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Laura Carlsen: The incidence of violence against women in Mexico has become an epidemic—one that cuts across class and regions. The official numbers hide the real scope of the problem. Many victims never report the crimes, out of fear or shame. And government officials often cover up the violence to avoid the negative image and sometimes to actively protect the guilty.
Interview From Mexico spoke with Luz Estrada Mendoza about violence against women and “gender alerts” in the country. Luz is the director of the National Citizen Observatory on Femicides and runs the Program on Gender Violence and Human Rights, of Catholics for the Right to Decide. She’s been a prominent researcher and organizer against gender violence for more than a decade.
Laura Carlsen (LC)
Luz Estrada Mendoza (LEM)
LC: Luz, let’s start with an overview. How would you characterize gender violence in Mexico today?
LEM: The situation of violence against women in Mexico is very serious. The last United Nations report shows that since 2007 there was an increase of more than sixty percent in assassinations of women in the country, of assassinations where there are signs of discrimination against women. There are also many reports of sexual violence. Each year more than 15,000 rape reports are registered, and this doesn’t reflect the reality since sexual violence is the least reported in the country. We’ve documented more than 58,000 cases of complaints of domestic violence and only in 7 percent have the authorities given some measure of protection to the women.
As you can see in Mexico the situation is increasingly serious. We’re documenting greater insecurity and community violence. Women leaving their homes sometimes never return, many are murdered or disappeared.
LC: How do these high levels of gender violence affect the exercise of women’s rights in general?
LEM: According to Recommendation Nineteen of the Committee to Eradicate all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), violence cancels out all rights, because violence is the most extreme way of subordinating a woman.
What good is it to advance in political rights, civil rights and other educational rights when women’s physical integrity is violated? So it cancels out their freedoms because it’s a form of controlling the woman with violence, and it eliminates their possibilities to develop as a woman.
LC: What other rights in particular are at risk in situations of violence?
LEM: We see this with women’s basic freedoms — their right to freedom to decide when they want to participate or to work. Often it’s when their partners don’t want to let women develop in other areas that these freedoms are denied–they’re prohibited from working and so on. So the issue of basic freedoms is very important.
Other rights that are denied are their rights to their sexuality. Because attacks in the case of sexual violence deny their right to decide who they want to have sexual relations with or not. Today in Mexico we are documenting kidnappings called “pleasure kidnappings” in Guerrero and in northern Mexico, where if some member of organized crime decides he wants a certain woman, she is abducted, sexually abused and if she´s lucky, she´s left alive.
LC: We know, of course, that violence against women is not a problem only in Mexico. How does Mexico compare to other countries, for example, its neighbors the United States or Central America?
LEM: Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador are the top three countries in the world for
violent crimes committed by organized crime. We don’t see this in Nicaragua, where the violence is concentrated more in domestic violence. But Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala are the three top countries with an elevated level of community violence.
LC: Why the surge in violence against women recently?
LEM: This is something that has become common in recent years where organized crime operates. Women are the most vulnerable because members of organized crime consider it their right to violate our physical integrity, and even murder women.
We’ve been documenting why this happens and we began meeting with Guatemala and El Salvador to talk about what we have in common in the violence. We began to identify organized crime as a serious factor that puts women’s lives at risk and we saw that the authorities haven’t done anything to keep this problem from growing, because the cases are left in impunity and they don’t even investigate them.
LC: So the lack of justice in these three countries also has a lot to do with the explosion of violence.
LEM: Yes, because when the cases aren’t investigated it’s a message that in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador you can murder women and in the end the authorities — by commission or omission — are not investigating the cases, and that generates the pattern of impunity that the Interamerican Human Rights Court has established: that when cases are not investigated it causes crimes to be repeated. It makes it very difficult to resolve the problem when it is not being addressed at the root.
LC: How do you think Mexican culture and social norms contribute to the on-going problem of violence against women?
