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Memo from Mexico City: Examining the needs of documenter communities working in Mexico

Mexican human rights defenders face increasing threats for documenting human rights abuses in the country. Our recent needs assessment with Data Cívica offers insight into the realities, challenges, and opportunities faced by human rights defenders, journalists, and eyewitnesses in Mexico while documenting and archiving evidence of violence and injustice.

This fall, OpenArchive launched our partnership with Data Cívica. Data Cívica employs data and technology to strengthen journalism and civil society in Mexico while fighting gender-based violence, assisting in the search for missing people, documenting and preserving evidence, and increasing transparency and accountability.

OpenArchive and Data Cívica completed the research phase of our partnership in October, which mapped the needs, risks, and threats of the communities that are recording, receiving, and amplifying evidence of human rights violations in the country.

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists and human rights defenders to operate in. According to Human Rights Watch, journalists and human rights defenders “who criticize public officials or expose the work of criminal cartels often face attacks, harassment, and surveillance by government authorities and criminal groups.”

Last year, a journalistic investigation exposed that the military, whose power has expanded in recent years, was using Pegasus spyware to spy on political rivals, journalists, and human rights defenders.

Police and the military will also torture detainees to extract information or illicit confessions. Findings from the 2021 Encuesta Nacional de Población Privada de la Libertad, the National Survey of Population Deprived of Liberty, found that nearly half of those surveyed were subjected to physical abuse after arrest.

Each year, police, the military, and organized crime groups “disappear” thousands of people in Mexico. As of 2022, 105,000 people are missing.

Other key issues in the country include high levels of gender-based violence and femicide, military violence against civilians, and abuses within the criminal justice system, including pre-trial detention and poor prison conditions.

Many of these violations are hidden or obscured because the government makes it difficult for citizens to share and access public information, thus stymying awareness about them and precluding justice. Due to both the high level of violation and the lack of access to evidence of them, there is a growing need for eyewitnesses and human rights defenders to be able to document, verify and share evidence of human rights abuses.

Our needs assessment survey yielded insightful information about the challenges and realities shaping the experiences of those working to document abuses in Mexico.

Threat Landscape and Challenges

Survey respondents face both physical and digital threats. Respondents reported risks of physical danger if their identity is exposed, and risks to themselves, their contacts and media if their device is confiscated. They also noted they faced digital security threats like malware, surveillance, and hacking.

Digging deeper, respondents whose primary role was documenting human rights abuses, also worried about the strength and security of their internet connection.

Respondents who primarily receive, organize, and analyze materials indicated that they also face difficulties accessing and corroborating public information from the government.

Meanwhile, survey respondents whose jobs involved both documenting and receiving media added that they struggle to balance security with usability in their methods, which leads to cumbersome workflows.

Connectivity and Technical Constraints

Internet connectivity is expanding in the country. As of 2021, 76 percent of Mexicans have access to the internet. The 5G mobile network is also expanding, particularly in Mexico City. However, internet access is costly and unevenly available throughout the country, which prevents lower-income, rural, and Indigenous residents from accessing the internet at the same rate as urban or more affluent residents.

Despite increasing access to the internet, there are still barriers to an open online environment. Mexican authorities attempt to influence online narratives through content removal of materials that criticize the government and inauthentic amplification of pro-government content.

Additionally, the use of Pegasus spyware to monitor government critics has concerning implications for freedom of expression, association, and assembly. A recent study by the European Parliament examined the impact of Pegasus spyware on human rights and democracy. It found that Pegasus spyware had significant impacts on political participation, and “spied-on citizens can feel compelled to abstain from engaging in interactions having political content, from sincerely expressing their views, and from associating with others for political purposes.”

Overall, there was a strong preference amongst our survey respondents to connect to the internet using a secure WiFi connection, due to the high cost of cellular data. However, respondents noted that in instances where they could not be sure of a WiFi network's security, they would rather use cellular data than an unsecured WiFi network.

Respondents indicated a roughly even split between Android and iPhone users.

Lastly, given that survey respondents indicated they had an average technical ability of three on a scale from one to five, there is an opportunity for educational and outreach efforts to strengthen the community’s technical capabilities.

Opportunities for Support

Personal security and privacy on- and offline are top concerns for survey respondents. Despite an interest in privacy tools, 95 percent of respondents did not use encrypted messaging apps to send or receive media. Many respondents also did not use virtual private networks (VPNs).

Additionally, respondents indicated they would benefit from workflow tools that would enhance their ability to archive and preserve media securely without sacrificing privacy or usability. They also were interested in learning more about server options. This is an opportunity for OpenArchive to provide support for training, skill development, and integrating secure archiving tools to better protect them and their media.

To this end, in October 2023, OpenArchive held a small train-the-trainer session with Data Cívica staff on best archival practices, technical skills, digital security, and expanding organizational capacity through the Save app. Data Cívica is organizing community workshops in November and December to share this knowledge and train others working to preserve and amplify evidence of injustice.

A representative of Data Civíca said, “Civil society organizations, journalists and human rights defenders in México have shown broad interest in learning more about Save. They see it as a priority because of the risks they face daily and their lack of knowledge and time to resolve urgent situations of violations of human rights. Given this, OpenArchive and Data Cívica sharing user-friendly and simple information is incredibly valuable.”


OpenArchive approached the survey analysis by grouping participants by role. This method is rooted in findings from previous needs assessments through which OpenArchive identified three key roles within communities: documenter (one who records and documents evidence first-hand), receiver (one who oversees and manages the receipt, organization, and potential distribution of media/data), and dual-role (one who plays both a documenting and receiving role in their work).

Data Cívica and OpenArchive received twenty responses to the needs assessment. The vast majority of respondents live and work in Mexico City.

User Personas

OpenArchive is leveraging the findings from this survey to enhance our tools to be more responsive to Data Cívica’s needs. We have carefully assessed their threats, needs, technical capacities, and current archival workflows through user persona building and other research methods outlined in the human-rights-centered-design (HRCD) methodology. This allows us to gain deeper insight into the structural harms that Data Cívica and its partner organizations experience while working in Mexico and enables us to adapt our tools to better protect them and their media.

User personas are modeled after a particular individual or role but also incorporate fictional aspects that researchers use to create archetypes that describe the behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, background information, and the environment in which the role operates. This HRCD strategy is an intersectional, thorough, and secure approach to developing a robust archetype representing key characteristics relevant to the role.

Read about the following user personas: Gabriela, Diego, Isabella.