How I Hunted My Sex-Assault Suspect Online and on Mexico Streets
This is the second in a three-part series looking at a single sexual assault that became a viral sensation in Mexico—and its many surprising results. In the first installment, Andrea Noel wrote about what happened when she reported on Twitter and to the police that a man rushed up behind her in broad daylight in a quiet Mexico City neighborhood and pulled down her panties.
TIJUANA, Mexico—“If anyone recognizes this idiot please identify him,” I had tweeted, along with the surveillance footage of myself being sexually assaulted in public.
To my surprise, within just a few hours, among the slew of messages of both hate and support that flooded in, came dozens of comments from social media users who thought they indeed knew who this “idiot” was.
Within days, he would—officially—become The Suspect.
Concerned from the beginning about labeling a stranger a sex offender, I wouldn’t publicly acknowledge the insinuation until more than a month later. I would avoid the question when asked, and fight off the temptation to acknowledge the hundreds of messages that would tie him inexorably to my case.
But I was shocked when I found out that there was a group of well-known and resoundingly disliked pranksters in my neighborhood whose modus operandi matched exactly the incident involving me.
They called themselves the Master Trolls, and their eponymous television show would premiere, just two days after my assault, on Telehit—an MTV-like station under the umbrella of Televisa, the world’s largest Spanish-speaking media company.
The main cast were a pair of two loud pranksters. One was the long-haired, cowboy hat-wearing “Grupero King,” who took his stage name from the popular grupera genre of northern rancher music. The other was a former bullfighter named Andoni Echave.
“Andoni and the Rey Grupero of the Condesa roam Mexico City pulling viral pranks more extreme than anything ever seen on the Internet or television,” read the show’s official description.
It was the culmination of years of pranks pulled on YouTube, and dozens of guest segments on Televisa subsidiaries, that would finally land them their very own TV show, which they had been busy filming in the weeks and days surrounding The Incident.
Rey Grupero’s very attractive sister served as bait for the pranksters’ victims, and a wrestler named El Gran Danger, who wore his lucha libre mask while working, rounded out the team of hosts.
Armed with inflatable hammers or flour, paint, pies, and other projectiles, the pranksters played whack-a-mole with seemingly unsuspecting—and sometimes sleeping—pedestrians and bystanders, smearing them with dog feces and viscous substances for laughs.
But worse, what they had become best known for was pulling down people’s pants and underwear in public, and running up from behind women to forcefully kiss them on the mouth, as the women tried to beat them off or launched obscenities at them, and they ran off cackling.
They used Go-Pros and selfie sticks to film these attacks, which aired with no disclaimers whatsoever, much less the courtesy of a don’t-try-this-at-home caveat. And most of their pranks were filmed within blocks of The Incident—some filmed just around the corner.
Social media users immediately, resoundingly, pointed their collective fingers at the pair. They, in turn, immediately denied their participation, uploading three We Didn’t Do It videos within the first 72 hours after The Incident.
“We go after men who can defend themselves. We don’t attack children, dogs, old people, and much less women,” Rey Grupero said in one video. “We go after dudes, slap their asses, pull down their pants, get them wet, and they respond with a few good punches.”
“We don’t troll women like that,” he repeated, in a video titled “Rey Grupero Pulls Down Woman’s Underwear.” “We only steal a kiss from them or something much simpler.”
Then, Andoni spoke. “The dude they are saying is me, doesn’t look like me physically,” he said, removing his sunglasses. “It isn’t me.”
Hours later their show premiered on Telehit.
Back at the prosecutor’s office, rows of nearly two dozen officers at the cybercrime division sat behind their groaning PCs, busily downloading the pranksters’ YouTube videos to compare with my own video of The Incident.
I wanted the authorities to work on downloading and analyzing the more than half a dozen videos I had helped them collect that had captured The Incident, or preferably release the videos to me so that I could get a better picture of my attacker. But the agenda had already been set.
The investigative police had officially homed in on The Suspect. The report had reached the conclusion that the man in the videos “bears a resemblance to Andoni Echave.” And the wheels of the system were set in motion.
