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Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Summary and Keywords

This article analyzes journalistic depictions of violence against girls and women in Mexico in the context of several high-profile cases that have played out in the country over the past two decades. The argument is that the mainstream media uses two primary tactics to blame victims for the violence they have experienced: (a) claim that the victims are responsible for their own crimes by presenting sexist arguments that discredit their value as humans, and (b) claim that the mothers of victims of violence are also responsible for the crimes committed against their daughters by presenting sexist ideas that limit mothers and daughters to the domestic space. These tactics are used in order to continue to limit the participation of women in the public space and public life. Via interviews with mothers, activists, and journalists, this article explores the personal impact of journalistic depictions of violence against women and also looks at how journalists are working to represent women more diversely and in ways that feature their voices rather than silencing them. Part of the problem is that in Mexico, as in many countries, the mainstream media is controlled and reported on mostly by men. Given that Mexico is one of the most violent countries in the world for journalists, women are often discouraged from reporting, threatened with death, or simply made invisible because their stories are not considered important. In order to create real change in the way violence against women is represented, it is necessary to have gender parity in reporting and in ownership of media outlets. For this kind of equality to be possible, the government must offer more protection and support to journalists, and it should make gender studies courses a mandatory element of media training.

Keywords: Violence against women, gender violence, media, journalism, Mexico, Juárez, sexism, media, justice, equality, feminicide

Sexism in Reporting and the Revictimization of Victims

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 1. Itzel Aguilera. Mothers and daughters in Juárez, Mexico, march to protest the continuing disappearance of girls and women in the city in 2010.

“My name is Silvia. My daughter disappeared on June 22, 2011.”

“My name is Marta. My daughter, Esmeralda Castillo Rincon, disappeared on May 19, 2011. I have spent four years waiting to find her, four years fighting.”

“My name is Juana, and my daughter disappeared on March 8, 2011. The government hasn’t done anything to help.”

I interviewed these mothers whose daughters had been victims of forced disappearance or feminicide in May 2013 in Juárez, Mexico. The women were out in the street protesting, demanding some kind of accountability from a government that had shown little interest in responding to cases of violence against women. According to the National Citizen Feminicide Observatory, a coalition of 43 groups that have come together to document feminicide, six women in Mexico are killed every day. The terms feminicide and femicide are used to describe sex-based hate crimes, but on a basic level, these terms are used to identify and codify specific types of violence against women in a country that has a long history of ignoring violence against women from a legal, institutional, and political perspective. As academic Rosa-Linda Fregoso writes in “Coming to Grips with Feminicide,” Mexico has “one of the highest rates of gender violence in the world, with 38 percent of Mexican women affected by physical, sexual, and or psychological abuse, compared with 33 percent of women worldwide.”

Since I first began interviewing mothers whose daughters have been victims of forced disappearance and feminicide in Mexico in 2008, I have seen some concrete changes in policies, but in general the sexism that victims face from institutions and the media remains unchanged. Many of these mothers, like Paula Flores, whom I interviewed in July 2016, have spent the better part of two decades dedicating their lives to finding justice for their murdered daughters and for other women. Academics and journalists have written extensively about the way institutional, legal, and political sexism in Mexico have caused victims of violence against women to be silenced. Unfortunately, that I am discussing here is in many ways not new. The challenge is to discuss these issues in new and engaging ways until significant changes have been achieved—changes that protect the lives of women.

Sexism in the media is a global problem because until there is equal representation of women as both journalists and owners of media companies, there will continue to be a lack of perspective that often results in blaming the victim rather than reporting the facts of the case. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that female journalists face the added threat of sexual violence and a lack of adequate protection from those crimes on the part of government officials and police officers. According to a 2015 article by Mariana Martínez Esténs, “[The] London-based organization Article 19 has documented 326 attacks against journalists in Mexico in 2014[;] 63 of them are against female journalists. The attacks against women has increased considerably going from 32 per year during former President Felipe Calderón’s administration to 59 in 2013 and 63 last year under President Enrique Peña Nieto.” In addition to the difficulties of reporting while female, there is the issue of sexism in reporting in most mainstream media outlets.

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 2. Itzel Aguilera. A Juárez mother wears a T-shirt featuring the face of her disappeared daughter and stands in front of a sign that asks “Do you want to know what happened here?” marking the spot where another woman disappeared.

Reporters often judge women based on conservative cultural ideas about their rightful place being only in the home or other domestic spaces. Women who suffer violence in the streets are accused of being bad daughters, bad mothers, or promiscuous women. Daughters are often framed as prostitutes in reporting that describes the color of their underwear and their fingernail polish rather than the pertinent facts of the criminal case. For examples of the kind of sexist rhetoric seen in the media, read Mariel Muriel’s 2016 article, “These Images Say a Lot About the State of Violence Against Women in Mexico.” The mothers of victims often fare even worse because they are depicted as careless, bad women who didn’t monitor their daughter’s movements properly. The message in all cases is that good women should be at home (and conversely, if you are not at home, you are not a good woman). As Melissa W. Wright (2011, p. 710) argues, Feminicide “For instance, as historian Joan Landes has written, ‘a pervasive gendering of the public sphere’ operates as a ‘mechanism of violence’ for defining and controlling the modern liberal subject around the exclusion of ‘the feminine’ from the public sphere of politics, economy, and culture. Gender, in other words, is central to the violent dynamics linking the production of states to the reproduction of their subjects.”

