MEXICO CITY— Whenever tragedy strikes somewhere in the world, a Mexican man known as “Alfonso” seems to be involved somehow. In fact, in just the past two months Alfonso has reportedly died three times in unrelated tragedies on different parts of the globe.
He was on the EgyptAir flight that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea on May 19, was shot in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub during the June 12 mass-shooting, and killed in Istanbul's Ataturk airport when the terrorists blew themselves up on June 28.
Alfonso's image was even featured in a New York Times video of the victims of the Orlando shooting, but later removed after the newspaper acknowledged it couldn't identify the young man’s true identity or status.
Alfonso, it turns out, is a hyper-local Mexican internet joke that has taken on a life of its own. It's gone viral and global, yet very few people are actually privy to the joke—and some who are just learning about it don't find it funny at all.
The idea of unlucky Alfonso was allegedly started by a clique of young Mexicans who spend a good chunk of their free time trolling celebrities and politicians on Twitter. Some of them—contacted by Fusion—claim to know each other in person, while others say they’ve only met on social media.
“Alfonso was part of our group. We organized tournaments to troll famous people on the web. We were just looking to annoy people and have fun,” says @marty_batiato, a young Mexican guy who uses a creepy Fidel Castro avatar.
Batiato claims Alfonso is a real person, but was ostracized from their group of friends when he borrowed money that was never paid back. So the group turned on him and started trolling him on the internet. “We wanted to get his face out there and shame him,” Batiato says.
“We first shared his picture because he kind of looked like a cartel hitman who had been in the news,” Batiato told me in a phone interview. “Then we started uploading his picture every time something fucked up happened.”
Like any other social media content, Alfonso's image was discovered and shared, and suddenly became its own thing that was posted with hashtags related to terrorist attacks, mass shootings and drug war massacres. Soon, Alfonso went from being a very insidery joke to a full-fledged bullshit internet mystery.
So who is this Mexican man who keeps getting killed?
Alfonso may or may not be a real person; the photo could even belong to some hapless random dude who got his Facebook profile appropriated by the Mexican trolls. Or, he could even be one of the trolls themselves.
The only thing for sure is that the internet has recently become obsessed with figuring out who this guy is—especially after several major international media outlets got goofed on when they posted the man's picture or tried to figure out what the hell was going on.
France 24 recently investigated the internet mystery, but the Mexican trolls I spoke to claim they punked the French journalists too.
“My photo is everywhere because of someone who started it as a prank after a legal dispute,” the mystery man known as Alfonso is quoted as telling France 24. “I never reported the people who did this to me, because in Mexico nothing ever happens in these kinds of cases."
"Now my photo has appeared in several stories that were widely shared on Twitter. I contacted several media outlets like the BBC and the New York Times and asked them to delete my photo but they never responded.”
The Mexican pranksters allege that quote did not come from the "real" Alfonso.
“They spoke to a fake Twitter account,” Batiato told me. “Those French guys didn’t understand shit."
Still, he adds that Alfonso "is not a joke."
"This is a guy who ripped us off,” Batiato insists.
Chloé Lauvergnier, co-author of the France 24 report, says her colleague first found out about the internet mystery when the BBC published a piece titled “EgyptAir Crash: The Internet Fakes and Rumors.”
“We then contacted various Twitter users that were publishing the photo all the time to understand why they were doing this. We contacted them through Twitter of course. We are in Paris, France. We didn't travel to Mexico,” she told me.
She says one of the Twitter trolls she contacted sent her a photograph of a lawsuit against the man referred to as Alfonso (Fusion also received a snapshot of the alleged document).
“Several Twitter users told us that the man in the picture had asked them for money, but apparently he never paid back. This legal document had the photograph of the man with a phone number.”
Lauvergnier says she texted the number via WhatsApp.
“He responded immediately. What he told me corresponded with what the Twitter users had told us,” the French journalist said. “The trolls say they only want to bother him, since he’s a conman, according to them. It’s a joke to them, but it’s not very funny for the man, as you can imagine. They are misleading media, people… when there’s a [terrorist] attack, this photo shouldn’t appear.”
The trolls claim that people who don't find the joke funny simply aren't wired to understand Mexicans' dark and irreverent sense of humor.
“I’ve been contacted by French, Swiss, Spanish media and now you from the United States,” says @PeterTable, another internet troll who’s in on the prank.
Peter claims the internet joke started when Alfonso was still his friend, but intensified when he left the group.
“We were just teasing him and he didn’t mind it that much,” Peter told me in a phone interview. “I imagine he’s pissed-off now. We were laughing our asses off when he appeared in The New York Times.”
Peter says he has no regrets about the joke.
“This is very Mexican, it’s dark humor, it’s something other countries won’t understand," he said. "It’s a joke and it spun out of control.”