A Viral Sex Crime Saga of Perverts, Pranksters, and Prosecutors
Andrea Noel's first-person account of her assault, the storm on social media, the hunt for the perv, and what it's meant to Mexican machismo and impunity.
TIJUANA, Mexico—Just over a year ago, on International Women’s Day, as it happened, I was sexually assaulted in broad daylight in Mexico City.
That day I officially became The Victim.
What happened on March 8, 2016, sparked a shocking and bizarre series of events that would threaten to destroy my career, my reputation, and everything I’d worked so hard to build. It would force me to flee the country I called home, and alienate me from Mexican society. At times it left me feeling ungrounded in reality.
But it also helped spark a revolution of sorts.
I’ve spent the last few months wondering how to tell this story, and debating whether I even should. Truth be told, I’d like nothing more than to never revisit this, for the country to forget, and for me to finally move on with my life.
Now, however, a year after The Incident, I’ve decided that the only way to really explain what happened is to lay it all out, once and for all—and the only way to tell this story is to start at the beginning.
I walked past tree-lined streets in the upmarket Condesa neighborhood—an area sometimes called Mexico City’s “Williamsburg”—a posh, eclectic community of young professionals, creative types, hipsters, and entitled twenty-somethings.
Life, for the residents here, has little in common with the lives led by millions in Mexico—like those who are stricken by poverty, lack of education, or unending violence. This is an area of privilege. Yet even in this presumably safe neighborhood, I had fallen into a routine where I left my apartment as little as possible—usually only for work or for groceries.
A few years earlier, a mugger smashed my face into a concrete post on a pedestrian bridge in the border city of Tijuana, leaving me with a cracked orbital bone, bits of green paint and concrete pebbles lodged inside my upper lip, and blood gushing down my face. But that incident, long past, was not something I thought about often.
Then, six months before The Incident, three men had pulled knives on me while I walked through Mexico City’s historic downtown area, making off with everything but my house keys.That mugging, in the middle of the afternoon on Mexican Independence Day, left me—physically—unharmed. But I spent the next few months unable to shake what had happened, and somewhat plagued by the residual fear that comes with being violently attacked from behind in the middle of the afternoon by strange men with knives.
Perhaps, I think now, I was already a walking PTSD case. But I felt reasonably fine.
Then, last year, while walking through the upmarket Condesa neighborhood, it happened—The Incident.
I became The Victim once more, quite literally as I was shrugging off the baggage I’d been carrying since the last time I was assaulted. Whenever someone brings it up now, they usually refer to it as “the thing with your underwear.”
He came up from behind, and I didn’t hear him coming. It took only a second for him to flip up my skirt and half-pull them down.
I let out a self-deafening scream and dropped to the floor—a reflex learned the last time I was assaulted, when a hand from behind put a knife to my throat. Then, I arranged my clothes as I pirouetted on one foot, scanning behind me while bracing myself for whoever else was coming.
But there was no one there.
I realized it was over, and I wasn’t being mugged again. But those three seconds would end up derailing my life for six months.
Watching the man bolt around the corner of one of the most heavily surveilled streets in the neighborhood, I regretted wearing heels—not that I would have chased him anyway. I was furious and disgusted. But noticed a surveillance camera, and wasn’t going to let this one slide.
Tweeting out what had happened, I wrote, “I plan to file a report. Even though I know there will be total impunity.” I knew better, then, than to expect the police to catch the predator. They almost never do, but what’s worse is that they almost never really try either.
Two separate cameras had recorded the incident in its entirety. The building manager gave me access to the tapes, but after trying, and failing, to extract the video through a broken USB port, I had to settle for recording the footage from the monitor with my cellphone.
Back home, I picked the clearest of two videos recorded from two different angles, and uploaded one to Twitter. “If someone recognizes this idiot please identify him,” I wrote, in Spanish, noting with a certain irony that it was International Women’s Day.
I spent the rest of the evening and the following morning arguing with, and fending off, dozens of online trolls who applauded the attacker. They told me that men “shouldn’t respect women who dress like sluts,” and that women were “born to clean floors and get raped.”
I know better now than to feed the trolls, but—at least in the beginning—the trolls seemed like real humans with real opinions, and I felt compelled to attempt to change their minds.
This was the second time in just a week that I had had an unfortunate encounter, I tweeted. “Seven days ago a man followed me home, pulled out his penis, and ejaculated on my door,” which I’d slammed in his face. In retrospect, the fact that I had not felt more molested by the homeless masturbator seems ludicrous, but sometimes you just get used to the way things are and don’t fuss about them.
