Jesus Robles Maloof: The power of conviction

Jesus Robles Maloof talks to us about the conviction needed to do the work he does, against a backdrop of organised crime and a violent, low-frequency conflict. He touches on how human rights defenders can use data and technology in innovative ways, how to confront state surveillance, and how to mobilise around the idea that prison is not a place for bloggers.

Jesus Robles Maloof is a human rights defender in Mexico. He talks to us about the conviction needed to do the work he does, against a backdrop of organised crime and a violent, low-frequency conflict. He touches on how human rights defenders can use data and technology in innovative ways, how to confront state surveillance, and how to mobilise around the idea that prison is not a place for bloggers.

What is most difficult about your work?

What's difficult is engagement with people. We have a job that gets you involved with people. Probably the most difficult part of my work in Mexico is to not get too close to people, but to try to be efficient in any relationship with defenders at risk.

Has anything changed in the last five or ten years in terms of your ability to use information, the media, or new digital devices that improve that effectiveness?

Yes. In recent years we have used alternative media to attract more attention to our troubles in Mexico. As defenders we are using it to protect, but the government and other groups are also using it against us. So, we're in a kind of a battle. It also changes our work because we get to know people in the network better. We are building a network constantly, and we are now talking to other people who we don't normally speak to; people who use the Internet, people who have more information. In Mexico there is control over information and the monopoly over information has done a lot of damage to our democracy, so now we are breaking it. We can talk to other people outside the circle of traditional civil society.

But what is the dark side? What is the government doing that you're worried about?

As a defender of defenders, now I'm being threatened. An older guy from the north of Mexico asks me, "what kind of job do you have? You're like a fireman when another fireman gets burnt. If you get burnt, what happens? Is there gonna be another fireman to save you?" He made me realise that we are in a crazy job, because we're building security by stages but it's going nowhere. The only solution is to make our communities more secure. We're in a hurry building this protection and the government, as I said, is using it against us. In Mexico there is control over opinion, so when alternative media showed up the government thought it was a trouble for them, and they're trying to use it against us.

What exactly are the risks, and the scale of the risks, in using this alternative media?

The older voices that speak clearly are at risk. You can't talk about everything because the fine line between crime and the government is in a lot of regions is blurred. You don't know where crime ends and the government begins. The criminals collect public fees, and the authority kidnaps. When you speak clearly about the rules... the rule of law, human rights, or about our Constitution...  you put yourself at risk.??

In 2010 a blogger was talking about the theft of a southern state, Chiapas, and he was imprisoned for more than a month. We have to mobilise public opinion to say that prison is not a place for a blogger that speaks. After that, we had several cases of simple people talking and being accused of terrorism. There is a notorious case of two users. They were talking about violence in their communities and they were charged with terrorism. The government wanted to give them thirty years in prison, just for telling the truth. So I talked to my colleagues and said, "we have to protect these two users because they're not journalists, they're not defenders, they're people, who are using alternative media to speak. If we don't get them out of prison, the next people convicted are going to be us." So we got them out.

We used to have this debate between professional journalists and bloggers, where neither respected the other... journalists would say bloggers were amateurs and bloggers would say that professional journalists don't investigate anything anymore. It sounds like in Mexico, there's something different happening, where journalists are recognizing citizen journalists as a part of the same community. Is that true?

Yes. But we think that journalists have a very important role. They have to be more precise, they have to . We say that a citizen doesn't have to work like that. A blogger, a user of Twitter or Facebook, or any network user, just has to talk and inform the way they see it. A journalist has to filter the information, but as a citizens you can talk. Sometimes a citizen will be wrong. We don't say that these people are citizen journalists, we just say that they're citizens and that they are allowed to talk freely.

In a country that doesn't have a tradition of people speaking freely, that is a  very democratic idea. There's a strong sense, for the first time, that you can talk and you can say something to politicians. Even if politicians are aggressive, the people still attack. They want to feel that they're talking directly to a politician. For me it's clear that people want to talk because they were silent for so many years, and because now we have conditions in which we can be free and clearly open.

I know some stories, such as the case of Juarez, of killings of women on a mass scale, but where investigations led nowhere. There are other issues with cross-border swapping of guns and drugs... the scale of these crimes in Mexico is really very big.

Did the ability of citizens to use new media change anything about the scale of crime?

Mexico is living a kind of civil war, on par with any great civil war in the last hundred years. There have probably been 80,000 people killed in the last five years, and 26,000 people have disappeared. It's a major humanitarian emergency, but it's a low frequency conflict. In the northern part of Mexico, where there are 40 million people, there are no journalists left. They have been killed, moved to social reports or have left the region. So the only voices in big cities like Reynosa Juarez, Matamoros, are the people that have to live in that town. They have to communicate all that happens, for the purposes of safety. 

