A woman at a march in Mexico City, with "Don't kill me!" painted on her back. Photo by Madeleine Wattenbarger.
Dispatches, Features, Mexico, North America

Tired of Empty Promises, Mexican Women Call on Government to End Violence

March 3, 2020 By estefania

The brutal murder of 25-year-old Ingrid Escamilla on February 9 in Mexico City set off a wave of ongoing protests. Officials from the Mexico City public prosecutor’s office leaked photos of Escamilla’s dismembered body to the press. Nota Roja tabloids, which cover crime stories in grisly detail, published the photos soon after. A 46-year-old man was arrested for the crime.

Days later, dozens of women called for a protest outside the National Palace where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador holds his morning press conferences. The women demanded the Mexico City authorities and the president sanction those responsible for leaking the photographs of Ingrid’s cadaver, and take action to prevent femicides.

The following day, another femicide came to light. Fátima Cecilia Aldrighetti, seven, from Mexico City, was found murdered after several days missing.

Justice for Ingrid and Fátima goes far beyond individual perpetrators. The cases have proven in the eyes of many feminists and victims’ family members that the local and national government response is insufficient and negligent in facing the crisis of violence unfolding in Mexico.

“Governments come and go, and they never get to the bottom of the issue. That’s why the number (of murders) has gone up in the last ten years,” says María de la Luz Estrada, Coordinator at the National Citizen Observatory for Femicide (OCNF).  “They have no comprehensive policies.”

Each day, an average of 10.5 women are murdered in Mexico. According to the OCNF, in 2019, there were 3,825 registered assassinations of women, of which 1,006 have been investigated as femicides. By comparison, there were 425 femicides investigated in 2015.

“The thing is that women were never a priority for the government,” says Estrada. She points to how the National Development Plan advocates morals and ethics to repair Mexico’s social fabric. But meanwhile, the federal government has cut funding for women’s programs.

Estrada emphasized that “there’s no need to invent anything” to put the brakes on gender violence in Mexico; the government has only to implement existing public policies and sanction those civil servants who do not comply.

Women march in Mexico City with purple crosses to signify femicides. Photo by Madeleine Wattenbarger.

Government Omissions

In his press conference on Fátima Cecilia’s murder, President López Obrador stated that homicides are the result of a neoliberal breakdown of social norms. He avoided the word “femicide” altogether. In that same conference, the president asked feminist protestors, who had just spray painted “México feminicida” on the Palace walls, to refrain from painting graffiti.

Asked what he is doing to stop  violence against women, he said that he “works every day” to combat violence in general. He later gave a moralizing speech in which he persistently avoided the word “femicide” and made a point to underscore the problem of violence against both men and women.

His listing of moral rules included comments that assaulting a woman was “cowardice,” without noting that assault is also a crime. “Women should be respected,” he continued, as though giving a religious sermon.

In the hours following López Obrador’s press conference, the women who spray-painted the presidential palace called for another protest, this time in front of the offices of the La Prensa newspaper in Mexico City. La Prensa published leaked photographs of Ingrid Escamilla’s cadaver on its front page.

The feminist protesters arrived to find rows of policemen who sprayed the crowd with gas. Protestors, as well as journalists and witnesses surrounding the Prensa offices felt the effects of the gas. Days later, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum denied that the police had such equipment despite dozens of videos documenting the use of gas.

On February 24, two more bodies of murdered women were found in Ecatepec, 45 minutes outside Mexico City. Along with Toluca and Nezahualcóyotl, Ecatepec is one of the most dangerous municipalities for women, infamous for femicides and kidnappings. The government declared a Gender Violence Alert for Ecatepec and 11 other State of Mexico municipalities in 2015.

Days after the new femicides came to light, the state governor, Alfredo del Mazo, distributed cards at a public event to pay women for housework in an initiative known as “salario rosa,” or pink salary. As is customary in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which includes ex-president Enrique Peña Nieto, various social media accounts later published photographs of Alfredo del Mazo congratulating women in order to improve his image. Two new hashtags appeared on Twitter: #GobernadorDeLasMujeres (Governor for Women) and #MujeresFuertesSalarioRosa (Strong Women Pink Salary). However, despite the publicity, del Mazo did not take the opportunity to comment on the femicides in Ecatepec.

Moral Values

“The Mexican government does not have to reinvent the wheel or construct new mechanisms. There is a robust normative framework in Mexico with more than six judicial instruments,” says Aimée Vega, coordinator of the Feminist Research Program at the Center for Interdisciplinary Science and Humanities Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She highlighted the General Law for Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence, ratified in 2007.

