Posts Tagged Mexico

Paper Release & Webinar: ICT in Mexican Civil Society

20 January 2011

Today, I’m proud to release a new paper entitled “Information and Communication Technology in Mexican Civil Society.” It’s based on the research Ana and I did in Oaxaca and Mexico City back in the fall, and is an overview of how the people, movements and organizations that make up civil society in Mexico have adopted new technologies including mobile phones and social media to facilitate and improve the effectiveness of their work.

The best part is a series of case studies represending the most effective tech-based initiatives of the past several years. The paper is available in both English and Spanish. If you’re interested, I will host a webinar tomorrow, Friday, January 21, at 12:30pm EST to offer an overview of the paper’s findings and answer questions. Please RSVP to receive webinar instructions.

As a taste, here’s an excerpt from one of the fascinating projects I profile in the report: a blogging platform for women called “Mujeres Construyendo.” While not strictly “civil society,” as it’s set up as a for-profit endeavor, MC lives in the space of social entrepreneurship, somewhere between the business world and the nonprofit/civil society world. It’s a great example of a project that leverages the power of the global network to address a specific gap in civil discourse:

“Mujeres Construyendo” is a blogging platform for Spanish-speaking women, created by Claudia Calvin Venero to address a “digital glass ceiling” she observed in Mexico. Venero has recruited over 350 contributors from all over the Spanish-speaking world, encouraging them to engage online, and teaching them the necessary skills; now, their writing covers issues ranging from international politics to the trials of being a mother. Over 4,000 women around the world are in the network of Mujeres Construyendo, many of whom have taken courses taught by Venero. Her courses touch on a range of women’s issues, but the message to her students is always the same: they must overcome the “culture of silence” that keeps many Latin women from engaging in public dialogue, and recognize that the internet is a powerful space to raise their voices about the issues that affect their lives. Next year, she’ll be offering a course exclusively for female legislators in Mexico, making them more aware of the “self-marginalization” of women, and encouraging them to raise their own voices online and in government.

Mujeres Construyendo is one of a handful of emerging online platforms for engaged citizens to share their ideas and experiences, and participate in public dialogue. ”Revolución con Letras” is another: without the specific focus on women and women’s issues, the site welcomes posts from citizens about social issues, and allows readers to identify the best, most useful articles. Sites like these are an important development for the engagement of Mexican civil society online, as they give platforms for even those people unaffiliated with any organization and without sophisticated technological skills to engage in public dialogue online. For the internet to successfully become a “second public sphere” in Mexico, sites like these will be essential.

I hope you enjoy the report!



Internet Necesario and the Mexican Netroots

8 October 2010

On Tuesday, the Mexican Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging President Felipe Calderon to withdraw from negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The grounds of their opposition? Concern about the treaty’s restrictions on privacy on the internet and free access to information.

If that sounds like an uncommon concern of the Mexican Senate, you would be right. So how did we get here? Come back with me to October 2009…

A year ago, the Mexican Senate proposed a new excise tax of 4% on all telecommunications. After a minor outcry, they revised the rate down to 3%, but it was hardly the cost that rankled Mexico’s netroots– the tax would add just a few pesos to their monthly bill. Rather, the devil lay in the scheme of the tax, which put telecommunications– including internet access– in a category typically reserved for tobacco, liquor, and luxury items.

It’s hard to imagine an opportunity more ripe for web-based protest, and the Twitter users of Mexico coalesced around the hashtag #internetnecesario (“the internet is a necessity”).  In a week in late October, thousands of irate Mexicans pushed the phrase into Twitter’s trending topics– one of the first times a Spanish phrase had made the cut– and brought the proposed tax to the attention of the media and the Senate itself.

By week’s end– the last day of the legislative session– “Internet Necessario” had surpassed negotiations over the federal budget as the country’s top political story, and Mexican Senators were getting crash courses in the internet age. With many of the capital’s Twitterati sitting in the room for negotiations over the tax, the proceedings were broadcast live across the internet, and the Senators’ words were subject to instantaneous scrutiny, ridicule, or praise: an unusual circumstance for policymakers who typically operated at a distance from their constituents.

