Indigenous Women: The Invisible Victims of Femicide in Mexico

Indigenous Women: The Invisible Victims of Femicide in Mexico

. 9 min read

Imagine this scenario: you learn that a young woman is missing in your city. The next day, someone finds her body on the side of the highway. She has been stabbed dozens of times and is now unrecognizable. However, no one investigates her murder, and a week later, the same thing happens to another woman. Two days after the second murder, yet another woman is killed. You are outraged and begin to lose faith in the local authorities.

Unfortunately, this is a common scenario in many parts of Mexico.

What is Femicide?

Femicide, or the “intentional murder of women because they are women,” has recently become one of Mexico’s most pressing issues. In February 2020, protests erupted all over Mexico following the deaths of a seven-year-old girl named Fátima, whose body was found inside of a plastic bag, and a 25-year-old woman named Ingrid Escamilla, who was brutally murdered after an argument with her boyfriend. Over the past five years, femicides in Mexico have increased by 137 percent.

Femicide will not go away on its own because it is closely linked to certain aspects of Mexican culture and society, such as the concept of machismo, which embodies traditional male gender roles. Many Mexican men believe that they must provide for and protect their families, and may resort to physical violence to take control of a situation because they equate violence to power. Machismo culture increases the likelihood that Mexican women will become victims of physical abuse. The more a situation escalates, the more likely that the abuse will result in femicide. Pamela Neumann, an assistant professor of Latin American Studies at Bucknell University, explained, “There has been a social and cultural expectation in Latin America since the Spanish conquest, that men are entitled to women, and it’s how they express their sense of masculinity. Crimes against women are simply seen as less important because women are not as important in society.”

How Does It Impact Indigenous Women Specifically?

Indigenous women are often absent from conversations about femicide, even though Indigenous peoples make up over 15 percent of Mexico’s population. The many levels of oppression that Indigenous women face, especially due to their gender and socioeconomic class, make them more likely to be the victims of violent crimes, such as femicide. Approximately 80 percent of Indigenous Mexicans experience extreme poverty. This poverty is especially prevalent in the three states with the lowest levels of socioeconomic development, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero, all of which are located in Mexico’s southernmost region, where much of the Indigenous population lives. Since Indigenous women living in underdeveloped areas have access to fewer resources and economic opportunities than other Mexican women, many find themselves stuck in unsafe situations. Cartels have also put Indigenous women in danger. Many cartels are involved in human trafficking, the third-largest illegal industry in Mexico, after drug and arms trafficking. Seventy percent of human trafficking victims are Indigenous women, a percentage that will grow as the industry becomes more profitable for cartels. All of these factors make Indigenous women particularly vulnerable to violence.

Case Study: Ciudad Juárez

This violence can be seen in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican border city located across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Hundreds of foreign-run factories called maquiladoras have sprung up over the past 30 years, turning the city into a manufacturing hotspot. Many Indigenous women have migrated to the city to work in the maquiladoras because they could no longer support themselves in rural areas or were displaced from their homes. Culturally, Indigenous women are expected to use the land’s natural resources to sustain their families, but they have trouble acquiring their own land because the process to obtain land titles favors men. Indigenous communities have also lost much of their territory to the Mexican government, which has failed to recognize the Indigenous peoples’ “Free, Prior and Informed Consent,” a UN principle that asserts that “all peoples have the right to self-determination,” as well as the right to “freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

While Ciudad Juárez has always seen a lot of drug-related activity due to its position near the US-Mexico border, increased levels of economic activity have made it a prime spot for the drug trade and other forms of organized crime. Several cartels, most notably the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels, have fought for control of the city’s coveted drug trafficking routes, leading to gang wars. The growth of manufacturing in Ciudad Juárez has also resulted in a higher rate of poverty. The 324 maquiladoras that employ thousands of Juarenses generally pay their workers between US$4-11 per day, which makes it difficult for them to afford necessities like food, utilities, and rent. Most of these manufacturing jobs do not offer employee benefits, and there are few measures in place to regulate hours, wages, and working conditions. The devaluation of the Mexico peso to an average 2019 exchange rate of just over 19 pesos per United States dollar means that even if the maquiladora workers’ salaries increased, they would still have very little purchasing power.