That law establishes a clear set of mechanisms that guarantee attention, prevention, sanction and eradication of femicide, and other kinds of violence against women.

Vega warns that inaction will lead to an increase of femicides throughout the country. She says these murders are avoidable if the state chooses to activate established mechanisms. She points to the judicial and legislative powers, which approved a law increasing the sentence for femicides from 60 to 65 years of prison in the wake of Ingrid Escamilla’s murder.

“What we are saying is that punitive sanctions will not resolve anything. We need a holistic change in the state structure. But that’s what the government fears: an internal purge,” says Vega.

The feminist anthropologist Marcela Lagarde was the first to translate the English word femicide to Spanish as feminicidio. Diana Russell coined the term in 1967, defining it as the murder of a woman or girl motivated by gender and perpetrated by a man. The word did not exist in Spanish until Lagarde used to analyze the violence against women in Ciudad Juárez, the city whose femicide cases shocked the world.

Regarding López Obrador’s emphasis on moral values, Marcela Lagarde stated that gender inequality is structural. Morality is a topic to be contemplated after.

“So please do not come to tell us that starting tomorrow, not even very soon, that we are going to change moral values and suddenly build good habits,” Lagarde said in response to López Obrador’s press conference. “It’s the opposite: First, we build good habits, and from then on, we can develop not just a set of morals or ethics to live freely, but also a structure that safeguards equality and personal growth.”

Feminist Mobilization

Andrés Manuel López Obrador has also reiterated that, behind the feminist protests, there is some hidden agenda or opposition interference. Most of the protests in Mexico City and Mexico State have been organized by feminist collectives demanding justice for femicides and condemnation of the assaults they experience in schools and universities.

In the buildup to March 8, International Women’s Day, these anti-femicide activists have begun organizing massive protests throughout the country. For the first time, they are planning a national strike for the following day.

Carmen Aristegui, a journalist famous for her criticisms of past governments, spoke about the protests on her radio show on February 21. She clarified that the actions, specifically the national strike planned for March 9, are not an attack on the government or an action orchestrated by right-wing actors.

María de la Luz Estrada, in answering the President’s press conference accusations, notes that the National Citizen Observatory for Femicide had already made demands to past governments whose inaction only aggravated the femicide crisis in Mexico.

“The problem of femicide is not new. It didn’t appear yesterday, or even recently, but we have always had the expectation that we’d be listened to,” says Estrada. “What we cannot allow this government to do, given that it’s a government of transformation, is to leave women out. We cannot go backward.”

Women in the Media

Women journalists have also rebuked López Obrador. They are demanding higher standards in the media outlets that employ them. Since 2019, we as women reporters have begun to wonder: How can we do our work and inform people if we ourselves face harassment and assault in the workplace?

On February 23, Nancy Flores reported that an influential radio presenter, Oscar Mario Beteta, called her an “old bitch” when she asked to interview him concerning his close relationship with ex-president Enrique Peña Nieto.

And it’s not just the insults: Various female journalists have discovered that our colleagues, fellow journalists, editors, and photographers, show little concern about publishing photographs of assassinated women. They wouldn’t hesitate to publish even if the photographs were of us. All for the scoop. Some Mexican women photographers recently reflected on their role and the low journalistic value of macabre photographs. Publishing these images hinges on the antiquated idea that a bloody front page is the only way to show the public how bad things are for women.

“The social function of our work is not to show an empty reality, without positionality, but instead to speak out against an omissive, deficient, capitalist system that profits off the naturalization of violence and exploitation,” wrote photojournalist Greta Rico in Pie de Página, in response to the Ingrid Escamilla case.

After Ingrid’s femicide, internet users began filling their feeds with beautiful photographs of landscapes, animals, flowers, and illustrations, with the hashtag #IngridEscamilla, so that the search results for her name would highlight beauty rather than horror.

The women who protested in their schools against violence, assaults, and criminal impunity, have asked the media to improve their coverage. They’ve asked for empathy and that journalists no longer focus on the graffiti and the destruction that take place during protests. They’ve asked instead that journalists look into their complaints, which went unheard for so long that protest became the only way to ensure that everyone would listen.

Periodistas Unidas Mexicanas, Mexican Women Journalists United, is an organization that emerged in 2019 and has joined with other female journalists in the fight to end machismo in editorial offices and sexism in press coverage. We want more women filming videos and more women in the streets, looking for new stories. We want less of the revictimization that the media perpetuates while documenting a femicide. We don’t want to repeat the oldest story told about women: that we were looking for all of the bad things that happen to us, that we provoked the violence or that somehow we were asking for it.

This article is co-published with the North America Conference on Latin America.