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 3. Alice Driver. A mural of disappeared girl Claudia Soto Castro with a message that reads “My dear daughter, I don’t know what your fate is or where you are, but always remember that no matter where you are, I am your mother and my heart is with yours.” Photo taken July 3, 2016.

As Wright points out, the continued discourse in the media, which blames both mothers and daughters for the violence that they experience, is a way of limiting their movement, and ultimately their power. Kathleen Staudt and Zulma Y. Méndez also discuss this phenomenon in Courage, Resistance, and Women in Ciudad Juárez, stating, “The private/public divide, corresponding to female and male space, has been historical reality and comparative practice in many societies” (2015, p. 15). In the sections that follow, this article lays out concrete examples of how mothers, activists, journalists, and victims of violence in Mexico have struggled to make sure that the media reports in an unbiased fashion about cases of violence against women.

Murder in Mexico City—When Only the Death of a Man Counts

“Who Killed Rubén Espinosa?” read headlines throughout Mexico after the brutal murder of five people in Mexico City. On July 31, 2015, the victims were found in an apartment in the Narvarte neighborhood of Mexico City. One of them was identified as 31-year-old Veracruz-based photojournalist Rubén Espinosa.

Eight weeks earlier, Espinosa had fled Veracruz due to threats against his life. As Sandra Rodríguez Nieto Sin Embargo reported, the four women who were in the apartment with Espinosa were raped and tortured and then shot once in the head in a coup de grâce. The women were not immediately identified by authorities, and all the early media and social media coverage focused on #JusticiaParaRuben. Initial news reports included certain details about the women’s lives, such as the fact that one woman was divorced and another, a Colombian, was supposedly either a model or a prostitute, not only was much of the information published in the media false, it was used to incite a public condemnation of the morality of the female victims. The women were partying, announced headlines, until Mexican authorities retracted that story a week later. But the damage to the reputation of those nameless women had already been done.

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 4. Alice Driver. On August 5, 2016, journalists from Oaxaca held a vigil to demand justice for the killing of Veracruz photojournalist Rubén Espinosa. Most who attended, like the journalist in this photo, wore masks with Espinosa’s face. In the background lie photos of the four women who were murdered alongside him.

These tactics—implying that women are prostitutes, partiers, or otherwise “bad” women—are the ones traditionally used by the Mexican government and media to blame women for their own deaths. For example, this 1993 article in the Mexican daily La Jornada about a female victim reports: “The mental health status of this young woman was adequate when she disappeared given that she was in high school, but when her body was found it was discovered that she had been hospitalized a long time in a mental institution, and had a cesarean scar, and we don’t know what happened to the product.”

Mónica Villamizar, a journalist who frequently reports for Vice News from Mexico, emphasized the need for justice for the women in this case. “If these women had been working for the BBC, it would have been front-page news,” she said. “There has to be justice for these girls. It has been focused on Rubén, but what about the other women?”

Activist Nadia Vera, cleaner Alejandra Negrete, makeup artist Yesenia Quiróz, and Colombian hairdresser Mile Virginia Martín were murdered alongside Rubén Espinosa. As Catalina Ruiz-Navarro reported, The Colombian received the vilest treatment by officials and the media, which attempted to use her as a scapegoat by insinuating that she was the owner of an expensive Mustang (which clearly raised the important question: How did a woman like her afford a car like that?), that she was a model or a prostitute, that she liked to party, and that she used drugs or had connections to drug gangs. None of that information was based on evidence, but by the time journalists like Ruiz-Navarro presented evidence to the contrary, the damage to at least the Colombian woman’s reputation had been done.

The family of Nadia Vera published a public announcement that took Mexico City attorney general Rodolfo Ríos Garza to task for its treatment of their daughter. The family asked him why it has released information that “Nadia was the girlfriend of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa, which is false because Nadia and Rubén were friends, and met while both residing in Xalapa, Veracruz, and collaborated in the [performing arts] Festival4x4.”

My book More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico (Driver, 2015) provides examples of how the police, politicians, and the media in Juárez exposed or invented personal details about victims of gender violence insinuating that they were prostitutes or promiscuous women as a way to justify their deaths rather than investigating them.

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 5. Alice Driver. A faded sign shows the face of a missing girl in Juárez. In the background is a new mural of Juárez singer Juan Gabriel. July 3, 2016.

For example, my book discusses the case of Francisco Barrios, the governor of the state of Chihuahua from 1992 to 1998 and the mayor of Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua from 1983 to 1986, who infamously made a speech at a 1993 press conference about feminicide in which he said, “The girls move in certain places, frequenting certain types of people, and enter into confidence with thugs who then become their abusers. Good people to stay in their homes with their families, and the bad ones are out on the street [las gentes buenas que se queden en sus domicilios, con sus familias, y los malos que sean los que salgan a la calle].”

