By Patricia Gras
More than 45,000 people have lost their lives since the United States and Mexico signed the Merida Initiative in June of 2008. The security cooperation agreement provided Mexico with $400 million for the so-called “Drug War” to address issues of security, crime and drugs, but this outlay isn’t denting the $23 billion a year cross-border drug trade.
There’s been no perceptible impact upon either the quantity of illegal drugs or the rate at which they’re being consumed. Mexicans continue to die in the border area in unprecedented numbers and the chaotic region has become a fertile ground for those who commit violence against women.
Drug-related violence in Mexico has escalated exponentially, with the death toll rising 480% to 16,466 in 2011 from 2,837 in 2007. More than 370 women have been murdered just in the border city of Juarez since 1993, according to Amnesty International.
Amazingly, the violence against women in Juarez has been spreading to other areas of Mexico along with the drug war since 2006. It’s one of the ugly spin-offs from the brutal struggle for border dominance between the drug cartels and corrupt local officials, and the military and the federal government led by President Filipe Calderon.
As respect for civil rights have become a luxury in Mexico, women have suffered disproportionately.
Things have gotten so bad that Latin America feminists have started using the term “femicide” to describe the rampant murder, mutilation, rape and beatings of women in Mexico and Central America.
“Femicide is increasing, but the state tries to make it invisible,” said Nobel Laureate Jody Williams. “There has been a 40% rise in femicide since Calderon became president. Most of the women are between 11-30 years old; only 20% of the cases have a domestic component.”
Violence against women is a problem around the world. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM ) estimates that at least one out every three women globally will be beaten, raped or otherwise abused during their lifetime. During war, the stats get worse. Since 2000, 90% of civilian casualties have been women and children in conflict areas, not soldiers, according to UNIFEM.
A group of female Nobel Laureates corroborated this grim imbalance in Mexico in January. I was part of a Nobel Women’s Initiative delegation, led by Williams (right), who won her peace prize in 1997 for work banning landmines around the world.
I first met Williams while following up on the Women, War and Peace series on PBS by award winning documentarian Abigail Disney. She worked to defend human rights in the 1980s, especially in Central America, and is now leading a campaign to stop violence against women worldwide.
The Nobel Women’s Initiative gathered a diverse group together from the U.S. and Canada, which included journalists, human rights activists, an Oscar winning documentary filmmaker, a celebrity folk singer/songwriter, a comedian, and a movie star. We were there to listen to human rights activists in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. I participated in the Mexican portion of the trip.
The goal was to listen and find out why there were so many violations against human rights activists, especially females fighting injustice and insecurity, and to pressure the Mexican Government to do more to protect its own people.
We found that violence toward civilians, journalists and human rights activists is on the rise.
Right now, Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist and if you are female the danger increases. Marisol Macias Castaneda, newsroom manager of the Primera Hora newspaper in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, was beheaded in 2011 for using social media to report on criminals.
One of our delegates was Laura Carlsen, the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. She has been writing about the current drug war’s impact on women in Mexico.
Civilians and women account for the vast majority of the 50,000 Mexicans who have disappeared during the government’s assault on the drug trade, according to Carlsen.
Mexican President Filipe Calderon (above right) says violence against women is mostly related to the drug dealers. However, hard statistics are elusive in a nation where only 2% of the crimes against women are investigated.
Women traditionally have been subservient to men in Mexico, but their social standing has eroded even further as the brutality of the drug war has permeated the border region.
In the last few years, six prominent human rights defenders have been murdered. Women make up a small portion of murders in Mexico, but they increasingly are the in the frontline of the battle for civil rights as they demand justice, conduct their own investigations, and stand up for the disappeared, the raped, trafficked, tortured and dismembered.
National, state and local security forces are responsible for 55% of the instances and threats of violence against female human rights activists, according to a recent survey.
As a resident of Texas, I’m no stranger to the impact the drug war has had on the border region, but the stories of brutality that we heard still shocked me. An unannounced war is underway for control of the lucrative Mexican border region that’s claiming thousands of innocent victims, many of them women.
In this chaotic climate, the routine murder of the poor and working-class women drawn to the Maquiladora factories is clearly not a priority. The Juarez victims fit a similar profile, with many of them being slender, dark-skinned young women from impoverished backgrounds.
As women in the developed world fret about equal pay and glass ceilings, we learned that our sisters in Mexico continue to pay for their gender with their lives.