In Mexico, as in many Latin American countries, prosecutors build their case in the form of a single dossier that is supposed to be comprehensive, including all available evidence and testimony to be used in a pre-trial hearing, which would eventually lead to a trial.
We were 104 pages into the investigative dossier by this point, but I hadn’t yet been shown the videos that I had spent so many hours helping the authorities collect, much less seen the government security footage that I had asked the city for. They would allow it to be deleted, and the Human Rights Commission would recover the footage. But still, I could not get access.
I had the option then, just days after the attack, to formally implicate Andoni. But I didn’t. I wanted to wait to analyze all the videos for myself.
I never expected my tweet to have gone so far as to create a media storm, much less produce an actual suspect. But it happened.
Immediately after The Incident, dozens and then hundreds of social media users went after him, and Andoni mostly laughed it off.
A friend asked me a few days later if I thought it was him, once I had a chance to finally sit down and watch his YouTube videos. “He has the same hair and looks like he’s the same height, and his run seems very distinctive. But I’m obviously not going to say anything about it, unless I see that it’s him in the videos,” I typed.
The day after The Incident, I had sent Andoni a Facebook message, on a whim.
“Did you do it?” I asked. He responded, “Did I do what?”
It would be six weeks before we next spoke.
Even after I fled Mexico City, the story continued. The death threats kept pouring in, but the authorities would call me back. I needed to come amplify my statement, they’d say, and read new “expert video analyses” that had been added to the investigation folder. Or something else. Always something else.
But I didn’t care about their experts. I just wanted the videos.
I’d be called back over and over again, always seemingly just one step away from finally having an answer, returning in quick jaunts back to Mexico City, trying to avoid people.
What little money I had had all but run out by the time the authorities finished analyzing eight videos that were gathered from the scene of The Incident. And the results were sitting in the investigation folder back in Mexico City. But they were unable to tell me what it said. I would have to come in person so they could take my statement once more, before we could do anything else.
I begged them to just tell me if the “experts” believed that The Suspect looked like Andoni. But to no avail.
One exchange with the prosecutor via text shows my frustration. I sent her a series of screenshots of death threats as they rolled in, one after another, asking if she could please just tell me the results over the phone. I was exhausted.
I sent a screenshot of a man holding a rifle—a tweet I’d received two minutes before: “Good thing you aren’t in Mexico, fucking whore. Don’t come back, or else I’ll take care of you, bitch.”
Then, a screenshot of a tweet sent one minute before: “Stop crying bitch. Come to Mexico and we’ll mass-rape you. You’ll enjoy it.”
Then, one sent 26 seconds before: “Come to Mexico and something worse than what happened in Brussels [a reference to the suicide bombings there in March 2016] will happen, fucking bitch. We are going to kill you.”
Then, I sent a two-for-one, two consecutive tweets sent seconds apart from each other. The first is an image of three bloodied, decapitated heads that have been partially skinned and are propped up against a curb. One has an open eye that stares into the camera.
Below that is second image of butchered corpses spilling out of several black garbage bags. I am unsure if they are human or porcine.
I asked the agent to please just tell me what I needed to know over the phone, but to no avail.
The authorities were not done with me, and I would not yet be done with them.
I returned to Mexico City and headed straight for the prosecutor’s office to review the investigation folder, which had by then ballooned to almost 200 pages. And I didn’t tell anyone else that I was coming.
By then I knew the agents all by name, and had even met some of their children.
The women who work in the sex crimes division are an interesting study. They are all very sweet, and almost cartoonishly feminine.
They wore extra-high heels and short skirts or tight dresses, and I would compliment them as they changed their hair color, switching from one shade of blond to the next. Once behind their desks, the first order of business was usually to remove their heels and switch to flats. That day, they had seemingly coordinated to dress in red.
I got the sense that they would dress more comfortably if it weren’t for the bosses. In the Special Victims’ Unit for sex crimes, almost everyone is female, but in positions of power beyond the glass enclosed unit it’s mostly men in suits.
“Good morning, licenciado,” the women say to their superiors in the hallways after putting their heels back on.
