Warning: This story includes graphic details of violence which some readers may find upsetting.
On 2nd September, Marcela Alemán, the mother of a four-year-old girl who was sexually abused in San Luis Potosí, tied herself to a chair for more than 12 hours inside Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission building. Alemán occupied the offices after a meeting with the human rights ombudsman, where her demand for the detention of her daughter’s abusers yielded no real support. Alemán isn’t alone in her struggle; her daughter is among the one in four girls and one in five women who face sexual violence in a country where 10 women are murdered every day.
Erika Martinez arrived at Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission the following day along with local activists to support Alemán, carrying photos of her young daughter, who at seven-years-old was sexually abused by a family member. For three years, Martinez has advocated for her daughter, demanding the detention of the perpetrator, but has only been met with institutional indifference and violence. A year after filing the criminal complaint, and still not detained by authorities, the alleged abuser attacked Martinez, fracturing her nose and continuing to harass her. Alemán ended the sit-in and eventually left the building after reaching an agreement with authorities on her demands but on 4th September, Martinez, along with a handful of activists from feminist collectives including Mexico’s Ni Una Menos and the Bloque Negro (or Black Block), decided to seize control of the human rights commission office. Having read their list of demands, they entered peacefully asking workers to vacate the building and the occupation grew to include several dozen activists and families. For Martinez, occupying the human rights commission would apply pressure to a government reluctant to confront a country in the throes of a gender violence crisis.
"I was sick of waiting for answers from institutions that never came,” Martinez told Refinery29. It’s been nearly three months since activists first occupied the building, and although only a few dozen women and children remain, Martinez said she plans to stay until all demands are met, including a commitment by the federal government to eradicate gender violence in the country. “We need authorities to meaningfully enforce laws already put in place against gender violence,” she added.
Mexico has struggled with a femicide epidemic for decades, and every year an interminable series of vicious murders of young girls and women shakes the country. In February, the murder of 25-year-old Ingrid Escamilla in Mexico City shocked the country after pictures of her skinned body appeared on the front page of a local paper and on social media. A week after Escamilla’s murder, Fátima Cecilia Aldrighett Antón, a 7-year-old girl, was found dead inside a plastic bag after she was kidnapped outside of her school and sexually assaulted. These are just two stories from ongoing horrific murders that have sparked protests across the country and fuelled discontent among women exasperated by the femicide crisis that makes every day a struggle for survival.
Among the women that joined the occupation was Yesenia Zamudio, mother of 19-year-old María de Jesús “Marichuy” Jaimes Zamudio, a Mexico City university student who died after falling from a fifth floor window in 2016. Her death was classified as a femicide, and Zamudio says Marichuy was murdered.
“What I know now, from the experts’ analyses and investigations, is that Mary was a victim of gender-based violence. She was assaulted,” Zamudio said in an interview earlier this year. “She fell. No one helped her. Then, they left her to bleed out.” Mexican authorities haven’t made arrests in connection with Jaimes Zaumudio’s death, while Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission found that the case was poorly investigated. Zamudio, leader of the Ni Una Menos group, has since left the occupation after disagreements with Bloque Negro about the administration of donations and leadership of the action.
Femicides in Mexico have increased by 145% in the last five years, and only about 8 percent of cases get prosecuted. Under a sweeping gender law passed in 2007, every murder of a woman must be investigated as a femicide and officials must investigate for circumstances that include sexual violence, domestic violence, and whether the victim’s body was exposed or displayed in public. Femicide is a crime in Mexico that carries a 45- to 65- year prison sentence. The federal penal code also says any public servant that delays or hinders the prosecution or administration of justice will be sentenced to three to eight years in prison. This law also extends protections to women and girls that experience sexual violence. But in practice, more than 90 percent of all crimes and about half of femicides last year were unsolved, according to a study released this month.
"Many women have suffered violence, they have followed the legal channels, but they also get tired. They are not listened to. They are not attended to. Their demands are ignored,” says María Salguero, creator of the National Map of Femicides in Mexico database.
Using news alerts and local news sources for reports of femicides, Salguero started the database four years ago, and it has since become an important source for understanding the scale of femicide in the country. From her findings, Salguero says gender violence has only gotten worse. “When I started, between six to seven women a day were murdered according to official figures and now it's almost 11. The violence has grown."
