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A Protest Site Gets Shut Down in Mexico, and All Fingers Point to U.S. Homeland Security

The U.S. and Mexico governments conspired to shut down a Mexican protest site.
May 27, 2014, 6:00pm
Photo by Andalusia Knoll

As President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico was set to be sworn in on December 1, 2012, a coalition of activists prepped in their own way: They set up an online platform to publicize videos documenting expected abuses and repression during protests planned at the president's inauguration. It was called 1dmx.org, reflecting a hashtag used to organize the demonstrations, #1dmx, itself marking the date of Peña's inauguration.

The protesters were dead-on in their prediction of police brutality, which led to the illegal detention of dozens that day and the subsequent death of one demonstrator who was hit in the head with a police projectile.

What the activists did not foresee, however, was that the website that hosted documentation of the brutality would be shut down a year later, with no stated legal justification. Authorities remain tight-lipped, but a trail of clues leads to the likely intervention of the U.S. government, on behalf of counterparts in Mexico.

When pressed, the site's hosting service, GoDaddy, has said it received a request from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to suspend the site, which was taken offline on December 2, 2013, a year and a day after Peña Nieto's contentious inauguration.

In response, the site's administrators and their lawyers filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Mexico City on December 24, 2013 against ten government agencies that they claim violated their constitutional rights. To date, all agencies have denied involvement, leaving the lawyers without a concrete plaintiff, which may cause the lawsuit to be thrown out on a technicality Tuesday morning. (If one of those agencies is actually confirmed to have been involved in the censorship of 1dmx.org, they could be charged with the crime of lying to a federal judge.)

GoDaddy told the site's administrator that they suspended 1dmx.org following a request by Jason Barry, a Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Barry did not respond to inquiries from the administrator, but responded by phone to lawyer Luis Fernando Garcia, claiming that "This happens all the time…Mexican agencies send us requests for U.S. companies and we have contacts with some of them, so we just send them," Garcia recounted.

The Digital Crimes Unit of GoDaddy also divulged to Garcia that the Specialized Center of Technological Responses (CERT), a division of Mexico's National Security Commission, issued the initial request. However, Garcia said that GoDaddy has refused to state this information publicly, thus inhibiting any potential lawsuit against the Mexican government.

These statements suggest there is some veracity to the claim that the U.S. and Mexican governments conspired to shut down 1dmx.org a year later.

In a previous interview with The Verge, a GoDaddy representative hinted that 1dmx.org's shutdown was internally vetted. "We always strive to balance our customer interests with law enforcement requests," the rep said. "When we receive a request from law enforcement we carefully evaluate it, and take the necessary steps if warranted."

The mystery has festered for months, but Internet-rights groups are still rallying around 1dmx.org because its apparent censorship sets a dangerous precedent in a country that was once ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as PRI, for 70 years straight. The PRI returned to power with Peña Nieto's 2012 election after 12 years in the opposition, calling itself a "new PRI." Opponents and critics on the left say the PRI is the same as always under Peña Nieto, autocratic and repressive.

Photos of the protests from April 10, 2014 by Andalucía Knoll.

On April 9, a coalition of organizations including Access, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Mexican group R3d , sent a joint letter to U.S. President Barack Obama and other government representatives denouncing the suspension of 1dmx.org in Mexico.

"Facilitating the censorship of a website based on its political content is inconsistent with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, with U.S. human rights obligations, and with the government's stated commitments to uphold the rule of law and 'Internet Freedom' as foreign policy priorities," the letter read.

The Department of Homeland Security was unavailable for comment on Monday due to the Memorial Day federal holiday.

"DHS facilitated the censorship," Garcia told VICE News. "[It] is very revealing of the status of human rights in Mexico right now, and how there is a clear policy to curtail freedom of expression on the Internet and also on the streets. This was a website that documented human rights abuses during protests and it was precisely this website that was censored."

After digital-rights activists started making noise in the press about the site's shutdown, GoDaddy reinstated it in March. By that time, 1dmx.org had already relocated to a different server and URL host, http://op1d.mx/.

Peña Nieto's administration has touted itself as a champion of Internet freedom with its campaign #MexicoDigital and a new national strategy with a goal to "achieve access and use of information technology and communication to maximize economic, social and political impact to benefit the quality of life of the Mexican people." President Peña Nieto has also proposed a telecommunications reform bill guided by vague principles of morality and good customs that has come under sharp criticism for legalizing censorship of the Internet.

"The PRI is not used to this because when they ruled Mexico for 70 years the Internet wasn't what it is now," Garcia said. "They are seeing that they need to control and neutralize the streets and Internet to be able to pass reforms linked to their economic projects."

The Mexican government has recently been criticized for two new proposed laws, which would allow police to use live ammunition against protestors in certain states of the country, fueling the activists' claim that Mexico is gradually clamping down on dissent.

While the lawsuit planned by the 1dmx.org coalition may be dealt a major setback today the digital-rights activists say they will not drop the case, but continue to seek accountability for the censorship.

"When you shut down communication online, more people take to the streets," said Peter Micek, a lawyer with Access who has supported activists across the globe fighting for digital freedom, in an interview. "You're not going to solve any problems by taking away peoples' voices."

You can follow Andalucía on Twitter @andalalucha