I’m asked to amplify my statement for the nth time, and give two pro-bono lawyers power of attorney—a crack husband and wife team, David Peña and Karla Micheel Salas—hoping that they can continue the process without me, and that I can return to the U.S. and think about beginning a new life. Over the course of the following days I would be in and out of the office, jumping through every hoop they threw at me.
It had been nearly a month and I would finally be able to see the videos that trip. The CD-Rom came in, but the agents were unable to open it on their ancient computers. I offered to download some software for them, but they were not connected to the internet.
So, I went back to my old apartment, picked up the only device I had that would read a CD—my 27-inch Mac desktop—lugged it past several Televisa vans that were parked outside my front door, and into the prosecutor’s office.
I had a sneaky plan to run a program in the background that would allow me to record the videos, ending my engagement with the authorities once and for all.
But once in the office, the CD would not open. I went home, defeated.
By the time we were finally able to review a copy of the videos on their tiny, dark, archaic computer monitors, it was of little use. There was no way to zoom in and they said taking a screenshot, or giving me a copy, would violate the “chain of custody” and make the video evidence no longer valid, in case we did catch the man at last.
“The victim was unable to identify The Suspect,” a document filed that day notes. I was there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. that day, March 29, one of many days like this that proved that trying to get a little justice can become a full-time job for The Victim.
That same day, the media was reporting the prosecutors claimed I was being uncooperative. “Noel has not appeared to continue the process that would allow the person responsible to be brought to justice,” one article read, citing official sources. By then I had spent well over 100 hours in person with the authorities, and countless more via telephone and email.
And by this point I had just about had it.
The CD was sent out for analysis, but as a report from the commander of the investigative police department that was asked to analyze the videos shows, they had returned the CD to the sex crimes unit unopened.
“This investigative unit does not have any kind of ‘software’ or ‘hardware’ that would allow us” to “capture the specific moment in question and to improve the image of the face of the male in question,” it read.
I was ready to rip my hair out. I wondered: What was the point of this whole weeks-long process?
I knew that if I had the video I could analyze it at home, and it would show exactly who The Suspect was.
It had been nearly a month of death threats over morning coffee, and an unending stream of opinions of every variety—some beautiful, some sick. And hundreds of women asking me to help them. I tried to help them all, but could barely find a way to help myself.
I would read Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and think about my own.
Back in New York, drinking coffee by the bucketful, I’d write stories about gangstalking. And Beckett’s disjointed words (“All kinds of fantasies! That I’m being watched! A rat! Steps!”) had somehow become relatable.
There, I was just another random dude with a crazy story. But back in Mexico, I could not enjoy the same peace or anonymity. I felt like I was being collectively gaslit. And it was beginning to take its toll.
On those quick visits back to Mexico City I was being recognized at every turn. Behind me, in a restaurant, two men discussed my case extra loudly. Surely intending to be overheard, I thought. In line at a market, two teenagers talked about me, stopping mid-sentence when they realized who was behind them.
At a gathering of seemingly like-minded company at one friend’s apartment, where I’d gone to escape during a quick visit, a young woman would berate me about her “friend at the prosecutor’s office,” who told her that the suspect was in fact my own boyfriend, and how they couldn’t reveal the truth because the social media stakes were too high, but how Just Between You And Me she would keep the secret.
“Just tell me the truth,” she demanded over and over again, before someone pried her off me.
One observant friend who saw me briefly during that time asked recently, looking back, “You were having a nervous breakdown, weren’t you, güera?”
Maybe I was.
My confidence in early interviews (“They want me to cry and shake and be traumatized, to prove that I’m a victim, but I’m not traumatized, I’m angry,” I told one reporter) had faded.
The Incident had become an international story, spread across North and Latin America—mostly due to the death and rape threats. In 2015, then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump had called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals,” and here I was running my mouth. And although so many thousands of social media users were supportive of what I had to say, there were many who were offended by my stance that gender-based violence in Mexico, and indeed Latin America, “is both a systemic and cultural problem.”
This all served to further fuel the raging debate that was occurring in Mexican media, and on the streets, and online, as the issue began to demand a confrontation with the country’s unsettling history of machismo—the aggressive pride of certain men and institutions.