Though Mexico has passed laws against gender violence, Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has downplayed the severity of the crisis in recent months as women and relatives of victims grow impatient with the country's failure to adequately address gender violence. As violence against women has surged, Obrador has slashed the budgets of agencies charged with addressing gender violence. The government administered a 75% budget cut this year for the National Institute for Women, which is responsible for promoting gender equality in the country. Lopez Obrador has also repeatedly minimised the issue of gender-based violence. In a press conference earlier this year, he said that 90% of calls to the emergency services over domestic violence were “false.” In a press conference in July, when asked about the budget cuts in light of the femicides, Lopez Obrador has said that "women in Mexico have never been so protected." When asked about the brutal murder of seven-year-old Fátima Cecilia Aldrighett Antón, Lopez Obrador blamed femicides on what he called “neoliberal policies,” a response that garnered frustration from feminists who consider the administration insensitive and condescending in the face of femicide.
Martinez echoes other activists who have said government inaction is an open invitation for more violence. “It’s easy for them to ignore us, to silence us, to say victims of gender violence don’t exist, but this leads to more violence,” she said. “Because abusers see the president himself opening a door, by ignoring the severity of femicide statistics and of the violence, who’s to say the government will do anything to stop it?”
Mexico’s inadequate response to rising femicides has led to a surge in protests against gender violence this year. On March 8, for International Women’s Day, at least 80,000 women in Mexico City joined together to demand an end to gender violence. Feminist collective Brujas del Mar called for a national strike on March 9, and hundreds of thousands of women across sectors stayed home to protest violence against women. Protests, including a march for the legalisation of abortion in September and the occupation of the human rights commission building, have continued during the coronavirus pandemic. For Dia de Muertos (or Day of the Dead) protestors, including many relatives, mounted altars calling attention to femicide throughout the country — adding an entirely new conversation to the traditional holiday.
“These actions and marches are a reflection that we’ve had enough."
This surge of protests have been met with police repression in various Mexican cities. The occupation inspired activists in other cities to take similar actions, but in nearby Ecatepec in Mexico State, activists were violently evicted and harassed by police. Earlier this month, police opened fire on protesters at Cancún’s City Hall during a demonstration against the murder of 20-year-old Bianca “Alexis” Lorenzana. Two journalists suffered gun wounds and some protesters were beaten by the police. Silvia C., a member of various feminist organisations in Cancún, was at the protest and recalls the terror of having to flee when shooting ensued. "We went to ask for justice and they welcomed us with bullets,” said Silvia.
"The repressions of the demonstrations and protests of women have been increasing in their brutality and forms of repression," she adds. "It’s not by chance that this is just another form of institutional violence against women."
In Mexico City, Salguero said the occupation of the human rights commission is a condemnation against institutional inaction in the face of intensified gender violence. “The takeover of the CNDH is historic because who should be protecting women has failed to do so,” said Salguero.
Having emerged spontaneously thanks to the action of a small group of relatives of gender violence victims, the occupation has since dwindled in numbers because of rifts and internal disputes among groups. In October, Bloque Negro said they no longer welcomed transgender women, and LGBTQ+ organisations publicly withdrew their support. Representatives from the human rights commission have met with Martinez and other activists to negotiate an end of the occupation, promising to turn the building into an institute for women, but weeks have passed since they’ve last communicated with officials. While officials seem to cater empty promises, and rifts emerged among protestors, the occupation reflected the frustration of living in a country where gender violence is perpetuated with impunity.
Relatives of gender violence victims and feminists continue to demand action from a government that so far has fallen short to provide any justice through the legal system. “The violence is unstoppable,” says Salguero. “I can’t go one day without receiving news about a femicide. The government says it’s protecting women while femicide numbers spike. We are simply demanding that the law be followed. We’re not asking for special treatment.”
Martinez said she doesn’t plan to rest until there’s justice for victims of gender violence. "Justice for me previously meant seeing the person who harmed my daughter, who stole her childhood, imprisoned. But today, after three years of fighting, the meaning of justice has changed for me,” she said on her 77th day in the occupation. “Justice is seeing all women have lives free from violence.”