By the late 2000s, Ciudad Juárez had become the murder capital of the world with a record 3,622 murders in 2009 alone. As a result of this upturn in violence, many of the wealthier residents left the city, while the Indigenous maquiladora workers stayed behind. Although the murder rate has declined since 2009, 1,500 murders took place in 2019, making it Ciudad Juárez’s fourth deadliest year on record. Many femicides occurred during the city’s 2009-2010 murder wave, but femicide first became widespread in Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s as the maquiladora industry began to emerge. It is such a common phenomenon that the residents of Ciudad Juárez would be surprised if no femicides had taken place in the past few days. In 2010, 304 women were the victims of femicides, which means that a woman died almost every day as the result of a violent crime, some involving rape, torture, or trafficking. These crimes were usually related to cartels or domestic violence, reiterating the idea that women often have no way out of unsafe situations.

The maquiladora industry has fostered its own wave of femicides that endangers the lives of Indigenous women in particular. Many Indigenous women and girls look for work in the factories to improve their economic situations, yet these very jobs put them at high risk. They usually have to walk to work or take the public bus because they may not have access to other modes of transportation, but the commute has become an opportunity for human traffickers to kidnap and murder some of these women. The exact number of Indigenous women who have disappeared on their way to or from work is unknown, but likely constitute a large portion of Ciudad Juárez’s vanishing women. Unfortunately, accurate data about femicide among Indigenous Mexican women is not available. Indigenous women are statistically underrepresented in reports discussing femicide, especially those from remote, rural areas where it might be difficult to communicate with the local population to collect data. For instance, many Indigenous Mexicans live far from urban centers and, in some cases, paved roads, making it difficult for government officials to travel to these communities and thus gather information about the prevalence of femicide and other gender-based crimes among Indigenous populations. In addition, 14.7 percent of Indigenous Mexicans do not speak Spanish, creating a language barrier.

Case Study: Ecatepec

However, Ciudad Juárez is not the only Mexican city with a femicide problem. Ecatepec de Morelos (commonly referred to as Ecatepec) is a suburb located half an hour outside of Mexico City that is about the size of Phoenix, Arizona, with a population of over 1.6 million. It is also considered one of the country’s deadliest places for women. Much like the rural Mexicans who migrated to Ciudad Juárez to work in the maquiladoras, Ecatepec’s population largely consists of people who moved closer to the nation’s capital in search of a better life and more economic opportunities. Many of these migrants came from the surrounding states of Hidalgo and Puebla, both of which have significant Indigenous Mexican populations: Indigenous people make up 36.21 and 35.28 percent of their populations, respectively. Ecatepec grew rapidly during a period of increased migration to the Mexico City area in the 1980s, for which the suburb was not prepared. It did not have the appropriate infrastructure, nor services to support its growing population, leading to chaos, disorganization, and violence. Although cartels do not have a large presence in Ecatepec, many smaller criminal groups participate in the drug trade. These groups have recently become involved with larger drug trafficking groups.

Much of Ecatepec’s violence is directed toward women. From 2012-2016, more than 600 women were murdered in Ecatepec, and it is not uncommon for the police to deal with at least one female murder victim a day. In 2018, a Mexican newspaper reported that Ecatepec surpassed Ciudad Juárez as Mexico’s femicide capital. Due to the aforementioned influx of migrants from the states surrounding Mexico City, a large number of Ecatepec’s femicide victims are Indigenous women. Similar to the maquiladora workers in Ciudad Juárez, many women do not feel safe walking down the street. In fact, 92.1 percent of Ecatepec residents report feeling unsafe where they live. In a sense, the violence has become normalized. Women warn each other not to visit certain areas, and many consider a neighborhood called Los Bordos the most dangerous area of Ecatepec. In 2015, 516 murders took place in Los Bordos. For reference, this neighborhood had a higher murder rate than five Mexican states. Some women only travel to and from work and refuse to go out at night, when they are most likely to be the victims of kidnappings, robberies, and assaults. However, these crimes take place in the daylight as well.