Within hours of The Incident, my name began trending on Twitter in the city. But by the next day it would be trending nationally.
A former co-worker noticed and was disgusted by the incoming tweets, so she posted the footage in a Buzzfeed article, adding screen-captures, the second video, and some of the responses. “I hope I find the bastard, to give the anonymous hero a cape and a prize,” reads one tweet she screen-captured. “You deserved rape.”
There was an immediate outpouring of support from friends and colleagues and strangers. And I thanked my friend for helping to spread the culprit’s picture.
“I want to be super clear,” I wrote, sharing the post on Facebook, “this is the LEAST of the abuses that women in Mexico suffer through every day.”
“Yesterday hundreds of women were abused, raped, or murdered in Mexico by their husbands, members of their own family, strangers in the street, members of organized crime, and Mexican government authorities,” I said, synthesizing what I knew to be true from the dozens of stories I’d seen unfold in Mexico in the past.
I had planned to file a police report that day, and ask the authorities to find The Incident within their footage. Mexico City’s elaborate Ciudad Segura, or “safe city” program, a tangle of sophisticated surveillance infrastructure that the government hypes at every opportunity, features more than 15,000 specialized cameras at intersections across the city, and is touted as “the world’s most advanced urban security system.”
I hoped to post a clearer image of the suspect online, and let that be the end of it. Maybe, I thought, by some stroke of luck a neighbor would recognize him.
Then came another article. And then another. Then dozens more.
The video had gone completely viral. And the more it spread, the more online messages I received. Rape and death threats came streaming in, along with messages of support and indignation in response.
Three days after The Incident, it would be international news, and Vice News, my former employer, would issue a statement in Mexico in response.
It’s possible for me to piece every detail of this story together, retrospectively, as it exists on the Internet in a thousand fragments, now and almost certainly forever.
Online, there are audio and video clips; TV, radio, and web interviews; op-eds and petitions; letters to various government agencies filed on my behalf; the minutes of government meetings and hearings; and my own Twitter and Facebook feeds.
But, offline, a different story occupies nearly 500 pages of police documents, which recount the analog timeline of what happened away from the public eye—in real life (IRL).
And that’s where the story of The Incident begins to get really messy.
In Mexico, almost no one goes to the police on purpose.
The country’s so-called dark figure, or number of crimes that were either not reported or were officially ignored, is a staggering 92.8 percent, according to government figures. This is true for any crime in Mexico. But when it comes to rape and sexual assault, which has been called “the darkest of the dark figure of crime,” the urge to stay silent usually wins.
In Mexico, even when crimes are reported—common assaults, muggings, burglaries—they are almost never solved. The math is depressing: If you attempt to climb Mount Everest, you are more than fifty times more likely to succeed than the police in Mexico are to solve a common crime.
The odds favor impunity, and they are stacked high against Mexico’s victims.
It’s common knowledge in Mexico that victims face an arduous and often nonsensical process, but I could not have imagined just how surreal and taxing an undertaking my simple request could be, until I experienced it firsthand.
I knew better than to engage with the system, but I managed to get sucked into it anyway.
Although I know that it is foolish to compare anything that happens in the U.S. to the way crimes are handled in Mexico, one random article serves to perfectly encapsulate the two countries’ very different approaches to solving crimes.
“Following an investigation, police have arrested a man suspected of groping a seven-year-old in a grocery store,” reads the opening line of a Gothamist article about a Williamsburg crime. “Police released video footage of the suspect following the incident, in the hopes that the public could help them identify the groper.”
And it worked, obviously. The incident occurred on a Monday. The girl’s father reported it the following day, and by Wednesday the suspect was in custody, facing five criminal counts.
“GOT EM!,” tweeted NYPD commanding officer William Gardner, thanking the online community and the Special Victims Unit for their partnership—an expeditious job well done.
But my experience would be nothing like this. The clock began ticking to recover the footage, as I had been told that the videos are reset every seven days. By then there were thousands of people paying attention, and if there were ever a time to release the suspect’s image this was it.
Shareable videos were being made by news outlets, and were quickly making the rounds. I was hit with a barrage of interview requests, and was, initially, more than willing to share my two cents on the matter: The authorities had to begin to take action against the rampant, epidemic violence affecting people in Mexico—especially women. It could no longer be ignored, I insisted.
I was speaking both from personal experience, as evidenced by the hateful messages I was receiving, but also from my work as a journalist, which had led me to follow and cover the far too frequent stories of dead colleagues and murdered women—cases that were more often than not met with official impunity.