Like Barrios, many other politicians have publicly suggested that good women should be in the home. For example, in 2015, Enrique Serrano Escobar, the mayor of Ciudad Juarez, attended the Northern Border of Mexico Forum and said that feminicide “is a black legend created by entrepreneurs and foreign promoters to throw dirt on this town in order to prevent companies from coming to a city that can compete favorably for global companies with other cities and countries.” In 2015, Ivonne Ramírez, who has written a book about violence against women in Juárez, where she is from, published in the online magazine Juárez Dialoga, “For a long time people have been talking about changes in Ciudad Juarez, but we are still far from living without many injustices. So far this year, 15 women between the ages of 16 and 51 have been murdered. Claudia Ivette, Irma, Liliana, Elena, Alicia, Emerald, Pearl, and many others have been killed because of their biological and social body.” So long as politicians continue to rely on gender stereotypes about “bad” women and to deny the reality of violence against women, we will continue to see the dehumanization of victims used as a pretext for not investigating crimes.

The murders of the four women have been labeled feminicide or feminicide, terms that are developing both legally and theoretically to address misogynistic violence against women—usually killing, but also violence that often involves rape or mutilation, such as the cutting of nipples. These terms are often misunderstood, but on a basic level, it is important to recognize that the majority of violence against men is perpetrated with weapons, which is an impersonal type of violence, whereas violence against women is often extremely personal and physical, based on acts that show power over the female body and female sexuality.

Dr. Héctor Domínguez-Ruvalcaba, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches gender violence in Latin America, says that feminicide calls for special treatment in the judicial system, that this crime “an extreme form of hate.” “It is true there is a small proportion of this kind of crime in comparison to young male murder rates,” he said. “But the moral and social meaning of killing women, with its sexual component, has to be considered among the major forms of victimization”—which is not the case at this point. Mexico’s National Citizen Feminicide Observatory, a coalition of 43 groups that document feminicide reports that six women are assassinated every day in the country. The Vice documentary The Feminicide Crisis in the State of Mexico looks at the situation in the state of Mexico, which has currently has the highest rates of feminicide in the country.

This case of Nadia Vera, Alejandra Negrete, Yesenia Quiróz, and Mile Virginia Martín provides a clear example of how violence against women is often treated as less important than violence against men in Mexico. The women in this case were made completely invisible until citizens pointed out that they too, had been victims—and treated as lesser members of society. As Francisco Goldman reported in the New Yorker on August 14, Nadia Vera’s mother, Mirtha Luz Pérez, wrote a poem published by the online newspaper Aristegui Noticias and dedicated to her daughter: “Don’t leave me sugar girl / to dissolve inside weeping skin / Don’t leave me free bird / for the cold moorlands of absence.” Vera’s parents both have been outspoken about the treatment of their daughter and the other female victims of this crime by government officials and the media.

Roxanne Krystalli, the program manager for the Humanitarian Evidence Program at Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center and a researcher on questions of gender and violence in armed conflict, has discussed why it matters that we distinguish the crime of feminicide from everyday violence. “If we simply treat the targeting of violence against certain women as coincidental, or as the same as ‘homicide,’ we fail to dissect these messages and, therefore, fail to paint a complete picture of the dynamics and experiences of violence,” she said.

Rosa-Linda Fregoso, a feminicide researcher and a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California who has authored several books about feminicide, also advocates for the importance of the recognizing these acts against women specifically. “It makes visible violence against women,” she said. “That’s why we have the concept ‘genocide’; it makes visible crimes against particular groups.”

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 6. Alice Driver. The faces of disappeared girls and women posted in a central plaza in Juárez in 2015.

Fregoso added that in this case, “The focus is on the journalist. You are focusing on attacks against the press. Those are civil and political rights. Other types of crimes, like social or cultural violence, those are made invisible, which is why you need a concept that makes them visible.”

The murder of these five people in Mexico City has highlighted issues of inequality and misogyny that often plague feminicide victims after the initial physical violence. Vice’s Villamizar expressed something I have heard repeatedly from citizens in Mexico in the wake of this crime: “You wonder how much worse can it get, and then it does.” And as with so many of us, she said, “I’ve had nightmares about these girls and just thinking about how they died.”

Mothers in Juárez Still Seeking Justice for Their Murdered Daughters

Cristina Escobar González, 22, disappeared the night of March 12, 2004, and her body was found the following day in a motel. Her murderer was caught trying to dispose of the body, and the attorney general in the case, in an act of intimidation to the woman’s family, said that he was going to charge Cristina, the deceased, with battery for kicking her attacker in the balls and damaging one of his testicles. Cristina’s mother, Catalina, felt that it was important to share that information because, as she recounted, the intimidation by the media was preceded by intimidation on the part of the state, which is quite common (personal interview, July 2, 2016).

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 7. Itzel Aguilera. Catalina González, the mother of Cristina Escobar González, in her backyard in Juárez on July 2, 2016.

In Gender Violence at the U.S.-Mexico Border, Héctor Domínguez-Ruvalcaba and Ignacio Corona (2010, p. 60) argue, “On the one hand, media in Ciudad Juárez-El Paso area usually support a conservative view when it represents violence as a symptom of the decadence of patriarchy. On the other hand, local media campaigns suggest that the community should develop a strategy of self-defense because the state no longer seems to be able to control the use of violence against citizens or hold the so-called monopoly on violence.” Telling women that they are responsible for their own safety is a message that is also sent to mothers when the media blames them for not taking better care of their daughters and for not knowing where they are at all times of the day.

