It was the bodies that first alerted society to the mass disappearance of young women in Mexico. Often half-buried, with signs of sexual torture, women’s discarded bodies became the macabre image of dusty border towns, and the defining feature of Ciudad Juárez–the sprawling metropolis across from El Paso.
The bodies made news, while it was easy to ignore the desperate pleas of families begging for information about missing daughters. Government officials and the media routinely did ignore them, but when the bodies accumulated and women’s rights defenders and families demanded answers, the world began to take notice.
More than twenty-five years since the femicides of Juarez came to light, today throughout Mexico women are disappeared and murdered on a daily basis–experts calculate that nine women a day are assassinated. Violence against women is far worse than it was in the early nineties. And even as the murder rates rise, disappearance has become an increasingly common phenomenon.
When a femicide is reported and the body is identified, the crime becomes part of the gruesome statistics, the family begins the rituals of grieving and in many cases of pressuring for elusive justice in a system where more than 90% of crimes go unpunished.
But absence doesn’t normally make for headlines, unless the victim comes from a wealthy and powerful family. Disappearance is a crime that is invisible to the general public. In recent years, it has become more common among organized crime and corrupt authorities. The government reports that there are currently more than 9,000 disappeared women on the national registry of missing persons and that figure is probably much higher due to underreporting. Most are very young–29.4% are between 14 and 17 years old, in contrast to men who aare more spread out over the age range and see peak disappearances at around 28.
The total reported disappearances in the country come to 40,180, according to official figures, making disappearances of women about a quarter of the total. As in any war, men make up the bulk of the combatants and the casualties. Mexico’s war on drugs has been a deadly, if non-conventional, war since first launched by then-President Felipe Calderón in December of 2006 and backed up by the U.S. government the following year through the Merida Initiative security aid package. Since then, violence in many forms and violation of human rights have soared
But despite not being the majority in numbers, the specific forms of disappearance of women has a targeted impact on communities and on women’s lives. Women, especially young women, are more often disappeared in “safe” civilian contexts, such as schoolyards, walking along streets or in public parks. Recently there has been a spate of reports of attempted kidnappings in the metro. This hammers in the message that women are at risk at all times, in all contexts. It enforces the reign of terror that patriarchy depends on.
The forms of forced disappearance of women also reflect ugly truths about contemporary Mexican society and the powerful patriarchal norms that make it possible to disappear women under the social radar, without consequences and for purposes that have everything to do with their gender.
Carolina Hernandez’s daughter, Beatriz Rocha, didn’t came home from high school on Aug. 9, 2013. As any mother would, she panicked and immediately reported her daughter missing. The authorities dallied so, frantic, she launched her own investigation.
Carolina found clues to her daughter’s sudden disappearance. On Beatriz’s cell phone—a gift from the alleged trafficker– and Facebook, she discovered conversations with a strange man who said he loved her, that he’d take her to Europe and shower her with expensive presents. “I found the man who hooked her through Facebook. He sent her a smart phone. He gave her everything, he actually made her fall in love with him,” she relates.
“What’s happening is very serious. It destroys families. It changes your life, from one minute to the next, to the degree that you don’t know how you’re going to go on,” Carolina told me. But she has gone on, to become a national spokesperson, educator and organizer against human trafficking.
Trafficking is just one of many reasons women are disappeared. The reasons and the methods are changing in the context of Mexico’s war. Elvira Madrid, leader of Mexico’s national sex workers organization, warns against assuming all disappearances are due to trafficking. She notes that many times women are kidnapped or lured into cartels, raped and killed.
Some are victims of serial killers, some are migrants separated from their families, some are disappeared and killed to send threats to society and enforce certain behaviors. Some are punished for speaking out or defending rights. Movements of families of the disappeared have taken to searching for remains even as they retain hope of finding loved ones alive.
There is no map of the multiple motives and modus operandi of the crime of forced disappearance of women because there are so few reliable investigations. And in a macho society where women’s lives, and especially poor or indigenous women’s lives, are given little value, the social norms encourage oblivion and normalization of crimes of violence against women. Authorities bury the issue of disappearance, along with the corpses hidden in landscapes across the country.
Mexico has an “amber alert” to trace disappeared persons and a gender alert that is activated when a large number of crimes of violence against women are registered. They bring more public attention to the problem, but have done little to solve cases.
Mostly, it’s the mothers who solve the cases. The vast majority of the people who search for loved ones are women–in many organizations upwards of 80%. They give up their normal lives, destroyed forever by the disappearance, to dedicate themselves to searching. They have organized scores of local collectives and several national organizations to search, pressure authorities, address causes and change laws.
When a woman first goes missing, the victim’s family is told to wait, that their daughter probably “ran off with her boyfriend” or “was involved in something” (as if she deserved what she got). They sit for hours in police stations to be told there has been no progress on their case. They lobby for changes in the laws only to see the laws broken by the very people whose job it is to enforce them.
The new government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has so far been more responsive to the problem than the old ones, but it is far from making a dent in existing cases and much less preventing disappearance. The mounting case files on women reported as disappeared and the mounting bodies unidentified in morgues and clandestine graves might never get matched up. Government officials show indifference at best, and scorn or complicity in many cases when it comes to doing the forensic work necessary to identifying victims and bringing them home to their families suffering the uncertainty of disappearance.
In Mexico, women’s bodies are the medium for marking territory in a war that has, in an oft-repeated phrase, turned the country into a clandestine cemetery. Women’s bodies are secretly buried in remote hillsides, exploited for sex and labor, used to signal domination by security forces or violent partners, murdered to sow fear in their communities or converted into the coin of brutal acts of provocation and revenge between cartels. There is no real distinction between the patriarchal violence of the armed forces and the patriarchal violence of organized crime. Alma Gomez of the Center for the Human Rights of Women in Chihuahua, one of Mexico’s most dangerous states for women, stated, “Women are the invisible victims. We are always at risk in this military and police occupation. We are the spoils of war in a war we didn’t ask for and we don’t want.”