There are certain rules you need to follow as a girl: cross your legs, do not speak unless you are spoken to, lower your skirt, play with your dolls, be respectful, be nice, ignore the mean boys, they didn’t mean it that way. The rules continue as a woman: keep crossing your legs, be smart but not too smart, smile, be kind, dress this way, do not dress this way, smile more, be obedient, be forgiving, be lenient, be careful, don’t act up, don’t be outspoken, don’t be fearless, don’t get killed.
I saw the faces of many missing men and women on flyers and billboards growing up in Mexico, the words “killed,” “murder,” and “body found,” would appear the following days. I would go to the store, buy my chips, and as I waited in the cash register line, I could see the front pages of the newspapers, a dead body on the cover; after a while, I became desensitized to death.
But even as a kid, you notice something is wrong; why do we hear the stories behind the men’s deaths and not the women’s? Why do women keep disappearing? Why do we keep finding their dead bodies on abandoned lots? Why are some women never found?
Femicide is defined as the intentional killing of women and girls because of their gender. The perpetrators are often men. The word “femicide” can be encountered all around Latin America, and even more often in Mexico, where I was raised, and lived until I was 16 years old. The term femicide was created to explain the disproportional disappearance and murder of women. Mexico, as in many other places in the world, is under the influence of a patriarchal society, in which there is a problem of imbalance between genders, where men hold the most power and women are left defenseless.
Scholars have defined femicide as the most extreme form of gender violence. From 1993 to 2005, five hundred women were murdered in Ciudad Juarez (Panther, 2008, p. 29). In 2019, new research showed that there was a 137% increase over five years in femicides throughout Mexico, 31% accounted for in Chihuahua, the state where Ciudad Juarez is located (Chin & Schultz, 2020). The number of gender-based homicides has only increased in the past years. The cause for these homicides is an ongoing debate, authorities have tried to minimize the problem by blaming gangs and serial killers, but this is a systematic problem, one that concerns issues of privilege, class, and gender. In this paper, I will describe the risks that make women vulnerable to become victims of femicide in Mexico and the government’s response to this crisis by retelling my personal experiences as a woman living in Mexico and exploring recent femicides cases.
I was with my friends, deciding what we should cook for dinner. I suggested pasta when my friends complained about how I always wanted to make pasta because it was the only thing I knew how to cook. I felt a little insulted, but the truth of that statement stuck with me. Later that night I reflected on my cooking abilities. The problem wasn’t that I did not like to cook. Growing up I did not have the opportunity to learn.
I grew up in a rural town in Chihuahua, Mexico named Satevo. There, traditional gender roles are still present in most families: the men go to work, while the women stay at home. In addition to doing all the household chores, my mom also had a job as a teacher. I grew up watching my cousins helping their moms in the kitchen, they would cook for visitors, their fathers, their brothers, etc.; however, every time I tried to do the same with my mom, she would never let me, she rejected my help every time, no matter how much I insisted. I could not understand her, wasn’t that what I was supposed to do? Looking back at those times, I now understand the reason. Once I entered the kitchen, there was no way to come out. If I had helped my mom and learned how to cook, I would then have the responsibility to cook for every other person, just as my cousins did. For most, cooking is an important life skill to learn; for me, it was a form of captivity. My cousins were taught how to become “good wives.” My mother did not want the same to happen to me.
Learning how to be a good wife is not enough to survive. After a while, looking at the missing person’s flyers became routine; I never imagined I would encounter the face of a loved one in that routine. My cousin’s death shocked the whole family, but after learning of her murder, it became a tragedy. My cousin’s death was my first personal encounter with femicide.
When women do not obey and they speak up against these standards, it creates conflict. In extreme cases, like with my cousin’s, it leads to murder. The defenselessness of women becomes most dangerous when it comes to their romantic relationships. Most households are led by patriarchal standards, the men work and provide for the women, while women repay them in acts of servitude and obedience.