During my 2016 interview, Cristina’s mother, Catalina, said that the media reported that her daughter and the man who killed her were “in the hotel room doing drugs,” in spite of the fact that there was no evidence to support that finding. This kind of media coverage leads to a devaluing of the victim, causing great distress to the families of victims, who feel that they face an uphill battle to finding justice.

Researcher Laura Rita Segato was in Juárez on July 30, 2004, when the body of Alma Brisa, a feminicide victim, was discovered. Segato (2010, p. 72) recounts how the media treated Brisa in the following description:

On the day after Alma Brisa’s body was discovered, the newspaper repeated that this was “yet another sexually motivated crime” and the special prosecutor emphasized, “It is very difficult to reduce the number of sexual crimes”—confusing the evidence yet again and sending the public down what I believe is the wrong path. This is how, while pretending to speak in favor of the law and rights, opinion makers and the authorities foster an indiscriminate perception of the misogynist crimes occurring in Ciudad Juárez, as well as in other parts of Mexico, Central America, and the world: crimes of passion, domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape by serial aggressors, crimes related to drug debts, trafficking of women, cyber-pornography crimes, trafficking of organs, and so on.

Segato’s description shows how newspaper coverage can repeat and amplify the damaging rhetoric of government officials and members of the justice system, as was seen in the case of Rubén Espinosa mentioned earlier. The idea that “it is very difficult to reduce the number of sexual crimes,” in the prosecutor’s words, sends the message that no concrete policy or institutional changes can be made to prevent this type of violence—that it is inevitable.

One of the most emblematic cases of violence against women in Juárez is that of María Sagrario Gonzalez Flores, who was 17 years old when she disappeared in 1998. Her body was found in Loma Blanca, Valle de Juarez, 13 days later, showing signs of torture and sexual abuse. María Sagrario was one of hundreds of feminicide victims feminicidein Juarez, and girls and women continue to disappear to this day. You can see their young faces painted on the walls of houses and schools in some parts of Juárez. For example, below the portrait of a young woman painted on a wall opposite the train station is a note that reads “Diana R. Hdez Ramirez Disappearance 01-ABR-2011.” The hardest thing to understand is that what happened to María Sagrario Gonzalez Flores, the daughter of Paula Flores, remains a threat to the daughters of other mothers in the city.

According to a report published by Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis, the first women’s rights advocacy and counseling center in Juárez, 18,950 women—more than 15 per day—suffered from violence or were living in physically abusive environments between 2013 and 2016 (Figueroa, 2016). As Lorena Figueroa of the El Paso Times reported in July 2016, “Violence against women, especially those who are young and married with limited educational and employment opportunities, continues to be a problem in this border city despite claims that it has become a safer place, a study found.”

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 8. Itzel Aguilera. Paula Flores, who has been seeking justice for her daughter for 18 years, stands in front of her home in Juárez on July 3, 2016.

In the last 18 years, Paula Flores, the mother of María Sagrario, has continued to seek justice for her daughter and other young women who have gone missing. The day that Sagrario disappeared, authorities refused to listen to her mother or file a missing persons report, which is a problem that women have reported experiencing across the country. The police often respond to complaints of violence against women or the disappearance of women with sexist ideas, such as saying that the women probably ran off with boyfriends or were engaged in prostitution. In the words of Paula: “I think that really many irregularities were committed, and as I have always said, the authorities even exhumed the wrong grave.” Flores fought for justice at a time when there was no recognition of feminicide as a crime and little institutional or social support for victims’ families. Flores formed Voces sin Eco (Voices without Echo), a pioneering group made up of the family members of feminicide victims, that was active in demanding justice between 1998-2008. Flores also raised money to build a kindergarten, which she named after her daughter, in her community. Flores continues to seek justice for her daughter and her work as a community activist is evident everywhere in Juárez, especially in the crosses she has painted around the city marking sites where women have been disappeared or murdered.

According to the authorities, José Luis Hernández is solely responsible for the disappearance and murder of Sagrario. He has been serving a 19-year jail sentence since 2005. However, according to Paula, the problem is that Luis Hernández has always mentioned more accomplices, which means that not all the perpetrators have been brought to justice. As Paula explained: “I am asking, with all of my strength, to have José Luis create a reconstruction of events, which is something that was never done. The authorities wanted to close the case, saying he is the only one responsible.”

When Sagrario first disappeared, her family organized to help find her because they realized that more girls had disappeared between 1993 and 1995, but that their families had not reported it. They decided to break the silence, and they raised their voices for Sagrario, got out in the streets, and distributed more than 400 flyers. Paula and one of her other daughters, Guillermina, also formed the group “Voices Without Echo.” As part of its actions, the group began painting black crosses with pink backgrounds in places around the city where other young women had disappeared.

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 9. Itzel Aguilera. Black crosses on a pink background can be found all around Juárez and mark sites where girls and women have disappeared.

Although the group no longer exists, Paula and other mothers regularly paint crosses around the city at sites where girls and women have disappeared or been murdered to keep a visual marker of what has happened and is still happening to victims of violence. “In Voices Without Echo, moms were looking for justice, we looked to prevent violence, because we wanted it to stop. However, unfortunately, I see that girls are still disappearing. I do not want to be negative, but I don’t know when this will end,” lamented Paula in July 2016.