In the end, the tax was voted down unanimously, and the idea of the internet as a “luxury” was cast out of the discourse with derision. The lesson for the Senators was clear: don’t mess with the internet, because people are paying attention, and can make their voices heard in ways previously unimaginable.

Senator Francisco Javier Castellón Fonseca, Chair of the Senate’s Science and Technology Commission, was a leader in the fight against the telecommunications tax. He was also a leader in social media– a year ago, he was the only member of the Senate on Twitter; now over 40 Senators are tweeting madly. By all accounts, Senators are engaging with citizens over Twitter to an extent that has never been seen before in Mexican democracy.

The end of this story (for now) is of course that ACTA suffered a harsh blow from the Mexican Senate this week. A year since this country’s netroots first made their voices heard, they have enjoyed ever more direct contact with their government, and were able to successfully mobilize for a cause once again. The Calderon government is likely to continue negotiations over the treaty, despite the unanimous resolution against it.  Still, a treaty like this would require ratification from the Senate, so its chances of passing into law here seem far dimmer since the Mexican netroots made their voices heard.



A Tale of Two Twitters

6 October 2010

Ok, two stories from Mexico City.


In July, four Mexican journalists were kidnapped in Durango.  The kidnappers, connected to a drug cartel, sought to force the TV news media to air segments sending the message that Los Zetas, a rival drug gang, was doing business with corrupt officials.  The journalists’ respective employers– most notably Televisa, the biggest media company in Latin America– negotiated for their freedom, but walked away from the table.

losqueremosvivosFor many Mexican journalists, the situation was too familiar– caught between vicious thugs who have killed 64 journalists in the past decade, a complicit government that fails to protect the freedoms of press and information, and media companies that fail to protect their reporters. And so a group of them took to Twitter, uniting around the hashtag #losqueremosvivos (we want them alive).

Within a week, the journalists’ simple demand had spread like wildfire on Twitter, migrated to Facebook, and morphed into a full-fledged movement. The reporters planned a march in Mexico City for August 7, invited journalists from around Mexico to join in the capital or host their own marches, and introduced colleagues around the world to their grievances.  Over 2,000 journalists showed up to march in Mexico City, and 14 other groups held their own rallies around the country.

The journalists were beaten, starved, and threatened, but were ultimately freed shortly after the rally, and the kidnappers arrested.  Nonetheless, all four reporters are seeking asylum in the U.S., on the grounds that, as journalists, they are persecuted by a government that “can’t and won’t protect them.”


In February, Mexico City was shaken by news of a double murder.  Twitter user @atorreta and her boyfriend were both shot walking home from dinner, and her brother reported the whole episode from the hospital with tweet after tragic tweet.  The Mexico City Twitter community erupted in a fury of rage, angst, and calls for justice.  Online news sources published the story on their front pages.  And hours later, everyone learned that the entire story was false, made up.

It’s not clear who made it up.  What is clear is that Mexican cartels have grown ever more sophisticated in their own use of social media, executing a well-thought through media strategy, using all the tools in their toolbox. This episode is characteristic of the sort of manipulation and misinformation that bad actors can use to their advantage on a frenzied network like Twitter.


So what do we have here? A case study in how social media can be used for organizing and sharing ideas, and a cautionary tale against taking Twitter at its word. Beyond that, two arguments for the necessity of good reporters, and good journalism.

If we take seriously the right to information, we must also take seriously the right to inform. Even in this technology-dense world– perhaps even more so than before– we rely on good journalism to give us a platform for intelligent debate. Here in Mexico, where journalists are shot dead for reporting on corruption, or threatened and silenced for calling out the cartels, there is a dearth of good information about these issues, and not enough informed debate. New media and technologies will be a part of bridging that gap. And so will good reporters.



Mexico’s Mobile Monopoly

3 October 2010

I’m in Mexico right now, investigating the use of mobile phones and other new technologies by nonprofits, NGOs, and small civil society organizations in this country.  My research is only just begun, but I’ve already encountered one major barrier to small groups leveraging the expansive mobile network and innovating tools and platforms using mobile services.

Telcel is Mexico’s largest mobile phone operator, and for many in the country, the only option. Around 75% of all mobile subscriptions in the country are with Telcel– a bit like if Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile were one company in the U.S., but instead of Sprint as an alternative, you had three or four smaller companies. A formerly government-owned company, Telcel was sold into private hands just a few years ago, and while some users I’ve talked to report that coverage and service has gotten a little better, prices have gone way, way up.

