Mexico’s Disappearing Women

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S1: I asked Oscar Lopez, who reports for the New York Times to help describe this photograph. It’s gone viral in Mexico.

S2: The photograph shows a young woman standing on a highway looking out into the darkness. She’s wearing a face mask. You can see just the highway behind her. And it’s sort of unclear why this photo was taken.

S1: This photo is not skillfully framed. It’s blurry, but it’s important because when it was taken, it’s one of the last images we have of this teenager before she went missing. You know what stood out to me about this photo? She’s wearing high tops.

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S2: Yeah.

S1: She seems a little like a kid that I went to high school with.

S2: Definitely. And I think that’s, you know, part of, again, what made this photo kind of haunting and viral is that she does look so young and fragile.

S1: What’s this woman’s name?

S2: Her name is Debanhi.

S1: Debanhi Escobar, right?

S2: That’s right. Debanhi Escobar.

S1: Debanhi ended up at the side of the highway after leaving a party. Some friends had called a car for her, but she ditched the cab before she got home. That’s when the driver took the snapshot.

S2: And it’s not really clear why she decided to get out of the car or even why, you know, the driver decided to just kind of leave her there.

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S1: Or why he decided to take a picture.

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S2: Right. I mean, that, I think, speaks to the situation we’re living in Mexico, where apparently he took the photo to send to her friends to say, like, you know, when I left her, she was fine, sort of implying that, you know, in this country, it’s very easy for women to go from one minute being fine and the next minute disappearing.

S1: The irony of the fact that Debanhi disappeared anyway is part of why so many people in Mexico can’t stop thinking about this image. When this photo went out, there was Debanhi family still hoping to find her?

S2: Absolutely. I think that’s why they pushed it out there because, you know, they realized that getting that attention would help potentially to find her and they wanted to find her alive. And there’s a very sort of really odd kind of paradox because, you know, I’d been with the family and a group of volunteers kind of going through this this empty field looking for essentially a dead body. You know, people were poking the ground with sticks, trying to see if there was kind of earth that had been recently disturbed. But at the same time, you would ask people like, do you think she’s still alive? And everyone would say, yes. And then, you know, gone back to my hotel and was kind of thought work was done for the night. And then we got the the call, the message that a body had been found in the same almost the same location where we’d been looking that that same morning.

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S1: Today on the show, The Life and Death of Debanhi Escobar. Her case has prompted outrage. But will it spark change? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around. Oscar Lopez has been chronicling the troubling rise in Femicides in Mexico for the last few years. Thousands of women killed or disappeared for all kinds of troubling reasons when Debanhi body was found. He made sure to point out in his reporting that her case was connected to all of these other stories. Ten other women have disappeared from her region in the last month alone. But Oscar says there’s something singular about Debanhi. He thinks it starts with her family.

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S2: A lot of times when people disappear in Mexico, families are actually a lot less keen to to draw attention because they’re fearful that, you know, drawing attention might implicate their own security. And so there’s a lot of fear around these these sorts of cases. But this family just took it upon themselves to really promote the story of her disappearance and try and, you know, see if they would help authorities find her.

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S1: I’m wondering, you can take me through Debanhi story from the beginning. Mm hmm. Can you tell me more about who she was?

S2: Yeah, absolutely. She was 18. She was a law student. Apparently, she was very popular, had a lot of friends. She was gregarious, very beautiful. She was extremely beautiful. You know, at one point had considered modeling. And I think that’s worth mentioning that a lot of the women who disappear are poor indigenous people. And I think that’s in part what drove Debanhi story, too, to the front of the media’s attention. Something that I have found sort of heartbreaking in some ways is that, you know, just a few weeks before she disappeared, she had actually been to a march for International Women’s Day and had marched with with her cousin specifically, you know, to protest against domestic violence experienced by women in Mexico. And then just a few weeks later, she herself disappeared.

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S1: She was living in a relatively prosperous part of Mexico, too, right, Monterrey?

S2: Yeah, that’s right. Monterrey is one of Mexico’s wealthiest cities. It’s an industrial capital, very much like the business center of of Mexico. In a lot of ways.

S1: She first went missing on April 9th. Can you walk me through what we know about her disappearance?

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S2: There’s still a lot we don’t know. But as far as what we’ve been able to ascertain from what the authorities have said and what the parents told me is that she went to a party on the night of April 8th with some friends. Her mom told me that she had told Debanhi, you know, I don’t think you should go out tonight. There’s been all these disappearances. It’s really dangerous. But Debanhi said, Don’t worry, Mom. That’s just, you know, I’ll be fine. And then she went to this party kind of on the outskirts of town. She got to the party at probably 130 in the morning, and then at around four, 430, her and her friends decided to leave. And eventually, her friends put her in a private car to send her home. And there’s video that you can see her getting into this white car. But then shortly after she gets out of the car on this highway.

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S1: Security camera tape shows how Debanhi walked onto the grounds of a nearby motel. In some of the footage, you can see her running, though the camera doesn’t capture anyone chasing her.

