Six women murdered each day as femicide in Mexico nears a pandemic

by January 4, 2015 5:00AM ET

The carnage isn't just in border town Juárez, with the largest number of victims in province of Mexico state

A shrine dedicated to Rosa Diana Suárez Torres in the home of her father, José Diego Suárez Torres, Dec. 11, 2014.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America
José Diego Suárez Padilla has constructed the windows of his home to look like his daughter's eyes.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

ATIZAPAN DE ZARAGOZA, Mexico — José Diego Suárez Padilla has converted his home into a shrine to his daughter, Rosa Diana. Windows fashioned after her blue eyes stare out on the street. A painting of the girl in a white party dress covers a living room wall, overlooking an altar with offerings of chicken and chewing gum. The food has lain there so long that the red chili sauce has congealed.

Suárez Padilla explains to a visitor that he normally puts out fresh food but lately hasn’t had time. That’s because he’s busy all day consulting with lawyers and politicians to seek justice for her death.

Four years ago on New Year’s Eve, a jealous ex-boyfriend stabbed to death the 22-year-old secretarial student and bashed her face into a purple pulp. Suárez Padilla spent 10 months hunting down the youth when he went on the lam — authorities would not make the effort. Even though the young man confessed, he has not been sentenced. Suárez Padilla wants to see him behind bars, alongside the police who denied a restraining order two months before the murder when the youth burst into the house, stole her cell phone and threatened to kill her.

“They said it wasn’t a crime. What are public servants for if they don’t serve justice? They could have prevented her death,” says the anguished father, showing a file of documents a foot high that he has assembled to press his case.

His anguish resonates across Mexico, which local United Nations officials say ranks among the world’s 20 worst countries for violence against women. Newspapers routinely report “crimes of passion” or unidentified female body parts floating in sewage canals. Misogyny and corruption prevent most cases from seeing justice.

The bedroom of Rosa Diana Suárez Torres, Dec. 11, 2014.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

According to the National Citizen Femicide Observatory, a coalition of 43 groups that document the crime, six women are assassinated every day. 

Yet only 24 percent of the 3,892 femicides the group identified in 2012 and 2013 were investigated by authorities. And only 1.6 percent led to sentencing.

“Femicides are a pandemic in Mexico,” asserts Ana Güezmes, the local representative of United Nations Women, the agency devoted to gender issues.

The word "feminicidio" first entered the vernacular in the 1990s, with explosive rates of disappearances and murders of women in the border town of Ciudad Juárez. In fact, more women have been killed in the state of Mexico, which surrounds the capital city of the same name. The number doubled from 2005 to 2011, when the current national president, Enrique Peña Nieto, was governor of the state. Today he has pledged to combat drug violence overall but has not spoken out against femicides.

Impunity is the main motor of the gender crime, Güezmes says, as well as social norms that allow the violence to be ignored or accepted as a normal part of life. She describes femicides as the extreme end of a society where 63 percent of women have suffered abuse by male hands. She estimates that maybe a third or half of the cases involved sexual partners. The balance — abductions, rapes and  discarding the bodies like garbage — are probably linked to the generalized drug violence that is tearing Mexico apart.

Güezmes says the government needs to put more effort toward prevention, and improve access to justice. “These are the biggest problems.”

To counter the lack of reliable government statistics, the Observatory trawls through press clips and conducts interviews door-to-door in marginalized neighborhoods, like this one on the edge of the capital city, where cases normally take place.

Newspaper clippings related to the killing of Mariana Lima Buendia are kept by her mother.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

The group issues regular reports and provides pro bono lawyers to relatives seeking to prosecute killers. They also erect pink crosses at death scenes, but these rarely last more than a day before unidentified men take them down.

Most of these cases get lost in Mexico’s dysfunctional justice system, where police officers can’t be bothered to probe, or claim it’s the woman’s fault, or can be bought off by criminal gangs, says Maria de la Luz Estrada, head of the group. When the murders are investigated, incompetence and failure to follow due process often allow murderers to escape punishment.

Activists say the distinction of femicide in the law is important, because the sexual nature distinguishes the killings from ordinary homicide.

“Hate is what marks these crimes. The bodies show 20 or 30 blows,” de la Luz says. “They slice off breasts and faces and throw the fragments in the garbage. In a macho society like Mexico, authorities are always questioning what the women did. What was she wearing? Was she sexually active? This helps the impunity and lack of action.”

The victims are generally vulnerable young women, impoverished single mothers or teens. Attackers frequently seize victims on empty streets as they leave school or work, force them into cars, and then rape and torture them and dispose of the bodies.

Families in poor areas like this one generally lack the money or clout to seek legal action, says de la Luz. “The parents are scared to give photos and details to the police, because that can make them vulnerable to extortionists, who say, ‘We have her,’ when in fact they don’t. Corrupt authorities often say, ‘If you speak out, your case won’t advance.’”

Rosa Diana's father, José Diego Suárez Padilla, cries as he retells the story of his daughter's murder.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

Suárez Padilla is one of the few parents who have pressed charges, but he has had to confront misogynist cops, who implied that his daughter was responsible for her own death because her cell phone contained 200 nude photos taken by the killer.

He takes solace in the international pressure that convinced Mexican lawmakers in 2007 to approve new laws aimed at preventing violence against women. The law called for a data bank and gender violence alerts, to encourage national, state and local governments to catch perpetrators and prevent murders. Yet neither has been activated effectively.

The special prosecutor for violent crimes against women, Nelly Montealegre Diaz, admits that no femicides were prosecuted in 2014. She blames impunity and corruption, but says the government is addressing the problem in a gradual overhaul of the legal system.

Harder to combat, she says, is social acceptance of gender violence. “If a worker sees a [female] colleague with a black eye or the father hitting the mother, they think it is normal. Women are seen as objects.”

Irinena Buendía, mother of Mariana Lima Buendía, cries as she retells the story of her daughter's murder in her home in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, Dec. 13, 2014.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America
Irinea Buendía demonstrates the thickness of the rope her daughter supposedly used to hang herself.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

This brings no hope to Irinea Buendía, one of many mothers who has carried a pink cross on marches in her rough neighborhood of Nezahualcoyotl. Her daughter, Mariana, died in June 2010. The husband, a police officer, had beaten her repeatedly during two years of marriage, and tried to shoo away colleagues who arrived to investigate her death. The body lay prostrate on the bed covered in bruises. After 10 minutes, the inspectors bought his story that she had committed suicide with a thin cord, sitting down across the room.

Buendía holds out a red silk string of the type allegedly used. “How could this flimsy thing sustain her weight?”

The Observatory’s lawyers have taken up the case, and are seeking a hearing at the Supreme Court. But the family is not hopeful. The husband has been promoted to police commander.