In Mexico 'you can die just for being a woman'

By Marie Hibon

Figures show that in the month of January more than ten women a day were murdered in Mexico. In some areas of the country, say women's rights campaigners, women are disposed of like “a piece of garbage”. Meanwhile to the dismay of local associations the new left-wing government in the country is not treating the issue as a priority. Marie Hibon reports on the appalling situation facing many women in Mexico.

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When the man who was smoking a cigarette at the exit of the metro station grabbed her backpack, Zúe Valenzuela's first thought was that it was an attempt to rob her. But when he started to drag her by force to a car with two men in it, the 30-year-old lawyer really started to panic. “I threw myself to the ground and struggled and cried out,” she recalls. “A young man who was passing came up. Then my attacker said: 'I know her, she's just having a anger attack. Come on, we're going home!” Seeing the panic on my face the young man called doormen on the street for help and my attacker fled,” says Zúe Valenzuela.

The events took place on January 15th 2019 at around 10.30pm at the metro station at Coyoacán, a peaceful residential area in the south of Mexico City. The following month 48 people reported attempted kidnaps, several of which involved the same method and which become known in the Mexican media as the Calmate mi Amor (“Calm yourself my love”) kidnapping attempts.

This wave of complaints about attempted kidnapping in Mexico's capital city is just the latest manifestation of a security climate for women that has just carried on getting worse in Mexico. Government figures showed that nearly 3,600 women were killed in the country in 2018, a rise of 65% compared with 2015.

Yet the recognition of femicides – murders where women are killed because of their gender – remains patchy in Mexico. So in 2018, out of the total number women who were killed in the country, just 861 have been classified as femicides in the official statistics. That is still two women killed every day because they are a woman. However, civic groups have come up with their own alarming statistics: in a report in late 2017 the United Nations Women organisation says there are on average more than seven femicides a day in the country.

In April 2013 a man displays the photos of women who have died or disappeared in Ecatepec, Mexico. © Henry Romero (Reuters) In April 2013 a man displays the photos of women who have died or disappeared in Ecatepec, Mexico. © Henry Romero (Reuters)
One of the reasons for the gap between the figures is the floating interpretation of the legal concept of femicide in Mexico. Out of the 32 states in Mexico, 12 define the term in a less inclusive way than is the case at federal level and in two of them the crime of femicide is completely absent from the statute books.

Even in those areas that do recognise the crime, the protocols that stem from it are far from being applied systematically. When Zúe Valenzuela went to make a complaint after the attempt to kidnap her the authorities originally told her that “if nothing had been stolen and if I was safe and sound then there was nothing to report”.

Under pressure, the authorities eventually opened a file for “attempted theft”. “I didn't want to go there [to the authorities] because I knew very well how it would go,” says the young lawyer. “They were insistent about asking me how I was dressed and what time it was at the time of the events. I was alone in a waiting room with two of the suspects. During the physical examination the doctor gave her verdict without having touched me.”

Though by profession she is a human rights lawyer, Zúe Valenzuela does not now recommend a woman going to report such crimes. “There's no point, and it's extremely tough to go through,” she says. “You're the victim and it's you that they blame.”

Several women who have spoken about their experiences on social media have indeed not reported the incidents to the authorities. This initially allowed the city authorities to deny the existence of a problem, as they argued in certain cases that they had no knowledge of any formal complaints. “Mexico City is portrayed – wrongly – as a secure bubble in the middle of a violent country,” says Zúe Valenzuela. “I myself did not think I was someone to whom that could happen.” She says that Mexico City is in reality a “mirror of the country. If something isn't right in the capital it means the whole of Mexico has a problem.”

Indeed, Estado de México, the state which forms an industrial belt around the capital and which has a population of 16 million, has now taken over from Ciudad Juárez - where many women were killed in the 1990s – as the place where most femicides occur in the country. One town in particular, Ecatepec de Morelos, has been described in the local press as the “new capital of femicides”.

This giant dormitory town in the suburbs of Mexico City suffers from poverty, a loss of public services and, as a result, from an epidemic of violence. A recent survey suggests that 93.4% of locals do not feel safe.

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