S2: And you can sort of see her walking around the grounds at this motel through the video camera from this restaurant. And then the last image of her is at close to five in the morning and then she’s not seen again.

S1: And this motel is where her body was found?

S2: That’s correct. Her body was found in an abandoned water tank almost two weeks after she disappeared. Apparently investigators had searched this same motel four separate times and didn’t find her. And it was only when workers at the motel complained of a gas or smell that it tipped authorities off about her location in the cistern.

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S1: Yeah, that detail from your reporting that authorities had searched already four times at this same location. Mm hmm. Stood out to me, and I wondered what you made of it. Like did the authorities. Do their job in this case.

S2: Well, that’s one of the biggest questions. I think they’ve been at the forefront of the case because it did get so much media attention. But throughout, there’s been questions about whether what they were doing was really effective. The head of the National Search Commission, which is an agency here, a government agency in Mexico, that was set up to help people find missing loved ones. In radio interviews, she discussed sort of some of the blunders or missteps that she identified from the prosecutor’s office against the one in charge of the search process. Some of the more shocking revelations from the from the national search commissioner was that the parents of Debanhi weren’t informed by the prosecutor’s office that that the body had been found. Oh, no. And that they were just sort of finding out this information on the news. And she actually said that she was with them, you know, talking to them when all this information started coming out.

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S1: You’ve noted, though, that the week before Debanhi was found, authorities were still saying disappearances like hers were, quote unquote, voluntary.

S2: Mm hmm.

S1: I didn’t even know what voluntary meant in this context.

S2: Yeah, that’s been something that women’s rights activists have continually drawn attention to, is the fact that authorities often minimize or even try and implicate women in their own disappearances, that there was just sort of angry teenagers kind of leaving home or running away. There are certainly cases of women, young girls running away who do later turn up. And that’s important to acknowledge. But even if women, young women and young teenagers are running away from home, and that’s how a lot of them end up missing, you have to kind of ask, what situations are they living in at home that prompts them to actually run away and, you know, lose contact with their parents? You know, you have to think about situations of domestic violence and family abuse that are so bad that young women are forced to leave their home. And I think that’s something that is rarely acknowledged by by authorities. Yes, Debanhi case has been shocking and some of the other ones of recent disappearances, but it’s definitely something that’s been going on for years, even in Monterrey.

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S1: You talked to one family who said that their relative went missing and it took authorities two weeks to even come to their house.

S2: And that woman is still missing. And that was this year. But there were other cases of disappearances that happened in previous years that also seem to me equally to demonstrate kind of missteps or negligence or inefficiency from authorities. You know, one woman whose daughter went missing in 2015, the police did come to her house quite soon after she reported her daughter missing and questioned her. But it took forensic experts a year to come to her house and look through her daughter’s room, you know, to see if there is some kind of evidence that could lead to a year, a year. And at one point, authorities in to imply that part of the reason she disappeared is because she had tattoos.

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S1: And tattoos were bad.

S2: Yeah, because they kind of suggest she was maybe like rebellious or something. Again, kind of play into this narrative of of women being the protagonists of their own disappearance.

S1: The thing that really stands out to me when I think about these cases is that Mexico has been called out for disappearances like these for years. Like the U.N. even wrote an entire report about the thousands of people, many of the men actually, who’ve gone missing in Mexico. 95,000 cases of disappearances.

S2: Yeah, it’s it’s a shocking epidemic. That U.N. report that you mentioned, which which called on Mexico to tackle the crisis, was based on a trip that the United Nations Committee for Enforced Disappearances took in November last year. But now the numbers have actually ticked up to 99,000. So we’re getting close to 100,000 people that are missing or disappeared in the country.

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S1: In your story, you called Mexico an increasingly lawless nation, which struck me as a really serious claim.

S2: Yeah, it was it was a phrase that came to mind when I was reporting this story. And it was it was something I considered deeply, you know, because I am Mexican and I don’t necessarily want to play into narratives of Mexico being this wild country that’s wracked by violence. And that’s all it is. Because I think Mexico is is an incredible place. And I’m so proud and happy to live here for so many reasons. But kind of reporting this story and talking to these families, you know, according to the U.N., only 36 cases out of the almost 100,000 disappearances ended in convictions.

S1: That’s not even a fraction.

S2: It’s not even a fraction. And it becomes harder and harder to see how or where the law is being applied in Mexico.

S1: Back after a break. Something I remembered when I heard Debanhi story is that a couple of years back, Mexico saw a tremendous protest movement bubble up. Like women around the country were taking to the streets. They were really angry that they felt unsafe. They wanted the government to take on femicide, is what they called it. And I just wonder if you can put me back in that moment and explain what happened then and how it connects to Debanhi and the response to her story now.

S2: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the vital context here. There is a very emboldened the feminist movement in Mexico that for the last few years has been calling out this incredible violence against women. And increasingly, they’ve they’ve taken to the streets in massive protest marches. And one of the biggest was, as you mentioned, in 2020, tens of thousands of women marched through Mexico City on International Women’s Day and in cities across the country. And increasingly, the marches have turned somewhat violent in some senses justified by women who are so sick and tired of not feeling safe, not being able to go out at night. And they have often defaced monuments or smashed windows in a kind of expression of this this incredible rage.

