Paloma Escobar Ledezma went missing on a Saturday. She left her home in Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua at 3:15 p.m. on March 2, 2002, to go to a weekend class downtown—a computer class she took between her long weekly shifts at a maquiladora. Her mother, Norma, expected her 16-year-old daughter home no later than 9 p.m., but Paloma never returned. “She didn’t come home,” Norma later said in a testimony. “She never came home.” Twenty-seven days after Paloma’s disappearance, her body was found near the Chihuahua-Ciudad Aldama highway with signs of sexual violence.
Though the governor of Chihuahua promised Norma that authorities would search for her daughter, they failed to uncover any clues. Instead, Norma says, the police called her days later and told her that Paloma was seen in the southern part of the city and that she was fine. “Lies, it was all lies,” Norma said in her testimony. Paloma’s murder is part of an epidemic of violence against women in Mexico, so common that’s it’s referred to as femicide, gender-based murder of women. According to the United Nations, roughly seven women are murdered every day in Mexico, and the rate of femicides in the country has risen significantly since 1985.
Even though Norma Ledezma lost her daughter, she refused to let her death become another statistic. Instead, she is a leader of the fight against femicides in both her home state of Chihuahua and across the country. With other activists, she founded the organization Justice for Our Daughters and worked on cases of women and girls who have either disappeared or been killed in Chihuahua. She did all of this despite multiple threats of violence. She even took Paloma’s case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which concluded that the Mexican state was responsible for violations of the rights to a fair trial and judicial protection, the rights of the child, and the right to equal protection of the law. The Mexican government offered a public apology to Ledezma and her family, and in 2012, the state of Chihuahua created the Special Prosecutor’s Unit for Female Victims of Gender-related Crimes, which currently serves only six out of the 67 municipalities, in compliance with the recommendations issued by the Commission.
“We did not start with the want to defend something. It is because [violence] affected us, because they took away our daughters, because we are victims,” Ledezma says.
But in August, the ground shifted for girls like Paloma and family members like Norma still seeking justice for their daughters. Mexican women took to the streets to demand justice on August 16, demanding an end to systemic gender violence. The countrywide protests were part of the “Glitter Revolution,” ignited after an activist doused Mexico City’s security minister, Jesús Orta Martínez, with pink glitter during an August 12 demonstration demanding justice for a 17-year-old girl allegedly raped by four police officers. Mexico City’s mayor Claudia Sheinbaum described the glitter bombing as “an act of provocation.”
“I see my daughter in each of them. I think she would also get up and scream for other women,” says Ledezma shedding happy tears. “These... young women with awareness, with knowledge, with commitment and even with the risks. We as families, or people who have lived through this situation, endorse these women.”
Mexican women marched, shouted, graffitied, chanted, danced, and courageously, pusieron sus cuerpos in a place where 10 women are killed daily, confronting decades of hearing, witnessing and facing violence, including its most extreme expression: femicide. Feminist collectives in more than half of the Mexican states called for protests, including Tamaulipas, the northeastern state just across from Texas—where women are constantly under threat from both domestic violence and organized crime—and which held its first feminist protest just days later. Though glitter quickly became a whimsical and visually striking symbol of Mexico’s feminist movements, its shine belied a decades-long collective scream, frustration with the disposability of women as well as the isolated struggle of thousands of families for whom justice is only the solidarity of the pueblo.
Carrying signs of “Ni una menos” and chanting the Latin American battle cry “Se va a caer, se va a caer, el patriarcado se va a caer” (It’s going down, it’s going down, the patriarchy is going down), protestors across the nation raised their fists against two cases of police abuse. They also raised their voices for Mara, a university student sexually assaulted and killed by the driver of a ride-hailing service; for Valeria, an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered on a minibus in the city of Neza in Southcentral Mexico; for all the girls and women who have become hashtags like #JUSTICIAPARA and #TODASSOMOS, and the other thousands who have disappeared, the crimes against them gone virtually unnoticed.
They protested for the 11 women who were sexually tortured by Mexican security forces in 2006 in the town of San Salvador de Atenco; the dozens of women who are raped every day; the thousands of women, mostly maquila workers, who were killed in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, beginning in the 1990s and are still being murdered; and the woman who was raped by a police officer inside a police station fewer than two weeks after the protests.
The women who organized and protested have shifted the context of violence against women, not as something that’s coming not just through a few lone perpetrators, but a reflection of broader cultural and legal systems that devalue women’s lives. “The north [of Mexico] is very machista, the culture is still retrograde and we didn’t realize we were part of this. It cannot be generalized because there are many compañeras who have spent years on this fight and many others who have just joined in the past years,” says a spokesperson for Rodada Feminista, one of the collectives that organized the rally in the northern city of Monterrey, Nuevo León, one of Mexico’s most conservative states. “The younger generations are very awake and can now see the bigger picture.”
