The XX Factor

How the War on Drugs Hurts Women

A 2011 protest against femicide in Nicaragua.

Photo by ELMER MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Violence against women has been on the rise in the last decade in Latin America, from Mexico to Colombia, down south to Argentina. In 2009, sexual harassment on Mexico City buses was so out of control women-only bus lines had to be created. Throwing acid on women’s faces is not restricted to the Middle East anymore; 119 acid attacks have been reported in Colombia since 2010, though that number may be many times higher since most cases go unreported. Last month, a woman in Bogotá was beaten, stabbed, raped, and impaled, acts that distinguish femicide from general homicide—and all have been on the rise.

And now comes a new report by Nobel laureates Rigoberta Menchu from Guatemala and American Jody Williams, which found that femicides increased by 257 percent in Honduras from 2002 to 2010, “a period that saw a doubling of U.S. money for military and police,” according to CNN. The report argues that the U.S.-backed military and police in Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala, which are ostensibly being funded to fight drug cartels, are actually part of the problem, “committing abuses and stirring up more violence.” And though the governments formally recognize this, the report states, they do little in practice to abate the violence against women.

“In some cases, governments are directly implicated in the violence,” Menchu and Williams write. “The mounting crimes of extreme violence and targeted repression against women remain largely uninvestigated, unsolved and unpunished.”

That is the case of Debora Barros-Fince, an indigenous community leader in the northernmost Colombian region of La Guajira, whom I met in 2007. Her family was murdered eight years ago by paramilitary militias, with the help of the Colombian army—which is in turn backed by the U.S. government through the controversial “Plan Colombia,” a decades-long multibillion-dollar funding plan to clamp down on the drug trade. The massacre that killed Barros-Fince’s family left 12 dead, 20 missing and hundreds displaced. The threats of violence she receives for speaking out are highly sexual, and the walls of her former home, which she was forced to leave during the massacre, are covered in lewd drawings and messages. Such intimidation is becoming more common in other parts of the country and throughout Latin America.

Traditionally, Latin America has not been known as a bastion of women’s rights, but it nonetheless fares well in certain areas, compared to other third-world countries. In 2009, the region had an enviable maternal mortality rate, second only to Europe. For a culture that venerates mothers religiously (thanks to a deep, culturally entrenched Catholicism and its emphasis on the Virgin Mary), the recent spike in femicides is baffling, contradictory and hypocritical, at best. The cult of the mother can have positive side effects, like boosting economies on Mother’s Day. But in reality it does little to stop the violence. The culture may worship saintly, suffering, martyr-mother figures, but that doesn’t translate into respect for the actual women living in these countries.

It’s not a surprise women are victims in the escalating and failed war on drugs. The influx of U.S. money, ammunition and military training has provided an aggressive, male-dominated environment and more tools to further deteriorate the rule of law. When a society devolves into such deranged and sustained violence, as Colombia did in the ’80s and ’90s, and which Mexico is living out now, the worst of the culture comes out, amplified, and with impunity. Like disfiguring a woman’s face with acid, and then blaming her for it because she’s “so pretty.”