Mexico's longstanding femicide crisis has only worsened during the coronavirus lockdown, with the government coming in for severe criticism for its handling of the killings of women.
According to Mexico's National System of Public Security (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública - SNSP), 144 femicides were registered between March and April. But one organization shows significantly different data.
According to the National Map of Femicides in Mexico, the reality is far worse. It counted 405 cases of femicide between March 16 and April 30. And according to its data taken from press reports, as many as 63 percent of the femicides it tracked had a link to organized crime.
InSight Crime spoke with Maria Salguero, creator of this map, in order to understand the characteristics of femicides linked to organized crime and how they are influenced by the dynamics of gender and organized crime in the country.
InSight Crime (IC): What is the methodology you have developed to build the map?
María Salguero (MS): We mostly use press reviews. Press reports are the only source of open data about violence in Mexico. This is mainly journalism about security and judicial cases, which are often sensationalized. Tabloid newspapers tell us who was involved, how and where a murder took place and other details. The prosecutors can provide updates about cases and say that "the aggressor was linked, arrested, or sentenced" but the sentences are often very light.
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Press reports also reveal if the victim had suffered a history of violence from their partner, if the partner had addiction issues or criminal history. We use this last part, criminal histories, to link femicides to organized crime.
There is no way of knowing the percentage linked to organized crime from official figures. We found 63 percent of femicides mentioned in press reports had links to organized crime. Sadly, official statistics do not mention details about the aggressor, neither those from the National System of Public Security (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública - SNSP) or from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía – INEGI).
IC: What are the general characteristics of femicides that you link to organized crime?
MS: We mostly look at the modus operandi, for example, if it was reported that a hitman or an armed group arrived to kill her. For example, in Guanajuato, several victims were kidnapped and later turned up executed. Sometimes, the body of a woman who was seemingly a victim of domestic violence can appear in such conditions. But if the body turns up in areas or neighborhoods with a history of such executions, I include them as being linked to organized crime unless an investigation specifically rules that out. In these areas, women's partners often either belong to a criminal group or use the modus operandi of a criminal group to kill them.
I look at other details, such as whether written threats were received on her phone, which can reveal organized crime links. If the body was found buried in a clandestine grave, that can also tell you a lot.
In urban areas, we look at the mode of execution since sicarios (hitmen) often travel in vehicles, by car or motorcycle. There are other factors, such as whether the victim was shot execution-style or if the body was left far from her home where witnesses cannot identify her.
The clearest links to organized crime are threats from groups and the caliber of weaponry. But is it very rare for press reports to specify the type and caliber weapons being used, such as weapons used by the military, AK-47s or AR-15s.
IC: And what direct links to organized crime can these women have?
MS: Many of the femicides linked to organized crime are of women whose partner was involved with or targeted by a criminal group. One recent case in Playa del Carmen during the pandemic saw a group looking for a taxi driver. He fled and they couldn't find him so they killed his partner.
There is also an increase in women taking part in organized crime. A video came out recently of two women and two men opening fire on a police patrol. They also executed one woman in Cancún recently, a taxi driver who was also allegedly a "halcona"(meaning falcon, or lookout) for a criminal gang. Her body was allegedly left with a message for a local police chief.
That is another emerging trend, using the bodies of women to send messages to other criminal groups or authorities. That did not happen before.
The Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) used this quarantine period to enter 17 new municipalities in the state of Zacatecas. They placed 17 "narcomantas" - messages or announcements from drug gangs - in these municipalities and one of them was found on the body of a woman on May 20.
IC: What do you think has sparked this trend of using the bodies of women to send messages?
MS: It is usually related to gender. It can be a way of killing lookouts which are often women. It can be a way of targeting the gang they are connected to. It's a way of saying "Look, I'm going to kill your women. They may not be your partner or your sister, but they are women who work for you. I'm going to kill them and "send a message that way."
In Maderas, Chihuahua, a message was left next to the bodies of three murdered women saying, "Here are the lookouts."
There was another case in Villahermosa, Tabasco, in 2018, where the body of a woman had a message signed by the CJNG. We have also seen bodies of men left with messages like "Greetings to your old woman."
In Ciudad Juárez, there was one case where they kidnapped the father but executed the daughters. The messages being sent by killing women is very symbolic.
We see that women are being used as "weapons of war" and this is becoming more commonplace.
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IC: Which cartels have used violence against women in this way? You have already mentioned the CJNG.
MS: The Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel (CSRL) has done so as well. The Gulf Cartel allied itself with the CSRL in Guanajuato and they killed a woman, who was a microtrafficker for the CJNG.
We found another case in a press report. There was a video where Los Viagras responded to a massacre perpetrated by the CJNG by directly threatening the wives and children of their rivals. In the video, they said "boys, girls and women, we will leave them messed up in the square of Cotija (a town in Michoacán state)."
IC: Does the government differentiate between the killings of women who are directly or indirectly connected to organized crime, or does it treat them as regular femicides?
MS: No, it seems that these deaths do not count for the government. Each day, we see these events grow but it seems these types of killings do not count. They forget to include this type of violence, even saying that violence against women has not increased during the lockdown.
I have told them that, besides having a register of women murdered during the lockdown, domestic violence only accounts for 10 percent of cases. This is very small compared to what many people think. Either way, the government has taken the stance that not that many women are being murdered.
There is no public policy in place. Many of the dead women were living in poverty, with little or no access to full-time study or employment.
IC: How does their socio-economic status play into the fact that some of these women join criminal gangs?
MS: That factor is constant. It is very rare for women to join due to other reasons. When they grow up in an atmosphere of illegality, it becomes normalized. There's a case of one girl who was killed in Ciudad Juárez and her whole family was involved in microtrafficking. It becomes very difficult to get them out of that situation when their whole life has normalized participation in criminal economies like microtrafficking.
And then we see executions linked to women taking criminal leadership roles, often from their partners. They are killed to prevent that.
IC: Do they kill such women because they view them as a threat to their leadership?
MS: Absolutely, we saw a case in Mexico City where women were killed in Plaza Garibaldi (a square known for mariachi music). The hitmen arrived dressed as mariachi but carrying high-caliber weaponry. The partner of one of the women had been a criminal boss in that area but they had killed a few days prior. Then, they killed her because she had taken his place.
I have learned to read the signs linking femicides to organized crime, going back to the early days of the war against drugs in Mexico, which started in 2010. I see many cases of murdered women and people criticize me by telling me I am victimizing them once again. But we must speak of this and not judge these women. I turn this discussion around on the government. Yes, many of these women had links to organized crime but what was done to prevent that?