The Web Nailed the Wrong Man for My Sex Assault in Mexico
This is the third and last article 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. In the second chapter, she looked at the hunt for her attacker on the streets and online.
TIJUANA, Mexico—There is safety in numbers, and the encouragement of one person speaking out about a sexual assault soon became four, and then a dozen, and then more.
Some had been speaking out for a long time, in fact, but it seemed no one was listening.
The Mexican government wasn’t even pretending to care, much less take meaningful action. That much of the national media did not consider gender-based violence newsworthy was proved by the countless undocumented murders of women—commonly called feminicidios, or femicides—and by the unforgivable victim-blaming and unending columns and think pieces about whether or not victims are liars.
My case was not by any means the only one that helped change the media and political agenda last year. But 2016 would build on previous waves of outrage and solidarity: Women would speak out, and women would be listened to despite those who tried to silence them.
I received thousands of messages of support during this period, and spoke to dozens of women who reached out for help.
I wanted to write their stories in their own words and not my own. But eventually I realized that the most effective way to explain what millions of people are subjected to in lawless, systemically, and culturally misogynistic countries might be to tell my own story—even though in itself it is hardly exceptional.
As you read this, hundreds of women are being churned through the machine, hoping for justice that will likely never come.
The many victims I’ve spoken to who’ve faced rape, violence, humiliation, discredit, scorn, death threats, and even jail time would come to tell me how they were violated first by their aggressors, and then by the authorities, and then society and the media.
Three weeks after I released the video of The Incident—a man rushing up behind me, pulling down my panties, and running away—the father of an underage girl in Veracruz, who said she had been sexually abused almost a year and a half before by four adult schoolmates from politically connected families, released a video he had managed to film.
One after another, the four young men look into the camera and apologize for “what we did to her.” One of the parents promised to punish his son—by taking away his cellphone.
News of the case against the “Porkys,” as they were labeled early on, would spread internationally. But the authorities would call the taped confession “inadmissible.”
As the young girl’s case and her name spread across Mexico causing indignation, Daphne Fernández—whose father confessed to me that she had begged him not to do anything about the crime—would become reclusive after facing ridicule and public shaming, and accusations that she was lying.
Yakiri Rubio, who would become my dear friend after The Incident, was 19 when she killed a man with his own dagger as he raped her in 2013.
She went to the authorities, covered in blood, with slashes on her arms and legs, and they in turn threw her in jail to await a possible 60-year sentence for homicide. Following mounting public pressure that raised the more than $20,000 she needed for bail—more than 13 years of wages for Mexicans on the lowest social rung—she was released after three grueling months behind bars.
“I trusted the justice system to help me, but the opposite happened,” Yakiri said outside the prison the day of her release. She said systemic “machismo” had led to her sentencing, and on that day she became an activist. So did her father, José Luis, whose pride for his daughter is palpable.
“I promise to do everything I can to help other women,” she said upon release, surrounded by a massive crowd. “I give my word.”
But she faced every possible injustice—socially, judicially, and from the media. “The lesbian who slit her rapist’s throat is released from jail,” one headline blared. Others would repeat government claims that said she knew her rapist, and was in fact his girlfriend.
Even now, four years after her assault, the attacker’s accomplice—who helped kidnap her and watched the dead man rape her—remains free.
I had followed her case for years, but wouldn’t meet her until last April.
We sat at a table together, along with Gabriella Nava, a 22-year-old college student who released a video in late March exposing a university employee who had filmed up her skirt. In mid-April we would film a public service announcement that would be watched by more than 3 million people, encouraging women to speak out, using the hashtag #NoTeCalles—“Don’t Be Silenced.”
Then, a petition directed to the Mexico City prosecutor’s office and sex crimes department began circulating, calling for the authorities to take action in my case. In just a few days, it would receive more than 50,000 signatures.
We were gearing up for a trial that was described to me by both my lawyer and the prosecutor as “a coin toss” that could go any number of ways. It was unclear whether a Mexico City judge would agree to investigate the crime, which would allow access to the videos and phone records, and the record is poor on this point. So, reluctantly two weeks before the trial, I let slip that The Suspect was a “public figure.” It was an insinuation I would grow to regret.
But throughout all this, online a war was brewing.
Factions of the loosely organized hacktivist collective Anonymous in Mexico and Venezuela hacked dozens of minor Mexican government websites, replacing their home pages with a picture and video of me, and a call against gender-based violence—“No more deaths, no more impunity.”
But in response to the outrage of feministas across Mexico, teams of trolls were on the attack. Within days, the number one trending topic on Mexican Twitter was #MujerGolpeadaMujerFeliz—“Beaten Woman, Happy Woman.”