The government is silent. The criminals don't want to communicate anything. The journalists are shut down. The only communicators left are the people that have to survive. If we're going somewhere and there is a killing in the street, we have to alert our relatives, our friends, and we report that. After that, people start to blog, to try to understand, and it becomes like journalism, from grass roots to reflection to analysis. They make videos, and make all the things that a journalist would normally or usually make.

They're creating stories through a natural process of gathering information, gathering data, and using technology in a very creative way. They're using an application called Zello, which is a walkie-talkie application, a playful thing where you can use your cellphone like it's a radio, but they use it to report crime. They report moments of violence, because they're driving and they can't make a phone call. And they can't wear ear phones, because the criminals are watching, and they can't tweet or post. So they use the Zello application to talk, they convert it into text with another application, and they get a report on-line. They're way ahead of  journalists, they're way ahead of the government, and they're way ahead of criminals.

That's an example of documenting or witnessing violence. Do citizens also investigate, or are there journalists in other cities who actually take these stories further?

There are both. People investigate crimes, normally the relatives. There is a terrible phenomenon in Mexico of the killing and kidnapping of younger people. So the parents, the mother or the father, are investigating the these crimes. It's terrible to see mothers going street by street to the authorities, the hospitals, to the the places where they bury people, to try to find their sons. Normally people, if they're not affected, do not investigate. They just want to know the city is safe. But the relatives go and investigate.

We also have a lot of human rights defenders who are not actually human rights defenders, but because their son or relative was killed they become engaged. It's a new category of human rights defender.

And then there are journalists outside the conflict, in safer cities, that are taking account of the data,  arguments and information.

Aside from defending the defenders, what do you do to improve the system itself?

We're trying to make structural changes that protect defenders in a more effective way. One of the things we're doing is tryin  to make communication more secure. We're trying to sue any kind of spy work, any kind of surveillance that the government is probably using against us. We've initiated a procedure against two servers in Mexico, that the Citizen Lab from the University of Toronto in Canada found had a surveillance program called "FinFisher" installed. We're working very hard to eliminate those possibilities and to make the communications of defenders and journalists more secure.

Why do you want to remove this software, if the government claims it's used to spy on crime and that they can use it to protect the city more effectively?

I always have a clue. If the government says that they have to take more responsibility in fighting terrorism, it's always going to be against you. As I say, the line between the government and the criminals is blurred  so we don't trust them. We will only trust them if they respect the rule of law and the Constitution, and if they stop making journalists and defenders criminals. When they begin to do that, we will respect them.

In Mexico the big problem is impunity. There is a huge difference between the countries in our region. In Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Guatemala, the dictators and the military were judged for the crimes of the 1970s an 1980s. In Mexico not one military official, not one official responsible for security, was charged or sentenced, and over 1000 people have disappeared. We don't have a single case of that. So impunity in the region is high, but in Mexico it's higher.

If the government is so mixed up with criminal networks, I assume the legal system is equally compromised. What's your ability to actually to create and win a case?

There are spaces, and there are some procedures we win. We have a very good Constitution, reformed two years ago, and our rights in the Constitution are very, very high. We have habeas corpus procedures which are the best in the world. We have a privacy law which is probably the best in the world, and we're using it. Also we not only have national jurisdiction, but international jurisdiction. Myself and other lawyers have won cases in international jurisdictions. So we're using these small spaces in the system.

But we also have strong allies, if we can influence public opinion. Publicising the truth is probably going to effect change, because information in Mexico is so manipulated that if we can tell the truth to the people they get pissed off.

What makes you do the work you do?

I don't know. I said recently in an interview that I think my work is just like any work. You just have to do it right, you have to be efficient. In my childhood I had a friend disappear. Friends of my relatives disappeared and I lived near to a centre of torture and detention. So I probably heard stories about it and decided to try to stop it.

Another interesting thing is that in Mexico we have no sites of memory. In Argentina, you have a big site commemorating the disappeared, and in Chile too, but in Mexico we don't. So I was probably affected in my childhood but now I think my job is the same as other jobs, only I have to do it right. I have to be efficient and not think of myself as special. I think myself just as a citizen and I want to do my job.

But you don't get death threats if you work in the post office....

I wrote an article about the principle of no fear. We  human rights defenders probably have a sense of shame, we're ashamed of the things that are going on. And I think I have that. I cannot see abuse and just keep walking, I have to do something. It's probably not going to change everything, but I can change one little thing.

