Creating Technology for Social Change

Resilient Neighborhoods: The fight for a voice against eminent domain strategies in Mexico City

This is the final submission for the Intro to Civic Media Class.

I have posted some of my progress throughout the semester on this regard. Today I am posting my development and research but also the plans to move ahead. This class has been specially helpful on that regard, in taking my research forward and opening up new ways to further my investigation on this topic. I will provide here a short abstract and all the proper links to learn more and read the whole submission. I look forward to your comments.

This project examines the role of citizen activism in regards to drug-related urban violence in Mexico City. The impact on communities of eminent domain due to a new legal framework of forfeiture (extinción de dominio) implemented by the city government to tackle violence ridden neighborhoods is a double-edge sword. The law dissolves the concept of private property, a real estate instrument of crime, providing the authority the discretionary power to seize spaces believed to harbor unlawful activities, without having to prove guilt. Owners, regardless of their connection to the actual crime are ‘presumed guilty’ until proven innocent, which may take months or years. By looking at the 128 cases this law has affected in the past year, and focusing on the landmark site La Fortaleza in Tepito, that helped engineer the law, I explore the intricacies provoqued by this judicial tool in terms of rights, and how those rights can be heard and respected. Crime (or presumed crime) becomes an immediate inhibitor of the citizen’s fight for the respect of their rights. Which leads us to see that even if the law is being used unfairly, there is no pushback from the communities. In Mexico the law has been approved at a federal level, however it has only been implemented in the capital city since 2011. In Colombia, where the law was designed and has been implemented for a decade, close to 10 properties are seized daily. This leads us to look closely about the implications this law may have in Mexico’s cities when and if approved in all regions and how the voice of communities affected by it can be heard.

I divided it into three chapters and an appendix: 

In the introduction I focus most of the discussion on: War on drugs in Mexico, Urban violence, Mexico City, The relationship between the local government and the state, and Extinción de Dominio.

The second chapter is the story of La Fortaleza in Tepito told through a digital timeline. I developed it using Timeline JS to tell the story of La Fortaleza and its expropriation from 1985 till 2012:

I will post a version of chapter 3 here, where I discuss forthcoming plans and possible challenges in order to hopefully get some feedback on this regards:
My interest is to explore the impact this legal framework is having in its inhabitants and their communities. I am attempting to render visible the narratives inscribed in these properties, the real visibility of this law in urban environments it is affecting, and the way affected communities can raise their voices in a collective fashion around one of these events. 

I am most interested in the stories behind these procedures, the reaction of affected citizens and the surrounding communities. If this tool becomes used in municipalities all around the country it is imperative to bring to the public a way to examine the impact of this tool more closely and develop dialectical tools to unveil all the different layers this law actually impacts, and render visible any possible violation of citizen’s rights. 

I propose to take Tepito as a point of reference and La Fortaleza as a pilot project that leverages digital tools to create a participatory documentary that could potentially be replicated in the other 128 sites.

I established contact with two local neighborhood organizations in Tepito.  My next steps is to explore the ways in which digital tools could provide a place for collective storytelling around a particular issue such as the expropriation of ‘La Fortaleza’.

The reconstruction of the particular space amongst the community immaginery may provide a more nuanced and layered understanding of the significance of said property, the myths around the events that took place, and the impact it had on the community. A collective storytelling tool such as Vojo could be used to gather and share stories amongst the community around Tenochtitlan 40. In an effort to begin to understand the complex networks of trust and reliance implicit in a neighborhood like this, and how they enable or are affected by a tool such as Eminent Domain or Extinción de Dominio, a participatory documentary that tells the story of this event in an effort to reconcile with the community’s own history understand the complex picture and relationships at play.

Research design proposal


Assemble a small team of people in conjunction with my community partners and spend January 2013 interviewing members of the community around La Fortaleza. 

Field work:

I would start by tracking down all evicted residents (72 families). I would also include the voices of the two major housing estates around it: Casa Blanca and Jesus Carranza 6, as well as the alleged ‘real’ Fortaleza in Peñon.

 In order to paint a complex picture I would include police officers and the head of police at the time, as well the judicial advisor for the government, the then minister of Public Safety, comissioner of Human Rights. 

I would solicit through my community partners, media allies and social media messages the testimonies of local reporters, protesters, community leaders and government bureaucrats that may have experienced part of the process.

A mix of solicited testimonies with open call for submission can provide a larger diversity and depth to the storyline while ensuring the essential voices are an important part of the narrative

Steps after the pilot with La Fortaleza

While documenting La Fortaleza and setting up the documentary online to enable participation I will continue my efforts to acquire the information regarding the localities of the other 128 cases, or at least a fraction of them. I will travel to Mexico in December, and have meetings with several government officials and academic researchers involved in the topic for the next two weeks in order to attempt to source that information. The idea is that when finishing the sourcing of the content of the pilot site and setting up the mechanisms for furthering participation, there would already have an understanding of which other sites would be included as the next phase of the project. In order to accomplish this by summer 2013, I will also try to get local citizen journalist organizations and journalism students from local universities involved in order to be able to achieve the sourcing of material at least from all identifiable affected residents, and set up the promotional mechanisms, both offline and online, to elicit participation directly by the rest of the communities. 

Why use civic media as a participatory storytelling platform? Because in cases like this, trust is an integral part of the process. In such a complicated environment of violence it is important to protect the integrity of the community and allow a space for that community to manifest itself around such an issue without the lens of the media and leverage their power against potential abuse from the state. If such a tool can be tested out and put in place to tell the stories of future properties (we have 128 to begin with), a deeper understanding could be rendered about communities, even to the ruling judge. The only testament of what took place in La Fortaleza that exists today, is lensed through the media; a media that has a complex relationship with sources of power, and which in this particular case was kept at arms lenght during the actual eviction process. Perhaps the video narrative version of the signs ‘Casa Blanca’ hung on its facade to claim their innocence, or the cries the mother gave to dennounce the assasination perpetrated by her crack dealing son. Civic media can potentially portray a more immediate, multifaceted, complex picture of the event as they unravel, all documented from within. 

However, there are significant obstacles in place when thinking about a documentary like this. Citizens are not just target of abuse by the state but can become also the focus of criminal violence when publicly stating their views, specially in such deeply embedded communities . We have seen the effect the practices of control and coercion drug gangs and cartels have practiced against journalists ‘which in part gave rise to remote and anonymous tactics of reporting taking place through the use of digital media.’

The examples posed by Sandy Storyline and its diversity of options when navigating the story posits an interesting possibility to the issue of anonimity and vulnerability. The idea would be for the stories to be submitted anonimously by default. Those citizens that would be actively engaged and visibly invested in the claims for rights could opt to make themselves visible.

And here you can read the whole paper, with an appendix that includes the written story of La Fortaleza and the documentation pertaining the attempts to access information through FOIA

I hope this may be of interest, please look into the paper and the digital submissions, I would greatly appreciate feedback