In subsequent weeks, more deplorable hashtags began appearing in the top spots, including #RapedWomanIsHappyWoman, #RapeAChild, #WomenAreCleaningObjects, #DeadWomanPerfectWoman, and countless others that were used hundreds of thousands of times. But Twitter was unwilling to take action.
A march was announced for April 24, calling for women to take to the streets to stand up against gender-based violence.
The day before the protest, women across Mexico began tweeting, using the hashtag #MiPrimerAcoso—“My First Harassment”—a tag that is still being used to share victims’ stories. It became the number one trending topic in Mexico, with nearly 80,000 tweets by real users within just a few hours. Then it spread through Latin America.
The tweets were downloaded and analyzed by observers who noted that 59 percent of the abuses the women were reporting happened when the victim was between just 6 and 10 years old. The average age was 8 years old.
In just 140 characters, tens of thousands of women across Mexico shared their stories.
“#MiPrimerAcoso happened when I was four, and next at seven. After that I learned to stop smiling at strangers,” reads one fairly typical tweet. “My first harassment was when I was seven and my neighbor tried to touch me. I was scared and disgusted, and still avoid him to this day,” reads another.
“I was four when it happened. Do I have to tell the story?” asked one Twitter user.
The following day, the hashtag continued to trend, while streets across Mexico flooded in a sea of purple as thousands of women marched through more than 40 cities.
Before the day was over, it was being called “the largest march of its kind ever in Mexico”—with an estimated 10,000 women in Mexico City alone, another 3,000 in Jalisco, another 1,000 in Nuevo Leon, and thousands more in cities across almost every state in Mexico. It would foreshadow the historic global women’s march that came the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration—which Mexico also participated in—and the women’s march that took place in cities across Mexico this past Wednesday, on International Women’s Day.
Women of all ages, classes, and skin colors danced, sang, and beat drums across the country. Catholics and anarchists, children and indigenous women, LGBT and even men, all came together for the peaceful protest, saying “We want ourselves alive! (#VivasNosQueremos).”
In Mexico City, the march began in Ecatepec, Mexico State’s femicide capital. From there, they marched from one landmark to the next, from the Monumento a la Revolución to the Ángel de Independencia. The monuments they chose would seem like a larger metaphor—from revolution to independence.
They called it Violet Spring. And it made everything that had happened since The Incident feel less burdensome.
In response to the historic protest, Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera would later announce a strategy to combat violence against women. His plan: rape whistles. Women were furious, arguing that the ineffective plan puts all the responsibility on victims and none on the authorities and victimizers.
Unfortunately for Mancera, the Spanish word for whistle, pito, is also a phallic double entendre. I began using the far-too-obvious hashtag #ElPitoDeMancera—or Mancera’s whistle—and it quickly turned into a viral meme. It was the mayor’s turn to face ridicule, and it quickly became the number one hashtag in Mexico, trending for days.
The ACME brand, gendered whistles—pink for women, black for men—which somehow cost the government more than $4 each, have now been ready for months, but not yet handed out. In order to obtain the novelty item, of which 15,000 were made for a city of more than 8 million people, one must pre-register, go to the police station, and share personal information to provide the government with ongoing feedback. It was all a big joke.
But the day after the march, following weeks of speculation online that my next move would be posing nude for Playboy, that joke became a reality, as Playboy Mexico tweeted a topless photo of me that had been circulating widely, with a link to an article announcing that the case would be going to trial.
Then came May 3, the day before the trial, and I boarded what would be my last flight from New York to Mexico City.
I’d been an accidental advocate for outrage, and landed in Mexico City to find myself the subject of its backlash.
“Going viral” feels like exactly what it sounds like: a contagion that leads to quarantine—a disease that one catches online from contact with the spit of those who hiss.
My case had brought deserved hellfire for the group that called themselves the Master Trolls and tried to turn ugly pranks into lucrative television. But in the end, in the public eye, I would become the master troll.
One of the Master Trolls, Andoni Echave, who had been labeled as The Suspect in my case, had continued to proclaim his innocence, at least of that act. But the day before the trial, on May 3, he had finally managed to recover one of the many surveillance videos from the corner of the Condesa neighborhood where The Incident took place.
The video, released while I was in the air en route to Mexico City, proved the attacker wasn’t him. As I landed at the Benito Juárez International Airport, the storm of tweets came flooding in. “He didn’t do it,” I texted the lawyer who had been helping me.
“No, he didn’t,” she responded.
