels and it's denied. They tend to rely on the citizens who have a good track record of reliable reporting. It's like team work. They support us by documenting the story and we support them by giving details about the events.
The outlets where Ortiz and Chapa work present information to their audiences in English, but both reporters use their twitter accounts to make sure relevant news gets out in Spanish as well. Chapa says both methods provide Tamaulipas residents with the information local reporters can't safely cover.
Sergio: Our signal doesn't stop at the river. It actually continues and goes very deep south into Mexico; almost an hour and a half south of the border. So, people can turn on and see our television broadcast if they so choose. And they can also read our stuff online and we know that they're reading and watching and they're very interested in that information and content and we're happy to provide it.
While the drug war violence and restrictive climate for press freedoms in Mexico are both situations that don't appear to have quick solutions...at least the experiences in this region provide some hope that citizens and journalists on both sides of the border can work together to get a story out and help their communities stay informed.
For The World, I'm Shannon Young in McAllen, Texas