“Whether lying stretched out or standing up straight, whether naked or fully clothed,” a woman viewed through the lens of machismo is nothing more than “a channel for the universal appetite” with “no desires of her own,” as Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz wrote in The Labyrinth of Solitude, in a chapter called “Mexican Masks” (PDF).
He published this in the early 1930s, but it could have very well been yesterday. And I thought often about his writing during this period.
Paz’s reflections on Mexico, and indeed Mexicans, had always seemed to me like the writings of an outsider, looking in. But in fact, he was an insider, looking introspectively at his own self and people from beyond himself.
I was having a similar out of body experience.
Speculation about who was behind the online attacks that targeted me had been high. My thought that these were real people with real opinions had gone out the window. Something else was going on here. How is it possible that thousands of people are so interested in and offended by me as to merit the thousands of death and rape threats that were coming in? Who has the time? I wondered. Who cares?
Others had reached the same conclusion and begun asking similar questions.
In mid-March, internet activist and journalist Alberto Escorcia—who has advocated for social media networks like Twitter to take action against the vast attack networks of bots and trolls that are threatening democracy in Mexico and Latin America—analyzed almost 20,000 tweets sent to me over the course of one long and grueling day.
He asked, “Who is behind this coordinated attack?”
For years, it has been difficult to define and describe the exact nature and purpose of Mexico’s bots and trolls, but as far as I can tell it serves a few purposes. One is positioning propaganda, and muddying the water for genuine social movements and dissent. The other is simply crazy-making harassment with silence as its end goal.
Televisa has for years skirted allegations about impropriety and its close ties to Mexico’s ruling political party. But they are undeniably kin. So much so that the first lady of Mexico, Angelica Rivera, rose to stardom as an actress on various Televisa telenovelas—the soapy daytime TV dramas that feature beaten women howling about their cheating husbands.
The company, for example, would be implicated in a major scandal in 2015 over the dubious acquisition of a multimillion-dollar mansion called the Casa Blanca (the White House) that President Enrique Peña Nieto would be later forced to apologize for lying about. First lady Rivera had lied to the public and press, claiming that she paid for the property herself with money earned during her career with Televisa, but she hadn’t, and the company of course knew that.
Just three weeks after The Incident, Bloomberg would drop a bombshell interview with a hacker who claimed Mexico’s ruling party had paid him more than half a million dollars to help manipulate the election, using an army of 30,000 Twitter bots to help secure Peña Nieto’s victory.
In my case Escorcia found evidence that a small part of the threats and harassment could be linked to the fired columnist whose tweets were tied to a larger network of more than 200 users working in coordination. That columnist, today, does not seem to have time for any discernible job, but has claimed repeatedly that he works for the Mexican federal government.
His Twitter account has been suspended numerous times—most recently last Thursday—but he continues to pop up under variations of the name MachoTroll, working with a group of dedicated harassers who target women online.
So, on my end, what Escorcia insinuated was ringing true. But paranoia about this whole ordeal was beginning to creep in.
Many of the Twitter accounts that I would report and ask the community to help suspend would pop up within hours of being taken down. Some would drop off with more than 50,000 Twitter followers, and then return shortly after as new accounts, quickly accumulating their tens of thousands of lost followers.
I would notice my tweets being tagged with mentions for other users to “take note.” And this would typically precede a new string of threats.
Months after The Incident, the internet activist Escorcia who first posed the “who” question in my case would be forced to seek asylum in Spain. As a letter to the Interior Ministry would note (PDF), after reporting on “the attacks against Andrea Noel and [Catholic priest] Father Solalinde,” Escorcia had himself become a target.
I was at a loss to explain what was going on. And this was not my area of expertise. But it no longer seemed like the work of a few angry Twitter users. It was more like a full-blown silencing campaign, of the sort whose origin would be nearly impossible to determine.
Journalists and online activists in Mexico have long known that it pays to be a bot. But it also pays to be a troll.
The Suspect’s co-host had been giving interviews, making inflammatory comments, saying I was “clinging to his fame,” and generally egging everyone on. The Suspect would himself upload a video, saying, “If you thought some lying hysterical hag would make us stop, you’re wrong!”
