Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 506, 27 April 2022

Mexico: Protests over continuing femicides
Sejal Sharma

In the news

On 22 April, the body of an 18-year-old girl, Debanhi Escobar, was found submerged in a cistern outside a motel in the northern territory of Nuevo Leon. Debanhi had been reported missing since 9 April, when she did not return home after a party. The corpse was found by employees at the motel despite massive police searches in and around the area consistently for two weeks. The incident is the latest in a series of disappearances of women and girls followed by death. Bodies of five other girls who were reported missing were found during the past four months while searching for Escobar.  

On 22 April, in a morning press conference, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said: "I want to send a hug and my condolences to the young woman's family," Obrador added. "These sad things are happening everywhere, in almost every state…Although it is up to the state government, which is already dealing with it, we are expressing our desire that what happened be clarified and without bringing forward trials, to assist in the investigation if requested by the government of Nuevo León."

On 24 April, hundreds of women took to the streets demanding justice for the latest victims of Mexico's endemic gender violence. The protestors blocked a highway in Monterrey and demanded the resignation of the state secretary of Security Aldo Fasci. Debanhi's disappearance followed a series of incidents in Nuevo Leon where more than 52 women have disappeared this year, with 20 women disappearing this month alone. General attorney Gustavo Adolfo Guerrero, in a video conference, said: "Scientific proof allowed us to learn that Debanhi Susana Escobar's cause of death was a deep concussion to her head, and we will not discard any line of investigation." Subsequently, an investigation was being conducted for a homicide.

Issues at large

First, the intensity of the problem. Statistics estimate that ten women are murdered every day in Mexico. Even though the country saw a 3.6 per cent fall in its notoriously high homicide rates, last year, femicides rose by 2.7 per cent. The staggering numbers of femicide preceded by disappearances shed light on the broader crisis of gender violence in the country. According to Federal Crime Statistics, nearly 25,000 women are missing, while 155 femicides have been reported in the first two months of this year. In 2021, the number of femicides registered stood at 1,004 – more than a 145 per cent increase since 2015, when the country first started collecting data.

Second, the failure of legislation. The most glaring issue in Mexico regarding gender violence is the ambiguity surrounding the laws defining femicide. Only 13 out of the 32 states have criminalized femicide, addition to which the procedure for prosecuting the crime varies greatly across states. Consequently, perpetrators cannot be charged with femicide, and without its criminalization, the cases are seldom charged even with homicide. The investigations are often inconsistent, delayed and negligent, with authorities losing evidence and all lines of inquiry not investigated. Mexico lacks a comprehensive institutionalized policy for safeguarding women against these crimes and overlooks the gendered perspective implied while executing the crime.

Third, the culture of impunity and machismo. Gender roles and dynamics in Mexico follow a patriarchal structure which often contributes to violence against women. The mischaracterization of violence is rampant on account of sexist societal attitudes. In effect, 93 per cent of crimes go unreported or are not investigated as femicides and end up being unaccounted for years. Authorities often stigmatize women for the violence they undergo, adding to systemic impunity and underreporting of cases. Thus, for women with no institutional support or political sway, investigation and prosecution of crimes follow a grim trend.

Fourth, links between femicide and organized crime. The number of women being murdered in Mexico has risen sharply over the last decade amid the country's war on drugs. According to the National Map of Femicides in Mexico, 63 per cent of the 405 cases it tracked were linked with organized crime. Border states like Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and Morelos, with a heavy presence of organized crime gangs and military, have registered the country's highest femicide rates. In recent times, cartels have increasingly used women as "weapons of war" by sending messages to rival gangs or the authorities. Victims who have links to organized crimes are often not registered by the State, a similar trend in accounting for migrant women. As migration increases in Mexico as people try to escape the violence, statistics estimate that six out of every ten women migrating may be a victim of sexual assault or violence leading to death.

In perspective

First a feminist approach in a disenfranchised state. In 2020, Mexico became the first Latin American and global south country to implement a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP). However, the drastic surge in the persistent gender violence in the country speaks of a tokenistic representation of women on the international level. The FFP promises intersectional feminism and gender equality in politics; however, the domestic politics of the Obrador government contradict this stance. As emergency calls for violence increased during the pandemic, Obrador introduced budget cuts to women's shelters and the federal women's institute. Additionally, the president proposed withdrawing state funding for women's shelters operated by NGOs, further suggesting that women fleeing violence could be given cash payments instead. With the federal government constantly undermining women's rights and well-being, the goal of gender equality in Mexico seems like a long way to go.

Second, response to women's movements. The persistence of femicides across Mexico despite greater visibility and social condemnation through campaigns such as "Ni Una Mas" or the glitter revolution signal a catastrophic failure of governmental and societal institutions. The government's perceived indifference towards the matter and failure to address gender-based violence are reflected in the lack of access to justice for women at the local and federal levels. Furthermore, president Obrador has repeatedly clashed with the feminist movements, viewing them as political threats from his conservative rivals.

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