Late on the night of Aug. 3, a 17-year-old found herself disoriented, walking the streets of Azcapotzalco in northern Mexico City after a party. Surveillance cameras show her getting out of a car and stopping in front of a house, where she rang the doorbell for help. Instead of opening the door for the scared young woman, people inside called 911. The teenager was next seen waiting on the sidewalk. After a few minutes, a couple of patrol cars arrived, followed by a police SUV that parked in the middle of the desolate street. She likely thought that would be the end of her ordeal. In fact, it was just the beginning. She would claim four police officers approached her and, after asking why she had been walking alone, abducted her, forced her into the larger vehicle, and sexually assaulted her.
What followed would make things even worse. It would also ignite a historic reaction against the scourge of gender-based violence in Mexico.
The young woman eventually made it home. The next morning, accompanied by both her mother and grandfather, she tried to report the rape. Exhausted by the ordeal and after waiting for hours for medical authorities, the victim and her family left before the required tests could be performed. They were called in again almost four days after the alleged attack. By then, signs of sexual assault were no longer detectable. She also provided detailed testimony and was subjected to a psychological exam. The officers allegedly responsible for the assault were placed on administrative leave. Authorities made clear the punishment would not last long. Even after acknowledging the grave mistakes made by Azcapotzalco investigators, Mexico City officials seemed to dismiss the young victim’s story. “Without a proper case file to make a clear claim [of rape], we will not be manufacturing culprits,” said city Attorney General Ernestina Godoy.
The government’s reaction led to a rowdy protest on the streets of downtown Mexico City on Monday the 12th, almost 10 days after the attack in Azcapotzalco. A group chanted for “Justice!” Activists threw pink glitter on Jesus Orta, the city’s security minister. A small group made their way into the attorney general’s office building and demanded an end to impunity. A few protestors vandalized the lobby. Enraged, one woman threw a stanchion over a desk. “We are not here to ask for your permission!” she yelled. “Take this, you fucking rapists!” Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City’s supposedly progressive new mayor, responded with unexpected aloofness, describing the protests as a “provocation.” She echoed her attorney general’s comments: “We will not fabricate guilty parties.”
Sheinbaum’s apparent dismissal of the protest and the overall lack of progress in the investigation led to an even larger rally on Friday against police sexual abuse and gender-based violence in Mexico. Under the banner “No me cuidan, me violan” (“They don’t protect me; they rape me”), hundreds of women gathered around one of the city’s busiest intersections, Glorieta de los Insurgentes, and then marched on Avenida Reforma. For most of the participants, last Friday’s march offered an opportunity to feel safe and empowered while voicing much-justified outrage. “We didn’t know each other, but it didn’t matter,” writer Sandra Barba would later recall in a widely read chronicle. “Not a single one will be left behind. We won’t let each other go.” Some of the protestors spray-painted graffiti on the base of the Angel de la Independencia, the capital’s landmark monument. And yet, fittingly, by far the worst episode of violence was committed by a man who brutally knocked out a local reporter who was broadcasting the protest live.
After the rally, Mexico City’s mayor once again questioned the motives behind the demonstrations. “We will not fall into the provocation of using public force on the protestors because that’s what they are looking for,” Sheinbaum said in a statement. The mayor did not explain who “they” were or why exactly “they” would want to provoke her administration into repression. For Mexican feminists like Sandra Barba, Sheinbaum’s reaction seemed tone-deaf: It was only a matter of time before women in Mexico had had enough. “Women of my generation grew up hearing of the murdered women of Ciudad Juárez. We grew up hearing that women were getting killed. Our outrage could only grow,” Barba wrote. “This is what Sheinbaum and [Mexican President Andrés Manuel] López Obrador are up against.”
Barba is right. Mexican women have every right to be angry. In Mexico City, for example, the Azcapotzalco case is not exceptional. In recent months, there have been at least two other instances in which police officers have allegedly assaulted young women in the capital. As for Mexico, violence against women has reached epidemic proportions. According to the U.N., nine women are killed every day in the country. More than 3,000 have been murdered since 2015, and of those, more than 300 were killed in 2019 alone. Since impunity for perpetrators is rampant, 82 percent of Mexican women say they routinely feel unsafe. Over 66 percent of them have endured violent incidents, including domestic or sexual violence.
Ideally, the recent protests should be a turning point in the fight against gender-based violence in Mexico. After her initial blunder in responding to the crisis, Sheinbaum has now pledged to work alongside different organizations on a plan to protect women in Mexico’s enormous capital. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who on the day of the protests chose to tweet a cheeky video praising the landscape in the state of Oaxaca instead of referring to the painful protests in Mexico City, should follow suit. He could begin, for example, by reconsidering his egregious decisions to cut aid to independent organizations who shelter victims of violence.
I recently asked Barba what she would like to see happen after the recent marches. “We don’t want any more files misplaced or doctors who don’t perform the pertinent tests until the fourth day,” she told me. “We want to see some of these cases resolved. We need success stories, where justice is done. We want to know who killed these women. We want closure.”
Update, Aug. 23, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify the language regarding the tests the victim was subjected to by medical authorities.