Chronicling the effects of machismo in Mexico

by Nicola Hill

Part of our Patriarchy 2013 series: Femicide in Mexico is a real and growing concern, propelled by the culture of machismo and a failing judicial system, and is leading the population towards vigilante justice.

First published: 31 October, 2013 | Category: Activism, Gender equality, Inequality, International

This August a female avenger, dressed in black with a blonde wig has shaken Mexico. Like a fantasy, ball-breaking character from a comic book, she calls herself 'Diana the Huntress' and is said to be responsible for the unprovoked attack and murder of two bus drivers in the city of Juarez in the North of Mexico.  

This news is somewhat extraordinary for Ciudad Juarez, the border town, infamous for its 400 femicide victims and not one single conviction. In places like Juarez, violence against women is generally expected and treated as the collateral damage from narco turf wars. But violence against men, just because they are men, by a woman is rather more attention grabbing.

Anybody who reads the news will know that Mexico is synonymous with violence. I have lived in Mexico for the last two-and-a-half years and I have spent much time contesting this stereotype to friends and family as nothing more than a media spectacle for easy headlines.  There is however, an undeniably strong and growing sub-culture, which is often overlooked and labelled as simply good old-fashioned 'machismo'. In the past year there have been 97 victims of femicide in the State of Chiapas alone. The youngest of the victims was just 10-years-old when she was raped by eight men and left for dead.  And femicide is pervasive in all strata of society, most recently, the Secretary to the Senator of Chiapas, Fernando Rosales, at just 21-years-old, was accused of the kidnap and murder of an ex-girlfriend when he was discovered disposing of her body off a bridge on the road out of San Cristobal de Las Casas.

Cases of femicide in Mexico peaked at 6.4 a day in 2010, a figure which puts Mexico amongst some of the worst G20 countries to be a woman. In states like Chiapas 90 per cent of reports of violence against women were referred to government officials who concluded the victim’s injuries were insufficiently serious or that the victim was not determined enough to seek prosecution.   In fact, until very recently femicide was not classed as a criminal offence at all.  As such, violence against women by partners or family members, often resulting in their death, stems from the patriarchal nature of the state.  The anachronistic attitude towards women, combined with a very high probability that if you were to commit such a crime there is very little chance of you actually being caught, is resulting in an epidemic of femicide, which is rapidly spiralling out of control and provoking vigilante justice, most often by men, but sometimes like that of Diana the Huntress. 

Popular justice

The rapid increase of violence against women, especially since 2005, led many to call upon the President to decree a general security alert with the aim of bringing the topic up for discussion in the public domain.  Ex-President Felipe Calderon famously “never listened” to this call for action and now the baton has been passed on to new President Peña Nieto to establish preventative measures and proper sanctions for those responsible for the rising death toll.  However, as president of a country steeped in rich religious heritage, femicide is rather a delicate matter.  Traditionally, victim’s families often end up complicit in the perpetuation of the problem when societal pressures enforce silence on the matter. Nevertheless, over the last decade a strong civil movement in Mexico has refused to ignore or normalise machismo and its dark consequences with a hope that a sensible and rational public dialogue can begin.

'Not One More' is a campaign to raise awareness of the problem of femicide by acting out interventions in public spaces and was picked up in San Cristobal de Las Casas, the town where I live, following the death of 16-year-old Itzel Mendez Perez.  Itzel was one of many victims in 2012 and although her death was shocking to say the least, it was not enough to draw the community into any sort of debate surrounding the evidently growing danger to women.  It was actually the brave actions of her family and friends who refused to remain silent that put her name and face at the centre of the campaign. This move towards openness is slowly being echoed across Latin America.  The non violent, yet very rare action of simply speaking about a crime and requesting action from the authorities has made sure that femicide can no longer be ignored by future communities and politicians. 

Despite campaigns for social justice, like ‘Ni Una Mas,’ others are still forced to take the law into their own hands.  In June a youtube video went viral in Mexico.  The film was made no more than ten kilometres from here, which depicts the lynching, beating and burning alive of the three men accused of the kidnap, torture, rape and murder of 24-year-old Fidencia Sántiz López in the village of San Juan Chamula. It was later on sale at the local market.

