Women’s Rights in Mexico’s Fourth Transformation

The AMLO government has made progress creating a more just Mexico. But it has more work to do when it comes to women’s rights.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador looks on during a ceremony to celebrate his administration's first anniversary on July 01, 2019 in Mexico City. (Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

In the early-morning hours of August 3, 2019, a seventeen-year-old young woman was returning from a party in the working-class Mexico City district of Azcapotzalco. Together with some friends, she took an app-service taxi that left her a few blocks from home, leaving her to walk the rest of the way.

The details of what happened next are unclear. In her statement, the young woman alleged that a police car with four officers pulled up beside her and offered to give her a ride home. She refused and knocked at a nearby door in order to pretend she’d arrived home. Nevertheless, the officers pulled her into the car, where they proceeded to subdue and rape her. Once she was ejected from the car, she knocked again in desperation at the same building, whose inhabitants called 911. The call brought more police cars and an ambulance to the scene.

On August 15, however, the Attorney General’s Office for Mexico City released a pair of closed-circuit camera videos that appeared to tell a different story. According to the footage, the young woman is indeed approached by a police car, but is not pulled into it: instead, two officers get out to speak with her (the view of this interaction is impeded by a post). Two minutes later, several more police vehicles arrive on the scene, followed moments later by the ambulance. In the words of spokesperson Ulises Lara, “circumstances, place, and acts do not coincide with what has been declared by the victim,” who has been asked to clarify her initial statement.

The sum of what we are left with is more questions than answers. Why did the taxi not drop the young woman off directly at her door? Why did so many police show up at the scene? Then there were the questions that are the lifeblood of the internet: were the videos edited? Why was there a discrepancy in the clock times between the two video cameras (apparently a result of how they were initially set)?

What was not in debate was the furor the incident ignited regarding women, violence, and public safety in modern-day Mexico.


On August 12, angered by the city’s failure to follow its sexual-assault protocols in a timely manner and the fact that the officers under investigation continued at their posts, a demonstration took place outside the offices of the Department of Public Safety, which controls the city’s police force. When the head of the department, Jesús Orta Martínez, attempted to dialogue with the protesters, he was doused with powdered glitter, known in Spanish as brillantina.

This set off a series of “brillantina marches” in cities across the country, organized under the rallying hashtag #NoNosCuidanNosViolan (“They don’t protect us; they rape us.”). Although the marches were largely peaceful, a militant contingent of Mexico City protesters, impeded from approaching the blocked-off Public Safety Offices, vented its fury on the nearby Metrobus Station of Insurgentes. The symbolic Angel of Independence Monument was also covered in protest graffiti, which some, including the women’s collective “Glitter Restorers,” argued should not be removed until violence against women has ceased.

In the face of the protests, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum — from the governing Morena party of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and the first elected female head of the city — struggled to respond. After initially classifying the protests as a “provocation” and threatening to bring charges against those responsible for the vandalism (a threat she subsequently walked back), the mayor released a video the following day to announce that the six officers were being placed on administrative leave. She proceeded to pointedly add: “There will be no impunity but neither will we manufacture guilty parties.”

Although her insistence on the presumption of innocence in a system where guilt is indeed “manufactured” on a regular basis was not inappropriate, the video was widely criticized as insensitive. It took a subsequent weekend meeting with feminist groups — which presented the mayor with a thirteen-point action plan — for Sheinbaum to finally find her footing. Spurred by the crisis, she presented her own plan to address gender violence in a speech on August 28, which included the expansion of women’s-only spaces in public transportation, gender training for police, the creation of new prosecutor’s offices for gender crimes, and a DNA bank for sex offenders.

Free Trade and Femicides

It is hard to overstate the hostile panorama women face in Mexico. Domestic violence is common in the home, harassment and assault outside of it. According to the National Institute for Statistics and Geography (INEGI), six out of ten women have experienced some form of violence in their lives. So far in 2019, over 2,000 women have been killed, 540 of those cases being classified as a femicide, or gender-based crime. Despite a raft of recent laws and regulations, Mexico comes in at 81 in the 2017 Global Gender Index — behind neighbors such as Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador – and an appalling 124 in the category of economic participation and opportunity.

There is plenty of blame to go around for such a dire situation. First and foremost, there is capitalism, which not only depends on unpaid labor in the home, but pays such low wages — especially in the informal economy that employs most women in Mexico — that women often have little choice but to remain in abusive circumstances or expose themselves and their children to the prospect of a subsistence existence. In the case of the border city of Ciudad Juárez, ground zero for both femicides and the free-trade experiment, maquiladora assembly plants exploit women by day only to spit them out at night in dark, remote areas where they’ve fallen prey to a systematic series of killings that have never been clarified.

