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Latin America Is One of the Most Dangerous Places in the World to Be a Woman

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HipLatina partnered with National Geographic in advance of its new show Trafficked featuring the trailblazing female journalist Mariana Van Zeller who goes inside the world’s deadliest black markets. In this series on HipLatina, we take a deep dive into femicide and the dangers of being a woman in Latin America.

Femicide is generally defined as the murder of a woman or girl, particularly by a man, on account of her gender. There have been countless media reports about the rates of femicide everywhere from Mexico to Chile, and protests have broken out across the region as women have taken matters into their own hands to push for laws and legislation that protect us. The gruesome violence that women endure in Latin America has garnered more attention lately from local and international media. Yet many times, the coverage has been sensational, capitalizing on images and stories of gruesome murders, or vague, offering overviews of statistics without delving into the deeper causes of the gender-induced crimes. We developed this editorial series to provide a space where victims and activists can share their stories of pain and protest. We know that we won’t have all the answers, but many of the women protesting in their countries have created solutions based on art and education that are key to fighting femicide. Our aim is to find out why, in a region where over 15 countries have passed laws specifically targeted at curtailing violence against women, the rates of femicide have skyrocketed. In 2016, “A Gendered Analysis of Violent Deaths” reported that fourteen of the twenty-five countries with the highest femicide rates are in Latin America.

Yet, the murder of women is not something unique to Latin America. Gender-based violence is a global phenomenon that deserves more attention. Latin America is not alone in harboring deeply embedded societal norms that uphold and reward toxic masculinity. When stay-at-home orders passed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, calls to domestic violence hotlines in the United States skyrocketed. Globally, the U.N. Population Fund estimates that six months of lockdown could result in an additional 31 million cases of violence against women and girls. The economic downturn has had a terrible effect on the non-profits and shelters that many women depend on when trying to escape violent situations. Many countries have seen funding cut to the most urgent resources that act as a lifeline to victims.

Most Latin American countries signed the Convention of Belém in 1994, passing laws to protect women, educating people about women’s rights, and fighting machismo. Yet significant change has been hard to come by. In many cases, laws designed to protect women or punish those guilty of femicide with stiffer penalties fall short of the intended consequence to curtail murders motivated by misogyny. Not only are these cases tougher to prove and prosecute, but each country has different standards of determining whether or not a crime was motivated by gender. Some require a previous “intimate” relationship between perpetrator and victim. In Mexico, there needs to be evidence of “degrading” injury or sexual violence. Both of these burdens of proof make it infinitely more difficult to prosecute, say, a man who has beaten or attempts to kill his wife. Those attacks can be more easily classified as domestic violence and carry much more lenient penalties. The attempted and subsequently successful murder of Abril Pérez Sagaón demonstrated the dangers of misclassification of femicide in the courts. Pérez Sagaón’s husband, former Amazon Mexico CEO Juan Carlos García, hit her with a baseball bat and then attempted to strangle her to death. She barely survived after being saved by the intervention of one of their children. García was arrested and held on charges of attempted femicide. But a judge intervened in the case, reclassifying it as “domestic violence,” which allowed García to post bail and leave prison. Shortly after, Pérez Sagaón was shot to death on her way to the airport from a custody hearing. Though García has been missing since his release from prison, it is widely presumed that he was the mastermind behind his wife’s assassination. Whether or not her murder is ultimately counted as femicide remains to be seen. 

The lack of data and consensus on what constitutes femicide are just some of the many factors that muddy the water when trying to get a clear grasp on violence against women in Latin America. Though in the case of Pérez Sagaón, the state’s complicity in the murder of an influential and wealthy family matriarch is clear, many times, this conspiracy is harder to pinpoint. Widespread violence against women and the blind eye that is turned to it by most governments and international institutions has deep roots in the social, political, economic, and cultural inequalities that we all know exist but are hard to tease out.

The rape and murder of women have been used as tools of terrorism dating back to colonial times. Still wielded today to control marginalized populations, men know they are much less likely to face repercussions if a woman from an indigenous or Afro-Latino community goes missing than if something happens to a white, rich woman. The Guatemalan army notoriously used rape to control the indigenous populations during the recent civil war. It’s a tactic that has continued since colonization all across Latin America. 

One of the main problems is that violence against women so often happens out of view and behind closed doors, and when it is laid bare, it is only in our most marginalized communities. This year has been particularly brutal for women worldwide. It will take international mobilization and education to stop this other hidden pandemic that affects half of the world’s population. But racial and economic inequality aren’t the only factors that lead to higher violence rates against women.

In Latin America, societal norms expect women to “aguantar” (or hold on) when their husbands or partners act aggressively. Many families don’t see it as their business to interfere with a husband and his wife’s affairs. These factors make it harder for women to speak out when they feel their lives are in danger. There is also a normalization of aggression in interpersonal sexual relationships, where it’s not surprising to many if a man hits or attacks a woman in a jealous fury. This type of justification was made abundantly clear earlier this year in the murder of Ingrid Escamilla. Her ex murdered her, peeled off her skin, and removed some of her organs in an incredibly gruesome case of femicide. Reporting across Mexican newspapers included full-page images of her mangled body alongside pithy headlines like “Cupid Made Him Do It.” Not only did this narrative shift the blame to the victim herself for allegedly throwing her lover into a blind rage, but it also caused outrage among women in the capital city. A few days later, seven-year-old Fatima Aldriguett Antón was abducted, raped, and murdered, and women in Mexico City mobilized for massive demonstrations against femicides.

Women all across Latin America are protesting the daily violence they encounter, pushing for real change instead of laws that are difficult to enforce. In recent years, cases of femicides have been on the rise in most countries, and women in Latin America are tired of it. The rallying cry Chilean women adopted in their protests earlier this year highlighted a common problem in seeking justice for victims of femicides. “Y la culpa no era mía, ni dónde estaba, ni cómo vestía. El violador eras tú.” they sang and chanted, placing the blame squarely on government officials and a justice system that rarely prosecutes and punishes the guilty parties, regardless of how many laws are on the books. In 2019, more than three thousand cases of femicide were reported, but only 726 were investigated as such. It does not matter if laws are passed when they are rarely enforced or if the law enforcement officials themselves are some of the worst perpetrators of the violence.

 This is why women all across Latin America are taking to the streets. In Chile, they’re warning of the “vialodor en tu camino,” while in Mexico, they’re declaring “¡Ni una mas!” and in Puerto Rico, they’re demanding that the government declare a state of emergency to handle the uptick in violence against women. But the center of most of these protests against femicide can be traced right to our own border towns. The cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez have been an epicenter of activism around femicides since the 1990s when mothers of disappeared women began to organize. In this series, we talk to women organizing and fighting against the violence they see terrorizing communities, as well as families of victims and government officials to try to figure out what can be done to better protect the most vulnerable among us.

Trafficked with Mariana Van Zeller premieres on December 2nd at 9/8c on the NatGeo channel.