Facebook Helps Organize Ciudad Juárez Residents Against Crime

Daniel Cruz Bautista and his fellow residents of Ciudad Juárez — about 1.5 million people living across the border from El Paso, Texas — call the most violent city in the world “home.” Despite gruesome statistics, Bautista and other Facebook activists have begun to use the social network to organize protests, vigils and other forms of resistance in an effort to save their city. Here’s a closer look at their efforts.

As Facebook becomes an ever more important part of the lives of 400 million people, the ways in which both civilians and police use it are evolving. We recently reported on ways in which police are using Facebook to fight crime in the United States. Mexico has seen tremendous growth in Facebook use recently, having grown by nearly 1 million people over the course of January to reach 7.62 million, which we cover in our monthly Global Monitor report.

Ciudad Juárez has become one of the primary staging points of infighting between Mexico’s drug cartels, leading to its distinction as the city with highest per capita murder rate in the world in 2009 where more than 2,600 people were killed.

Facebook activists organizing here seized upon a January 31 shooting in which 15 teenagers with no drug ties were killed; the online fervor swelled again when President Felipe Calderón visited twice in a period of six days, to try to address the city’s discontent.

Bautista, like others organizing on Facebook, says he’s not an activist — he’s a librarian who decided to take a stand against the violence by starting a Facebook group called “Ya Basta de Violencia en Juárez!!” (Enough With the Violence in Juárez). He started the group on a Sunday, recently; by that Thursday more than 6,000 people had joined him there to discuss the violence, propose ways to stop it, criticize ineffective governance and brainstorm ways to take their online resistance to the real world. The group’s currently 9,000 strong and like the Walls of many other groups, comments reflect heavy discussions about politics and strategies, but also serves as a place to share photos and events.

“The role of Facebook is really important not only in the protests, but in many other facets, too. It’s changed things, increasing the capacity of communication for the groups that organize these events. More and more groups are created criticizing the government, it’s a form of pressure,” Baustita told us in an email, adding that connecting with people from Facebook offline also helped charge the movement. “I don’t have experience fighting for social justice, but lots of people with experience attended the protest and we learned from them.”

Activists taking to Facebook are protesting as much against the drug cartels and corrupt police forces as they are against a government they view as ineffective. It’s largely because government solutions have been unable to solve these problems that the activists we spoke to said Facebook has been something of a saving grace, allowing them to reach untold thousands of people around the world who are interested in the Juárez issue, Bautista said. It’s free, comes with specific features like groups, Pages and events, includes easy ways to upload multimedia, and it’s a relatively safe place for people to freely express themselves. And, unlike most social networks, it people who use it are doing so via their real identities; while this can create some risk for users, it also helps like-minded people connect. Activists we interviewed say Facebook will continue to play prominently in their future plans.

Ciudad Juárez’s violence has inspired a range of Facebook activity.

There’s a Facebook group created by Twitteros, or those active on Twitter, there’s an informal page of 2,700 fans who say they’ve had it “to here” with the lack of security, a fan page created for Luz María Dávila whose two sons died in the January 31 shooting and a peaceful group of 1,066 calling for everyone to try and find a solution. Some groups have thousands of members, but there are dozens of groups and a few Pages related to Juárez with less than 100 members with with varying levels of activity.

Sergio Lopez Serrano runs one such Page, Justice 4 Mexico, which only has 36 fans, but is composed mostly of criminologists in Ciudad Juárez who are able to come together despite differing schedules on Facebook. He tells us via email that the group has been organizing for two years and only recently turned to Facebook for a few different reasons.

For one, Serrano hopes Facebook’s global reach will allow people around the world to see the “real Mexico” and create some international pressure on the government. Secondly, he said Facebook allowed for an alternative perspective from the mainstream media, which tends to be monopolized by official government sources, and enables his small group and others like it to reach diverse segments of Mexican society.

Twitter has also proved to be a place where Juárez’s virtual activists congregate, as a handful of hashtags — #15×15, #vigiliaporjuarez, #contingentetuiter, #cartaporJuarez — were also used to organize recent protests, share photos, criticize the government, allow activists to find each other in other Mexican cities, pool resources and disseminate information.

Protests and vigils on February 13 were organized largely through Facebook and Twitter and even President Calderón admitted that he had perused Facebook comments to see what people were saying about Juárez.

Searching through Facebook and Twitter reveals that there is a core membership of virtual activists who travel groups sharing information and ideas. Katia Sagaon is one of them. The 30 year-old works in human resources and helps administer the 4,000-member group “Jóvenes Por Juárez” (Young People For Juárez) that launched in November after a brutal shooting and, after two weeks, it grew to 3,000 members.

In December Jóvenes Por Juárez organized a protest that Sagaon estimated drew 3,000 people and February’s protests were also heavily discussed on the group’s Wall. Sagaon spent lots of time trying to keep the peace by moderating between pro-government posters and those critical of official responses to the violence, ultimately she called the effort in December a “virtual war,” that included opposed factions and online saboteurs. One of the group’s organizers was prohibited by his bosses to use Facebook at work (where Sagaon says many people in Juárez connect to the Internet) and to end his participation with the group.

Still, Sagaon explains that Facebook allowed Jóvenes Por Juárez to effectively organize by reaching many people with lots of information at once for free and getting their immediate feedback, something people may have previously done with IM or email at a slower pace and without the benefit of knowing peoples’ real identities. She pointed to growth in the group’s membership as proof; before the January 31 killings the group had 3,800 fans, afterward it grew to 3,950, and after President Calderón’s visits the group passed 4,000. This growth is partly attributable to Facebook’s penetration with people from better-off socioeconomic classes, who she said wouldn’t usually come out to protest in the street, but became involved on Facebook as “virtual activists,” who like herself are more likely to protest online than in the real world.

“Facebook gives you the opportunity to express ideas and opinions that you can’t right now in the city,” she said, in reference to the sporadic killings of reporters in Ciudad Juárez. “It gives you the freedom to express yourself to a public. You can say ‘I hate the president,’ but to a public of your contacts.”

Recent Facebook protests have received the attention of the mainstream media, politicos and activists, but it remains to be seen what effects social media activism in Ciudad Juárez will have in the long term. President Calderón has promised reforms, even as more people have died in the days following his visits to Ciudad Juárez, but Sagaon tells us that she and others like her will continue to utilize the tools available to them through Facebook and, hopefully fulfill the group’s mission statement to “be the present to have a better future.”