Paula’s pain led to activism, even leading her to found a kindergarten in her neighborhood, Lomas de Poleo, that is named after her daughter. Recently, Paula worked with an artist to paint a mural of María Sagrario in front of her house and said, “It means a lot to me to have the mural of my daughter here. Although I have pictures, I feel that she is here where she should be. She lives on here, in the María Sagrario kindergarten, and in each of the crosses.”

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 10. Alice Driver. Paula stands in front of the mural of her daughter, María Sagrario, which says, “They stopped your flight, but your memory continues to echo.”

In July 2016, Paula explained she had spent several days repainting crosses throughout the city so that no one would forget what was happening. A tireless activist, she said that every time that she shares the story of her daughter, she feels that she is keeping her daughter alive. To learn more about the journalists in Juárez who have spent decades reporting on cases of violence against women, watch the short documentary If Images Could Fill Our Empty Spaces.

Reporting from Oaxaca, Mexico, with a Gendered Perspective

On June 20, 2016, during clashes between teachers of the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) union and federal security forces in Nochixtlán, the Federal Police killed 19-year-old Jesús Cadena Sánchez. “I went to look for my son where I heard shots fired. I was so desperate to find my son that I did not care about myself,” recounted the victim’s mother, Patricia Sánchez, to video journalist Andalusia Knoll Soloff. Jesús, who was in charge of caring for the wounded, was one of seven victims who were murdered in that town and in Juchitán. In total, the Mexican army killed 10 people in the June 2016 clashes, including Mexican reporter Elidio Ramos Zárate of El Sur newspaper.

Soloff is American but has been living and reporting from Mexico City for the past several years. She went to Oaxaca to report for AJ +, a new outlet that produces viral videos for social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. However, upon her arrival at the front lines of the protests, Soloff realized that she was the only woman reporting among a group of male journalists. This fact influenced the way she put together her videos because she expressly wanted to include the experiences of women. In her first video, she interviewed a female teacher who participated in the protests. In the second, as she explained, “I did a story on the mother of a young student who was killed, and I was able to connect with the mother in a different way and have a different kind of sensitivity. I do think you have a different perspective, and that story had several million views. It’s trying to tell a different story that is not the violence or the action, but rather how it impacts people’s lives. I think women often do more—tell the stories of the victims and how it impacts families.”

Soloff has spent years reporting from Mexico in both English and Spanish, and when asked about the risks of being a journalist, she made a very clear statement: “A lot of the risk of being a female journalist in Mexico is really just the risk of being a female in Mexico.” When she reported on 43 disappeared students in Ayotzinapa (a story told in more detail in the next section), she was surprised to find that she was being sexually harassed not only by drunks and men on the street, but also by students and even their parents. As she explained, “I think another thing is being a woman and living in a constant state of being a sexual object.” She has also reported extensively from Guerrero, where fellow journalists told her that they witnessed women taking the night bus in the area being raped. Given those facts, Soloff decided to take buses only during the day. Although she has not been threatened online, which is also a huge problem for female journalists, she did recently notice a trending tweet on Twitter in Mexico: “A raped woman is a happy woman,” a dangerous stereotype about victims of sexual violence. According to Mark Browne (2016), “Facebook and Twitter are increasingly being used to threaten female journalists in Mexico, where authorities ‘aren’t interested’ in investigating the growing digital menace to freedom of expression, according to local and international human rights groups.” However, although social media adds new perils to reporting, it also gives all women a voice to discuss issues that were previously ignored or made invisible. For example, on April 24, 2016, women’s rights supporters took to the streets in Mexico City to protest increasing levels of violence against women in the state of Mexico, and they also took to Twitter to share their experiences with violence using the hashtag #VivasNosQueremos (#NosQueremosVivas /#WeWantToStayAlive), which spread across the country and allowed women to raise their voices together.

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 11. Alice Driver. “We want to stay alive” is painted above the door of the feminist collective La K-NTONA in Juárez. The collective formed in 2016 and is made up of a diverse group of young women from across the city who took over an abandoned building.

Between 2002 and 2013, the Women’s Communication and Information Group (CIMAC) recorded 184 incidents of violence against journalists, among which are 11 cases of feminicide. Further, in 2015, Mexico was the most dangerous country in Latin America for journalists. Part of the problem is that women journalists suffer double aggression: the threat of physical violence plus virtual violence suffered on online social media platforms. In this situation, it is the duty of the state to support and ensure the safety of women journalists. Another problem is the lack of reporting with a gender perspective—one that avoids stereotypes. In many cases, the journalist reports the facts from a point of view that the female victim is to blame for the violence that she has suffered.

Reporting on Disappearances from Ayotzinapa

As Kirk Semple of The New York Times reported, the case of Ayotzinapa has become emblematic of government corruption in Mexico. In this incident, 43 young men, undergraduates at the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, were kidnapped on September 26, 2014. They were part of a group of 100 students who were taking buses to attend an activist march in Mexico City to protest the 1968 student massacre. The night that they disappeared, municipal police officers stopped their buses, detonated tear gas, punctured the tires, and forced all the students to get off. The government claimed that a local drug cartel burned the bodies of all the students, but no proof was ever found that this was true. In the process of investigating the disappearances, many links were discovered between the politicians and the police and army, as reported by Roland Zenteno of CNN. This made it appear that the state had coordinated the disappearance of the students. “With the 43, you can only say that they’ve identified one body,” said journalist Francisco Goldman, who writes for The New Yorker about events unfolding in Mexico. “That’s all you can say. Legally they’re disappeared. Everybody wants to say they’re dead” (personal interview, February 28, 2015).

