Femicide Protest Cancun, Mexico
Photo credit: Natalia Pescador
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Mexican Women Mobilize for Dignified Lives Free of Violence

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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. Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller premieres on December 2nd at 9/8c on National Geographic.

The Mexican State of Quintana Roo sits square on the Yucatan peninsula and is home to some of the most beautiful and famous beaches in the country like Tulum, Cancun, and Playa Del Carmen. A quick google search results in photos of miles and miles of white-sand beaches and turquoise ocean, night clubs, and lush jungles. What you won’t see are the bodies. 

Cancun is home to some of the highest rates of violent crime in Mexico. In 2019, there were 332 murders in Cancun. Between January and November of 2020, there were 704 murders in Quintana Roo, as was reported by Secretary of Security and Citizen Protection, Alfonso Durazo Montaño. That’s 2.1 murders per day. And although the general ecosystem of violence tends to obscure the figures, women are being murdered at alarming rates, often brutally. 

In Mexico, femicide is the final brick on the pathway. And it’s a long road marred by political and social issues that have created and normalized the horrific use of torture against women on a national scale. It is genuinely astonishing and almost impossible to comprehend this level of brutality. But here we go.

Despite the international attention on the Juarez murders during the 1990s and early 2000s, it took Mexico until 2012 to officially collect femicide dataMore than 40 percent of femicide victims in Mexico knew their killer, and women are more likely than men to be killed by strangulation, drowning, suffocation, and stabbing

In 2018 93% of crimes were either not reported or not investigated. According to UN Mujeres, in 2019, out of the total 3,825 killings of women, 1,006 were victims of femicide. But those figures are almost certainly inaccurate as there is still no comprehensive or institutionalized policy for all stages of criminal proceedings for gender-based violence.

“The Whole System Killed Her”

Even when women report domestic violence and sexual assaults, they face revictimization at the hands of corrupt police officers often involved in sex or narco-trafficking. 

“You see that the police do not take care of you. You are afraid of the police, a corrupt government, and a government involved terribly with drug trafficking. They cover up a lot of information about what is happening. People do not know how much violence there is.” said Analia Veccar of the Cancun based feminist collective Defensoras Digitales. Their particular focus is on digital sex crimes like doxxing, grooming, and revenge porn, which all lay the foundation for femicide.

Though there is legislation to protect women in the digital space, Lay Olympia has yet to be adopted in all Mexican states and is not enforced. Enforcement seems to be the real barrier to legislation. In just about every area of the justice system, Mexican authorities drop the ball. Women face unjustified delays, lack of essential forensic testing, victim-blaming, as well as interference in their private lives. During prosecution, women face gender bias from judges who generally focus on women’s inferiority or lack of credibility. 

Florencia Lato of the Defensoras Digitales says her need to take action came not only from her own experiences as a woman in Mexico but as the friend of a murder victim.

“I was taught that I am free to do anything I want, but when you enter the world, you face reality, different types of oppression start to tire you. For years now, the violence against women in this country has been unbearable. It was no longer enough for me to complain on social media. I needed to take action. They killed one of my friends, and I realized just one person did not murder her; the whole system killed her.” 

10.5 Women Every Day

In the last five years in Mexico, the rate of femicide has doubled, approximately 10.5 women are killed every day, and only one in five domestic violence cases are reported to the authorities. Even worse, women’s shelters have reported a sharp rise in the number of women attempting to flee domestic violence during Covid. As a result, there has been a 7.7% increase in femicide in the first half of 2020 compared to 2019. 

Natalia Travizon of the Defensoras Digitales shared that she became involved after her own sexual assault and attempted kidnapping, “Part of what drove me and still drives me to get involved is that my sister was a victim of digital sexual violence, and I was a victim of sexual violence on the street in Quintana Roo. I am only here because I threw myself from a moving car.”

Two-thirds of Mexican women aged 15 and up will experience some violence during their lifetime. The place where women experience the most violence is in their own homes, with 43.9 percent of women experiencing abuse by their partner. But for indigenous women in Quintana Roo’s Zona Maya, the problem is compounded by a lack of access to essential resources and the much closer quarters women are forced to occupy with their abusers.

Graciela Maria Gutierrez is the area administrator for Mujeres Mayas De Quintana Roo and one of the co-founders of La Casa De Mujer Indigena. This nationwide organization provides a space where indigenous and Afro-Mexican women can access culturally appropriate care, learn about sexual/reproductive rights, and preserve their indigenous language. She has seen first hand the impact COVID has had on the lives of women living in La Zona Maya.

