Sex crime that shocked a nation
Last spring I was sexually assaulted in broad daylight in Mexico City. It nearly destroyed my career, forced me to flee the country, and alienated me from society.
This is the first in a three-part series looking at a single sexual assault that became a viral sensation in Mexico—and its many surprising results.
TIJUANA—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.