Behind the fight for gender justice and the search for missing Mexican women with the help of Facebook

From Facebook lives about clandestine graves to online posts describing missing people; Zuckerberg's Metaverse goes beyond the selling of information and cyber-dystopia. Among the rubble of our bleak cyber future, there also lies hope and empowerment spaces for women.

Digital platforms are one of the many players involved in the story surrounding gender violence.  Primarily victims and perpetrators are found at the center, but there are also key characters that are part of this narrative such as civil movements, techno-politics, and especially women activists. These women and their indefatigable work are the basis for gender equity and the hope for a safer and freer lifestyle for Mexican women.

Women like Marisela Escobedo who happened to be murdered in 2010 after fighting towards justice for her own daughter’s femicide and Susana Chávez Castillo who was a poet and activist, creator of the Hispanic American feminist common motto “Ni una menos” (Not a woman less) later murdered and mutilated in 2011 are well known among Mexico’s younger generation of women. Nevertheless, their stories and many more are sadly very easy to find.

Just this past November, Francisca Leticia Álvarez Rivera, who was part of the collective “Madres Buscadoras de Sonora” (Sonora’s Searching Mothers) was kidnapped by unidentified armed men. She was attacked and beaten. But her story differs compared to others, since Francisca Leticia was released after hours of her kidnapping, in part due to the pressure that the group carried out through its Facebook platform, calling on the authorities and Alfonso Durazo, governor of Sonora.

The involvement of social media and online platforms in the process of creating spaces that empower civil society and women’s sorority is an element of today’s political environment that we cannot ignore. Women’s movements such as “Ni Una Menos” (Not a woman less) that was baptized by Susana Chávez’s motto, started online and replicated in different countries in Latin America. For a movement that started through Facebook, the Ni Una Menos first social call in Argentina amassed 250.000 people in June 3rd 2015.

“Ni Una menos is a demonstration that the media turns its back on the issue of violence and how, when it has media and social media support, the issue takes on a much more important public repercussion”

Luciana Peker, part of the movement Ni Una Menos and Argentinian activist. (Said within the thesis work Ni Una Menos: The Common Cry by Noelia B. Díaz and Alejandro H. López).

Mexico’s panorama of gender violence is extremely sorrowful. According to the preliminary registry of deaths from homicide published by INEGI (National Institute of Statistic and Geography) there were 3,957 murders committed towards women during 2020. That means that 10 women were killed every day during that specific period of time. Furthermore, information released from the National Registry of Missing People (RNPDNO) and compiled by the National Search Commission (CNB) and Animal Político (independent journalistic platform) show that there are just over 14,000 missing women in the country, that equates to 4 women going missing every day, and out of that total, 6 thousand are minors.

Due to such alarming statistics and the lack of representation in traditional media and government channels, it is not surprising that there are various women groups focused on feminism and justice within Facebook and other social networks.

For instance, when going through the section of private groups, and more specifically, those dedicated to the search for missing people, the one that occupies the first place is “Desaparecidas México” (Missing Women Mexico). The group, which currently has more than 4,400 participants, is the largest platform dedicated to the dissemination of information exclusively on missing women in the country. As is a general rule in most groups dedicated to demanding and protecting the safety of women in Mexico, the only condition to enter is to be a woman, but inside, one does not feel in a space whose exclusivity should be appreciated. The quota with the faces of women whose whereabouts are unknown sometimes exceeds 10 posts per day, and it is almost always focused on a different girl or woman.

According to what the creator of “Missing Women Mexico”, Atziri Leyva tells us, the group was created recently in 2021 in order to contribute to the feminist movement.

"I realized that feminist groups took a long time to accept the posts of missing women, this motivated me to make my own group to help these women”.

Atziri Leyva

Regarding the possible location of some of them, the creator tells us that, of approximately 10 cases a day, only one finding is shared. And although the impact has not yet been measured in large numbers in terms of findings, Atziri believes that the noticeable effect has been “The significant growth that the group has had. Every day there are people requesting to enter.” 

