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Weekly Report - 27 February 2020 (WR-20-08)

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MEXICO: López Obrador knocked off stride by femicides

The public wave of indignation caused by the brutal recent murders of women and girls is still dominating the headlines in Mexico. Not since the concept of femicides was introduced in the country has it received anything like this much attention. Opposition parties that had previously shown little interest in violence against women are now speaking as one with feminist groups. They are determined to seize upon the best opportunity yet presented to them to exploit a clear disconnect between President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the general public, accusing him of callous indifference and demanding a coherent strategy to combat the problem. The issue, which has divided his party, has the potential to do more damage to López Obrador’s popularity than the increase in violent homicides and shrinking economy.

Feminist groups announced on 19 February that a ‘national women’s strike’ would take place on 9 March (the day after International Women’s Day, which falls on a Sunday). “¡El nueve ninguna se mueve!” (‘Nobody moves on the ninth’) and the hashtags #UnDíaSinMujeres and #UnDíaSinNosotras has received extensive social media coverage.

Mexico’s bishops’ conference (CEM) released a statement on 23 February describing the gruesome recent femicides [WR-20-06] as a “crisis of humanity”, while the Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico offered its support for the ‘national women’s strike’, saying that it was “wonderful that there are women, through their commitment and activism, who are helping to wake the conscience [of the Mexican people]”. The private sector lobby Consejo Coordinador Empresarial (CCE) called for companies to “show empathy for women who choose not to work” on 9 March.

The political opposition, meanwhile, with more than a hint of opportunism, is suddenly embracing the cause of feminist groups. On 24 February the president of the right-of-centre Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), Marko Cortés, launched a fierce attack on President López Obrador for the increase in the number of femicides and gender violence in Mexico. He called for a new strategy to combat gender violence, advocating the creation of a public prosecutor’s unit specialising in femicides, with its own staff, building, equipment, and budget. Cortés blasted López Obrador’s response as “frivolous and insensitive to the reality”. On the same day, the president of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in the northern state of Coahuila, Rodrigo Fuentes Ávila, took aim at López Obrador: “In Mexico between 10 and 11 women are killed everyday due to the lack of federal public policies to eradicate violence against them…the government clearly doesn’t care about women in Mexico”.

  • Opposition attacks

The PRI president of Coahuila, Rodrigo Fuentes, said that, according to official figures, 3,825 women were killed in 2019 “a crisis of hitherto unseen proportions”. He claimed that only one in five murders of women in Mexico were investigated as possible femicides, while the killing of girls doubled in 2019. “President López Obrador has not grasped the fact that women feel threatened simply by walking out onto the street,” he concluded.

López Obrador has appeared out of step with the public, responding to the outcry over the brutal recent murders not by promising urgent action but by stressing that his government’s nebulous strategy of creating “a fairer and more equal society” would ultimately address the problem. He blamed neo-liberal governments, responding to criticism by maintaining that “conservatives are becoming feminists”. López Obrador has a point. The issue has become highly politicised. Opposition groups are intent on exploiting a chink in his armour. But López Obrador and his government have not helped their cause by abandoning and denigrating erstwhile feminist allies, ducking responsibility, and disregarding the strength of feeling about the issue.

Internal divisions

The issue has caused sharp divisions within the ruling left-wing Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena). Some, like Morena leader Yeidckol Polevnsky, are backing López Obrador to the hilt. In a press conference on 18 February, Polevnsky denied there had even been an increase in femicides. “There is much more openness and transparency now,” Polevnsky maintained. “Before figures were manipulated and information concealed…under López Obrador there is total openness,” she added.

Others have not concealed their disquiet. Citlalli Hernández, a Morena federal senator, said “I think that [López Obrador] is sensitive to what is happening, but he is a man, who like all those of his generation, perhaps doesn’t understand the feminist fight”. While echoing his remarks about the “evils of neoliberalism”, Hernández clearly found it galling that it is traditional conservative parties, not the López Obrador administration, offering progressive proposals to combat gender violence. With pointed understatement Hernández said that it was up to “the women of the ‘fourth transformation’ to make him see that maybe some of his responses are not the responses the feminist movement was hoping for”.

Death penalty for femicides?

Five Morena federal deputies took up the fight on 25 February, the very day after Hernández’s comments. They tabled a motion along with the Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM) in the lower chamber of congress to punish perpetrators of femicide (as well as rapists who kill their victims and those found guilty of aggravated murder) with the death penalty.

The initiative would reform four constitutional articles; Article 22, for instance, outlaws the death penalty in Mexico. The PVEM coordinator in the lower chamber, Arturo Escobar y Vega, argued that “criminals without scruples” had carried out “abominable [recent crimes]…showing absolutely no remorse [and] should pay with their lives for the lives they took away”. He argued that Mexico was in a state of exception which required exceptional measures. “These criminals are not afraid of spending the rest of their lives in prison, because they know that as a result of the weakness of our justice system…they could be released much earlier than they should be and can even continue committing crimes from behind bars,” he added.

The PVEM has sought the reintroduction of the death penalty intermittently since 2009. Only in 2018, it called for the death penalty for kidnapping, rape, and homicide. The party clearly hopes that the public outcry over femicides will help carry its proposal, but it is unlikely the majority of Morena members of congress will defy López Obrador.

Gender equality

The violence against women has also opened a much wider debate about gender equality. The Confederación Patronal de la República Mexicana (Coparmex) employers’ confederation, demanded “justice, peace, and equality” for women. Speaking on ‘Flag Day’ on 24 February, the president of the supreme court (SCJN), Arturo Zaldívar, went as far as to say that there would be “no justice if Mexico remains indifferent to the barriers that society imposes on women”, adding that “Mexican society urgently needs to unite to fight to allow women to live the life that they want to have”.