BY AZAM AHMED AND PAULINA VILLEGAS
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Acting on a tip from a disgruntled neighbor, two comedians dressed as drag queens confronted parking officers in broad daylight.
The pair wanted to know why the officers, who so ruthlessly enforced parking limits, had never so much as given a warning to the local fruit salesman, whose battered Ford Explorer sat illegally parked all day, every day, in the upper-class neighborhood of Polanco.
“So apparently, this car is protected by the god of fruits,” yelled Arturo Hernández, founder of the Supercívicos, an activist group of comedians whose mission is to embarrass the bad actors of Mexican society with punishing humor.
“My, what healthy corruption we have going on here,” he said.
The comedians, who brought a camera crew with them, had every intention of making a scene. One of the officers laughed in response, until she was reminded that the video would be uploaded and watched by, at last count, nearly 200,000 people.
“Don’t tell me that,” she said, dropping her head.
Bad behavior in Mexico, like many places, often goes unpunished. In the most serious example of this, some estimate that 98 percent of killings here go unsolved. More minor infractions — like illegal parking, refusing to throw out garbage and public nuisances — are typically endured with an admirable resolve.
But a group of Mexicans is embracing a new way of enforcing the fragile rule of law: public shaming.
Epitomized by the Supercívicos, an assortment of urban dwellers, activists and even government officials have taken up the habit of embarrassing illegal parkers, corrupt police officers and bad neighbors who often get away with misbehavior.
A former mayor in the state of Nuevo León put up a giant billboard with the face and name of one resident who refused to take out his trash even after he was fined three times. Meant to resemble a mug shot, the sign referred to the man as a cochino, or pig. The advertisement went on to explain that the city removed 25 tons of trash every day.
The former mayor was chastised by the state’s Human Rights Commission and was forced to take the billboard down.
“They speak about respecting people’s rights, but I ask them, ‘What about collective rights of having a clean city?’” asked the former mayor, Pedro Salgado.
In February, a video shot by an activist city manager surfaced showing President Enrique Peña Nieto’s chief of staff heading to a gym in Mexico City, while his bodyguards parked outside illegally. The video application with which it was posted, Periscope, has grown so prevalent that the Human Rights Commission recently suggested its use could be a rights violation.
The adherents of public shaming share the belief that, in a widely traditional and conservative society, appealing to the raw sense of humiliation is an effective means of encouraging people to abide by the rules.
“It is a mix of ridicule and protest that reveals the level of fatigue in society,” said Lorenzo Meyer, a historian and political analyst in Mexico. “But it also contains the message that things are not unalterable. It’s a wake-up call to rebel, to act, to speak out.”
For many Mexicans, improving public life is no laughing matter. Drug cartels and gangs dominate parts of the country where the authorities have unearthed dozens of bodies buried in unmarked mass graves.
Still, many Mexicans wholly embrace sardonic humor to respond to scandals, whether corruption in the president’s office or the escape of the notorious drug lord Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán.
Social media explodes with memes, posts on Twitter or manufactured photos to elicit laughter, and it is that vein of humor that groups like the Supercívicos are hoping to tap.
“What we are trying to do is confront people with our own Mexican nature, our corrupt ‘gene,’ and we do it with comedy,” said Hernández. “We confront the absurd situations that arise from the absence of rule of law with irony and sarcasm.”
Seated at a cafe near the fruit salesman’s vehicle, Hernández adjusted the strap on his dress and gave his black stockings a tug. He plucked a mound of plastic spiders out of a bag, additional props for the performance.
In Spanish, the word for spider can refer to prostitutes, vulgar women and the wheel clamps that parking enforcement officers in the capital use to immobilize vehicles. Hernández decided a play on words was worth the fanfare of dressing up and applying makeup.
Hernández started Supercívicos after a television show he was on was scuttled. On the show, a mix of comedy and politics, he often challenged the status quo, which landed him in hot water with the producers.
Supercívicos have become well-known in the streets of the city for their various sketches. In one, they pretended to be older Mexicans, falling and injuring themselves as they tried to navigate the city’s many rundown sidewalks in wheelchairs.
In another, they harass individuals on the subway who selfishly sit in seats for disabled people, calling out over a megaphone that Jesus must have miraculously healed them. Sometimes, things get violent — recently, Hernández was punched in the face by someone who did not take kindly to being filmed.
“What we are trying to do is confront people with our own Mexican nature, our corrupt ‘gene,’ and we do it with comedy. We confront the absurd situations that arise from the absence of rule of law with irony and sarcasm.”
-Arturo Hernández. Founder of the Supercívicos
“To ridicule someone is the cruelest form of social chastising, and the most effective one, too,” said Alejandro Marín, a co-founder of Supercívicos who was wearing a purple dress while seated beside Hernández in the cafe. “If you experience that small trauma of being exposed and shamed, it is very unlikely you will break the same rule twice.”
Hernández spotted the parking officers and raced to the scene. By the time the cameras started rolling, a crowd had gathered. The comedians placed plastic spiders on the vehicles, the police and themselves.
They pranced around and confronted the fruit salesman, too, who said almost nothing except: “I don’t give a damn about any of this.”
Watching off to the side, amid a crowd of several dozen that had gathered, was Odette Sandoval. When asked what she thought of the humorists’ tactics, she offered a wan smile.
“I was the one who tipped them off about this,” she said.
She said she had tried transportation officials about the fruit salesman’s Ford, repeatedly, and never heard back. So she sent the Supercívicos an email, and here there were, doing what the government had failed to do, she said: Enacting justice, of a sort.
“It is simply not fair that they apply rules selectively and when convenient,” she said of the enforcement officers, who were busy trying to flee the cameras. “That is corruption, and I am glad this happened so they don’t do it again.”