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S1: But even took over a federal building back in 2020. And they said they were going to make it into a shelter for victims of violence.

S2: That’s right. And they took portraits of past presidents and defaced them, drew on them. Another important protest moment was in 2020. There was a national strike where tens of thousands of women actually stayed home from work to kind of draw attention to the fact that, you know, women make up half the workforce but aren’t remunerated equally to their male colleagues. And so there’s been a lot of different expressions, moments of of national protests in the women’s movement and also calling on the right to health care and abortion specifically. And that’s become a really important issue of the feminist movement. And just last year, you know, the Supreme Court decriminalised abortion in Mexico, which was a huge achievement for for the women’s movement, which had been calling for this right for years, if not decades.

S1: Yeah. I mean, the quotes from the activists that I remember reading in 2019 and 2020, they were so fierce. They were like, you know, this is our feminist spring and we won’t stop until we get justice. You know, this is only begun. But it’s hard not to look at Debanhi death and feel like nothing has changed.

S2: But I think the fact that Debanhi Escobar case provoked such national outrage is testament to the fact that the women’s movement has kept this issue at the center of the country’s discourse for the last several years. And so they’ve built up this kind of awareness in the country about this issue.

S1: But the women are still dying and going missing.

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S2: Yes. And there’s no denying that. And I think that that is still a huge battle that is far from being won. But what was kind of in some ways inspiring in the middle of the of the horrific discovery of Debanhi body, was that, you know, the next day the women took to the streets of Monterrey. There is hundreds of men, you know, a thousand or more women who shut down rush hour traffic in Monterrey. Monterrey is a conservative city, not like the liberal bastion of Mexico City. And, you know, you see women shut down traffic. I talked to women who were inspired to march for the first time because of what had happened to Debanhi and the results of protests in Mexico City. Well, Lazaro and Puebla, it’s kind of inspired this this national movement where women are saying enough is enough. And I think that’s kind of the the counterbalance. Even though, as you say, like, it’s still a national a national crisis of this violence against women. And there’s there’s while there’s an awareness, I don’t think there’s been a cultural or institutional shift to really confront the scourge of violence. And and so that’s, I think, the next step.

S1: One of the most heartbreaking moments you reported on was Debanhi funeral. I’m wondering if you can tell me what that experience was like.

S2: Yeah, that was really, really tough. You know, it’s reported on a lot of. Difficult situations, but this is definitely one of the one of the toughest. So Debanhi body was driven out of Monterrey 3 hours south to a town called Galena, which is where her mother grew up and where they would go, you know, sometimes on holiday and arriving in the town, there was people lining the streets with balloons, white balloons with the Spanish name written on them or signed with justice for Debanhi. And it sounds crazy, but almost the moment we walked into the cemetery, this sort of cold wind picked up. Gray storm clouds rolled overhead, thunder started rumbling, and it just became this incredible, intense, eerie moment to feel like the whole world had suddenly turned kind of cold and gray. The mourners kind of gathered around the grave. Her coffin was lowered into the grave and then cement was put on top. Then dozens of flowers here were piled on top. And that was that was a.

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S1: You said the women in the crowd were singing as all this happened.

S2: So many of them had these kind of phrases that were, you know, obviously applicable to the Catholic tradition, but kind of had these echoes of seem to relate to the bonus story of like, your eyes are closed now, God will embrace you. And it was just this incredibly charged atmosphere that was so haunting. And the father, before her body was laid into the ground, gave a speech talking about how his family was just destroyed. You know, since his only child is only daughter being laid into the ground. And it was one of the hardest things I’ve had to witness in a long time.

S1: As horrible as this scene was, Oscar couldn’t help but think about the other families he’d spoken with as he reported Debanhi story. Even though her family’s heartbroken, they’re families for whom even a funeral would be a kind of luxury.

S2: They at least have the certainty of knowing that that they’re where their daughter’s body is and they have a place to go and mourn her. And so many thousands of families in Mexico don’t have even that, you know, tiny privilege of being able to have that sense of closure because their missing loved ones have vanished, essentially. And they’re all they have are their questions. I think in Debanhi case, the family just wants to know what happened between, you know, that video where we can see her in the motel and then her body ending up in this in this underground water tank? Did did she fall with someone chasing her? There’s just so many questions that are still unanswered. And I think they just want to want to get to the bottom of of what really happened to their daughter.

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S1: Oscar Lopez. I’m really, really grateful for your reporting. Thank you for coming on the show.

S2: My pleasure. It’s been great talking to you.

S1: Oscar Lopez is a reporter for The New York Times. He’s based in Mexico City. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Mary Wilson and Alan Schwarz. We’re getting a ton of help these days from Sam Kim and Anna Rubanova. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. We’re going to be back in this feed tomorrow. I’ll talk to you then.