In response to Mexico’s long-standing problems with femicide and forced disappearances, Camila, a student in Mexico City, joined dozens of her university classmates to form a Facebook group dedicated to tracking each other’s locations via WhatsApp. When women go on a date, to a bar, or get into a cab alone, they make a request to be tracked on the social media site. Typically, five members of the group volunteer to observe the peer asking to be tracked, who sends additional information about the people she’s with and her destination. Those following her send check-in messages and will call if the location appears frozen.
Amid Mexico’s broader insecurity crisis, femicide and gender violence have increased dramatically. Last year was the worst since official government record began in 2015, with 1,004 women murdered for reasons specifically related to their gender. This number is likely underreported, as some states do not record data on the crime, and impunity deters some family members from reporting it.
“In other countries, the primary demand might be equal pay or something,” Camila said to Rest of World. “And we have that, too. But here, our main demand is not to get killed.”
Rest of World spoke to five other members from different Facebook groups: two from universities and three for women from the general public. Though from different walks of life, their shared experiences with harassment and insecurity across Mexico drove them to form or join these groups. “Social media has been a game changer because it has allowed for preemptive measures against insecurity,” Karen Demerutis, a professor and security expert at a Mexico City campus of Tecnológico de Monterrey Institute, told Rest of World. “The reasons [women] created them is because they realized that raising their voices as a collective rather than individually had a much bigger impact.” However, the effectiveness of these groups beyond solidarity and a veneer of protection is far from confirmed.
The group’s members that spoke to Rest of World agree these self-surveillance communities form primarily on university campuses and in major urban centers. This is, according to members, because of the built-in network that universities provide. Universities also allow for enhanced screening processes, since, before entering a group, the women must provide their student ID number to the administrator, who is one of the founding students, to check against the university directory.
Forming online groups and sharing one’s location with trusted peers — usually simply via WhatsApp — is not new in Mexico. Facebook groups function as an extended network that can act on short notice to make a member feel safe if she suddenly feels at risk. Demerutis noticed that the trend of forming security-related Facebook groups grew among university communities in 2017, as women organized globally for International Women’s Day.
“There are several groups [on campus] and they are quite versatile in that women use them in many ways,” Demerutis said. “Some are used to help organize the annual March 8 protest and other demonstrations against gender violence. They also promote security related to the areas surrounding campus [and they are also used to] denounce teachers and student[s] (and sometimes other authorities) for sexual harassment and misconduct in general.” Even if the school refused to take action against a perpetrator, “at least women can avoid these teachers or take precautions,” Demerutis said.
While about 90% of young people in Mexico have a Facebook account, usage of the platform has gone down over the last year. “We all have Facebook, but we don’t really use it that much. I just use Facebook to connect with my groups,” Camila said.
These women are put off by the uncontrolled spread of misinformation on Facebook and its reputation as a home for the middle-aged. Its design is also widely considered boring or sterile, compared to the visual intimacy of Snapchat or TikTok. For women in their early 20s, it may seem peculiar that these groups primarily start on Facebook. But, the platform’s intentional simplicity is its main attraction. Other platforms are fun. For women seeking safety and anonymity, Facebook is functional.
Outside of universities, and throughout Mexico, women are forming similar Facebook groups and associated WhatsApp chats. Brenda, who also requested to be identified only by her first name for fear of her safety, told Rest of World that she has come across women-only groups open to the public, both in Mexico City and her native Veracruz. She said that her group in Veracruz was invite-only, while in her Mexico City group, the volume of members discouraged women from sharing their live locations. Instead, members post warnings about dangerous areas and establishments.
Polett Delgado, a journalist reporting on violence against women for the online publication Siete de Junio, is part of two Facebook groups in Saltillo, in the northern state of Coahuila, both with associated WhatsApp chats. “Those who are closest provide support — whoever is in the same city, whoever is in the same neighborhood,” Delgado told Rest of World. “And there are groups like this throughout the country, based on the municipalities in which women are organizing. But it is absolutely built by us as citizens. The authorities have nothing to do with it.”
Delgado also relies on other Facebook groups throughout the country to disseminate urgent information about missing women. In one case, she said, the circulation of images through Facebook contributed to the rescue of a kidnapping victim in Tijuana. Despite the danger of intervening, Delgado confirmed in a WhatsApp message that members of the group still move to attend to the individual rather than involve the authorities.
For many other women, though, the groups provide mostly just reassurance and the veneer of safety. “It would be very difficult to intervene,” Camila said. “Our capacity is limited if the situation is really dangerous. But at least we know where the person who might need help is at.”
Still, according to Demerutis, sharing one’s location is a preemptive measure that can provide crucial information if legal processes or investigations need to take place. “Take for example the Debanhi [Escobar] case in Nuevo León,” she said, referring to the disappearance and murder of a university student which was well-documented on social media. The circulation of her last image fueled awareness and widespread outrage over the case, and helped pressure the Nuevo León attorney general to continue the investigation.
Facebook groups and elective surveillance are limited in the face of the overwhelming broader context. “Still,” Camila said, “it’s nice to know that you’re being taken care of by the right people. We’ve sadly come to normalize that this country is dangerous, that we need to take certain precautions. We have to create these groups to improve our chances of getting home safe.”