I went from victim to hero to victimizer. And he went from dick to Dick Tracy.
The drama at that point had gone on for 58 awful days.
I called Andoni that afternoon and asked him to meet me—a phone call that he secretly recorded. (Suspicions were high all around.)
Audio I, too, recorded secretly late that night at the prosecutor’s office pretty much explains it all. Andoni walked in, cracked a nervous joke, and we all laughed apprehensively.
He sat down and I started rambling: “First of all, I’m horrified. That video has been in the investigation folder for more than two months, but I’ve been denied access to it. The ‘expert analysts’ declared themselves incompetent at the time of analyzing it, and, well, you just managed to do it. So, that’s interesting,” I cringed. “I’m sure you’ve read everything that’s in the folder, and you know that I waited to move forward, until after all of the results came back and only then did we proceed to formally implicate you, six weeks after the cyberpolice identified you as a suspect,” I rambled on and on.
“This was never a personal vendetta, it’s the result of everything that’s been compiled in the course of the investigation, which is now like 500 pages long, and I think it’s just crazy that it ever got this far, and that the authorities with all the tools at their disposal and all of the social pressure in the world …”
He interjected to explain just how he had managed to prove his innocence. “I went to one of the buildings and begged the woman to please, please, please give me the video,” he said. “I downloaded it using a USB and a mouse, and then I went to a friend’s house and we converted it to an MP4. That automatically made the image clearer, and I was so relieved when I saw that asshole’s face.”
This had all begun with me tweeting the video I had obtained. And it all ended with him tweeting his.
The full force of the Mexican justice system had been no match for a millennial with a computer.
“An MP4,” I said, incredulous, now addressing the agent at the sex crimes division. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”
In the background there’s a cacophony as our lawyers all argue with the prosecutor, but by then the tension between Andoni and me had lifted.
We sat outside for hours that night on the steps of the prosecutor’s office, talking about everything that had happened—about how he realized that his friends were jerks, and about what his mother had to say about all this.
And I told him, in turn, about the comedy of errors that had brought us here, my frustration, the side-by-side comparison I had made of Andoni and The Suspect using my own cellphone footage that really did look like him, and the irony that he would finally acquire all of the videos I’d been demanding if we just went to court in the morning.
It was a nearly unbearable Catch-22. Back inside, the prosecutor explained that we might not be able to call off the hearing, but we agreed that we just wouldn’t go, holding a press conference the following morning instead.
I had been dragged through the gutter by some, and lionized by others. And this would start a whole new string of think pieces and op-eds, but I would shrink away silently to recover.
I tried to be a victim and a journalist at the same time: documenting the untethered violence affecting millions of women by pursuing justice for my own sexual assault, and speaking truth to power by recording the infuriating process that revictimizes and blames victims at every opportunity.
But it became too personal.
Forced to stand up for myself, I had become an accidental activist. As many other women in Mexico have been forced to.
Last Wednesday, International Women’s Day, I called Andoni to wish him awkwardly a “Happy Anniversary!”
We talked for hours. About everything that had gone wrong. And everything that had gone right. We reminisced about this time last year, and the weeks of hell we went through before confronting the press last May.
We are close in age, and not much else. But against all possible odds, I’d say we’ve become friends of the unlikeliest sort—the bullfighter and the vegetarian, somehow tied together like two strangers who’ve survived something unspeakable.
Andoni has stopped pulling pranks, and no longer has anything to do with the other “Master Trolls,” who continue to produce copious garbage. Many of their videos have been deleted, but fan-made videos have continued to surface, garnering millions of views. And the pranksters were, most recently, featured on Comedy Central Latin America this past week. To my absolute dismay, these pranks are still as popular as ever, especially among adolescent boys.
In speaking with Andoni I see that he stands out from the bunch, now, as the one seemingly normal guy—no costume, no stage name, no luchador mask, no cowboy hat. “I don’t dress up like Batgirl or anything,” he told me on Wednesday.
He said The Incident was “almost like a message from God,” one that brought him closer to his family, and further from the image he had created for himself. “It made that Andoni I had inside wake up and realize that I couldn’t keep pulling pranks forever,” he said. Now, ironically, he works on other people’s images. He has certainly learned a thing or two about social media and rebranding. He manages athletes’ images, he said, “like a Mexican Jerry Maguire.”
I think he’s kind of funny, but never would have before.
“We were really good at what we did. But I see the pranks now and I don’t like them at all,” he said. “This kind of content caters to the lowest common denominator, people with no education, culture, who have never read a book—that’s the target audience. This opened my eyes to a lot of things I hadn’t realized before about that industry. It’s nefarious.