It took the government 10 days to open an investigation into their disappearance, and eventually, it came to light that the mayor had sent the police to stop the buses full of students, and directed them to hand the students over to a local gang. Mexico’s attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, announced that the gang had confessed to murdering the students and burning their bodies, a convenient narrative. It is the favorite storyline of both the Mexican and the U.S. media to blame all violence on drug gangs.

The case became a rallying cry for justice against a system in which the government is sometimes clearly implicated in crimes against civilians. This case is of interest because in spite of similar cases of extreme violence against women and indigenous peoples, it is important to point out that the crime that has received the most media attention and international outcry for justice is this one, which involves all male victims.

Under President Felipe Calderón, between 2006 and 2012, an average of 6 people disappeared per day, according to the investigative reporting of Proceso. Under President Enrique Peña Nieto, that number has risen to 13, a conservative estimate based on historically unreliable government statistics. “People in Mexico understand that it’s not just those 43–those 43 have come to represent everyone else. Something’s got to happen. Something’s got to move. It’s now or never for Mexico. It really is,” said Goldman.

Goldman has spent the better part of the last two decades living in and writing about Mexico, and he participated in the largest protest in the history of the country in November 2014, a protest sparked by the disappearance in Ayotzinapa, famous for its history of social activism.

There are several problems with this story—a tired, worn tale that seems to be pulled out at every opportunity. The media represents all violent acts as brutal and incomprehensible and blames all violence on drug cartels or on the victims themselves. Even as women who experience violence are often portrayed as promiscuous, male victims are said to be involved in the drug war. In reality, the main problem is that the government, the police, and the army work in parallel with cartels, controlling drug routes and money for personal gain. “The narco gang is the police. The police handed them over to a narco gang? No, the police and the narco gang are the same thing, but the fact of the matter is that nobody knows for sure to the 43 who were in the two buses, there’s no witnesses to what happened in those two buses. Who took them?” asked Goldman. “The police handing them over to the narcos, who are the witnesses? They have so many people in captivity, but every now and then, they just pull out of their hat three or four witnesses. We don’t see them. We don’t hear them. We don’t hear exactly what they say. It’s just too strange. I don’t know. You know, I’m not a scientist, but most scientists are saying that you couldn’t have burned all 43 in the dump. It’s virtually impossible. Their parents say that they’ve been able to trace [global positioning satellites] to the Iguala base and their kids’ cell phones. Is that true or not? We don’t know because the attorney general won’t investigate it.”

Families of disappeared men and women get caught up in the machinery of justice, which works only in favor of the official story—the one that blames victims for their own deaths, the one in which, after the attorney general announced that the 43 disappeared students were dead, the president of Mexico told his country, “We have to move forward with greater optimism.” Just as the media usually treats female victims of violence like prostitutes, they use the worn argument that all men who experience violence were somehow involved in drug cartels.

Mexico has covered up other massacres and disappearances, as was the case in Atenco in 2006, when municipal, state, and federal police cracked down on flower vendors who were protesting a new rule prohibiting vendors from selling in the streets. In 2016, Daniel Berehaulk published a photo essay on “The Women of Atenco,” which recounts the stories of sexual violence that women suffered during the crackdown. The police arrested, raped, and murdered protesters, and then the government used the state-controlled media to change the conversation, destroy the credibility of those who spoke the truth, and silence those who came forward with evidence of human rights abuses. But all around the edges of the tightly controlled state, mothers, fathers, students, and grandparents have continued to chant and yell, whisper and cry out, because the memories are overwhelming, and because when there is no body, there is no rest. Death is a point, a stop, a period; but disappearance remains wide open, forever.

Journalists risk their lives to help share stories of disappearance in Mexico, which for the past decade has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for those in the media. A Mexican journalist who requested to remain anonymous explained, “During almost a decade, I lived outside of Mexico, but when I returned after a divorce, I had the opportunity to work in communication media. From there, I went on the state of Mexico to the area of regional news, when the actual president of Mexico was the governor of the state of Mexico. The experience I acquired there has been crucial to tell today that Enrique Peña Nieto plays an active role in the system of impunity where, without a doubt, the government is tied to the drug dealers and profoundly immersed in the corruption which is tolerated and on occasions fomented by a fundamental part of the members of the government” (email interview, March 15, 2015).

She asked to remain anonymous due to fears that the government would retaliate against her and her family. “Upon my arrival to the news office, the governor had me investigated. I was asked extensive questions about my personal and professional life,” she explained. “During the performance of my tasks, I always was willing to report what the citizens denounced, which little by little, was increasing, when they noted that I was willing to report on the truth despite that the acts denounced were affecting the interests of public servants or individuals of power. The Peña Nieto government was upset and sent me a message that I must moderate what I was publishing. This was more evident when I was preparing a special program about the anniversary [of] the terrible events which had occurred in Atenco, when clear abuses by police and crimes committed by them, including massive rapes and an assassination of a student.