I was somewhat embarrassed by the attention focused on my specific case, when there were so many other women whose stories would never be heard. And I was also acutely aware of my privilege as a white, foreign journalist with friends in the media, and the luxury of having enough cash in my pocket to take some time away from working to even deal with any of this, as I said in early interviews.
By the time I made it in to file my police report, the afternoon after The Incident, the story was everywhere, and the press were waiting for me outside “the bunker,” a city-block-long building that houses various specialized prosecutor’s offices, and the cybercrime division of the investigative police.
As the media and online citizens demanded that the authorities take action, several government officials contacted me on Twitter and asked me to appear, tweeting out the address of where I should go.
It was a “circus,” I later tweeted, after my first visit with the authorities, during which a half-dozen officials from various agencies would usher me through the building. While inside the building, they would tweet that I was on the premises, “being attended to.”
When I arrived at the reception area for the special victim’s unit on sex crimes, I noticed a teenager seated at a nearby desk, surrounded by family members. She spoke with an agent and cried. But when the agent who was attending her case saw me come in, she paused to come meet with me. I said she should get back to work, and that I’d wait. But she said she “wasn’t busy.”
I felt awful and sick. And overwhelmed by the spectacle. And was concerned about taking valuable resources away from other victims of far more serious crimes.
Seated at a desk, surrounded by a half-dozen officials and agents from various departments and a government spokesperson, I recounted what had happened, what the videos show happened, while an agent slowly typed out what I wrote, struggling as her extra-long, painted acrylic fingernails slipped off the keys, again and again.
Toward the end, she would settle for writing most of it out using only her right index finger—the finger that had lost its nail.
The victim, the ensuing report reads, “claims suspect does fondling of buttocks,” noting that the specific crime was labelled “sexual abuse.”
Page one of the investigative folder that would eventually balloon to roughly 500 pages is printed. It is 5:04 p.m., the day after The Incident.
Page two is a notice I’ve been “informed of [my] constitutional rights; granted access to justice; attended by personnel of the same sex; offered emergency medical and psychological help and free judicial assistance; treated with respect and dignity; provided with protection if at risk; given a translator, migration assistance, access to the investigation files, …”
My declaration as typed is rambling, unpunctuated, riddled with typos, and in all caps.
A cleaned-up portion reads as follows: “It has been explained to me that I have to proceed to the areas of investigative police, psychology and medical, but at this moment I do not accept since I do not have enough time to complete these. ...”
I signed each page on the margin, leaving my right thumb print in blue ink, and printing: “I have received the simple copy of my interview free of charge, being in full agreement with its content after having read it, and without having any complaints about the personnel of this prosecutor’s office.”
This took four hours, and I was informed that the authorities could not collect the surveillance footage until I sat down for an interview with investigative police, met the in-house medic for a physical exam, met with the in-house psychologist “to determine if the victim of sexual aggression presents symptoms, in accordance with the events in the complaint,” and described the suspect in detail to a forensic artist who would create a police sketch—of a man whom I had seen only briefly and from behind, and whose image was captured on a half-dozen private security cameras, and at least two that belonged to the city.
I wanted nothing to do with this process. But I wanted the videos. I wanted to try to prove a point: Perhaps when the authorities really try, in the face of public pressure, they can solve a case? And if they could do so for me they could it for others, too.
The following morning, at 7:21 a.m. the head of investigative police was ordered to “find and locate the victim” for a follow-up interview, and medical and psychological evaluation.
By now I am trending on Twitter, and live on TV for an interview that is being simultaneously broadcast on one of the most popular morning radio news shows, telling the reporter that I am going to go back into “the bunker” after we speak.
The previous day, I’d been tweeted at by prosecutor’s office, DM’d by various government bodies, and personally telephoned by city government officials. Yet, today, they were “unable to locate the victim.”
The then-30-page-long investigation folder “does not contain the address of the victim, nor telephone, nor any other data or information on her whereabouts.”
This would be the least of the authorities’ incompetencies, but a foreshadowing of things to come. If the investigative unit couldn’t find me, how were they to find my aggressor?
That week, I would spend about 40 hours with the authorities, complying with every demand, following them back to the scene to point out and gather security footage, and request that they backup their own government footage before it was too late. I would grow increasingly haggard, and lose my voice.
I would be asked to reiterate and repeat my statement, explaining over and over again something that the videos clearly show, and would sit for the exams, and answer the questions they would use to make the police sketch. But all I wanted was the videos.
While standing in the in-house doctor’s office, I write out on a form, page 43: “I do not accept a medical evaluation to search for lesions, because I do not present any.”