There is an undeniable connection between femicides and domestic violence. “Machismo” is a predominant attitude in Mexican households, there is a belief that women should not pursue an education or a career, but instead they should stay home doing chores. This attitude also transposes to a governmental context; when women report their partners as abusers to the police, officers answer by telling them that the issue is between husband and wife and they refuse to get involved (Panther, 2008, p. 14). This refusal of involvement by local authorities creates an extremely dangerous situation for women; without the help they need, women will continue living with their abusers, becoming vulnerable to being femicide victims.
When I was in middle school, I realized the dangers of being a woman in Mexico. It was a rainy day; the streets were flooded which meant that traffic was stuck in certain parts of the city where cars could not drive through the massive puddles of water. School ended at 6 pm, and by that time my mom would usually be ready to pick me up; however, on that day, she was not at the gates by the time I walked out. I assumed that the rain had delayed her and kept waiting at the gates. One hour passed and my mom had not arrived still. At that point, the school had already close, and the last staff member had left, but I was still there. Waiting in the dark I became aware of my own vulnerability. I walked to a nearby store, the cashier was a woman preparing to close down. I explained my situation and she let me stay inside the store. She let me borrow her phone to call my mom, she answered agitated and told me she was stuck in traffic due to the rain. I waited for what felt like an eternity.
Finally, my mom arrived and began to thank the cashier, she then started to tear up. I was perplexed, I could not understand why she was so agitated. The day after, there was a story on the news about a girl my age kidnapped on her way home from school.
In Mexico, women live in constant fear of getting kidnapped or killed. Had I not been a woman, it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal to be alone at night. After that night, I understood the way my gender and environment affected my everyday life. Since then, I have never felt secure walking around at night, even if I am with someone or in another part of the world. As a woman in Mexico, you learn to always be aware of your surroundings and to always live in fear, that way you reduce your chances of becoming another victim of femicide.
But even this narrative, that we women must always stay alert, can become dangerous. The efforts of safety are centered on the women, not on the government or local authorities, figures with bigger power and influence; it removes the fault of the real culprit in femicide cases, the pressure is on how women must be always cautious and not on how or why men choose to do the harm.
Women have often been described as dramatic, they exaggerate things, they make a bigger deal out of the situation. If we are harassed in the streets, it is our fault, we were wearing provocative outfits. If a coworker or classmate harasses us, it is our fault, we were leading them on. If we are abused by our partner, it is our fault, we chose that person. If we are killed, it is our fault, we stayed out late at night, we stayed with our abusers, we were simply existing (García et al., 2021).
I’ve been called dramatic, crazy, paranoid, and any other synonym in the dictionary. Most of the time, the critique is phrased nonchalantly: in a parking lot, “why are you checking the back seat? You are so dramatic;” at a party “why did you bring pepper spray? You are crazy;” walking home “why do you keep looking over your shoulder? you are too paranoid.” I then started to reflect on my actions: am I actually being dramatic? Nobody is sitting in my car waiting to kidnap me; am I being crazy? Maybe the pepper spray is too much; am I being paranoid? Why would someone be following me? Only recently I realized that each of these dialogues has come from a man, I have never been called dramatic by another woman, nor had my actions questioned.
My unreliability is uncertain. To my men friends, I am exaggerating, to my women friends, I am relatable. I do not see myself as dramatic, I prefer the term “cautious.” There is an undeniable sense of danger being a woman, after all, femicide cases are only raising, the world knows that women are harassed in parking lots, at parties, and in streets, yet men find ways again and again to invalidate women’s feelings. If being dramatic is what it takes to stay alive, I will gladly accept the title.
Femicides affect women of a variety of ages. Adriana Sarmiento Enriquez, a 15-year-old, was last seen alive in 2008. She disappeared while catching a bus in Ciudad Juarez after school. Her body was found by government forensics in 2009, but her mother, Ernestina Enriquez Fierro did not find out about it until 2011 via a Facebook post (Chin & Schultz, 2020). Other victims are never found; Jocelyn Calderon Reyes, a 13-year-old, disappeared in 2012, on her way to a friend’s house; she is still missing, and her mother, Perla Reyes Loya, is still waiting for any news about her daughter (Chin & Schultz, 2020).
