Mexico, long lagging in gender equality, nominates first female attorney general

Following the resignation of Mexico's attorney general Thursday, Marisela Morales was quickly nominated to fill the post. Michelle Obama recently lauded her 'unfailing drive.'

By , Staff writer

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    US First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honor award winner Marisela Morales of Mexico during the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony at the State Department in Washington on March 8.
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Mexican President Felipe Calderón wasted no time in accepting the resignation of his attorney general and nominating Marisela Morales, currently the head of an investigative division on organized crime, to fill her boss's shoes.

Ms. Morales, who has received recent accolades from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama for her "unfailing drive," would bring a fresh face to a position tainted by failures to tackle impunity in a drug war that has killed more than 35,000 people since 2006.

If ratified by the Mexican Senate, Morales would be the first woman to hold the male-dominated post – the significance of which would resonate widely in a nation that lags behind the region in terms of gender equality. Mexico places 91 on the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, one of the lowest rankings in Latin America and only better than Belize, Suriname, and Guatemala.

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“It is incredibly important because the attorney general is one of the positions most associated with traditional male roles – the issuance of justice,” says Gina Zabludovsky, an expert on women’s leadership at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Morales has worked with Mexico’s justice system throughout her career. Last month she was given a 2011 International Women of Courage Award in a ceremony headed by Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Obama.

“The work that she is doing is dangerous,” Clinton said at the ceremony. “It is among the most important work that can be done in her country. President Calderón and the Government of Mexico are committed in the fight against violence and the drug traffickers and criminal organizations. And she has shown an unfailing drive to combat organized crime and corruption, and a valiant dedication to the protection of citizen security and human rights.”

Predecessor criticized

She would take over from Arturo Chávez Chávez, who stepped down Thursday evening after 18 months. He is the second attorney general to have stepped down during the six-year term of Calderón. He cited personal issues.

His appointment alone was controversial, particularly for his role in the failed investigations of femicides in Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s when he was the top prosecutor in Chihuahua state. A 2009 US diplomatic cable recently published by WikiLeaks noted he "has strong detractors within the Mexican human rights community" because of his record in Ciudad Juárez.

Calderón touted the credentials of Morales in criminal justice in naming her to the new post. Yet she too is tainted by failings during Mr. Chávez's tenure, namely the office's failure to successfully prosecute more than 30 mayors, police chiefs, and other officials arrested in 2009 in Michoacán state and accused of collaborating with the La Familia drug gang.

Regardless of her operative capacity, the appointment would have symbolic importance in the country.

Symbolic importance

Women across Latin America have gained more leadership roles in politics throughout the last decade, with Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile, and Trinidad and Tobago electing female leaders. Women have also taken on many more positions in national legislatures, in some cases with the help of mandated gender quota laws.

But Ms. Zabludovsky says Mexico suffers from macho stereotypes, failing to give women a chance on matters of security, unlike in the US where Janet Napolitano heads Homeland Security or in Brazil where a woman was recently appointed to lead the police force of Rio de Janeiro.

While women play huge roles in communities in terms of assuring water distribution or school quality, says Zabludovsky, very few lead municipalities across the nation.

According to the recent World Economic Forum data, Mexico reduced its gender gap from 2009. But the participation rate of women in the labor force is still only half that of men amid high salary disparities, the report says. The ratios of men to women in parliament and holding ministerial positions is also heavily skewed toward male dominance – numbers that have barely budged since the group began publishing the report in 2006.

Mexico fell on the bottom of a list of countries studied in the region for the number of cabinet member posts in a study published in 2008 (pdf) by various institutions including the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

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