I had a professor of life, an old defender Gustavo de La Rosa, who told me once that he was threatened in Juarez, and then invited me to eat tacos. I said, "well, come to my hotel", and he said, "no, we're going to meet in the Central Plaza, and we're going to eat yacos in front of everyone." I said, "oh-oh, no, I don't think so." I went with him, and he sat in the corner, as 'El Padrino' always sat and I asked, "why are you sitting here?" He replied, "I wanna see the people who come to kill me." I said, "I don't want to die."

He taught me a lesson, a big lesson. He said, "Jesus, our job is to save lives. We have to tell them that we are going to do this even if the military oppose, even if the government opposes. In all situations, we are saving lives. It's our mission. If they understand that, they'll probably respect us. And I think if they have plans for me, they probably respect me now, because they know that I'm not going to stop."

What would your advice be to young people who would like to follow you?

You have to be convinced. We don't want to die, but we go and defend human rights in all situations. It doesn't matter if it's green, yellow, left wing or right wing, we're going to defend human rights. We stand for integrity, human rights and democracy. You have to be convinced of that. In a place like Mexico, you can't doubt.

And then I'd let them know they can work on a huge variety of things. They can analyse data, they can ask questions, attend demonstrations, you can sign, you can build networks, you can form those networks...  there is a lot of work to do in human rights in Mexico, but you have to be convinced.

What methods do you use when working with data?

For example, last year in December we had a demonstration on the streets. There is a big  student movement and they go out on the streets, they get beaten up, and then they get charged with terrorism. So we called on citizens to give us information to defend the students. On the 1st December they gave us a lot of material, but we couldn't process it because we were at the police station. So we had a meeting there with some people that came to help - not human rights defenders, not journalists, just people who wanted to help. And we set up a collaborative process of gathering and curating information. Finally we used all that evidence to pull the guys out of prison. For me it was an example of how we need not only the people physically protesting at the police station, we also need people to take time to analyse the data.

On the 10th June we used the same platform to crowdsource evidence, and we won, getting students out of prison. It's possible to win cases if we organise and think about what we're doing. Now we're trying to change things, we're trying to reform the police that enact the use of force . We are using the right to film the police. In Mexico, you don't need to ask if you have the right to film the police. We inform people that they have the right, if they want to do it by phone or whatever you want. They don't need to ask permission, they have the right. We now have a campaign about the right to film and it's going pretty well. People want liberty and once they have a little they don't want turn back.

What do you see in ten years from now?

I see the struggle for human rights as a constant fight and I see people fighting for it. Human rights are not written in the heart of people, as my professor said, because you can't write anything in the heart. Human rights are on the street, in movements, with people fighting for our democracy.

How do you feel about the US, accustomed to teaching China and Russia about privacy but now censoring and spying on citizens with the most sophisticated systems of information collection? Especially given that lots of activists use US-based services like Google and Skype and their data is being collected and traded.

In Mexico, we have the idea of tomorrow: "Tomorrow we'll do it. Tomorrow we'll do it." I got myself attacked and I came to Europe because last month they threatened me. They told me they know what's said in my hotel conversations, and in my Gmail conversations. I give security training for defenders and I felt very bad because they got me. So we have to make it clear that whatever we are going to use, they probably have access to it. One thing is we have to make it difficult. The second thing, as that old guy told me in northern Mexico, the solution is not that we make a sophisticated program to be secure, but to adopt practices that before we go to digital. I think we have to make it difficult, but they will always eavesdrop on our conversations.

How much do you rely on analogue communication versus digital?

I think we are now at a turning point, with PRISM and FinFisher. We have to change one thing - we have to make it difficult and be more strategic. But we also have to fight that cultural idea of “tomorrow we'll do it”, while we keep using WhatsApp and all the non-secure services. So there's a lot to change.

What have been the main positive outcomes of your work?

We've had some good experiences. This year we changed the Constitution, we established access to the Internet as a human right, we freed ten guys. We pushed politicians into changing the Constitution twice in the last five years. People say, "well, the Constitution never accomplished anything", but now we can go to court and we are winning cases.

At Tactical Tech's activism camp I talked to several people who are working on Tuneology and they told me that there is WiMAX, super WiFi, and that we can do it. We are going to begin with small practices in areas where the people do not Internet, we are going to focus on that, and then we are going to expand it. It's possible and with the help of other people we get new ideas.

How important is it for you to be connected to both local and international networks?

For the last five years I've been invited to those kind of meetings, but I never went. I thought that people needed me more in Mexico. But now I understand the importance of getting out, because when you get out you receive ideas and solidarity and back up. Just today I was able to gain the support of two major organisations, who are going to back me up in litigation with  specific technical data. And all of that will help me do a better job back home.

First published on February 3, 2016