MEXICO CITY — In Mexico, the beginning of 2020 was marked by one horrific act of violence against women after another. Stories flooded the Mexican press of Ingrid Escamilla, a 25-year-old whose husband killed, and then partially skinned, her. Just days later, it was 7-year-old Fátima Cecilia Aldrighett Antón, who, after her parents were late to pick her up from school, was kidnapped. Her body was found mutilated several days later.
Women across Mexico were horrified — and inspired to mobilize. On March 8, International Women’s Day, an unprecedented number of women took to the streets to protest violence against women. Officials estimated 80,000 protesters attended; others have put that count at 200,000. The next day, an estimated 57 percent of the country’s working women participated in a “Day Without Women,” in which they stayed home from offices, schools and other public spaces. They were protesting those brutal femicides, or murders of women with gender-related motivation.
For many Mexican women, the early March mobilizations felt like an inflection point. But just days later, Mexico began to shut down in the face of covid-19. About a week after Women’s Day, schools shuttered. A few weeks later, the confirmed count had passed 1,000. Currently, all nonessential businesses in Mexico City are closed; passengers on the metro are required to wear face masks, and pedestrian and vehicle movement in the city has been reduced by over 80 percent.
Domestic violence has taken on new urgency during the pandemic. Across the world, many women are now stuck at home with abusive partners, which has led to increased reports of violence. In Mexico, the Red Nacional de Refugios, or National Shelters Network, reported an 80 percent increase in emergency phone calls related to domestic violence since confinement began. “The lack of work, the lack of opportunities, can explode in violence against women and children,” says Aleli Vieyra Reyes, a lawyer at the Mexico City-based organization Casa Gaviota.
Now, collectives like Brujas del Mar, the feminist group that organized the country’s Day Without Women, are seeking new ways to mobilize. Arussi Unda, a spokeswoman for the organization, says her collective is continuing to receive messages from women experiencing violence. But reduced capacity of government institutions has made it more difficult to report incidents of abuse, she says. “Everything has been digital, referring them to institutions, calling the police.”
The same goes for Las del Aquelarre, another feminist collective in Mexico City. Ana Elena Contreras, a member of the group, says she has continued to receive calls from women in danger during self-quarantine.
According to Contreras, the collective has heard from a woman who survived a femicide attempt by her husband during the lockdown. “He hit her and tried to choke her,” she says. “She left the house and now has a restraining order.”
Many women say the legal system in Mexico already seemed rigged against survivors of sexual violence — thus the momentum to protest just two months ago. But now, according to Vieyra Reyes, all cases reported before the covid-19 crisis began have been frozen while authorities are occupied with pandemic-related matters.
In other words, the shutdown of activities in the country has placed yet another obstacle in the path of women seeking justice: As the world stands still, their fates hang in legal limbo.
‘I told my story six or seven times’
To understand just how much in limbo these women are, it’s important to get a clear picture of what the process of reporting sexual violence looked like before the pandemic. About 93 percent of crimes in Mexico go unreported, and over 98 percent of crimes remain in impunity. Violence against women is an epidemic: Experts estimate that 10 femicides occur each day in the country, many by the women’s partners.
For many women, involving the authorities can be a traumatic ordeal. They know that the police who take down reports of sexual violence could be perpetrators themselves. In August, a case made headlines of a woman who went to report a case of sexual assault — and was raped by one of the police officers while in the process of giving her report. In a 2016 study of prison populations in Mexico, 15 percent of women arrested said they were raped by security forces.
Xoch Rodriguez Quintero, who’s now 26, first reported their sexual assault to the Mexico City police in 2017, eight months after the incident took place. Quintero, who goes by they/them pronouns, says they had been deeply depressed after the incident.
When Quintero went into the station for one of many follow-up meetings, an official told them that, in fact, their case had been closed. They hadn’t demonstrated enough signs of psychological damage for it to be worth pursuing. Quintero was shocked: The incident and ensuing trauma had caused them to lose their job, move back in with their parents and embark on a search for medication to regulate their hormones and mental health. Then the official backtracked: They’d opened the wrong file; they couldn’t find Quintero’s, and could they come back another day?
Only once Quintero found a lawyer did they decide to take action. “I told my story six or seven times.”
Quintero says they spent multiple days inside the office of Mexico City’s Special Agency for Sex Crimes, housed deep inside a building known colloquially as the Bunker, trying to get the city’s prosecutor to settle their case. The department has not responded to requests for comment.
Last August, the building became the site of protests that made international headlines: Women threw pink glitter onto Jesús Orta Martinez, the city’s security minister at the time. (He has since resigned.) Protesters were responding to a police case file that had been leaked: A 17-year-old girl in the northern neighborhood of Azcapotzalco was reportedly sexually assaulted by two police officers patrolling the area. Days later, another story surfaced of a young woman who was allegedly raped by a police officer in the bathroom of a downtown museum where she had an internship.
Amy Lira has also come to know the Bunker intimately. The actress, performer and activist is the director of Accompaniment at Casa Mandarina, a Mexico City-based organization aimed at eradicating sexual violence by providing legal and psychological support to victims.
Reporting a case of sexual assault is generally a several-hours-long process, according to Lira. Even once someone has filed their report, Lira says, a whole host of bureaucratic irregularities can arise. Some people return to follow up on cases and find, like Quintero, that theirs had been put on reserve. Others discover that, in completing the paperwork, officials have demoted the severity of the crime: A rape case may be filed as sexual abuse, for example.
Another obstacle to justice in sexual violence cases is the bureaucracy behind identifying suspects, according to Casa Gaviota’s Vieyra Reyes. The process of putting together the case file can take months, if it happens at all, she says, giving the perpetrator the opportunity to evade justice. With the lapse in time, many victims give up on following up on their cases.
How the pandemic is shaping victims’ experiences
As of March, nearly three years after originally reporting their sexual assault, Quintero has decided to leave their case behind.
Since government activities have been reduced because of covid-19, the city’s special prosecutors — including the Special Prosecutor for Sex Crimes — are no longer taking reports in person. Instead, according to Vieyra Reyes, the city has provided a telephone hotline for victims of domestic violence. After a victim reports, she says, police officers will be sent to the victim’s house once a day to check on the situation.
Only if the case is very serious — such as a rape or a femicide attempt — are victims encouraged to report the incident in person, at a local police station. There, Vieyra Reyes says, the victim will report to whomever is currently on call — not necessarily an official specifically trained to attend to cases of sexual violence.
For many victims of domestic or sexual violence, the covid-19 shutdown has only augmented the difficulty of seeking help. In the midst of the crisis, femicides are continuing to occur. On April 2, Ana Paola, a 15-year-old from Jalisco, was killed in her home while her father had gone out for groceries. Feminist groups arranged a “virtual protest” to demand justice for Paola, whose murderer was sentenced to 70 years in prison on April 11.
Contreras, of Las del Aquelarre, says the government ought to consider violence against women as an essential part of the coronavirus response, given the added risk many women now face. Organizations like hers are continuing to sound the alarm, even as many other aspects of life are put on hold. They’re launching virtual protests to denounce the violence women are currently experiencing, for example, including one on May 9 under the hashtag #PeligroEnCasa, or #DangerAtHome. Although right now they can’t fill the streets, they continue to support survivors of violence however they can — and are demanding that the government do the same.
“The efforts need to be reinforced,” she says.