The feminist movement in Mexico is undergoing a radical transformation led by mothers of the countless victims of the epidemic of femicide that is haunting the country. An important turning point in this transformation occurred on September 2, 2020, when Silvia Castillo and Marcela Alemán visited the offices of the National Human Rights Commission — CNDH by its acronym in Spanish — to inquire after the progress of the investigation into the horrible crimes committed against their respective daughters: last year’s murder of Alan Ibarra, the 22-year-old daughter of Castillo, and the rape of Alemán’s four-year-old daughter Lía at her school in 2017.
After meeting with the president of the CNDH, Alemán understood that her case was not moving forward and that they were sending her home empty-handed. In response, she tied herself to a chair and together with Castillo she refused to leave the offices. No one tried to remove them, but at the end of the day they were simply abandoned, without answers and without offering any support to stay through the night. The two women turned to some feminist groups for help in case the police would show up.
A group of young women wearing black balaclavas who call themselves the Bloque Negro, or Black Block, answered the call. They were further joined by Erika Martínez, the mother of a young sexual abuse victim who has been looking for justice for the past four years and by Yesenia Zamudio, mother of “Marichuy,” a 19-year-old girl who was killed in 2016. The next day, Alemán and Castillo learned that their cases were now moving forward and decided to leave the building.
But Martínez, Zamudio and the women of the Bloque Negro stayed put and occupied the entire building to demand the justice that had been denied to them for so long. Martínez explained that she is in the building because she “has nothing else to lose.” She is tired of waiting for the justice that was promised to her: “After making the complaint for my daughter, I was beaten by the same abuser a year later and I was expelled from my home. All my tools to work were inside and we could not recover anything.”
The now-occupied building of the CNDH was renamed the “Okupa Cuba Casa Refugio” (Cuba Occupation-Shelter House) — or “Okupa” for short — and their occupants say it has been turned into a shelter for women survivors of gender-based violence who are looking for justice.
Currently, only Martínez and the women from the Bloque Negro are living in Okupa full-time. For Martinez, the fight is no longer only about finding justice for her daughter, “but also for all the women who come knocking on our doors looking for help.” She explains that they have been able to guide women through the legal procedures, giving them shelter for the night (or days if needed), offering advice on how to talk to the authorities or just to give emotional and moral support.
The stories of Castillo, Zamudio, Alemán and Martínez are illustrative of the new and unexpected role Mexican mothers have come to play in the feminist movement. They are refusing to remain silent and have become somewhat of a force of nature capable of shaking the government to its core when they come looking for justice for their loved ones. They are loud, they are organized and, most importantly, they are tired of the government’s bullshit.
Mexico is one of the most violent countries in the world for women, and the problem continues to grow: records show an increase of 145 percent in femicide cases between 2015 and 2019. An average of 10 women are killed every day, with 66 percent of the women aged 15 and over reporting that they have been the victim of violence according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.
The United Nations has warned the Mexican government about the brutality with which women are murdered in comparison to men. Use of weapons and sharp objects is 1.3 times higher in femicides and gruesome methods such as hanging, strangulation, suffocation, drowning, poison and fire are more frequently used when killing women, according to one UN report.
During humanitarian emergencies, disasters and public health crises — like the one we are experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic — women and girls are at greater risk of violence. According to a press release from the National Network of Shelters (RNR), violence against women spiked 48 percent between March and November last year, with the RNR handling the cases of 38,081 people. Domestic violence increased and 63 percent of the women who called said were victims of violence by their husbands or partners.
Women in Mexico not only deal with extreme violence, but also have to face corruption and impunity on a daily basis. That has been the experience of Yesenia Zamudio, mother of María de Jesús Jaime Zamudio — or “Marichuy” as everyone knew her — who became a victim of femicide at the age of 19. In 2016, she was thrown from her fifth-floor apartment window in Mexico City and was left on the floor for more than five hours. She died a week later in the hospital.
