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International Women's Day shines fresh light on Mexico's 'femicides'

Ahead of International Women's Day, the United Nations chapter in Mexico called for the government to define 'femicide' as a 'particularly intolerable' crime. Female homicides have shot up in recent years.

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Rights groups and Inmujeres said that crying politics minimized the suffering of women, and demonstrators swiftly took to the streets over the decision. And the January killings of two women activists from Juárez – including activist and poet Susana Chávez, who coined the phrase “ni una muerte más,” or “not one more death” – only deepened the debate, sparking more demonstrations in Juárez to raise awareness of “feminicidios.”

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Culture of impunity

The very term “femicides” has is skeptics, as many argue that women’s deaths are merely part-and-parcel of the soaring death toll from general violence. But activists and security experts blame a culture of impunity – as high as 98 percent by many estimates – for allowing gender crimes to become normalized. Vulnerable groups are affected first, such as women and children, says Ana Yeli Pérez of the Mexican Human Rights Defense and Promotion Commission.

Women receive even less attention as understaffed prosecutors’ offices are stretched thin by drug-related killings, which exceeded 34,000 in the past four years, says Ms. García Gaytán of Inmujeres. Most investigators “haven’t been trained in gender [crimes],” she adds.

Of little help are antiquated customs, such as police encouraging women to reconcile with their abusers and some state penal codes absolving sex abuse if the victim marries the perpetrator. Abuse rates in recent years run as high as 60 percent in some states, such as Mexico State.

Juárez has once again been singled out as a trouble spot, after 313 women were murdered last year in the violence-riddled city of over 1 million. In the state of Chihuahua, where Juárez is located, 440 women were killed last year, the most of any state, observers say. Among the victims was Marisela Escobedo, who had tracked down the alleged killer of her daughter, only to be killed apparently by the same man after he was let out on appeal.

Carlos González Estrada, a spokesman of Chihuahua’s prosecutor’s office, said the high rate of female homicides is merely a reflection of an increase in violence in Juárez, where more than 3,100 people were killed last year. “This has to do with a cultural breakdown that we are seeing [in Juárez]," he says.

Women prove easy targets

Marianne Mollmann of Human Rights Watch agrees that heightened illegal activity and the shifting roles of working women in border cities like Juárez all factor into the death toll. “It’s a Molotov Cocktail of cultural phenomena that will lead to a lot of death, in particular a lot of death in women,” she says.

Cities such as Ecatepec in Mexico State, where De Paz lives, have been compared to border towns like Juárez for their transitory nature. Families from rural areas looking for work overpopulate poorly guarded city outskirts, and women are among groups that prove easy targets.

De Paz, who now cares for her surviving daughter – the murderer’s child – in a cavernous hut filled with plastic flowers in memorial to the dead, lives in fear that the killers she helped capture will one day return.

Yet for all the unsolved murders in Mexico, De Paz’s case offers a glimmer of hope; all four participants in the double murder of her mother and daughter are behind bars. Their sentences only run from five to 60 years; some will likely have a chance to confront her again.

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