In the conclusion box, the physician types that “measuring weight and height was not possible due to lack of equipment,” but notes that I am “awake, aware of my surroundings, coherent in speech, with unimpaired motor function, normal pupils, unremarkable breath…,” and determines that I am “clinically not intoxicated.”
A forensic artist drafts a police sketch, based on my description of the man who I repeatedly said, and the videos show, I had only seen briefly and mostly from behind. It would look nothing like the suspect.
The following day, I would return for the the psychological exam, thinking this would be the last step in the process. I am led to a lower level of “the bunker,” to the in-house evaluation site.
There are two doors to choose from. The open door on the right is marked “minors” and looks like an asylum for disturbed children: the walls hand-painted with smiling figures—plants, animals, astral bodies—the shocking blue vinyl couch, and a single orange ball stationary on the bright green floor.
I take the door on the left, the one marked “adultos.”
The battery of pseudo-scientific exams include Rorschachs and a 30-point questionnaire to measure cognitive impairment. I was asked to adlib words into sentences, and told to draw shapes, pictures of trees, families, houses, people standing in the rain, and then write stories about my drawings.
It took seven hours to complete.
Here I was, just trying to get a clearer picture of the guy. And there were the authorities, just trying to get a clearer picture of me.
I asked for a recess halfway through, so that they could thoroughly assure me that whatever I say will be reserved and my privacy guaranteed. It wouldn’t. But they would begin using only my initials from that point on. I would become “A.N.T.”
I agreed to answer each question honestly, not self-censor, and see what would come of it—perhaps as an act of subversion, of professional curiosity about what other women are subjected to.
The resulting report, which I wouldn’t obtain until weeks later, begins with a series of assertions: I, “the victim,” am “in adequate condition of hygiene and personal array;” and I am “wearing casual clothing”—a euphemism, which here means not dressed like a whore.
It goes on to summarize and paraphrase my answers to questions ranging from my earliest memories, to my relationship with my father, sexual history and orientation, number of sex partners, education, perceived shortcomings and failures, personal interests, past traumas, drug history …
At one point they note I am “terrorized” by people claiming they will “sodomize me, and rip out my intestines,” and that I “like to eat pizza with friends.”
They note that I appear to have no “cerebral dysfunction” that would keep me from “functioning optimally,” but that my “cognitive ability tends to diminish” when faced with “pressure, tension or emotional conflict.”
They decide that I have “feelings of inferiority and insecurity,” and “low self-esteem,” and have “difficulty establishing personal relationships” due to my “lack of abilities to relate adequately and interact with others.”
According to the evaluation, I don’t “derive satisfaction” from “relating to other people on a personal, emotional, or sexual level,” due to my “mistrust” and “fear of rejection,” which keeps me “in isolation.”
Words like “schizophrenia” and “bisexual” jump off the page. And the report concludes that I should be “channeled to Psychiatrics for a corresponding evaluation to confirm or deny the existence of a Mental or Personality Disorder.”
This was still just the first week of what would become a months-long ordeal.
The prosecutor’s cybernetic police division was ordered to conduct an “exhaustive investigation in order to obtain the origin of the video that appears on YouTube”—the video that I had brought to them and shown them, telling them that I recorded it with my very own cellphone, while asking them if they could please help me extract the originals, and then personally accompanying them to the scene of The Incident.
“It is NOT possible to determine the origin of the videos,” the ensuing report reads. Yet, I, the creator was standing in front of them all, taking the credit.
As I told the media from day one, “I just wanted to file a police report so that the crime could be registered, so the statistics can begin to reflect the reality in Mexico, mathematically.” And, I insisted, I wanted the city surveillance footage.
I was acutely aware of the privilege that had caused The Incident to immediately garner so much attention. But I knew that, beyond my privilege and foreign status, the thing that had most helped make an impact was the undeniable video evidence.
Even with proof of assault, however, many did not believe it.
Some news outlets and then social media users alleged the video had been “staged” on International Women’s Day as a way to “raise awareness for feminist issues.” They argued that because I had previously written about being a victim of violence in Mexico and the authorities’ inaction, it was unfathomable that I would denounce similar violence—not once, but twice.
The former vice president of the major Mexican newspaper El Universal, journalist and author Roberto Rock, following a series of articles from his news outlet, alleged that I was not complying with the authorities’ demands, publishing a slanderous piece about me on the site he founded, La Silla Rota, in which one of the only true facts is that my name is spelled correctly.
“She lies,” he lied, three weeks after The Incident. “This is a verifiable fact.”