Local authorities refused to investigate Marichuy’s case as femicide, ruling her death a suicide instead. Yet her mother has insisted since day one that it was a femicide committed by a former teacher and some friends who used to harass her daughter. Zamudio has not stopped asking for justice for her daughter: “It has been five years now and I had to turn the country upside down for people to talk about Marichuy, for the case to be investigated with a gender perspective and for it to be reclassified as femicide,” she explains. “I had to make a lot of noise in Mexico and abroad to make this happen.”
“There is no way that a case of violence against women can proceed only following the legal route,” says Karla Michel Salas, a feminist defense lawyer specialized in cases in which women’s human rights have been violated. “Our system is not made to provide justice,” she adds, emphasizing the difficultly of filing a report to the police and expecting the authorities to do their job. Mexico ranks 60th out of 69 countries studied in the 2020 Global Impunity Index, meaning that almost every family seeking justice has had to do so on the streets. In a country where 95 percent of murders go unpunished, every legal action has to be accompanied by some sort of public pressure — whether it demonstrating, talking to the press or making noise on social media to force authorities to investigate a case.
During his campaign, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) promised to transform Mexico into a more equal society when he came to power, but his administration has been unable to contain the epidemic of femicides in the country.
AMLO’s government’s lackluster and dismissive response to the daily murders has angered women’s organizations across the country. In early 2019, they held a protest in front of Palacio Nacional — the seat of the federal executive in Mexico — to demand that the government immediately investigate the murder of Ingrid Escamilla and to intervene in the epidemic of femicides. López Obrador’s response was he that he did not want “femicides to distract from the raffle,” referring to a raffle his administration had organized to sell the presidential airplane.
Only a week after Ingrid’s case, the body of seven-year-old Fátima Aldrighett was found to the south of the city, after having been abducted from her school. Everyone feared the worst, and indeed these gruesome expectations were confirmed when signs of sexual abuse and torture where found on the young girl’s body.
This felt like the last straw. Once more, women came out on the streets and gathered outside the president’s office to demand that AMLO take the problem seriously. Yet the president only responded with some empty talk about “moral regeneration,” claiming that femicides were “manipulated by the media” and that “all homicides matter.” It was clear he did not want to talk about women’s lives.
Instead of approving public policies that could really help victims the president has focused his energy in talking about morality. At a news conference in February, 2019, AMLO spoke of one feminist collective, saying: “They opposed the moral regeneration we promote. I respect their point of view but don’t share them. I believe we have to moralize the country, purify public life and strengthen cultural, moral and spiritual values.”
His administration also published a video that pretended to prevent domestic violence by telling people, “breathe, count to ten and take out the white flag of peace” before they get mad or desperate at a family member. The video was immediately criticized on social media. Not only because of its ineffective strategy but also because, as an opposition legislator put it, the campaign “placed the responsibility for violence against women on the women themselves.”
As a result of the austerity plans the government put in place in response to the pandemic, domestic violence shelters in Mexico have been operating with insufficient resources. In July 2020, AMLO cut 75 percent of the budget of the women’s institute even though the statistics showed the problem was increasing. Official data published by the National Public Security System showed that just a few months earlier, in March, they received a record number of 115,614 emergency calls for violence against women, a 22.3 percent increase from the previous month. Yet, AMLO has argued without evidence that 90 percent of the calls were fake.
In response to the lack of dedicated government action, many women’s organizations have decided to take their demands for justice to the streets.
The #metoo movement arrived in Mexico in 2019, marking a turning point for feminist protests and for all women who were tired of being silenced. The first case confronted Herson Barona, a famous Mexican writer, who had abused and harassed nearly a dozen women. At first, no one believed the victims, but that all changed with a single tweet. The response quickly evolved into an empowering movement of women who started opening up about their experiences with abuse.
The protests during International Women’s Day in 2020, were another turning point. Authorities estimate that around 80,000 women marched in Mexico City, but other accounts put the crowd as high as 120,000. They marched for three important demands: to take femicide investigations seriously, to implement policies to protect women and justice for victims and their families.