“This year was rough,” he said. And it was. We had both been through the mill and would come out relatively OK. But he was upset that the authorities had used him as a scapegoat of sorts, an easy way out in lieu of actual police work. And he said that whoever The Suspect really is must be laughing it up. But also, he feels that he was unfairly judged by everyone, and that we had been pitted against each other in an entertaining spectacle.
“They wanted to see us stripped naked in a stadium, throwing tomatoes at each other,” Andoni joked, and I laughed.
“[My co-hosts] didn’t help by adding fuel to the fire at every opportunity,” he said. “I told them, this is serious, and you need to just stop making it worse. But [one of the Master Trolls known as the Grupero King] couldn’t stand that I was getting more press than him. I told him I didn’t want it!”
But it had been a media-fueled witch hunt—a social justice movement of the sort that can only exist in the absence of real justice.
In the end, I’d spent thousands of dollars that I didn’t have, let go of my apartment, sold my furniture, and gave away my cat. And he’d severed ties with the people who had been among his closest friends, and was forced to remake himself.
But there is perhaps, maybe, a consolation prize.
Soon after The Incident, the interior ministry and the national media chamber signed a “historic” agreement with more than a thousand media companies that would call for a more “sensitized” depiction of women, and an end to the promotion of “images and statements that are damaging to women.”
And in response to furor surrounding The Incident, senators, members of Congress, and other politicians used the case to set an agenda against gender-based violence, and demand government action. Legislation and policies have been proposed that would protect other women from what happened to me, and many much worse incidents that happen to millions of women in Mexico.
Many Mexican states consider sexual abuse of the sort that happens behind closed doors and involves power dynamics a crime, and workplace-variety sexual harassment a crime, and unwanted touching on public transportation a crime, but have no criminal designation for the type of street assault that happened to me and happens to hundreds of others each week.
But on March 29 last year, three weeks after The Incident, the Mexican congress asked each state government to implement public policies that would help protect women from street harassment. Within days of The Incident, Congresswoman Jorgina Gaxiola proposed that public sexual assault be criminalized in all 32 states.
Less than two weeks after The Incident, Olympian-turned-Senator Ana Gabriela Guevara took my case up with the Senate. She asked the national anti-discrimination council to elaborate a strategy that would criminally sanction people who violently threaten women in Mexico online, and work to build a relationship with the largest social media networks to facilitate reporting and ending violent online threats—describing the way online harassers band together to “hunt” their victims for sport.
In a sick twist of fate—or perhaps not much of a surprise at all really—she could have easily written the same proposal about herself. Just eight months later, in December last year, Guevara was brutally beaten and kicked by four men, including one former police officer, on a federal highway. She released video footage of the suspects, and had immediate reconstructive surgery to repair the fractures around her eye socket, before speaking about the attack before the Senate.
She would face her own online threats and ridicule. But, unlike many cases, the suspect in hers was arrested in January.
Two of the four “Porkys” have also since been arrested.
And, in July, the Mexico City Human Rights Commission asked the government to apologize and indemnify Yakiri Rubio for her unfair incarceration.
Earlier this month, six days before the one-year-anniversary of The Incident, Senator Guevara used both of our cases to ask the Senate to launch a national crusade against gender-based violence by convening all government bodies, universities, and social media companies like Twitter and Facebook to draft legislation that would “attack the conditions, roots, attitudes, and customs that cause, maintain and promote violence against women in any of its forms.”
I’m not saying anything has improved yet, but I’m newly hopeful that change is possible.
I still don’t quite understand what happened, and could certainly have never envisioned it. I didn’t know I’d inadvertently get a trollish columnist fired, a terrible television show taken off the air, and spark legislative pushes in the areas I was stubbornly complaining about.
That I was a protagonist throughout this was entirely accidental, and the exact opposite of what I wanted early on.
But in a country so divided by gender, class, education level, and social status, it seems sadly fitting that one 26-year-old white girl could become the subject of such attention, while other women—especially the indigenous and impoverished—rarely are.
I think of the femicide victims, the anonymous Jane Does who appear in bags along highways, who barely have names. I think of the rape victims who have been unable to speak up, or who tried to and were shut up.
And I think that had I just worn pants that day, none of this would have ever happened. But The Incident would have still happened to someone else.
I’m embarrassed by parts of this story, but not about the outcome. During the course of the past year, my emotions would move between impotence, outrage, fear, shame, and eventually land on intense pride—for the women of Mexico who continue to demand their rights. My story is just one online version of what many of them live through IRL.