By Rebecca Heine

On September 7, 2017, 19-year-old political science student Mara Fernanda Castilla had gone out with her friends to a nightclub in Puebla, a state in eastern Mexico. She never returned home. After ordering a taxi to her house through a ride-hailing app, video footage showed the car pulling up at the planned destination, stopping for a few minutes and then taking off once again. Mara’s body was found abandoned in a ditch more than a week later, wrapped in sheets and a towel branding the logo of a nearby motel. Later police investigations confirmed that she had been beaten, sexually abused and strangled to death.

Far from an isolated event, Mara’s tragic fate is shared by women from all over the country who are murdered and beaten on a near-daily basis. In some cases, they have had been bound, mutilated and raped. Female bodies have been left to rot in remote fields, dumped in rivers or run over by cars. Others have simply disappeared, leaving despaired relatives searching for an explanation as to what may have happened to the victims. This phenomenon is classified as femicide, the intentional murder of women because they are women.

Gender-related murder occurs all over the world, but the single region most affected is Latin America. Out of the 25 countries with the highest femicide rates, more than half are found in this part of the world. In Mexico alone, more than 50,000 such murders have been reported since 1985, a third of which have taken place in the last six years. The origins can be traced back to Ciudad Juárez, a border city to the United States, notorious for drug cartels and dangerous routes for undocumented migrants. Women began disappearing here in the 1990s, and their bones and body parts showed up along the outskirts of the city. Many were teenage girls who had come to work in maquiladoras – mainly foreign-owned manufacturing plants operating on the Mexico-US border. Since then, the scale of the problem has escalated. According to UN Women, in 2016 an estimated seven women were killed per day in gender-related violence.

It is most common for the perpetrator to be someone known to the victim. The mistreatment develops progressively, from verbal harassment, intimidation, abuse, threats and beatings to forced sex and persecution. From there on, the most extreme manifestation of gender violence is murder. The principal motives often include feelings of rage, hatred, jealousy and the search for pleasure. Yet the root causes can be found on a structural level, relating to the patriarchal society and the machismo culture prominent in many Latin American countries. Women are devalued and considered disposable. The male perpetrators of the crimes display a sense of ownership in which the power of the woman lies not in her own hands, but in his. Furthermore, victim blaming and sexist allegations are common in Mexico. Women are denounced for wearing short skirts, for seeking troublesome men or for gathering in settings where prostitution occurs. They are thus targeted not only with the crimes themselves, but also with the burden of blame.

Norms and values are only part of the explanation. After all, misogyny and sexism exist in all countries to some degree, while few see the Mexican rate of seven murdered women per day. To understand this extreme case, one must consider the failure of the political and legal system in preventing and punishing femicides.

A large part of the problem is corruption and the lack of competence of public servants. When a woman goes missing, families are usually obliged to fund the search for her themselves. Authorities demand that relatives supply basic medical tools, or they ask for bribes that will supposedly speed up the bureaucratic process. Since Mexican police forces are heavily underfunded, there is a temptation to let the work be guided by economic benefit rather than the severity of the suspected crime. Serious shortcomings within the forensics system exacerbates the problem. In some medical facilities, female bodies are stacked upon one another in narrow morgue refrigerators. Other corpses are left lying on the floor with mosquitos drawn to their blood. What is supposed to be a clean medical forensic site becomes more like a crime scene itself.

The problem is not necessarily a lack of legislation. On the contrary, many of Latin America’s countries boast stringent rules that define the murder of women as a specific crime. In the case of Mexico, article 325 of the federal penal code clearly stipulates the various criteria for femicide and other forms of gender-related violence. Furthermore, the Mexican government states on its website that all violent deaths of women, even those that appear to have been caused by accident or suicide, must be analyzed through a gender perspective. Missing, however, is law enforcement. As with most crimes in Mexico, the vast majority of killings are never brought to court. Additionally, out of the 800 registered murders of women committed in 13 Mexican states in the first half of 2017, only half were investigated as femicide despite carrying the characteristics defined in article 325.

The awareness on femicides is growing, and for every new revealed case more and more people head to the streets to protest. Local and international NGO’s work to pressure the government, monitor cases and provide support to relatives. Yet clearly, more needs to be done. Police must be trained to identify and document femicide, social services must work to help women in risk and courts must improve their chances of punishing perpetrators. And on a deeper societal level, the attitudes and perceptions that drive the violence need to be changed. If misogyny and patriarchal structures are not replaced by gender equality and respect for women, the tragic phenomenon of femicides will continue to plague Latin America and the rest of the world.

By Rebecca Heine

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