“After having made several interviews and setting up other interviews with the protagonists of the events, my director explicitly told me to turn over any recordings that we had made up until that time. He told me that the government of Enrique Peña Nieto did not want us to comment about Atenco. I understood that the government of Peña Nieto was increasingly becoming uncomfortable with my work. Later on, I received a phone call where they invited me to leave the State of Mexico.”

And she did flee the country because the government threatened to harm her and members of her family. “Perhaps I am naïve to think that giving this information to the government of the United States and/or its authorities or the international press, in order that they can investigate and intervene in Mexico in the search for justice to stop the relentless impunity of the people who govern,” she wrote. “But it is more worthwhile to die while trying!”

The government, in its initial search for the disappeared 43 students, discovered and dug up a mass grave, declaring that the students’ bodies were probably there. They discovered bodies, but they were not the students’ bodies. And then they found another mass grave, and another, and another, and more bodies. But none of them belonged to the students. How many mass graves have to be dug up before it becomes clear that mass graves are not the exception but the rule of state justice?

The journalist explained, “Ayotzinapa renewed my rage, and I do not want to stop until finding justice for the 43 who are disappeared and the thousands more who are dead and massacred, and for the thousands of immigrants who fearfully travel across Mexico.” The government forced her out of the country, but they could not make her forget. On Lent, six months after the students disappeared, citizens around Mexico replaced the traditional symbol of the cross, painted in ash on their foreheads, with the number 43. Photos of these individuals bloomed on social media like wildflowers, overtaking the visual landscape that day.

Disappearance is a physical silencing, but lack of bodies does not equal nobody. “The families of Ayotzinapa have become such a force. They are tireless. Nothing will ever make them give up,” reported Goldman (2015).

“My son is absent and only memories remain,” said Estanisalo Mendoza a few days before Christmas in 2014. Mendoza is the father of Miguel Ángel Mendoza Zacarías, who was taken by the police along with 42 other students in the Ayotzinapa disappearance. As in the cases of disappeared women, the parents of the students carry out their lives in the face of an absence that they can never explain. In many cases, their anguish is increased by the media’s representation of their children, and in the case of women, sexist reporting is a documented and long-standing problem.

What Can We Do to Change Representations of Violence Against Women in the Media?

Journalistic Depictions of Violence Against Women in Mexico

Figure 12. Itzel Aguilera. Muralists in Juárez paint a scene honoring victims of violence against women.

The cases of violence and sexism that I report on represent distinct perspectives—that of the parent, of the daughter, of the reporter, of the researcher, of the academic. The goal is to humanize the victims of these crimes and their families, as well as to provide a context for understanding a larger phenomenon—the way in which the media revictimizes women who experience physical violence. Although these cases are overwhelmingly unjust, they also provide evidence of how activism on the part of mothers and families of victims, as well as nuanced work about gender violence on the part of journalists, can produce positive changes.

Truly shifting the balance of power, which is still patriarchal at its foundation in Mexico, requires that women have an equal voice in the production and ownership of journalism and academic research and an equal voice in all aspects of public and political life. In order to achieve this, women have to overcome overwhelming obstacles, including threats against their bodies, their lives, and often their families. And women in Mexico have been tireless in working to make the violence of their daily lives visible.

Representations of violence against women that shame and blame victims have one ultimate goal—to limit their participation in public space and in public life. On March 24, 2016, thousands of women and girls marched through the streets of Mexico City for six hours to protest the elevated levels of violence against women in the country. “Respect our lives” was written in green letters on the bare back of one woman. Another woman held up a purple banner that read, “Why are you killing us? Stop disappearance and feminicide!” Hope can be found in these collective actions of women who continue to organize, to write, and to share their stories of injustice and violence. The longer they raise their voices against injustice, the harder it will be for the media to continue reporting in a sexist, patriarchal tradition.

Review of Literature and Primary Sources

It is impossible to discuss violence about women in Mexico without referring to the research of Julia Mónarrez Fragoso, who lives and works in Juárez and who has taken up the painstaking work of recording and categorizing feminicides in that city—something the government did not do for decades and still does not do comprehensively. Monárrez Fragoso is the author of the 2009 book Trama de una injusticia: Feminicidio sexual sistémico en Ciudad Juárez. Without her work, researchers would not have had the basic data necessary to discuss feminicide in Juárez, and her groundbreaking research provided the information necessary for activists in other parts of Mexico to make the case that feminicide should be classified under the law. In English, she contributed the chapter “Death in a Transnational Metropolitan Region” to Cities and Citizenship at the U.S.-Mexico Border: The Paso del Norte Metropolitan Region (Monárrez Fragoso, 2010). Mexican academic Patricia Ravelo, who has conducted research on violence against women in various parts of the country, has contributed to a growing body of work in Mexico undertaken by committed feminist researchers. In 2006, she published Entre las duras artistas de las armas: Violencia y victimización en Ciudad Juárez, which provides concrete examples of how women who experience violence are victimized. She also codirected the documentary La Carta with Rafael Bonilla, and it tells the story of Paula Flores, the mother of a feminicide victim, whose story was told earlier in this article. Her work draws heavily on interviews with mothers and families of victims, which is something that is not often seen in the mainstream media in Mexico.