“[Because of COVID] there is an overload of work, it is not just the physical but also emotional and mental for women. What was once a home and family space becomes a space with work responsibilities, caring for children, also caring for a husband. If he is violent, well, the role of the violence is doubled, plus the responsibility for mothers who now also have to be teachers.” Lara told HipLatina.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has launched an austerity program as part of his response to the pandemic making the situation even more dire. He approved a 75% budget cut for the federal women’s institute, and the president has withdrawn state funding for women’s shelters operated by NGOs.

But the cuts that have been felt the hardest for La Casa de la Mujer Indígena (CAMI). As Regional Director of Mujeres Mayas, Maritza Del Carmen, pointed out, “The government is not allocating resources to strengthen the eradication of violence. CAMI receives some resources sometimes, and now that resource was taken away from us, and we are given a minimum, and that limits us a lot.”

Despite the collective protest, La Casa de la Mujer Indígena’s 35 houses received only 8.5 million pesos, less than 30% of the original allocated budget. It is only one example of what indigenous women face in Mexico. “Indigenous women are discriminated against because of gender, ethnicity, class, and then there is intimate family violence. But there is also institutional discrimination, so everything that happened with the COVID made all the types of violence that indigenous women experience visible,” Lara explained. 

AMLO’s government was ridiculed for public service adverts that encouraged families to “count to 10” to solve rising tensions under lockdown. Activists pointed out that domestic violence is a far more severe issue than annoyances between family members. But it is precisely the government’s inaction and negligence that sparked major nationwide demonstrations and protests in 2020. 

“It was Cupid’s Fault”

In March, 25-year-old Ingrid Escamilla was tortured, skinned, and mutilated by her alleged boyfriend in Mexico City. Only days later, 7-year-old Fatima Aldrighetti’s tiny body was found tossed in a plastic bag and left on the street after being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. Tabloid and news outlets were quick to publish uncensored images of Escamilla’s remains under the heading “It was cupid’s fault.”

Outraged, hundreds of protesters gathered at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, where they called for justice, spray painted the victim’s names on the walls, and poured red paint on the door. In honor of International Women’s Day, thousands of protesters marched in towns all over Mexico. And the next day, tens of thousands of women took part in the nationwide walkout day without a woman or #UnDíaSinNosotras

Femicide protests Cancun, Mexico
Photo credit: Natalia Pescador

Government recognition is imperative for funding and implementing laws. But even on the local level, authorities have chosen impunity and suppression over protecting and supporting women.

On November 7th, 20-year-old teacher Bianca “Alexis” Alejandrina Lorenzana Alvarado left her home in Cancun to buy an e-cigarette and never returned. Police put out a missing person report on the 8th, but her family and local feminist collectives quickly organized and began a search party. 

The next day a man collecting cans discovered two plastic bags in the Benito Juarez municipality. Everyone’s worst fears were confirmed when authorities searched the bags. They also found two more women’s bodies within the same 48 hours. One of the bodies is still unidentified, while the other belonged to 35-year-old Fabiola Juárez López, who died from gunshot wounds. 

“En la mañana con abrazos en la noche con balazos” 

Because of the barbarism associated with Lorenzana Alvarado’s torture and death, the local chapter of the National organization Red Feminista met with Governor Carlos Joaquín González. Joaquin promised to support their initiatives to ensure women’s safety in Cancun and Quintana Roo as a whole. 

Feminist collectives and community members quickly mobilized and marched to the Municipal Palace, where police firing live rounds met them. Police were joined by the national guard, who then boxed in terrified protestors and used tactical force on unarmed civilians. “There were students, and there were babies, there were elderly people, there were young girls like Analia’s daughter who is 15 and my sister who is 18,” Tavizon said.

“They wanted to control the narrative about what we thought were shots in the air. First of all, the police should never shoot young people. We were not armed, and there wasn’t the least risk of loss of life. At real risk were young people, who were very upset about the violence that their friend, teacher, and schoolmate had just experienced.” Florencia Lato told HipLatina.

“Police began firing bullets into crowds of unarmed protestors. Five journalists were beaten, people were shot in the legs, and there are allegations that young women were sexually assaulted as they were being arrested. Also, there was sexual abuse of young students. The worst of all is that it was a sexual assault by police within the City Hall of the municipal palace.” Lato said.

The Red Feminist network is demanded a public apology from the state governor, Carlos Joaquín González, and that the municipal president of Benito Juárez, Mara Lezama, assume responsibility. The governor offered a public apology, in addition to exempting the groups from disturbances and destabilization actions. Joaquin, legislators, and cabinet members also met with the 26 feminist groups on Quintana Roo to hear their 54 point “feminist agenda.” The plan virtually guarantees women’s access to a life free of violence, respect for their human rights, and a real fight against gender-based violence. But the implementation is yet to be seen.

Narco Violence

Cartel violence makes it extremely difficult to distinguish what is femicide. Between March 16th and April 30th of 2020, the only femicide database in Mexico (created by María Salguero in Quintana Roo) counted 405 cases. Salguero pieces together data taken from police and press reports to form a description of what happened and to try to determine if the deaths were motivated by gender.