Twenty-three-year-old Noemí Herrera was one of the many young women who joined the rally in Monterrey. Carrying a purple cardboard sign that read “Jealousy is a lethal weapon of the patriarchal system” written in black marker, she marched with her friends through the downtown streets of a city known for its “every man for himself” ideology, which, for women, means that victims are assumed to have been “asking for it.”
“I came because obviously everything that is happening hurt us a lot,” says Herrera, trying to contain herself. “I came especially in honor and name of a classmate who was murdered by her boyfriend a month ago.” She’s referring to Ángeles Zamora Bautista, a 21-year-old who was beaten and strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend on July 24 (he is still awaiting sentencing).
Though machista culture is embedded in all sectors of Mexican society, femicides are often explained as individual criminal acts, normalized and even justified by the climate of impunity and widespread violence due to the so-called war against organized crime. Victim-blaming is regularly used by authorities. Take the case of 11-year-old Valeria: her parents were told not to worry after she disappeared, and authorities suggested the girl was simply out with a boyfriend. But it’s not just the state: Victim-blaming is common in the media, widely spread by local and national outlets where headlines often treat women as provocateurs or complicit in the crimes committed against them. Immediately after the protests, the collective Mujeres+Mujeres was established in Monterrey to urge media outlets to change the kind of framing that perpetuates violence against women.
“To the extent that the media opens their perspective on why things happen, and begin to give in-depth coverage of the situation that women live, we are sure that the way in which the problem is perceived at the level of society will also be modified,” explains a spokesperson of Mujeres+Mujeres. But before transforming both the culture and justice system, the Mexican feminist movement must first face an internal challenge: how to break free from the cultural stratification and inequality characteristic of Mexican society, and above all, how to unite this struggle with the years-long fight of the mothers of disappeared and murdered women like Norma Ledezma.
“There has been an awareness among feminists. We cannot demand, for example, maternity leave when there are fundamental aspects, such as the lives of people, who are not resolved,” explains a spokesperson from Mujeres + Mujeres who responded in the name of the collective. We have to return to the roots of what is fundamental, and that is the protection of people’s lives and the security of people.”
With the inequality and discrimination that exists in the country, as Mujeres+Mujeres and Rodada Feminista explained, there is an urgent need for intersectionality and daily actions that focus not just on physical and sexual violence, but all the types of violence that Mexican women face, including the poorly-remunerated, feminized labor and historic inequalities against indigenous women. But it’s also important to these groups that they address the lives of women outside of Mexico City. Just like the country’s male-dominated political system is highly centralized, the feminist movement needs to be decentralized to amplify its voices and expose problems that surpass city limits.
In many of Mexico’s social struggles, a record number of bodies needed to pile up before action was taken, and the Mexican feminist movement, unfortunately, is no stranger to this. Thousands of women had to disappear in the peripheries of Mexico City before a feminist movement took to the streets to demand “Ni una menos.” On August 16, countrywide marches were organized not only to support the compañeras in the capital city, but to bring attention to the national emergency.
“I smiled when I saw these women [...] It is very satisfying to see that those who haven’t suffered directly the loss, who could be behind a desk or other things, is on the street, taking risks, sacrificing to be questioned,” says Ledezma.
The call for decentralization became louder on August 30 when a protest was held in Ecatepec, just north of Mexico City; once considered the country’s femicide capital, the city still has the highest rates of femicides in the country. The organization Mujeres Ecatepenses por los Derechos Humanos, along with other groups, marched through the streets of Ecatepec to bring attention to the violence against women and demand the enforcement of state and federal laws protecting women. A Gender Alert—a set of emergency governmental measures to eradicate violence against women in specific places—has been issued in 11 municipalities of the State of Mexico, including Neza and Ecatepec, but hasn’t yet produced any results.
“The purpose is to influence the municipal government since our municipality is the most violent and dangerous for women to live in. The actions of the municipal government seem scarce and not studied,” says Nallely Arenas Morales, founder of the organization. “There’s no work plan.”
Earlier this year, the United Nations presented the Spotlight Initiative, a program to prevent and eliminate femicide, and announced that it will operate in Ciudad Juárez and Ecatepec, among other places in the country, incrementing the international pressure on the Mexican government to address the national emergency women are facing.
“Despite this gender alert and the constant pressure on the State, including from the UN to send the Spotlight initiative to Ecatepec… the women from Ecatepec are in danger and that’s why we organized,” says Arenas. “This movement is not only from one locality. It belongs to all Mexican women and our objective is to gather more women so that we can become stronger.”
This time, protestors didn’t call for glitter bombing—that spectacular symbol of resistance in the mid-August protests—but instead for pink flowers and candles. They dressed in black, wore pink scarves, and carried pink crosses, like the ones used in Ciudad Juárez in memory of the women who have disappeared or been murdered. “My proposal would be to see us together,” says Ledezma. “They are our successors, they will follow in our footsteps, and we will take advantage of this force—this youth—so that our struggle and our cry do not cease.”
Chantal Flores is an independent reporter investigating the impact of enforced disappearance on women in Latin America and the Balkans.