There is the justice system, hostile, ineffective, and profoundly mistrusted. There are discriminatory employers, who routinely advertise for young women with “good presentation” while firing those who get pregnant or age beyond an acceptable limit. There is the Catholic Church, which for centuries has preached the submission of women at the pulpit and in the confessional, enforcing its edicts in the political sphere thanks to a cozy alliance with the nation’s ruling elite. There is the television duopoly of Televisa and TV Azteca, which reinforce crude gender stereotypes through a steady diet of soap operas, talk shows, and sensationalistic pseudo-news. And there is the United States, which puts the weapons in the hands of those who murder women.

All of these, of course, are endemic factors that long predate López Obrador’s election. But it is also true that although his government has made an obvious priority of curbing the nation’s appalling violence, issues of gender have been much further down the list. Although Morena is far from alone — the other major parties in Mexico are much worse — that is hardly a ringing justification for its efforts to date.

For example, when AMLO was questioned during the 2018 presidential campaign on abortion (legal only in Mexico City, thanks to a reform promoted by then mayor, now foreign secretary Marcelo Ebrard), he would become visibly uncomfortable, relegating the issue to a future referendum. As the Morena-dominated Congress has yet to reform the law to allow for binding referenda, this and a series of other hot-button issues have been similarly, and conveniently, sidelined.

Although constitutional reforms have pushed the new Congress to achieve remarkable gender parity in both houses, the political dynamic is more complex. The furious anti-abortion diatribe of newly minted Morena senator Lily Téllez — a former TV Azteca reporter known for her fawning participation in a 2014 group interview with then-president Enrique Peña Nieto — is perhaps the clearest example of the internecine conflict that looks to impede progress on this issue.

Leadership, instead, may have to come from the states: fresh off its victory in legalizing same-sex marriage, the Morena-dominated legislature of Oaxaca is making a concerted effort to legalize abortion there. Victory in this, the second-poorest state in the nation, where an estimated nine to eleven thousand clandestine abortions are carried out every year, would undoubtedly represent a wake-up call for the national party.

That said, the López Obrador government is taking an important first step with the Amnesty Bill it submitted this month to Congress. In addition to covering nonviolent drug offenders and indigenous prisoners in federal prisons who were denied the right to counsel and translation in their language during trial, the amnesty would also extend to women jailed for having an abortion as well as the doctors and midwives imprisoned for performing them.

Women’s Rights Are Collective Rights

Lest we be lulled into accepting Morena’s stance as the last word on what is possible in terms of women’s rights in Mexico, it is necessary to consider the remarkable achievements of the autonomist Zapatista left. Despite the hurdles of being female, indigenous, and living in poverty, the women of zapatismo were integral from the beginning, organizing study groups and forcing the leadership to accept their liberation as integral to the movement.

In 1992, the Zapatista committees approved the Ley Revolucionaria de Mujeres, or Revolutionary Women’s Law, codifying the rights of women to participate fully in the revolutionary struggle, to work and receive a just salary, to choose their partner and decide the number of children they wished to have, and to participate in community affairs and be elected to positions. The document also affirmed their rights to food, healthcare, education, and to be free of physical abuse.

In the uprising of January 1, 1994, a third of the soldiers who seized the city of San Cristobal de las Casas were women; approximately the same proportion of women participate in the movement to this day. In the spirit of international gatherings dating back to the 1990s, Zapatista women organize their own events combining political education with artistic expression. As the Zapatistas refuse government subsidies of any kind, the cooperative efforts of women have been crucial in creating alternative economic structures.

Clearly, a brief overview does not do justice to the nuance of Zapatista life, nor to the realities of the women’s struggle within it. But it should serve to radically question the assumption, present in Morena and the policy priorities of López Obrador, that social and gender issues are separate from economic policy. From the start, relations between Morena and the Zapatistas have been governed by mutual mistrust. If AMLO and his administration are capable of overcoming this, there is much they can learn on gender justice.

Winning Justice

While we may never know precisely what happened on the night of August 3 in Azcapotzalco, the perils women face in Mexico, especially at the hands of law enforcement, are daily ones.

On July 10, two Mexico City police officers were arrested for forcing a woman to have sex with them in a hotel room. On August 8, an officer was arrested for allegedly molesting a minor in a museum. And on August 27, another officer was arrested for the sexual abuse of a woman — not out on the beat, but, incredibly, within a Public Prosecutor’s Office itself.

The victim had gone to the offices to file a criminal complaint before being assaulted. Not even there was she safe.

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Kurt Hackbarth is a writer, playwright, freelance journalist, and the co-founder of the independent media project “MexElects.” He is currently co-authoring a book on the 2018 Mexican election.

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