By then, like anyone who was paying attention, I thought they were both the worst, the lowest of the low-brow. Their terrible spelling and their terrible sexism were two forceful strikes against them. But I still wasn’t convinced that The Suspect was in fact Andoni.
Then, like a scene from the film Blow-Up, I made a discovery. It wasn’t huge, but it confirmed suspicions that this indeed had been a prank that was meant to be filmed.
I noticed it in my own grainy video, the one I had filmed off a surveillance tape on the day of The Incident, studying it frame by frame, trying to decide if The Suspect looked like Andoni or not. The man was carrying a camera.
That was the final straw for me. I thought it is either definitely him, or a copycat inspired by the precedent these pranksters had set, showing an ignorant audience that this kind of behavior is not only acceptable and funny but also can be monetized.
Armed with the idea that The Suspect had filmed The Incident, there was only one way to proceed.
Andoni Echave was called in for questioning, the authorities slipped a notice for him to appear under his door, and an agent was sent to locate him at the Televisa subsidiary office. He came in with a team of four lawyers—the full force of their legal department, it seemed.
Outside the prosecutor’s office, no one knew that there was an official case building against him. And in those six weeks I had never once mentioned his name in public.
But the case had taken on a life of its own. Just about every national news outlet had covered it, and dozens more internationally. It had launched a debate about the old-guard machista media versus the values of a more online, and thus better informed, audience.
Three separate petitions, two of which were created months before the attack—directed to the mayor of Mexico City, the city prosecutor’s office, Televisa, and YouTube—demanded Master Troll be taken off the air and their YouTube channel taken down.
There were more than 25,000 signatures collected by the time the TV show was quietly canceled, just weeks after its official premiere. They had worked so long to become Master Troll, but I would inadvertently deprive them of the title.
Andoni submitted his evidence to the prosecutor’s office. And text messages would show that he was 0.9 miles away, filming just a few blocks from The Incident, 20 minutes before it happened.
He would argue behind closed doors, the prosecutor would say, that everything in his show was staged. But in an interview with CNN Chile, his outrageous co-host had said the exact opposite just a month before The Incident, when asked how they avoid legal repercussions.
“We have had some problems, like a civilian complaint that was pretty heavy,” he said. “But in the end, they weren’t able to prove anything because we always sneak up on the people we prank from behind, so there isn’t anyone who can say for sure ‘I saw his face,’ and that’s our advantage.”
“Some people have caught us and we’ve been forced to maybe pay them back for a broken cellphone, or things like that—if they catch us,” he said, laughing, adding that they’ve been chased by people with baseball bats, or beaten up. “If they don’t catch us, then we just run off, and go make a scene somewhere else, or go get beers.”
After mounting media pressure against them, and armed with camera evidence that seemed to relate to them and their own public statements, I decided to proceed.
A judge would have to decide whether to formally begin investigating Andoni, at which point, as The Suspect, he would be given access to the entire investigation folder—including the videos I’d been demanding, my psychological evaluation, and personal information—in order to prepare his defense, and the prosecutor could request access to his phone data.
If the judge decided to formally implicate him in the case, this would be just the first step in an arduous process that promised to continue for months. Already, headlines claimed that I was seeking a “millionaire arrangement”—as if sexual assault were some kind of get-rich-quick scheme. I was facing a nightmare with no end in sight.
The hearing was set for May 4, at 10 a.m.
By the day before the hearing, I was ready to end it all.
It had been 57 awful days, and The Incident seemed so distant now, so trivial compared to everything that had happened since.
Also, I was getting cold feet. Andoni still insisted that it wasn’t him. He had grown silent, as his co-host continued to poke the bear.
Speaking off the record to a female journalist the morning before the first trial, I asked for advice, pacing the international terminal of JFK airport. I was completely torn.
If we went before a judge, the videos would have to be immediately released to him, and then we could begin arguing for me to obtain the copies.
If we didn’t, I would have given up, failed, let down those who supported me, and proved right those who hadn’t. I would become the worst kind of hypocrite, one who tells victims to speak up, and then shrinks away in silence.
So I boarded the flight from New York to Mexico City.
Tomorrow: The Web Nailed the Wrong Man for My Sex Assault in Mexico.