LEM: In Mexico we have and we continue to reproduce a culture of discrimination where women are seen as second-class citizens and not as people who have rights. They are seen as objects to possess, to dominate, to control. So we live in a culture that is very macho, very misogynist, and that is reproduced in all the education, religious and community institutions. Where women are considered objects. Where they are considered to lack the capacity to decide over their own lives.
This is reflected in the moment when a man thinks he has the right to take the life of a woman–because she didn’t want to continue in the relationship, or because he wanted to have sexual relations by force and the woman didn’t want to. So he submits her by force and murders her.
It’s very complicated that on the one hand you have a completely discriminatory society, and on the other, a lack of access to justice, and these two factors mean that violence against women continues to be repeated in a constant and even growing manner.
LC: The Mexican government has signed many international conventions against violence against women and, since 2007, has a National Law to guarantee women a life free of violence. Have these laws simply not worked and if so why not?
LEM: That’s right — Mexico has signed the conventions on the human rights of women and we have laws and regulations. The problem is that they are not implemented in Mexico.
Our organizations have taken on the task of monitoring how public policy is applied, what programs and actions are positively affecting women’s lives. And we realized that the authorities are not applying these measures, that they have the programs but in reality they are not moving to eradicate, prevent or attend to violence against women.
We see this, for example, in the measure called “protection orders” in cases of domestic violence. This is the easiest type of violence for the state to prevent. But they don’t give out orders to women. There are states where, for example, in the state of Morelos they haven’t given out a single protection order, even though domestic violence in Mexico is 30 percent of all violence experienced and this form of protection is the most immediate means available to prevent more attacks from a spouse or boyfriend, or even to prevent being murdered. But the authorities do not take it into consideration and often do not understand the violence that women suffer.
LC: One of the specific instruments included in that law is called the gender violence alert. Can you explain to us what a gender violence alert is, and how it is designed to work?
LEM: The Gender Violence Alert in Mexico is part of what the Mexican government announced in the “Law for Access of All Women to a Life Free of Violence”. It is a collective mechanism of protection. It’s a corrective measure because is for when the public policies are not having an impact to prevent the violence.
The precedent is Ciudad Juarez. In Ciudad Juarez, the failure to take real measures allowed the problem to grow, and within society a serious situation emerged of lack of control over violence against women. So this collective mechanism of protection was created to generate immediate actions to coordinate among local and federal authorities to eradicate violence when the life and safety of women is at risk. The authorities should react immediately by examining what is causing the rise in violence against women.
LC: Is the alert applied only in the case of a rise of murders, or other types of violence as well? What are some of the uses and limitations of the gender violence alert?
LEM: The mechanism of protection is not just for issues of murders or femicides with discrimination against women, but rather for all forms of violence that threaten the lives, safety and health of women. So it’s much broader–to include elements that put at risk women’s safety. Human rights organizations and international organizations can request the decree of a Gender Alert to protect women from all the forms of violence that they are subject to.
LC: Two of the states that have been in the news recently for Gender Violence Alerts are Guanajuato and Mexico State. Why the alarm over femicides in these states?
In Mexico there are actually several states that should decree a Gender Alert. In the case of Guanajuato, it has been requested because of the rise in assassinations of women with signs of extreme cruelty — in the way the bodies were left, the ways they were attacked and abused, and bodies purposely thrown out in public places. There was a rise of more than a hundred percent in this kind of killings. This sounded an alarm among the organizations and they demanded that the violence be thoroughly investigated so the problem would not grow like in other states of the country and for investigations to begin this year. It has taken a long time, but at least the recommendations were decreed so that the government would investigate and discover what s happening in the state of Guanajuato.
Another very serious problem is in the State of Mexico. We’ve been fighting for three years for the decree due to the serious situation of violence against women there. More than 500 women’s bodies have been discovered there, without knowing who murdered them, just in the period when Enrique Peña Nieto — the current president — was governor.
We have registered more than 900 women disappeared in only 19 months — the majority under 16 years old. We’re concerned about trafficking of women when we see a series of crimes like that. Of the one hundred and twenty five municipalities that make up the state, just ten municipalities concentrate more than fifty percent of the different forms of violence in the State of Mexico.
