It’s been two years since Obdulia de Paz’s former boyfriend broke into her home and killed her mother and daughter with the help of his son, nephew, and a friend.
“The police carried my daughter out wrapped in a blanket filled with blood,” Ms. de Paz says. “I wanted to see her for the last time, but they wouldn’t let me.”
Her story is just one of thousands in a unique type of violence taking place in Mexico, politicians and rights groups say. These female homicides, also called “femicides,” are fueled by a sense that women are property and perpetuated by a law-and-order vacuum, they say. Female homicides almost doubled to 1,926 in 2009 from 1,085 in 2007, according to the national statistics agency.
“Most of these women are dying at the hands of their partners or people they know, or in highly vulnerable situations, specifically because they are women,” says Rocío García Gaytán, president of the federal government’s National Women’s Institute (Inmujeres).
Mexico gained notoriety for the unsolved murder of hundreds of women in the border city of Juárez in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since then the issue has mostly floated under the radar of a raging drug war – although it has received new attention this week.
The United Nations coordinator in Mexico called on the government Monday to legally define femicide as a separate and "particularly intolerable" crime, in order to give it the attention it needs in Mexico. Separately, ahead of International Women's Day today, a congressional committee said Monday it would present a bill to categorize femicides separately in the penal code and require special investigations geared toward reducing discrimination against victims' relatives, which is known to happen in such cases.
United States officials have also taken note. “Gender violence in Mexico has reached an alarming level, particularly in the border areas and big cities,” says a 2010 cable from the US Embassy in Mexico City, published last month by WikiLeaks.
Mexico State refuses to investigate
Mexico has made progress in fighting crimes against women. A 2007 federal law provides funding at all levels of government to deal with gender crimes, a version of which has been passed at the state level. The federal government has an office dedicated to solving federal cases of violence against women.
Setbacks have occurred, however. Federal investigations made possible by the 2007 law have been halted by three states, most recently Mexico State, which in January voted against a federal investigation into a steep rise in women murders in the state.
Female homicides in Mexico State more than doubled to 205 in 2009 from 98 in 2005, according to a report submitted to Congress last year by the state prosecutor’s office. The report said one cause of the murders was “personal and sentimental instability (single mothers, various sex partners).” Critics said the report itself showed that the state perpetuates sexism.
Mexico State has defended its decision to bar the federal investigation, saying it was a politically motivated attempt to tarnish its governor, Enrique Peña Nieto, considered a presidential contender for 2012 elections for the main opposition party. The prosecutor’s office would not comment for this article.
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.”
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.