Victoria Esperanza Salazar should not have died

By  |  8 / April / 2021

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Femicide is a crime foretold, warns lawyer Karla Micheel Salas. Foretold, often by the victim herself, in police reports and desperate cries for help that are ignored by the authorities and society. Foretold by the conditions of discrimination, threat and vulnerability in which so many women live every day. Foretold by the number of femicides that increases daily. Foretold by the dynamics of the capitalist-patriarchal system we live in, a system that devalues the lives of women, especially if they are poor and brown and migrants, with disabilities.

It seems that Victoria Esperanza Salazar united all these lethal characteristics. She was killed by police in the middle of the street, in the light of day, in the tourist resort of Tulum, México. A reporter’s cell phone video shows how four police officers surround her body as it lay inert on the ground, pressing a knee hard into her back. Then they carry her body to the patrol truck like a used carpet and toss her in the back, next to the garbage. By that point, she was already dead; her spine was broken at the first and second vertebrae.

I watched the videos of Victoria’s arrest and death on social media, read local reports and talked to several members of the feminist collectives in the state of Quintana Roo. In this way, it’s possible to piece together the tragic story behind this feminicide foretold and how different elements of structural violence letdto her death.

Victoria fled from violence in El Salvador. Her case was strong enough that she was able to obtain a humanitarian visa in Mexico. She did not know that she was fleeing from one situation of extreme violence only to find herself in another.

Shortly before her death, Victoria Salazar went to the police to report her partner for abusing her and her daughter. This is the first moment that could have stopped the chain of events that led to her murder. A member of the Feminist Collective of Tulum told me that the autorities did not carry out an investigation, respond to her report or offer protection. She added that this situation is typical in the town, famed as the new tourist mecca of the Riviera Maya. The women’s collectives have registered an increase of violence against women during the pandemic. Often the prosecutor’s office does not even file a report or follow up according to established protocols.

Parts of the state have recognized the problem and issued a  Gender Alert for some municipalities, and officials recently entered into an agreement with the Ministry of the Interior to expand special modules for immediate attention for at-risk women and other measures, but the lack of compliance and application of these initiatives has left women vulnerable. Feminist collectives receive constant reports from women in violent situations that they try to prioritize for risk and respond to, but they say they receive little to no help from the government. This reality is much more than a bureaucratic failure-it is a reflection of the disregard for the crisis of gender-based violence. It is also a refusal to do what is necessary to save lives.

in the end, Victoria was killed by the police themselves, not her partner. Both forms of violence are intertwined. On her last day, she was reported to police for disorderly behavior. There is reason to believe that her vulnerable condition and persistent state of fear due to the domestic violence she denounced to the authorities led her to a psychological crisis.

When a woman reports assaults and does not receive adequate attention and protection, often facing re-victimization at the hands of authorities instead, she faces even greater risk than before reporting the violence. On that March 27, the video taken at an Oxxo store minutes before Victoria’s murder shows an extremely upset woman. She waves an empty water jug in the air, spins around, opens and closes the door, runs out. Her behavior appears not aggressive, but rather the behavior of someone in the throes of an acute mental health breakdown and requires help.  This is the second moment when her death could have been prevented. Specialized, humane intervention rather than a security response could have calmed her down and avoided the brutality that minutes later would end her life.

Outside the store, Victoria was apprehended by four local police officers–a woman and three men. It was the female officer who knelt on her on the ground, a grim reminder that macho violence is not the exclusive domain of one sex – it is part of the training and mentality of a patriarchal society, and particularly of a hyper-patriarchal institution like the police. Even after decades of supposed “reforms” and training in human rights–much of it funded by the U.S. government through the Merida Initiative– the Mexican police and armed forces have not broken with this mentality. It is ironic that U.S. trainers, from a nation that has been denounced for systematic police brutality in the largest protests in its history, have been charged with reforming the system and it is no surprise that they have failed so fatally. The problem is not one of training, or techniques. The focus on wielding power over the other through force will always generates violence. It builds in a sexist and racist social hierarchy, a hierarchy in which migrant women remain at the bottom. The images of Victoria cuffed and subdued face down on the asphalt with a uniformed knee pressing into her spine immediately recalls the world-famous video of George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation under the knee of Derek Chauvin, currently on trial in the U.S.

The Tulum police officers have been arrested. President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador promised that “there will be no impunity”. Governor Carlos Joaquin stated that it was “a mistake to apply the wrong arrest technique”. The press covered the murder, generating public condemnation fro a few days and perhaps, with the public appeals of civil society, UN Women, the president of El Salvador and feminist protests, the case can be brought to justice.

But this is only one case of many and just part of the challenge facing Mexican society with the death of Victoria, and thousands of other women and migrants. We know this is not an isolated case. The causes go far beyond “a mistake” or lack of police training. They are rooted in misogyny. Feminicidal violence in Quintana Roo and in the country in general has deep roots that are nurtured by the culture of impunity. It is also rooted in xenophobia against migrants, which grows under the federal government’s migration policies that fous on containing Central American migration, and its minimization of the constant violations of the human rights of migrants in national territory. This crisis only seems to attract the government’s attention cases such as Victoria’s arise that are impossible to ignore. And instead of facing up to the systematic violence generated by poplicies that demonize and dehumanize migrants, the president merely insists that the era of mistreatment of migrants ended with neoliberalism when he was elected.

Police violence feeds on impunity and the logic of repression. In Quintana Roo, security forces are particularly prone to respond to unruly women with excessive force. On November 9 of last year, a peaceful demonstration demanding justice in the femicide of Alexis (Bianca Alejandrina Lorenzana Alvarado) was repressed with bullets by the police. The Quintana Roo Feminist Network reports that the government routinely responds to their protests against violence and demands for effective action with criminalization, persecution and intimidation. One member told me that it is common to hide cases of violence against womena and femicide, so as not to affect tourism. Graffiti and posters of the feminist collectives express the contradiction of so-called security forces that are part of the problem rather than the solution it: “The police do not take care of me”.

Feminist organizations in Quintana Roo demand that politicians and officials be held responsible for the crisis of gender violence in their state and the country. It would be an important achievement if the perpetrators end up in jail, given that the Feminist Collective of Tulum reports that not one of the cases they have accompanied has been brought to justice, But it is not enough.

It is true that the four police officers who subdued and killed Victoria have already been arrested, when perhaps in the past the murder would have been covered up with disinformation and impunity. But Victoria is still dead.

It is true that the Secretary of Public Security of Quintana Roo, Alberto Capella, was temporarily separated from his post pending investigation after the police fired on the feminist demonstration in Cancun. But Victoria and Alexis are still dead. And Capella was not fired, nor did he resign.

It is true that the governor has held dialogues with the feminist collectives and announced a round table to deal with feminicides. But Victoria and Alexis and the many other women murdered this year are still dead. And their numbers are increasing.

The feminist collectives are not giving up. They are demanding justice, they are pushing for the extension and application of the gender alert, and and end to the criminalization of protests.

Their demand is forceful: “We want actions and not lip service.”

Laura Carlsen is Director of Global Solidarity with Just Associates (JASS) and runs the Americas Program, an independent think tank, in Mexico City