He criticized a reporter who covered The Incident for “denouncing unverified events, and condemning the online attacks suffered by the journalist—whose beauty he alludes to to elicit more sympathy.”
It was gross, and I called their work “officialist” garbage. After a major backlash, he was forced to censor the public, deleting dozens of comments that disputed his claims. But he would not issue a retraction.
Three days after The Incident, a columnist at SDP Noticias published claims that were even less defensible, including the idea that I was somehow too confident and not victim-ey enough—real victims need to act “disturbed and upset” he argued.
He was later very publicly fired after calling me “a feminazi dyke,” while retweeting and encouraging dozens of rape, sodomy, and death threats.
“Who is a bigger whore, that disgusting bitch Noel or First Lady Angelica Rivera?” read one of dozens of tweets.
The head of the news outlet apologized to me. But he had given the known troll a publishing platform for years, despite previous complaints about his misogyny against other female journalists, and empowered him to become a full-blown permanent Twitter troll, who has spent the last year on a rampage.
Both La Silla Rota and SDP Noticias toe the officialist line and often veer toward propaganda. And the latter uses hundreds of online bots to promote its clickbait.
But the bots did not affect me. It was the trolls that began to get the best of me.
The death and rape threats were flooding in by the thousands, one after another, faster than I could scroll.
I had initially assumed that they were coming from just a few angry social media users, but by then it had reached a fever pace.
One very concerning tweet came as I accompanied the police to where The Incident happened to help point out all of the security cameras that would have recorded the attacker, one of two hours-long visits to the site I made with the authorities, helping to collect the videos, which would later be kept from me.
“She’s here at the scene in case anyone wants to come finish her off,” one user tweeted, before adding in a second tweet, “Nevermind. She’s with the police.”
Over the course of that week, I barely slept. I had never seen so much hatred in my life, and was was being overwhelmed on all fronts: social media, the authorities, and the press.
But I had been handling it alright, considering.
Then, six days after the assault, which by then seemed so distant and minor in comparison to what had happened afterward, the slew of threats seemed to come out of cyberspace and into my living space.
I sat in my living room at my computer with a friend I hadn’t seen for years. From outside my window, I noticed someone was pointing a laser at my head. It seemed to be coming from the back seat of a white BMW.
I bolted from the window, and told my friend to get down, and the laser followed me across the room, before abruptly disappearing.
I’m not saying I believed that someone was going to kill me, but it did feel like a threat, like a We Know Where You Live message. This was last year, mind you, the deadliest year on record for journalists in Mexico since the start of the now decade-long drug war. In a country where journalists frequently are murdered, sometimes after being warned, but often without, it seemed reasonable to be concerned.
I called the police. I had been told I was under their official protection, which would be “efficient, continuous, and permanent” because there existed “a real and imminent danger” that “the aggravated person may be attacked in reprisal for denouncing the sexual violence she was subject to.”
But the cops never came. So I checked into a hotel.
The following day, after speaking with several press freedom organizations and my then-editor, I was encouraged to leave the country—at least until the heat dissipated. I thought it would be for only a few days.
My friend would text me the following night: “The police are outside looking for you. They didn’t say why. They were throwing rocks at the windows.” That was the protection mechanism in action, making a scene outside my house while I had already told them I’d left the country.
I thought the storm would die down, but even outside the country it did not.
My name would continue to be a trending topic in Mexico more than a dozen times, and the death threats continued to come in an unending stream, along with thousands of messages of support.
* * *
Almost immediately after I posted The Incident online, hundreds of social media users had begun pointing their fingers at suspects, and publicly I had remained silent on this point.
But, behind closed doors, the prosecutor’s office had taken note, and so had I.
Online, the case had come to serve as a call to arms in a larger ideological battle—machismo vs. feminismo. It was a declaration of war, with both sides insatiably bloodthirsty.
Against all odds, my public plea for someone to ID the perp had produced a result: the cooperative Internet had delivered a suspect.
And the war-cry would be clear—bring us his head on a stick.
“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 labelling 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, the long-haired, cowboy-hat-wearing “Grupero King,” who took his stage name from the popular grupera genre of northern rancher music. The other, 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 entitled 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 cyber-crime 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 of 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 prosecutor’s 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.”
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 multi-million-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, 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 caused 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 cancelled, 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, 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 or not 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 frigid 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 the 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 crouches away in silence.
So, I boarded the flight from New York to Mexico City.
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 labelled 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 six and 10 years old. The average age was eight 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 of 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 four dollars 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 cyber-police 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 re-victimizes 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. 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 okay. 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 be 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 an “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 that 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.