Metal crosses throughout Ecatepec commemorate the lives of slain women, whose bodies have been found in streets, parking lots, parks, rivers, and even on public busses. In a city with little police presence, police officers rarely investigate the disappearances and murders of Indigenous women and claim that the victims were probably involved with drugs or sex work, when the majority of these women were walking down the street or otherwise going about their daily lives. From 2014-2017, officials in the State of Mexico, where Ecatepec is located, only classified 16 percent of murders with female victims as femicides. The actual percentage of cases that were femicides is likely much higher than reported, due to similar reporting issues as in Ciudad Juárez.

Potential Solutions

Mexico’s UN Women Representative Belén Sanz Luque has said that NGOs, governments (at every level), and general society all have a role to play in combating the femicide crisis. Significant systemic changes must take place to alleviate the femicide crisis. The local level would be the best place to start since femicide disproportionately impacts certain groups, such as Indigenous women. Locally-based organizations that address cases of sexual assault and gender-based violence are usually effective because they focus on investigating and preventing these types of crimes while building personal relationships —and therefore trust— within the community. This is critical in Indigenous communities because many Indigenous women live in rural areas and do not have access to medical care, therapy, or other resources. As a result, the majority of violent incidents with Indigenous victims go unreported, and the victims and their families do not seek help. The language barrier is another issue. A national survey found that Indigenous women have on average half the education level of Indigenous men and are less likely to speak Spanish. Many have trouble communicating with medical professionals and thus require translators, who may not be readily available or whose services may cost more than the women can afford, further complicating the situation and making it more difficult for Indigenous women to get the help they need.

In Ecatepec, Viviana Muciño works directly with marginalized women, including Indigenous women. She volunteers at the Ecatepec Women’s Justice Center, which provides support to women who have been the victims of violent gender-based crimes, helps women advocate for themselves when speaking to government officials, and counsels families who have lost loved ones to femicide. Muciño is passionate about ending femicide and other forms of gender-based violence because the police did not properly investigate her sister’s 2004 murder, which she considers a femicide. Local organizations such as the Women’s Justice Center are particularly impactful for marginalized women because the staff and volunteers are products of the same community and therefore can relate to these women. In an interview about the crusade against femicide, Muciño emphasized that she is dedicated to her community and declared, “Long ago we decided that we are committed to this fight for the long haul. For Nadia [Muciño’s sister] and because we cannot allow more men to get away with killing women.”

Another way to address femicide and gender-based crimes is through legal reform. Indigenous women should participate in decision and law-making processes because they are heavily impacted by the femicide crisis. However, they are also severely underrepresented in the Mexican government. Only five out of 500 legislators in the Mexican Congress (one percent) identify as Indigenous, while over 15 percent of Mexico’s population is Indigenous. None of the Indigenous legislators are women, which means that Indigenous women do not have a voice in national politics.

Sweeping legislative reform would critically address the violent nature of femicide and other crimes against women. La Ley General de Acceso de las Mujeres a una Vida Libre de Violencia (The General Law for Women’s Access to a Violence-Free Life) was passed in 2007. Under the law, all murders of women must be investigated as femicides, and perpetrators of femicides can face prison sentences of up to 60 years. It is also supposed to provide families of victims with support resources. Many of these provisions are not enforced, however, rendering the law mostly ineffective. A reworked piece of legislation would serve to create a strong legal framework for investigating and prosecuting cases of femicide, especially in rural areas and indigenous communities. Above all, for true justice to prevail, the Mexican government and law enforcement must hold the people who commit these crimes responsible for their actions. From 2010-2011, only four percent of the perpetrators in Mexican femicide cases were sentenced to jail time. A failure to punish perpetrators would enable the cycle of femicide and other violent crimes to continue because they know that they likely won’t face harsh consequences if they are caught. Women’s fears are legitimate, yet heartbreaking. They shouldn’t have to worry about becoming the next victim of the femicide crisis while walking down the street, but they must.

Mexican women deserve justice.