The last time community leader and political activist Miguel Ángel Jiménez Blanco was seen on WhatsApp was at 1:31 pm on Saturday, August 8.
The silence was uncommon from the dogged, always-connected activist who only slept two hours a night. Jiménez, 45, was an early leader in the search for disappeared students and clandestine mass graves in Guerrero, Mexico. Members of Fuente Informativa, the WhatsApp group he set up in 2014 for activists and journalists to share reports and tips about protests, rights abuses and violence, wondered where he could be.
Jiménez was also the community organizer for a vigilante or community self-defense group called the Union of Peoples and Organizations of Guerrero State, known as UPOEG in Spanish. The group armed dozens of towns in the southern Mexican state. After 43 students disappeared in September 2014, Jiménez led searches in the city of Iguala to find them, using the Internet and his mobile phone to gather tips before organizing physical search parties.
Around midnight on the day Jiménez went missing, a member of Fuente Informativa reposted a story from the local press that said the activist's bullet-ridden body had been found along the road to Acapulco, at the entrance to his hometown, Xaltianguis.
Fear set in, and a mass exodus ensued to exit the WhatsApp group Jiménez administered, which had everyone’s names and mobile phone numbers. Members soon created an alternate group to avoid being targeted by whoever had gotten hold of Jiménez’s mobile phone and the list of the approximately 180 reporters, some of them Mexican, who were part of the group.
But no one was surprised about the murder. Jiménez knew, more than anyone, that he was living on borrowed time. He had seven kids by three marriages, and would go months without seeing his family. He said he stayed away much of the time to not put them at risk.
“In my town, I am pursued. They have tried to kill me several times,” Jiménez told me in late June, as he was driving a beat-up white Nissan Tsuru along the rainy, narrow back roads of San Marcos, Guerrero. “All social activists meet a similar end, so there’s no way to avoid it. Go to jail for life, or be killed. Two fates.”
UPOEG, joined by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and other groups, condemned Jiménez's murder, calling on Mexican authorities to investigate the crime and ensure the safety of other civil rights activists. Though it seems unlikely that whoever killed Jiménez will be brought to justice, people across Mexico marched with banners of his face and the words “No has muerto camarada,” or "You have not died, friend."
Such scenes have become a part of life during Mexico’s “war on drugs,” which dates back to the presidency of Felipe Calderón. Since 2007, more than 26,000 people have been reported disappeared or missing, and some 70,000 have been reported killed in drug-related violence from 2006 to 2012, according to a statement by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration in a 2014 Human Rights Watch Report.
Members of UPOEG decided to run for local offices in Mexico's June 7 legislative and municipal elections (the group didn't win any seats, members say, because of fraud and vote-buying). Those elections also proved to be among the country's most violent, with 21 people murdered, including campaign officials and coordinators, their relatives or bystanders.
Exactly one week after the contentious elections, Jiménez traveled to San Marcos to collect voters’ testimonies of alleged vote-buying and coercion. He sped along pot-holed roads through small towns, texting and making sudden stops at speed bumps. He made phone calls while he used his elbow to steer the car. He had two mobile phones, a big crack on his windshield, and a walkie-talkie crackling with chatter from the local community police.
Jiménez was short and stocky, with thick black hair and dark eyes that darted from one thing to the next. His movements were fast and efficient. He could hold various conversations at once, balancing the cordialities of sitting on a broken plastic chair in a dirt-floored shack as chickens clucked around his legs, saying “thank you” when someone offered him water.
That rainy Sunday in June, Jiménez and Mauro Rosario, 43, a regional organizer with UPOEG, recorded video testimonials of residents who said they were paid for their votes in the midterm elections. The two activists uploaded the videos to another WhatsApp group, believing the evidence could help overturn election results in these towns.
Residents received between 300 and 500 pesos ($18 to $30) in cash to vote for certain parties, while others were paid with bags of food or other bribes, Rosario said. He added that the Green Party, which was paying close to 1000 pesos ($61) per vote, paid the most. “It’s a farce, this whole election is a farce,” he said. “Whoever has more money is the one who will govern.”
But the most brutal chapter of Mexico's drug war came in September 2014, when police detained five busloads of students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal Rural School of Ayotzinapa, a public rural teachers’ college. Mexican prosecutors say the cops handed 43 of the students over to be killed by a local drug gang. But the government has only identified the remains of one victim, and the students' families are deeply skeptical of the government's account.
Jiménez searched for the students' bodies, but he found the clandestine graves of other drug cartel victims instead, leading to a broader search that now extends into various Guerrero municipalities.
In the wake of the disappearances, Jiménez said that the Internet, especially on mobile phones, changed everything and helped activists feel that they were a part of something and connected to one another. “Media and media outlets are about power. Well, then, we’re also creating our own media and means. Without all that money, but using whatever we have to use,” he said.
Other coordinators taught Jiménez how to use WhatsApp’s group chat function. He joined groups from Cancun, Veracruz, Oaxaca, and a few other parts of Mexico, quickly learning that one person could share information with many. He soon began sharing write-ups, photos and videos with his contacts, who could then pitch these firsthand accounts to news organizations. He also helped national and international reporters find contacts and sources before traveling to Guerrero.
This spring, after I asked him by phone if he ever worried about eavesdropping, Jiménez had laughed. “Everything we’re talking about is being recorded,” he said. “The government has my phone number, and for those of us who are organizing, they are watching us day and night.”
His phone’s passcode had been hacked many times, and he said he’d heard his own voice being recorded over calls.
“When our phones heat up and we’re not doing anything on them, then we know they are taking our information. The phone is downloading more information than it’s supposed to,” Jiménez said. Many of his phones had been blocked from making calls; viruses sometimes deleted all his contacts and specific information was taken off his phone. “Someone is doing that. The fact is that the government is surveilling all of us."
Local police officers, who called Jiménez "Comandante," or "Commander," essentially acknowledged the phone tapping. “One of the police officers said to me, ‘Hola Comandante, can you please not mention my mom or curse her when you’re on the phone? Because I can hear you,’" Jiménez recalled.
Benjamin Cokelet, founder of PODER, a New York and Mexico-based corporate accountability, transparency, and human rights NGO, said human rights workers using information and communications tools often find that their messages are intercepted. The activists are then followed, threatened, extorted and worse.
Surveillance networks can track location information, IP addresses, and the content of messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook chat, iMessage and Yahoo Messenger. These tools generate data that leave digital trails, giving telecommunications companies a way to quickly locate you. “It’s not just the government that does this. The drug cartels in Mexico have been well documented using these same types of technologies,” Cokelet said.
The Sunday night I was with Jiménez grew pitch dark, but he continued to record as many testimonials as he could, including accounts of abuse by community police members, a family member that never returned, a mother searching for her child. He listened to all of them, recording some and not others. At times, he lowered his head to listen better.
On the drive back to San Marcos, the red light for the car's gas gauge flicked on intermittently, and Jiménez's phone kept vibrating. He had not eaten all day and drank incessantly from a big plastic bottle of orange drink he called “Power,” after a Mexican sports drink of the same name.
As on most days, Jiménez had no idea where he would spend the night, and didn’t know if he would even have gas to put in his car. Some days he had to walk to the different communities he visited, he said. “Is there no other line of work for you?” I asked him from the back seat of his car as we went over another speed bump.
"I love my children; listen to this well, because I am doing this for love," he said. "If I didn’t have a clue about what I loved, why would I struggle? Something has to sustain you for the struggle. We all have a dog that chases you, a purpose to your struggle.”
You can read this story in Spanish here.