The operation of the group is quite simple. Only information on missing women or girls is shared, and once they are located, whether alive or not, the group is notified. However, for now the only responsible for regulating the posts is Atziri. This includes dealing with heavy content that for some reason, either by showing only partial or censored images, is not automatically considered as an infringement of the rules of use within the Facebook platform in Mexico. About her experience, she tells us:

“It really has not been easy to face this alone. We are humans and no matter how strong we act, it is very difficult to see photos of people in amphitheaters, burned women, women in clandestine graves, missing babies, skeletons, among other things. I have learned to be more empathetic and be aware that women disappear every day. It is very painful to see how families have been searching for missing women for more than 20 or 30 years.” 

The case of “Missing Women Mexico” and Atziri Leyva is unfortunately only one of the many digital efforts that are carried out in the country in response to the disappearance of people.

Migues Darwin Franco’s research on “hope technologies” explores the case of Rastreadoras del Fuerte (Fort women trackers), an online Facebook community that was created by Mirna Nereyda Medina with the aim of finding missing people in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, after her own son went missing. Not only does the group share relevant information about missing people or “treasures”, as the group calls them, but they also focus on going to clandestine graves to look for possible corpses. One key element that differentiates them from other collectives are their Facebook Lives, in which they go on field searches and if they encounter a body, they make an effort to describe characteristics of the person with the hope of identifying the “treasure” and finding their relatives.

This specific techno-political action through Facebook not only bring them closer to relatives of missing people, it also brought them closer to technology experts that helped them to now work on a map with information about their field searches, and the creation of an online database.

Mirna Nereyda commented on their Facebook broadcasts:

“We learned that these recordings constitute very powerful evidence that the government is not doing its job and, therefore, we are the ones who go out to open the graves (…) no way to say that what you see in the recordings are lies (…) when you put it in on the Facebook page we also create witnesses who can confirm what we find when we search (…) even, many families go to the Prosecutor's Office and say that they saw a treasure with such characteristics in our videos and that forces them to give them an answer”.

Another group that has also been demonstrating techno-political actions with repercussions that go beyond the limits of cyberspace is Por Amor a Ellxs (For the love we have for them). This specific group created in 2016 by mothers of missing people in Guadalajara, Mexico, started sharing through Facebook cards with photos of missing people, age, day of disappearance as well as the place they were last seen. After two years of sharing pertinent information about missing people, they managed to openly post information delivered from SEMEFO (Mexico’s Forensic Medical Service) and thus, they started sharing descriptions of distinctive features found in corpses of identifiable people that hadn’t been claimed. They now concentrate the information they post online in sharing relevant facts about disappearance as a phenomenon and how to prevent it, cards of unidentified bodies and descriptions, as well as photos of recently missing or found people and proposals for new public policies.

Their online efforts have generated positive results. According to Leetoy and Cepeda’s article for Íconos Magazine, the actions made in the Por Amor a Ellxs group have contributed to the identification of more than 100 people, 50 which were found alive and 20 who happened to be girls that were kidnapped with the aim of being sex-trafficked. Additionally, they have supported the creation of a new state law, known as the General Law on Disappearance of Persons in Mexico, which would deal with topics related to the search of missing people, declaration of absence, the procurement of victims’ rights and the creation of a National System for the Search of Missing People. The law is still pending but nevertheless, it goes to show that the women behind this online collective know no limits to what they can achieve through the power of social media, breaking their silence and publicly denouncing the lack of authority cooperation and government’s accountability.

Although the contribution of Metaverse and other digital platforms is important, what really is a constant within all of these different cases is the social work and collective efforts that Mexican women undertake every day. On this, Atziri Leyva of Missing Women Mexico concludes:

“It makes me feel very good to know that I am in front of 4,400 women, some seeking help and others seeking to help them. It is satisfying to see how the group grows every day. I am grateful to each of them. Thanks to their determination and collaboration. I’m happy to know that I am able to contribute a little to the feminist movement.”

Guest author

Daniela Alcántara from Mexico

Contributions by external authors do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors.

January 2022