In two days we heard testimony from over 50 women from 11 Mexican states and the common word that came out of their accounts was “impunity.” They say there is no justice in Mexico, even for those who demand it in response to the disappearance of a daughter, the murder of a son, or the rape of a human rights activist by police.
The Nobel Women’s Initiative is preparing a report on their findings, which will document every account we heard. Each victim was transformed from a cold, hard impersonal statistic into an individual as they told us their tragic stories.
Each story had a face, and included a family’s suffering, an unsolved mystery and a high level of frustration and disappointment with authorities. Sadly, these accounts by the women of Mexico are seldom heard either in their country or elsewhere in the world.
We heard the story of Araceli Rodríguez who is part of a movement for peace. Her son, a police officer disappeared like hundreds do in Mexico and there was no investigation. She and others started the peace movement to carry out the investigations themselves.
“I have learned to turn my own pain into collective strength,” Rodríguez said. “My soul has been mutilated by the absence of my son.”
Grief-stricken María Herrera Magdalena shared a similar account.
Her four sons disappeared along with 19 other people in her village in the state of Michoacan. As is often the case, their cases were never investigated. Today, Magdalena spends every day tired of crying and begging for information. She is now committed to helping other families find their loved ones and demanding justice from their government.
“I have found hope,” she said, “in the millions of us who don’t want to live this war anymore. Mexico has been converted into a place of blood and tears. We want peace back. We need support.”
Magdalena, like so many other Mexican mothers, is calling for a cease fire in a war that has claimed so many innocent and seemingly forgotten victims.
“This is a national tragedy – we have been betrayed by our government,” Magdalena said. “When we try to talk with officials about our disappeared loved ones, they make fun of our evidence. They humiliate us. They give us veiled threats in the form of ‘wise counsel’ about forgetting the past and just moving forward.”
One of the most difficult cases we heard was fraught with tremendous brutality and violence. A young woman from Chiapas shared how working as a health provider with native women led to her torture and rape by several police agents. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and can no longer find work, send her children to school or find treatment.
Many of these women have joined groups to do the investigative work that public servants are unable or unwilling to perform for the families of those who have disappeared.
Our group also visited Chilpancingo, the state capital of the mountain region of Guerrero, which is one of the poorest and most violent states in Mexico. Eighty percent of the natives here live in utter poverty and women suffer daily indignities a the hands of police, the military, local governments and even their own tribes.
“I was struck by the total lack of justice for indigenous women” Williams said. “They have no access to justice.”
Tlachinollan, the human rights center which welcomed us, struggles to keep its doors open for human rights workers and those in need in this area. The center’s resources are spread thin as it tries to provide social and legal services and ensure mining interests respect the rights of local inhabitants.
The area’s needs have outstripped the center’s meager resources due to the increasing militarization of the area.
Indigenous communities are plagued by domestic violence, but there is not a single shelter in the region for battered women. The scarcity of government social services also extends to health care. We heard from Juana Anairis whose sister died of a post-pregnancy staph infection in her twenties simply because the doctor refused to see her over the weekend.
“We are persecuted by the state, by the police, by the land barons,” one woman told us. “When we try to defend out rights, we’re made fun of and humiliated because we don’t speak the dominant language and speak in our mother language.”
Widows Margarita Martín and Marta Morales lost their human rights activist husbands and are trying to raise their children alone now. They are unable to find work.
Much of the violence against women in rural Mexico is ingrained in their local communities and represents a bitter cycle of poverty and familial repression. We heard numerous stories from women who succeeded in finding work outside their community only to be shunned upon their return.
Yet the courageous women who spoke to us have not given up.
Our delegation heard tale after tale of triumph in the face of adversity. The women of Mexico have established radio stations, led environmental groups, joined the police force and defended women’s productive rights in the face of grinding harassment and danger.
They continue to seek justice, even though they are often revictimized, ignored, scapegoated, and threatened for even speaking out.
“Our organization was born out of the needs of the women of our community,” said one woman who is part of an illegal radio station that serves indigenous people. “We fight for the rights of women, human rights, education and to defend our culture. We also defend our environment. We have been shut out and we demand our rights.”
Patricia Gras is a veteran journalist and an ardent storyteller. She speaks five languages, holds three master’s and worked as broadcast journalist at HoustonPBS (KUHT-TV) from 1990 to 2011. Gras has won six regional Emmy Awards and 17 national Telly awards. She lives in Houston.