Arturo Hernandez, who heads a band of volunteer YouTube celebrities known as the “Super Civicos,” uses humor to shame violators in Mexico’s sprawling capital, where street vendors and delivery vans block streets and cars drive in bicycle lanes with little fear of punishment. He once stripped down and bathed in a pothole as big as a bathtub to highlight shoddy street repairs. Another time he traveled the subway dressed as a caveman to reflect the lack of manners.
Arne Aus den Ruthen, meanwhile, is a local official who confronts violators using the Periscope app to make live broadcasts as he tells people to pick up their trash or move their cars. He holds the title of “city manager” of the capital’s Miguel Hidalgo borough, a paid position inspired by U.S. city governments to have a gadfly to prod lazy authorities into doing their jobs.
While the two use different tactics, in a city as violent and chaotic as Mexico City it often ends in confrontation. Hernandez has been beaten several times and Aus den Ruthen was punched, had his cellphone stolen and was almost kidnapped recently by bodyguards who worked for an influential radio station owner.
He had called tow trucks after noticing the bodyguards were parking their cars on the sidewalks outside their boss’ house. The bodyguards put their boss on the phone, and he can be heard shouting a stream of obscenities at Aus den Ruthen that could be translated roughly (and charitably) as “eat it.”
Mexico City residents usually give the moniker “Lord” or “Lady” to people seen acting badly in such videos. In this case, the businessman became known as “Lord Eat It.”
“This kind of activism is necessary, especially because it is the kind of thing that average people can also do,” said Juan Pablo Guzman, a financial administration student.
In recent weeks, citizens have used the two men’s platforms to post videos of the bodyguards for the owner of a Ferrari beating another motorist in broad daylight during a traffic incident and of a woman threatening to run over a man with her SUV after she tried to avoid paying damages for hitting his car.
One of Aus den Ruthen’s highest profile confrontations became known as the “Lady Garbage” incident.
He confronted a mother who refused to pick up a bag of garbage she had tossed onto the street, arguing she was on her way to drop her son off at school. Aus den Ruthen is seen demanding she pick the bag up. In response, she shouts, shakes her hand in his face and threatens to kick him in the testicles.
She was pilloried on the Internet, but later filed a complaint with Mexico City’s human rights commission.
The rights commission says there have been six complaints that Aus den Ruthen’s broadcasts violate a person’s right to privacy, their reputation and their right to due process. In Mexico, citizens can videotape authorities, but it’s not clear if authorities can film and broadcast the behavior of private citizens.
Guzman doesn’t buy the rights argument. “The video wouldn’t have gone viral if the woman had said, ‘OK,’ picked up the garbage bag and apologized. But she chose to adopt that attitude.”
Others disagree. “Publishing supposed transgressions in real time doesn’t allow for due process, it doesn’t give the accused person a chance to defend themselves,” Francisco Porras, a political scientist at the Instituto Mora, wrote in a public debate forum.
The Mexico City legislative assembly is now working on rules to determine how — or whether — officials can record private citizens.
The shaming movement has also taken hold in Colombia, where there is growing use of the Twitter hashtag #ustednosabequiensoyyo — literally “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”
About a year ago, a YouTube user posted a video of a young man fighting with Colombian police and trying to intimidate them with that phrase, claiming to be related to a former president. More videos have followed, and the hashtag has become an avenue for Colombians to denounce such behavior in their class-conscious country.
Mexico’s version of the phenomenon owes a nod to its northern neighbor.
Aus den Ruthen’s title is “city manager” in English. His boss, Miguel Hidalgo borough president Xochitl Galvez, said his job title was consciously imported from the United States.
“In the United States, the mayor is often practically part-time, because the city functions so well,” Galvez said. “But those are countries where the law is respected … unfortunately here, there is no respect for the law.”
Super Civicos was born after Hernandez came back to Mexico City in 2006 after a 10-year stint working in Miami as an MTV host. He was shocked by how people in his home city just “did whatever they wanted, parked wherever, in front of handicapped ramps.”
Since then, he and his team have dressed up as Roman centurions to block people from driving on bike lanes and as bullfighters to flag down bicyclists riding on sidewalks.
On a recent day in front of a private university, the bearded Hernandez dressed up in a slinky dress and began “selling” the cars double-parked in front of the college gates. As he splayed himself over the vehicles, his partner called out on a bullhorn: “Here is the lovely Arturia, and here is the first car we’re going to be selling today.” Drivers mostly looked up, surprised, and quickly drove off. One luxury SUV backed up the street to flee the embarrassment.
“The thing is to fight the comedy with comedy,” Hernandez said.