Up to 63 percent of the femicides may be linked to organized crime, but it’s impossible to know. Official statistics rarely include details about the aggressor. Many times women are killed in direct retaliation towards their significant others involved in the drug trade. A woman in Playa Del Carmen was killed in place of her husband when the cartel couldn’t find him. Often, men use well-known cartel methods to murder their partners and cover it up or shift the blame. 

The connection to organized crime and the culture of violence perpetrated by the cartels explains the pervasive torture and mutilation of women. The widespread nature of the use of torture is specific to Mexico. Although correlation is not causation, it would be safe to say that cartel tactics have seeped into the everyday consciousness. 

Media Coverage 

We cannot dismiss the glorification of narco-violence in film, music, and television. Cartel members and sicarios achieve online celebrity status. #CartelTikTok features the lavish lifestyles of drug bosses and their families. Complete with stacks of money, boat chases, piles of drugs, jewel-encrusted assault weapons, designer clothes, foreign cars, and exotic animals. At the same time, narcocorridos have been boasting about drug lord exploits in Mexico since the 1970s.

Tabloids, newspapers, and blogs routinely run uncensored images of decapitated corpses and piles of bloody body parts in the street. In many ways, death is treated as a spectacle rather than a tragedy. It makes sense that this attitude extends to all murders, whether they are in or out of the context of Narco killings. There is something very wrong when half of the people leave the house expecting never to come home again.

In more ways than one, women and girls are seen as disposable if they do not conform to societal norms or simply if someone in their home feels like killing them that day for whatever reason. Articles and Youtube videos that touch upon the topic of violence against women are flooded with comments about why “she” deserved it or how there are so many violent women and “men also need protection.” 

There is always a reason why women and girls are exaggerating, lying, worthless — not victims but rather perpetrators. Women are deserving of protection “unless,” and the excuses are endless. These remain the greatest line of defense for the rampant femicide in Mexico because if it doesn’t exist, nothing needs to change. It is also emblematic of a country that has become a narco-state in many ways, enjoying its spoils and consequences. 

“We want justice, not repression.”

In Quintana Roo and Mexico as a whole, the work of mobilizing, educating, and protecting women sits entirely on the shoulders of the network of grassroots feminist collectives. The women in leadership roles work tirelessly to educate other women with the goal of protection and prevention. A stark and direct contrast to the more conceptual feminism of the US., in Mexico, feminism is less of an ideology and more of an action to be taken daily to prevent more senseless murders.

Several different local organizations within the state of Quintana Roo work separately within their areas of interest. These volunteer-run organizations center around anything from domestic violence prevention and revenge porn to talking about reproductive rights. And for statewide initiatives, local organizations join forces with the national organizations Red Feminista and Derechos Autónomos y Sexualidades (DAS) focused on pushing state or country-wide legislation. Most of the women in local collectives are generally also members of Red Feminista and DAS.

Cancun is a young and transient population, where many people come to make money and leave. Making information accessible and creating a safe space for the women of Cancun to talk about feminism is of the utmost importance in the fight for women’s rights. Fighting femicide with education is a top priority. When psychologists Fernanda Muñoz Castillo and Michelle Rozenmuter formed el Conversatorio Feminista de Cancun earlier this year, they did so intending to empower women and teach them about feminism and reproductive justice. 

“El Conversatorio has borne many friendships; it is a vast social fabric. Many ideas have been born, many proposals, many initiatives, thanks to the fact that if someone there has a little flame that she wants to light and proposes it in the group,” Rozenmuter said.

The women of these collectives are also the ones organizing, searching, investigating, and recording femicides. Many of the activists had bruises and scratches on their bodies from the November 9th altercation. And many of them have themselves been victims of sexual abuse/assault or have had friends and family killed. 

“There is this fear of being in the street,” says Tavizon. “As a psychologist, my job is to care for victims of violence and femicides. Authorities paint Cancun in a certain way like it’s safe, as if these things do not happen here. But yes, they happen, and yes, they also happen to tourists, it is something that is hardly mentioned, but it is a reality.”

The grim and harsh reality in Mexico is that there are so many complex barriers that stand in the way of gender equity, safety, and liberation for women. All the women we spoke to pointed to a society that encourages and permits systemic violence. Some have given their lives in this fight against corruption, sexism, violence, and intimidation, yet those who remain still show up every day. As Rozenmuter says,

“If there is something that I have to be thankful for, it is the sense of sisterhood and belonging that exists in the collective struggle. Understanding that it is not for me, it is for everyone, and that we will not rest until all our sisters live a dignified life, free of violence.”

Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller premieres on December 2nd at 9/8c on National Geographic.