The protest carried on through March 9, with a 24-hour women’s strike. The #UnDíaSinNosotras (“a day without us”) campaign invited every girl or women in the country for one day to stop doing what they usually do: going to classes, working, doing chores inside the house, cooking, etc. The strike had a massive support from people across the country with some 70 percent of women joining the strike.
The absence of so many women from the economic sphere at the same time cost the economy 30 billion pesos ($1.5 billion). In some workplaces, men showed up to pick up the slack, but they were overwhelmed at many banks and schools, for example, which never opened or closed early. Online, pictures circulated of half-empty classrooms, subways and streets.
The Women’s Day protest succeeded because women from all ages and backgrounds participated, with many women for whom it was the first time they joined the protests. Some found in feminism their political ideology, others became more radical and even violent during the protests.
National media has focused more on these violent expressions of women’s anger during demonstrations than on their demands. For example, on the International Safe Abortion Day, September 27, two protests were held demanding legal and safe abortion for all Mexican women. One group, led by the Bloque Negro, was planning to protest in front of the local Congress. Although there were only around 40 women, they were intercepted by the police and kettled for four hours.
The same happened the next day, but this time with a larger group of activists who were also kettled for several hours. The attacks on protesters by the Ateneas, the women police unit, have been harshly criticized. At the same time, the Bloque Negro made headlines for attacking the policewomen with hammers. Because protesters spraypainted monuments and buildings, media have called these feminists “looters,” “vandals,” and “criminals.” When I asked Itzania Otero, the director of the women police unit, if they had abused their power in these demonstrations, she replied that they had only acted “in self-defense” and had “never abused their power.”
For Lilián Chapa, senior researcher in criminal justice for the World Justice Project, debating whether violent protest strategies are correct or not is “to focus on the wrong part of the conflict.” According to Chapa, violent protest is only a strategy “because we no longer discuss what is failing in our justice system that leads victims to protest with so much anger.”
Five months after the initial occupation of the offices of the National Human Rights Commission, the struggle continues. Internal problems caused Yesenia Zamudio to leave the house, but the rest of the group is determined to continue occupying the building that they made their home. Martínez says authorities already agreed to allow them to stay in the building and to collaborate with them to eradicate gender violence. While Martínez and the others believe them, the group have also put security protocols in place in case the police attempt to forcefully evict them.
Asked why they still continue their occupation, Matancera, as she is called in the group, explains that for them, “this is the safest place to be in Mexico.” Pitahaya, a tall girl and member of the Bloque Negro says, “I am not going anywhere unless we’re leaving all together, either free, imprisoned or dead.”
Yet the Bloque feminsts has also been at the center of a clear division within in the feminist community in Mexico City. The women from the Bloque Negro define themselves as radical separatists and only work with and help biological women because “many of us have been violated by men,” says Matínez. Of course, other feminist and LGBTQ+ groups have criticized the Bloque for being trans-exclusionary and using hate speech against trans people. In October, Ophelia Pastrana, a famous trans woman and social media influencer, tweeted that the thing that bothers her most about the transphobia of the Bloque Negro is that trans women have collaborated with them, even raising money for the Okupa that they “happily accepted.” Since then, the Okupa has lost most of the support they once enjoyed from other feminists and the LGBTQ+ community.
The Okupa was — and for some women continues to be — a strong feminist symbol. But it is not the only one. As time passes, there are new feminist groups, new chats where women are beginning to organize themselves, new Facebook groups where information is shared and even new women outlets with fresh and young perspectives. Mothers like Yesenia Zamudio are important in the training of younger generations who are witnessing entire families making noise and seeking justice.
Although the AMLO government continues to downplay the urgency of femicide and violence against women in the country, feminist groups continue to present their strongest opposition. Even in the face of police repressions, a global pandemic and the worsening epidemic of femicides, feminists have not stopped protesting. They each know that they could be next, so they are the ones raising their voices against patriarchy.