As Samhir wrote on Thursday, part of what has driven sky-high adoption rates in many developing countries is vigorous competition between mobile operators, driving down prices.  In India, a 1-minute call costs about 7 cents (adjusted for PPP), and a text message costs the same. In Indonesia, voice is expensive (as much as 32 cents/minute), but sending an SMS costs only 3 cents. In Ghana, a text costs 7 cents, and in nearby Panama, where three robust mobile operators compete aggressively, it’s only 4 cents.

In Mexico, sending a text message with Telcel costs as much as 14 cents (again, adjusted for PPP), and for pre-paid subscribers (a group that includes most poorer people) the rates can be higher. Voice, meanwhile, can cost close to 50 cents per minute. Clearly, this is a serious barrier for adoption among poorer people, and a barrier for groups that may benefit from the network’s reach.

What’s more, when Carlos Slim and his América Móvil corporation took over Telcel from the government, they did so on the agreement that they would expand the network to cover all the many rural villages around Mexico, including those here in mountainous Oaxaca.  Progress has been halting at best.  Despite this, it’s not uncommon to meet people who have no mobile coverage where they live, and yet own a mobile phone.  They have one, they say, for when they travel into the city, or for the phone’s entertainment features. In fact, over 70% of Mexicans own a mobile phone. But the use of the platform has been limited.

While mobile has been tricky here in Mexico, internet growth has been very strong, with 19% year-on-year growth in the number of users, helping make Latin America the fastest growing region in the world for internet usage. Social networking, communication, and online entertainment are all big here, and e-commerce is beginning to make an impact.  As long as Telcel’s monopoly on mobile persists, we’ll likely continue to see internet as a stronger force in society.



Social Networking Against Violence in Ciudad Juárez

25 February 2010

Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, may be the most violent city in the world; the spectacular murder rate and the uncounted headless bodies are attributable primarily to the drug trade that plagues the entire border region. Back in October, a State Department Tech Delegation to Mexico City kicked off a collaborative effort to allow citizens of the border region to offer the police anonymous tips via free text message whenever they witness violence.

But that’s not all that’s going on in Juárez to combat the pandemic of grusome violence. A bottom-up movement organized by one librarian has been holding protests, vigils, and speaking out against the violence in their city. Daniel Cruz Batista was fed up with all the violence in Juárez, so he started a Facebook group called “Ya Basta de Violencia en Juárez!!” (Enough With the Violence in Juárez).  He gained 6,000 followers within a week, and now has more than 9,000. Another Facebook group, “Jóvenes Por Juárez” (Young People For Juárez), has 4,000 members, and has similarly acted as a forum for citizens to connect, share information, and organize.

In an essay I highlighted a few days ago, Ethan Zuckerman offers three theories of how internet access can change closed societies. Two of those theories can, I think, be applied to a place like Mexico’s border region, where the problem isn’t government oppression, it’s that average people are powerless in the face of violent crime syndicates. The first, which Zuckerman calls the “Twitter Revolution Theory” is the idea that if people have web access, they’ll be able to use that connectivity to communicate and organize with like-minded people. The second, the “Public Sphere Theory,” holds that the web provides people a place to think, speak, and express themselves freely, and to create a “parallel public sphere” to empower social actors.

The problem in Juárez is, on its face, a problem of law enforcement’s inability to stand up to a powerful criminal element. But it runs deeper to a weak local government, and, at its root, a civil society that lacks the power, cohesion, or capability to stop the violence.  While social networking tools like Facebook are clearly not the whole solution to this kind of a problem, they are a crucial step, through the mechanisms described by the above theories. Via two Facebook groups, begun by average citizens, the rational, peaceful, law-abiding majority is able to communicate and organize, and then, ultimately, build a civil society that is strong enough and cohesive enough to stand up for security, stability, and justice in Juárez.

Violence can be a force as oppressive as authoritarianism, violating rights to life, liberty, and security of person. Fortunately, tools of connectivity have the potential to be as powerful in standing up to drug lords as they can be in standing up to dictators.