LC: “Femicide” is a term that many people might not be familiar with. Is it just the murder of a woman or does it have other specific characteristics?
LEM: Not all homicides of women are considered femicides. It has particular characteristics. One of these is how the murder leaves marks of discrimination in a woman’s body. Sexual violence is one of the characteristics. Another is the presence of injuries that not only hurt but dishonor women, that is, the ways in which a woman’s body is attacked. Another characteristic is that the women are left in public areas. There’s also domestic violence, and women who are kidnapped and later assassinated.
These are some of the characteristics that demonstrate discrimination against women for the hatred, and the submission used. They are objective characteristics that the investigators can identify in the body of a woman to determine that the case is a femicide.
LC: Is the crime of “femicide” written into the law in Mexico?
LEM: In every state except Chihuahua, femicide is recognized as a serious crime. But we are still fighting to create the same standards in the country as a whole, so that they understand “femicide” the same way in Tamaulipas as in Mexico City.
Because there are states where the forms of accrediting femicide are subjective and it’s hard to accredit, for example, based on the relations of power and subordination that are written into the penal code. So we are working to gain recognition for the definition that is written into the federal penal code, so the states can coordinate among themselves and we can eradicate the problem.
LC: Femicide in Mexico became an international issue with the cases of young women murdered in Ciudad Juarez since the early 90s. With all the attention, have the number of femicides gone down since then?
LEM: In the case of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez… It’s still one of the states with the highest rate of assassinations and femicides in the country. It’s still first place in femicide in spite of the fact that there is a court sentence from 2009 — the “Cotton Fields Case” — that obliges the state to design public policies to eradicate the problem. There are still many cases of femicides. Especially when we look at the border area, and organized crime operations there and trafficking of women, where we find bodies of women murdered. We’re seeing the collusion of the authorities, protecting many of those responsible for crimes against women.
LC: Why do you think we’ve seen such a significant increase in femicides in recent years?
LEM: The problem that we have throughout the country is that public policy is not evaluated. Many actions and programs and laws are created, but how do you evaluate them in the sense of what positive impact are they having to decrease the incidence? In Mexico nothing is evaluated. There is no accountability.
So what we’re seeing is that the statistics, the facts, do not show a decrease in the problem. When we take cases to authorities there are huge delays in the investigation, often due to the collusion or complicity that exists among officials, or the fact that many are implicated in this kind of crimes.
LC: So there is a problem with political power, and in some cases protecting perpetrators in these crimes.
LEM: The problem in many states of the country when were talking about organized crime is that these are precisely the cases that are not investigated.
The cases that have a better chance of being investigated are the cases of domestic violence. But when organized crime or trafficking networks or delinquency are involved, cases aren’t brought to justice — there’s no sentence, the attackers are not captured, sometimes we even know who they are but they continue at large.
All this generates a pattern of impunity and it makes it really complicated to reduce the problem. In Mexico, as long as the authorities don’t have a commitment to really eliminate the problem–often because many officials are implicated in some way or are protecting the attackers– we won’t be able to make progress.
LC: In these cases your organization and others have taken on the task of compiling statistics, handling cases, and educating the public. How do you see the role of civil society in ending this wave of violence against women in Mexico?
LEM: The role of the feminist and human rights organizations and others has been fundamental. We’re asking the state to comply with its obligations and responsibilities to guarantee a life free of violence for women. That’s why we created the Observatory on Femicides — as a watchdog to monitor what actions the government is taking, and what impact they are having to decrease and eradicate violence against women.
We are constantly denouncing government officials. We’re constantly supporting the cases that help us demonstrate where the obstacles are to access to justice for women. The presence of the organizations and civil society has been fundamental, because without it the little we have advanced wouldn’t exist.
There I think their effort has been key, and also the role of the victims’ relatives, by raising the issues and publicly denouncing the situation in spite of the fear they have due to the consequences of coming out and stating that the authorities are not doing their job.