One of the most impactful cases of femicide has been Rubi Escobedo’s in 2008, which has recently resurfaced in the media due to the 2020 Netflix documentary “The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo” which depicts the government’s negligence on femicide cases. The documentary follows Rubi’s case and her murder through the involvement and activism of her mother, Marisela Escobedo. In 2008, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, the 16-year-old Rubi Marisol Frayre Escobedo is filed as missing, days later, her husband, Sergio Rafael Barraza flees the state with their daughter, which marks him as the main suspect of her disappearance and starts the process of his persecution. In the documentary, Marisela’s sons and her close friends offer testimonies of their involvement with the case, they explain that for months, federal authorities gave no effort to find Sergio; Marisela conducted her own investigation and in 2009, she found Sergio’s hidden spot in the state of Zacatecas. Sergio was detained and provided an oral confession of murdering Rubi and her body’s location. An investigation team went to the provided location, a landfill on the outskirts of the city, and found the remains of Rubi’s body, claiming her in 2009, as murdered (Osorio, 2020, 0:14:30-0:20:00).
Not only federal authorities failed to locate Sergio’s whereabouts and depended on Marisela’s investigation, but they also failed to bring justice to Rubi. In the tribunal that would offer Sergio’s sentence, the three judges in charge of the case found him not guilty, ignoring the clear evidence of his confessions. Months later, after a court appeal, the acquitment was declared null and void, Sergio was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison. By this time, however, Sergio had already fled the state and was never found again. Marisela gave her life to bring her daughter justice. On December 16, 2010, Marisela was conducting a sit-in in front of the Government Palace of Chihuahua demanding the arrest of Sergio, she was assassinated that night. In the end, Rubi and Marisela’s case went unpunished, their cases, like many others femicides cases, are permanently shelved, stuck forever in a deep slumber (Osorio, 2020, 0:25:00-0:45:00).
The negligence of Mexican government authorities contributes to the epidemic of femicides. Public announcements that try to combat gender violence tend to subtly enforce it: 1995 newspapers in Ciudad Juarez included a series of announcements made by the mayor’s office that cautioned women citizens to avoid wearing provocative clothing or frequenting dangerous public spaces (Wright, 2011, p. 714). This narrative is dangerous because it puts pressure on women to combat the insecurity of the city without addressing the real perpetrators that create the ongoing violence and excluding them from any guilt.
This negligence is not only present in local authorities; Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), current president of Mexico also diminishes the critical problem of femicides. On February 10, 2020, during one of his morning press conferences, President AMLO became upset by questions about femicides when the donation of 2 billion pesos for INDEP (a newly implemented government project for social programs) was about to be announced: “I offer my apologies, yes, the issue of femicides is important, but not for this conference and topic” (Grupo REFORMA, 2020). President AMLO chose to put the topic of his new project as a more important priority over the critical issue of femicides at the time. His response caused much discontent in social media, which he tried to fix in another press conference just four days after where he expressed his position against femicides by listing 10 points, the last three offered promises of improvement “Eight, punish those responsible for violence against women. Nine, the government that I represent will always ensure the safety of women. Ten, we will guarantee peace and tranquility in Mexico” (MILENIO, 2020). These, however, are empty promises that do not offer actual plans of action toward real results.
A 2021 survey from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía) has shown that the total lifetime prevalence of violence against women from ages 15 years old or more is 70.1%, with an increase of 4% since the last survey was conducted in 2016 (INEGI, 2021). This further proves that government supposed efforts are not enough, and violence against women is only increasing.
The documentary of Marisela Escobedo was a defining moment in my life, it marked my beginning as an activist against femicides, and it inspired me to research, to become involved; I’ve attended workshops and protests and tried to make sense of the recurring violence against women around the world but especially in my country. I’ve learned a few things: 1) violence against women is normalized, most cases are archived, and crimes go unpunished which offers the narrative that there are no legal consequences for the preparators; 2) the Mexican government is not women’s friend, is a perpetrator; 3) lastly, real change towards stopping the violence will only occur through the masses.