18-year-old law student Debanhi Escobar disappeared after partying in the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico, on April 9. On April 21, Escobar’s body was found in an underground water tank near a motel where authorities searched four times prior. The cause of death was determined to be a head wound, meaning that she died before she was dumped in the tank. Escobar’s death sparked massive protests because while her case is chilling, it is not uncommon. In Mexico, more than 24,000 women are currently reported missing and 1,000 were murdered last year. To make matters worse, Nuevo León state prosecutor Gustavo Adolfo Guerrero remained dismissive of the tragedy, claiming that women who disappear are doing so voluntarily or as an act of rebellion. The statistics concerning missing and murdered women in Mexico, as well as the response of those in power, provide ample evidence that a cultural shift is necessary.
In the early hours of April 9, Escobar left the party in a private car and exited the vehicle into the side of a highway, where the driver allegedly left her, with no apparent cause as to why, leading Escobar’s father to accuse him of trying to grope her. The driver, identified as Juan David Cuéllar, who has been previously investigated on account of harassment and attempted kidnapping of women, was interviewed for Escobar’s disappearance, but authorities still have not deemed him guilty or related to the incident. A picture of Escobar taken by Cuéllar went viral, partly due to the victim’s family’s efforts to garner attention to the case. It is very possible that had it not been for the family, Escobar’s case would have been ignored by the authorities, like thousands before her. Before Escobar, public outrage had been brewing after a string of young women disappeared in Monterrey, only to be neglected by the authorities. The New York Times reported that “despite the staggering numbers, the cases of missing women are often downplayed or ignored by the media and local authorities,” who treat cases as “as isolated incidents, not a systemic issue.”
Worse than the disappearances are the killings. Escobar’s likely murder also rekindled memories of a wave of femicides in 2017 that took the lives of 3,825 women. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a progressive politician elected to the presidency in 2018, promised to “transform” Mexico into an equal and less corrupt country, so many Mexican feminists were hoping that he would put an end to the devastation. However, things only got worse: on average 10 to 11 women were killed daily, compared to six before his inauguration. The start of 2020 witnessed two horrific femicides that sparked protests, in response to which López Obrador complained about a “feminist collective” that holds beliefs he does not share. The president’s response highlights the complete disregard for women that is encouraged in a patriarchal society.
In order to reduce femicides, one must understand the cause and consider the context of violence against women. The United Nations Human Rights Council considers femicides to be “end of a continuum of violence against women, set against general patterns of discrimination against women and tolerated impunity of perpetrators.” According to many Latin American feminists, such violence stems from “gender inequality, society structures such as patriarchy, impunity and institutional violence;” all of which function alongside male ownership and entitlement, masculinity associated with dominance, strict gender roles, and an attitude of passiveness and acceptance towards domestic violence.
If the United Nations, as well as Russell Diana and Radford Jill, whom Toledo Vásquez references in her report Feminicidio, are right in saying that femicides represent the extreme continuum of anti-female terror, which includes a wide variety of verbal and physical abuse, such as rape, torture, sexual slavery, emotional harassment, sexual harassment (on the phone, on the streets, in the office, and in the classroom), genital mutilation, unnecessary gynecological operations, forced heterosexuality, forced maternity, and other things, then tackling these issues one by one — starting from the bottom up — can shed a light of hope to despaired women in Mexico. It is probable that the issues of femicides and disappearances are not given the attention they deserve because other forms of sexusm still thrive, which pose a peril to women’s humanity and autonomy. Therefore, changing the perception of even something seemingly unrelated, like abortion, for instance, may very well act as a step in the right direction.
While abortion is legal in Mexico, many states prohibit it. Abortion bans serve to dehumanize a woman by treating her merely as a vessel, so it is not surprising if the perpetrators of gender-based violence subconciously internalize the message that a woman’s body is not her own and can be disrespected and abused because the law implcitly permits it.
Advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights can also function to greatly reduce femicides, as women and their bodies are respected and given autonomy instead of forced to a man. Stopping sexism from its root, too, is an important aspect. The “light” sexual harrassment directed at women in the workplace and on the streets contribute to the idea that femicides are accepted, because, from the very beginning, women are viewed in terms of sexual objects, rarther than fully-fledged humans with lives. It is easier to verbally abuse, physically torment, and eventually kill an object than it is to kill a human being for this reasonlaws against workplace harassment, abortion bans, domestic violence, rape, and many more, should be fixed to protect women. Martin Luther King famously said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Arguably, the reverse holds true: justice anywhere can be a threat to injustice anywhere.
Eradicating sexism and all of its gritty forms is only a part of the equation. However, Mexican law grants impunity to those murderers. In 2018, 93 percent of crimes were either unreported or uninvestigated. This is not surprising given that the victims are “battered and discriminated [against] when trying to access the justice system”, both of which show a lack of credibility of the reports. In short, women lack access to a judicial system to which they should be entitled. When men do not receive fair punishments for their crimes, they are not discouraged from committing them, Ana Carcedo argues in her analysis. The State sends a message of “permissiveness and tolerance” towards violence against women, which leads to 77% of Mexican women reporting feeling unsafe in their own country. Both Carcedo and Marcela Lagarde maintain that femicides are more likely to happen in places where they are not punished harshly. Therefore, in addition to battling “milder” forms of sexism, femicides should be typified as a unique kind of crime, distinct from general homicides. While the Senate did vote to make the crime a separate felony, it committed a grave mistake by blaming previous corrupt administrations rather than addressing systemic sexism. The criminalization of femicides and the confrontation of institutional misogyny must go hand in hand; fulfilling one without the other dilutes the cause. Moreover, since authorities are just as guilty of perpetuating femicides as the murderers themselves, the UNHRC hypothesizes that “If public authorities can be punished because of negligence, public authorities are discouraged from discriminating women or exonerating victimisers… femicide rates should decrease ”.
There is a third, quite insidious, factor to the rise in women’s disappearances and murders: the culture of machismo. Machismo is a type of toxic masculinity prevalent in Latin American and Hispanic cultures, characterized by an entitlement to dominate, superiority of men, and the assumption that virility and outward demonstrations of strength are tied to masculinity. Many Latina women recount the ways in which the men in their family asserted dominance over the women, while others recall how they were taught to accept sexual harassment and assault as a form of flattery. When male dominance is actively encouraged and violence against women is viewed as complimentary, femicides and disappearances of women cease to be seen as a problem requiring national attention.
The good news, however, is that despite being ingrained so deeply in the fabric of Latin American and Hispanic societies, machismo can be unlearned, according to feminists.
To start, it is important to talk openly about the issue, according to Carolina Hoyos Bolívar, a member of Las Guamas, a collective that organizes monthly meetings in Colombia. In the United Nations, the American Psychiatric Association has published guidelines on how to approach the issues men face, and the ManKind project is encouraging men to open up about their emotions. A similar program has reached Latin America, with the EU in Colombia setting up The National School for the Unlearning of Machismo (ENDEMA).
In both countries, the goal is the same: to allow men to ponder deeply the harmful attitudes of machismo and to teach them that anger is not the only emotion they are allowed to express. In Mexico City, Gendes, a civil society organization, offers group therapy four days a week to men who have engaged in domestic violence. The group gives examples of men who have benefited from the program, including Jorge Alberto, who learned to respect his girlfriend’s decision to end their relationship and has attempted to promote Gendes to colleagues. To encourage more men to seek professional help, however, the stigma against both therapy and men’s mental health must be removed. Educational and literacy campaigns, such as incorporating chapters on mental health, including men’s mental health, in school curriculums, and providing better training to healthcare providers about the issues men face, have been found effective at reducing stigma. Such educational efforts must also consist of an understanding that mental illness is not purely psychological and cannot be fixed just by a change of behavior. “When [her Latino patients] understand that chemicals in the brain play a primary role, they view the diseases differently.” explains Dr. Lorenzo.
Men like Guerrero and López Obrador have already given in to the patriarchy and based their masculinity upon mistreatment of and disregard for women, but there is hope that the next generation’s leaders could be men — and women — who have unlearned toxic ideals.
Mariam Jawhar is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2022 quarter. She can be reached at email@example.com.