The Salsa Wars

Casino style has become wildly popular, but the real action is taking place off the dance floor

Just before midnight on Saturday, July 21, Jacira Castro sat down at her computer to check her e-mail one last time before going to bed. Up came the homepage of the Internet site she publishes. But it wasn't her homepage. In huge type here's what she saw: "THIS IS A COMMUNIST WEBSITE." Everything normally on the screen had been obliterated.

"These big red letters are staring me in the face," recalls Castro, a Web designer and dance teacher who lives in Davie (and is not related to the Cuban dictator). "I froze. I panicked. I couldn't believe I was on my site. Right away I called my partner in Atlanta [graphic designer Julian Mejia]. He jumped on his computer and deleted the homepage. Then we realized we should have saved it to document the damage."

Castro says she puts in at least 60 hours per week on her Latin dance and music Website, called salsapower.com. With more than five years of involvement in the South Florida salsa scene, she has weathered her share of controversy and conflict, brought on partly by her contravention of local exile politics (by publicizing Cuban music and musicians living in Cuba), and partly because vicious and nasty power plays come with the competitive South Florida salsa territory. Nevertheless, until the hacking incident the pervasive sniping and backstabbing among local salseros had not escalated to the realm of federal felonies.

More than just the SalsaPower homepage was vandalized; Castro found vitriol elsewhere on the site. "I am a true communist, pro-[Fidel] Castro, unethical narrow-minded individual," read the altered text under her own photograph. "I have burned bridges with most of South Florida's dance school directors and leading politicians because of my political views and actions within the Cuban community. I am a declared communist activist and proud of it!"

Castro had no idea who invaded her cyberspace, but she was convinced the red-baiting was really a red herring. She knew most of SalsaPower's readers, who are spread among scores of cities in more than 30 nations, didn't care about her personal views on the Cuban revolution. Jacira Castro isn't even Cuban; she's Chilean American. "SalsaPower is a global Website, and we will not be bogged down by petty Miami politics," she declares.

Maybe not, but petty infighting continues to wreak havoc with Castro's site and her relations with other Miami salseros. Within Miami-Dade and Broward counties, about 25 salsa dance schools currently are in operation. No one seems to have a comprehensive list, because salsa students are constantly becoming teachers, splitting with their mentors, starting up their own studios (and often their own Internet sites), and feuding with one another.

No doubt that is because salsa has been a hot dance craze for the past several years, and the Miami area has been one of its epicenters. There's a lot of money to be made teaching casino-style salsa, the intricate system of steps that originated in Cuba and is performed by dancers in a circle, or rueda. The form has been developed into a profitable enterprise by several dancers, most notably in Miami by René Gueits, founder of Salsa Lovers Dance Studios, Inc. From small classes two nights a week in a Southwest Miami-Dade banquet hall, Salsa Lovers, according to Gueits, has grown over the past five years to "the largest casino rueda school in the world," attracting 350 new students each week to its three Miami locations -- and copious coverage by print and broadcast media. Many of the competing dance studios now operating in Miami and Broward were started by former Salsa Lovers pupils or teachers, frequently prompted by personal or professional disputes with Gueits. A few years ago Castro herself had a cyberfight with Gueits over some information published on her Website, and now there's no mention of Salsa Lovers on salsapower.com. But compared to Castro's latest battle, that was a waltz.

Salsapower.com is now back to normal, though a "hacker notice and apology to our readers" remains on the restored site. "We have no political affiliation at all," the apology states in English and Spanish. "We have traced the [Internet provider] address of the hacker through our server logs to an AOL address.... We are working together with AOL and the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, as well as the local office of the FBI, to rectify this problem. This [perpetrator] will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

Mejia, in Atlanta, relates his finding: The hacker with the AOL address visited salsapower.com three times on the Saturday the site was attacked. "Each visit was for around one hour," he reports.

Neither Castro nor Mejia will publicly name the individual they believe to be the guilty party, owing to libel concerns. Indeed the hard evidence left behind by the hacker tends to point less to a specific person and more to a Website: salsaunited.com. Salsa United is a loose association of about a dozen dance schools in Miami and Broward, formed ironically as an effort to cut down on infighting among the smaller schools. Just recently the group started its own Website. Jolexy Hurtado, a talented dancer who left Salsa Lovers almost three years ago, is the official spokesman for Salsa United and oversees the content of salsaunited.com, which has been under construction for the past few months; it went online July 19 with a series of interviews with local salsa masters.

And that was what precipitated the spat between Hurtado and Castro. Most of the interviews on salsaunited.com were identical to pieces published weeks and months earlier on salsapower.com. Castro says she immediately phoned Hurtado to complain, whereupon he became angry and, before hanging up, according to Castro, exclaimed: "You think you're so powerful? You're fucking with the wrong guy." (Hurtado and a friend who claims to have been with him during the conversation deny he said anything like that to Castro.)