The following books are foundational in terms of analyzing contemporary issues of violence against women in Domínguez-Ruvalcaba’s and Corona’sMexico:

  • Gender Violence at the U.S.-Mexico Border: Media Representation and Public Response (Domínguez-Ruvalcaba & Corona, 2010)

  • Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Americas (Fregoso & Bejarano, 2010)

  • Making a Killing: Feminicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera (Gaspar de Alba & Guzmán, 2010)

All three work to define and examine the crime of feminicide/feminicide in an effort to make sure that crimes against women are recorded, punished, and considered within a feminist context. In legal terms, feminicide is still being defined in many countries, and prior to the publication of these books, discussions of the representation of violence in Mexico had been limited by the fact that Mexican authorities were not recording and classifying different types of sexual violence and violence against women and transgender persons. Terrorizing Women is particularly important because it collects essays by the most established academic researchers in the field to report on violence against women from different countries, which provides the opportunity to compare and contrast the progress being made in different Latin American countries. The book is also noteworthy because many of the authors are equally involved in academic research and working to include feminicide in the legal frameworks of the countries where they live feminicide. The book More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico (Driver, 2015) provides a more up-to-date look at how violence against women in Mexico is represented in the media, including film, television, and art.

The first art exhibit ever organized about feminicide, Frontera 450+, which opened at the Station Museum in Houston, Texas, in 2006, is available online.

  • In 2016, Canadian journalist Emma Noradounkian produced a podcast titled “Our Lost Sisters in Mexico,” comparing feminicide in Canada to feminicide in Mexico, which provides a lot of insight into how violence against women plays out in different countries.

  • There has been some excellent reporting on violence against women in Mexico in the past few years in Spanish by the Mexican reporters Carmen Aristegui, Anabel Hernández, and Lydia Cacho, among others. In English, there has also been important work done, including an article by Judith Matloff for Al Jazeera America called “Six women murdered each day as feminicide in Mexico nears a pandemic.”

  • In 2015, Vice News produced a comprehensive series of videos on “The Feminicide Crisis in the State of Mexico,” which is particularly important because multimedia journalism is the communication of the future and an important way to educate younger generations about gender violence.

  • In 2015, Karen Castillo Farfan produced the documentary Daughters of Feminicide, which provides an important context for feminicide in the Mexico vs feminicide in the United States. Alejandra Aragón of Juárez also produced an important documentary in 2015 titled Las noches invisibles, which is about how women who work at night are stigmatized.

  • Several women photographers are redefining the way women are viewed in Mexico through in-depth photo essays that cover marginalized populations like prostitutes, those involved in the drug war, and those in prison. For example, Mexican photographer and filmmaker Maya Goded has produced a movingly intimate film and book, both titled La Plaza de la Soledad, on prostitution in Mexico City. Photographer Katie Orlinsky, who works for The New York Times, has taken several essential photos about violence against women in Mexico, including those that accompany Julie Turkewitz’s essay for The Atlantic, “The Women of Mexico’s Drug War.” Photography is a field particularly dominated by men in Mexico, and so having women photographers represent their society, their problems, and their environment provides a different perspective to issues like the drug war, domestic violence, and poverty. Women are no longer only the subjects of other people’s projects; increasingly, they are the protagonists, in control of telling their own stories.

Further Reading

Cruz Sierra, S. (2013). Vida, muerte y resistencia en Ciudad Juárez: Una aproximación desde la violencia, el género y la cultura. Mexico City, Mexico: Casa Juan Pablos.Find this resource:

    Delgadillo, W., Jr. (2016). Fabulando Juarez: Marcos de guerra, memoria y los foros por venir. Univesity of California. Accessed from http://gradworks.umi.com/10/12/10125002.html.Find this resource:

      Figueroa, L. (2016). Violence against women continues in Juárez. El Paso Times. Accessed from http://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/local/juarez/2016/07/31/violence-against-women-continues-jurez/87746754/.Find this resource:

        Fregoso, R.-L. (2001). Transformando el terror: Señorita Extraviada de Lourdes Portillo. In P. Ravelo Blancas and H. Domínguez-Ruvalcaba, Diálogos Interdisciplinarios sobre violencia sexual (pp. 235–256). Mexico City, Mexico: CIESAS-FONCA.Find this resource:

          Fregoso, R.-L. (2009). “¡Las queremos vivas!” La política y cultura de los derechos humanos. Debate Feminista. Accessed from https://derechoslatinamerica.com/2015/04/20/fregoso-rosa-linda-las-queremos-vivas-la-politica-y-cultura-de-los-derechos-humanos-debate-feminista-39-2009-209-43-accessed-april-16-2015-httpwww-jstor-orgstablei4009759/.Find this resource:

            Fregoso, R.-L. (2012). For the women of Ciudad Juárez. December 12. The Feminist Wire. Accessed from http://thefeministwire.com/2012/12/for-the-women-of-ciudad-juarez/.Find this resource:

              Ramírez Vázquez, A. L. (2014). Canto de sirenas: Habitar la policía con voz y cuerpo de mujer en Ciudad Juárez. El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Accessed from http://www.colef.mx/posgrado/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/TESIS-Ram%C3%ADrez-V%C3%A1zquez-Ana-Laura.pdf.

              Ravelo, P. et al. (2015). Tácticas y estrategias contra la violencia de género. Mexico City: Ediciones Eon.Find this resource:

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