The lynching took place in an area independent of state control, where the police often do not intervene until it is too late. Their tardiness resulted in the violent deaths of the three men. News reports are confusing to say the least, but one thing is clear: the local community sought their own form of justice as a result of the state justice system having let them down countless times before. 

What happened in San Juan Chamula and the actions of Diana the Huntress reflect what any community would do when pushed by a lack of justice to women exposed to sexual violence. They sought vigilante justice.  Diana’s communication with the press explains her actions as a revenge attack on behalf of women passengers sexually abused by night-shift drivers. 'I and other women suffered... but we can't stay quiet,' one of her emails said. The public have generally taken this at face value, if not condoned and quietly applauded her actions, in a country where nearly half of women can expect to be a victim of sexual abuse at some point in their lives and violence is a part and parcel of every day life.

Everyday machismo

Of course, everyday sexism, particularly in the form of street harassment, is commonplace around the world.  But as a British woman living in Mexico, I was shocked at the extent and frequency of street harassment.  I live in what appears to be a sleepy, colonial town, and yet have been groped and even threatened on the streets.  This is a town where everybody knows your name but people are often too scared to intervene.

It is often recommended to women to 'keep your mouth shut' and not retaliate to street harassment. Machismo remains at the cultural core of Mexico, and women are expected to submit or even play up to the everyday sexism they encounter on the streets..  As soon as you permeate this sub-culture, however, it is easy to identify the sinister nature of this machismo when combined with the lack of political interest in its impact on women and society. You can't help but notice the domino effect of a simple comment on the street, which then leads to a simple slap on the behind, which then leads to curb crawling to intimidate women walking alone - most interesting when the offender has his wife/girlfriend in the passenger seat trying to ignore it.  This normalised everyday machismo contributes to a background culture of intimidation of women, which creates the conditions for the graver actions of abduction, violation and eventually, as in far too many cases, murder. 

This is why I commend any woman who doesn’t “keep her mouth shut". I see every act, however harmless it may be intended, as an attempt to intimidate, or if you like, violate the rights of another person to walk along a street without being hassled, scared or offended.  If women invite anger by calling out a man when he harasses her on the street, by reminding him that such actions are not invited, are not wanted and most importantly not acceptable, then that is a risk women as a whole should take.  And ideally, Mexican men should support their female compatriots in this.  If it became commonplace to not accept street harassment – for women to call it out and men to stand up for them – this would be a good place to start in intervening in the culture of machismo.  I personally prefer to speak out about the street harassment I have encountered, but as a British woman living in Mexico, I know that if something happened to me it would make international news.  This is not the case for the six women who are killed per day in Mexico.  That’s why the response has to be society-wide: why everyone has to take responsibility for intervening in the normalisation of the intimidation of women and by addressing this to hopefully intervene in the culture of violence against women

The way forward

Movements such as AtreveteD.F. (atrévete means to dare) have taken root amongst the more liberal and outspoken student population of Mexico City and aim to facilitate discussion between the genders on their perception of machismo and its societal impact.  In light of recent legislative changes regarding the definition of sexual abuse, women have been encouraged to share their stories through this platform with the hope of influencing their peers into making behavioural changes. This is a promising and perhaps less risky alternative to confronting a harasser in the street, but it is important to remember that what takes off in Mexico City can take years to filter through into the psyche of traditional Mexico, if it ever does at all. 

As such, the situation for women in Mexico as a whole continues to be dangerous and has led to these drastic vigilante style actions from communities who have been forced to take the law into their own hands. Alejandra Peralta Velasco, the Secretary of Development and Empowerment of Women of the State, claims that Chiapas is ‘advancing fast on the prevention and eradication of violence against women’. But the point isn't really about the level of violence against women, the fact is that any level of killing of women just because they are women is unacceptable and is inherently political when it results from a structural failing which perpetuates femicide without any repercussions. 

There have been hundreds of victims with hundreds of families who have been left without explanations, or convictions, without answers and without any hope of ever seeing justice.  But the rise of community-led civil intervention to highlight structural failings and open up public dialogue backed up by legislative reform, does encourages me to believe that although Mexico may be a dangerous place to be a woman at the moment this may not be the case for generations to come. Ni una mas!


Nicola Hill is a writer from the UK who lives and works in Chiapas, Mexico.

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