Ana Sánchez Vázquez breaks apart a bunch of dried roses and scatters the petals over her daughter’s grave. The grass adorning the plot has been scorched by the sun and wind. A photograph of the 19-year-old Mexican woman, murdered in August, hangs from a metal cross, the smiling image already half faded. What has not been effaced are the words above the picture: “We demand justice for Noemi Haydée Hernández Sánchez.”
The young woman — raped and strangled, her hands bound, her body dumped face down by the side of a highway less than a fortnight after her birthday — was a victim of femicide, the intentional killing of women and girls because of their gender. No one has been convicted of her murder.
As violence in Mexico has surged, femicides have more than doubled in the past five years, to over 1,000 in 2019, according to interior ministry data. Based on death certificates, the state statistics institute Inegi, an autonomous institution, puts the surge even higher: since 2007, murders of women — not all officially classified as femicide — have more than tripled to an average of 10 a day in the face of what families and campaigners say is near total impunity.
Already in 2020 there have been more than 360 cases but two atrocities in February — the murder of Ingrid Escamilla, images of whose skinned and mutilated body were splashed in tabloid newspapers, and the abduction and murder of 7-year-old Fátima Aldrighett, her tortured body discovered in a plastic bag — have fuelled a tide of protest and fury that has put pressure on President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, already struggling with a faltering economy.
“It’s like this is in fashion”, says Ms Sánchez, “as if it were normal. There’s a lot of evil around . . . You want to burn things down and shout and scream but nothing will give us our daughters back.”
The issue has rocketed to the top of Mexico’s political agenda after a spate of protests including one in which masked women daubed graffiti on the walls of the National Palace and tried to set fire to a door while Mr López Obrador was holding a news conference inside.
The anger shows no sign of abating and “could become one of the Achille’s heels of AMLO’s government,” says Iván Castro, head of market research firm PQR Planning Quant, which found in a survey last week that twice as many women disapproved of the government than men.
The country’s first nationwide female labour strike is scheduled to take place on Monday, exhorting women to be conspicuous by their absence and disappearing from the economy — staying home from work and school, not going out, not doing household chores and not buying anything. Schools will stay open but many government departments, banks, offices and supermarkets have given women the choice of whether to work or not, promising there will be no penalties if they strike.
Mr López Obrador, a socially conservative 65-year-old nationalist who prides himself on his man-of-the-people background, has appeared out of touch on the issue even though more than half of all female voters in the 2018 election backed him.
When the subject was raised at a press conference in February — at which Mr López Obrador announced the funding of lottery prizes to match the value of the presidential plane — he snapped that he did not want femicide to dominate the day’s agenda and that it “has been greatly manipulated in the media”.
He has also sought to blame what he calls the neoliberal policies of his predecessors, which he argues are the root cause of Mexico’s economic and social ills, for the rise in femicides. A poll on March 2 in the Reforma newspaper suggested that the population disagrees. At least 60 per cent of respondents pointed to Mexico’s impunity for rising femicides and only a quarter agreed that neoliberalism is the underlying factor.
“He [López Obrador] is insensitive, he minimised the issue . . . It’s as if the [femicide] figures don’t speak for themselves,” says Norma Murillo, whose 24-year-old daughter, Valeria Jiménez Murillo, was brutally beaten before being shot and killed last June.
The young woman’s boyfriend, a municipal policeman, was arrested and is awaiting trial. But Ms Murillo fears that even if he is convicted, any sentence could be too lenient. “We need tougher penalties. You kill a woman here and nothing happens,” she says.
The deliberate killing of women is a global horror — the UN estimates that 87,000 women were murdered in 2017 and in Mexico the phenomenon is tragically not new. Ciudad Juárez, a manufacturing hub bordering El Paso in Texas, witnessed hundreds of killings of women, starting in 1993 and continuing into the 2000s, in which the victims often displayed signs of sexual violence. Ecatepec in south-central State of Mexico, and the coastal state of Veracruz, are other places that have also seen gruesome levels of femicides in recent years.
“Judicial ineffectiveness when dealing with individual cases of violence against women encourages an environment of impunity that facilitates and promotes the repetition of acts of violence,” wrote the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in a 2009 ruling on the murder of three women whose bodies were found in a field in Ciudad Juárez in 2001. The court added that it “sends a message that violence against women is tolerated and accepted as part of daily life”.
The ruling could have been written today: victims’ families and women’s groups say prosecutors are underfunded, overwhelmed and often not interested.
When Ms Sánchez went to the public prosecutor’s office in Tizayuca, in the state of Hidalgo, to report her daughter missing, she was told to “go and look for her — she’s probably still with her boyfriend in a hotel”. She adds: “It’s as if you’re the criminal, they interrogate you.”
Fátima Aldrighett’s relatives were told to wait 72 hours to see if she turned up before an investigation could begin — something the family say may have prevented the 7-year-old from being rescued alive. Mexico City Mayor Claudia Scheinbaum acknowledged what she called a “chain of institutional negligence” in Fátima’s case shortly before two people were arrested in connection with her murder. In the case of Ingrid Escamilla, her husband, blood streaking his torso and soaking his jeans, was arrested and confessed to killing her.