This convinced Castro that Hurtado was the right guy for her infamous and insulting Ñó!!! Award, a takeoff on the all-purpose Cuban expletive coñoand occasionally given by Castro to someone in the salsa world who had, in her opinion, been a jerk. On July 20, the day after her conversation with Hurtado, readers of salsapower.com found the second Ñó!!! Award. It didn't name Hurtado, but it did make his identity abundantly clear and accused him of plagiarism. "We guess we should just shrug this off as either reduced mental capacity or ignorance of the meaning of the words “Ethics' and “Integrity,'" the Ñó!!! copy read. "[The Ñó!!! recipient] told Jacira just days ago ... that his Website was “not competition' for SalsaPower because his Website only represents local schools in the South Florida area, but SalsaPower is global. We have to agree with him on the second point. We sincerely doubt, however, that the schools which his organization represents ... feel that they are well represented by a Website whose content is mostly plagiarized."

Hurtado, who maintains he published those interviews as part of a test page and subsequently removed them from salsaunited.com as requested, insists the only person who did anything wrong in the matter was the author of the pieces, Stefan Vale. "He provided the same content to both SalsaPower and Salsa United," Hurtado protests, "and then he accuses Salsa United of publishing unauthorized materials." Vale contends that's nonsense. To assist Hurtado in developing the Website, Vale explains, he sent Hurtado several articles and interviews he'd already written, most of them as writing samples not meant for republication.

In any case, as of this past Monday the entire salsaunited.com site is back under construction; the interviews in question have been removed. Also gone is the Ñó!, Que Comemierda Award that appeared on salsaunited.com the day after the original Ñó!!! Award went online. Not surprisingly the Ñó!, Que Comemierda went to Castro, and this time there was no reluctance to name names. The unsigned text of the award asserted: "She assumed that I plagiarized content from her site and proceeded to slander me on the SalsaPower Website."

Then the next day salsapower.com was hacked. According to the Internet-provider logs Castro later obtained, someone with an AOL address entered the salsapower.com server at 10:22 p.m. Saturday, July 21. Castro doesn't know to whom the AOL address belongs, nor has she received any help so far from AOL. But she has plenty of additional leads she believes identify the hacker.

Start with the Ñó!!! Award. This page was among those turned into embarrassments for SalsaPower. The original copy chiding the unnamed salsero for his "reduced mental capacity," and alleged plagiarism was deleted and replaced by an almost comical screed proclaiming Stefan Vale the winner of the Ñó!!! Award. "Mr. Vale is an uneducated, low-class, unprofessional, immature, narrow-minded imbecile," the text stated. "Most of the interviews published by Mr. Vale are fictitious, as he never even met with some of these people...." The hacker couldn't resist a parting shot at Castro: "P.S. Personal message to Jacira: Who has the power? You're fucking with the wrong guy!"

Even more damning, after Castro figured it out, was the location of the missing graphics. On the hacked pages, where once there had been photos and graphics there now appeared blank boxes outlined in black with a tiny red "X" in the top left corner of each. When she clicked on the X's, looking for the images, Salsa United's Web address came up. "The file path to the graphics went to Salsa United's hard drive," Castro explains. "The pages from my server were uploaded to that computer, then the text was changed, then they uploaded [the pages] back to my server and overrode the correct file path for the graphics."

And another thing: The Ñó!, Que Comemierda Award on salsaunited.com featured a photo of the recipient, Jacira Castro -- the same photo from a page on her site that was protected by JavaScript code to prevent anyone from copying the image. "This means," Castro says, "that the only way [salsaunited.com] could have gotten that picture was while they were hacking inside the Website on the server."

She has reported all this to the FBI, but it's not certain the agency will initiate a formal investigation. "I know it's devastating to the individual who suffers the damage, but the bottom line is we just don't have enough agents to work small cases," says Miami spokeswoman Judy Orihuela, who adds that, while she knows nothing about the SalsaPower incident, extenuating circumstances sometimes prompt the bureau to pursue a case it might otherwise decline to investigate.

The penalties for hacking under federal law are serious: a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, or up to twice the gross loss to the victim. A first-time offender will spend a minimum of six months in jail. "Victims can start a civil lawsuit," advises Debbie Weierman of the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center in Washington, D.C. "State laws are also probably being violated too, so there could be other prosecutions and maybe even harsher penalties depending on state laws."

Castro estimates it has cost her and Mejia roughly $2000 to fix the damage to the site; lost readers and advertising revenues could be a future concern. But perhaps most costly to SalsaPower, and impossible to quantify, has been the controversy itself, which already has prompted several content changes on the site. Also Castro and Mejia have switched to a different HTML authoring program they believe will make their site more secure.

Hurtado isn't fazed by Castro's allegations. "It might look bad, but I know for a fact it had nothing to do with Salsa United," he says. "No way in hell she could prove that. If she really had proof, she could sue Salsa United. I have no idea who did it, but I know Jacira has a lot of enemies in this town."

Meanwhile the bickering continues to degenerate into self-destructive silliness. On August 5 and again three days later, the owners of eleven salsa schools, including Hurtado, sent Castro an e-mail. In a protest move that can only be considered counterproductive, the eleven Salsa United members demanded Castro remove their schools from her listings pages. "If our requests are not granted," the letter concludes, "we will be forced to take legal action."

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