But in a country where distrust of the authorities and a justice system plagued by inefficiency and corruption translate into only 10 per cent of all crimes being reported, only 6 per cent being investigated and just 136 convictions for femicide in 2018, according to Inegi — most killers literally get away with murder.
“There are two enabling factors — Mexico’s utter impunity for homicides and the fact that it has long been known that there are contagion factors,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a security expert at the Brookings Institution. “The gruesomeness of murders in my opinion encourages more.”
Mr López Obrador insists that he is “working every day to guarantee peace” adding that “we are dealing with the problem of femicides”. But Olga Sánchez Cordero, interior minister, admitted that “we’ve come late” to the problem.
Compounding the difficulties, experts say prosecutors lack training in gender-based violence. This means that not all femicides are investigated as such. The number of femicides is dwarfed by overall homicides — Mexico hit a record total of 34,588 murders last year — almost 100 a day. Official data show that a key trigger for the rise in murders of both men and women was former President Felipe Calderón’s failed military war on drugs, launched in 2006.
“Since 2007, there has been a very clear increase of murders of women in public spaces, and murders in private spaces have also risen. In states which have seen more militarisation and more intense drug trafficking conflicts, the violent deaths of women have also increased,” says Tatiana Revilla, director of Gender Issues, a public policy think-tank. “I think the context we’re living in has an influence.”
Traditional male-female roles in a country in which more than four out of 10 women say they have suffered violence at the hands of their partner throughout their entire relationship is another factor.
“We’re stupid — we let ourselves be mistreated,” says Zenaida Chávez, whose daughter Linda Olguín Chávez went back to her abusive partner, only to be stabbed to death, her throat cut, in 2014. The couple’s one-year-old daughter, now brought up by Ms Chávez, was also beaten and nearly killed.
“I am sure femicides have risen because of a lack of response on the part of the authorities,” says one prominent activist who goes by the pseudonym Frida Guerrera. “For years they have allowed it to grow.”
A row erupted last month over how the crime of femicide — a designation currently based on seven factors, including the presence of sexual violence, a relationship with the perpetrator or the woman’s body being exhibited in public — should be categorised.
Alejandro Gertz Manero, Mexico’s attorney-general, caused outrage when his suggestion of treating femicide in the same way as homicide was interpreted in the media not, as he insisted, as a way to make it easier to prosecute crimes, but as an attempt to eliminate the concept of femicide altogether.
The government’s leaden handling of the subject deepened when Mr López Obrador unveiled a 10-point list outlining his stance on violence against women.
Feminists panned it for containing platitudes like “women should be respected”, “it’s cowardly to hurt a woman” and “no to hate crimes against women” without any concrete measures to rein in the femicide phenomenon.
“He hasn’t incorporated the chip of what gender violence is, he doesn’t understand,” says Ms Guerrera of a president who has promoted gender parity in his government but incensed women’s groups by cutting state aid to shelters for female victims of domestic violence and nurseries. “But I believe in the president . . . I think he’ll get there. We have to make him see it.”
Monday could be a turning point. After the traditional March 8 International Women’s Day march on Sunday, women are being urged to opt out of public life for a day under the banner “on the 9th, nobody moves — #A day without us”.
Women’s participation in the workforce in Mexico has been increasing in recent years. Yet only four out of 10 women or about 22m have jobs. And more than half of Mexico’s economy is in the informal sector — which employs more females than males — but where workers pay no taxes and a day without work means a day without pay.
Still, Mr Castro predicts “massive participation” even if so-called maquiladoras — factories making consumer goods for export, which are major employers of women — are not expected to join in.
Nevertheless, Carlos Urzúa, who resigned last year as finance minister and has emerged as a strident López Obrador critic, estimated in El Universal newspaper this month that the impact of the strike could cause a $1.5bn drop in gross domestic product.
“We’ve reached a limit — feminist groups and women won’t be quiet now,” says Ms Revilla. “The pressure will be there with every case until they manage to bring the numbers down.”
Mexico: a mounting death toll
Women killed in Mexico this year already
Of respondents to a March 2 poll believe Mexico’s culture of impunity is the main reason behind the rise in femicides
Overall number of murders in Mexico last year — almost 100 a day, a record
That would require earmarking a chunk of scant resources solely to investigating femicide cases, enforcing tougher sentences and investing in domestic violence prevention programmes, says Ms Felbab-Brown.
Homicide levels have stabilised since Mr López Obrador took office in December 2018 — something the president frequently refers to — but polls show crime and security remain key concerns as the government struggles to show results and the economy craters.
The president’s disapproval ratings have more than tripled to 28 per cent from a year ago, according to a new survey by pollsters Buendía & Laredo, but his support remains a highly respectable 62 per cent.
Ms Sánchez says she came under pressure from local authorities in her hometown of Tizayuca not to publicise her daughter’s death to avoid making officials look bad. Authorities could not be reached for comment.
Ms Sánchez put up a banner depicting Noemi at the town hall on Saturday. “I’m not looking for vengeance,” she says. “I’m looking for justice.”
Yet, the grisly death toll continues to rise. On a mural on a Mexico City wall that used to read, “Every day 6 women die because of gender violence crimes”, the 6 has been crossed out and replaced by a 10.