The Globe and Mail
Canadian Sheila Nabb – badly beaten in a luxury resort in Mexico – was cared for like a queen in a country that too often treats its own women worse than animals. But her case and the ironic presence of a North American women's-rights delegation headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams are ratcheting up pressure for change. It just may happen – if only because misogyny puts a nasty damper on tourism.
“The government reiterates that safety and security are top priorities for tourists and citizens alike and this was an unfortunate and isolated event,” Sinaloa State Governor Mario Lopez Valdez said. If Mr. Lopez Valdez believes that, he is sorely out of touch with the brutal reality of this country, roiling in violence, human-rights abuses and sexism. Here, thousands of women who are beaten, raped and “disappeared” are often dismissed by police as drug addicts and prostitutes, while girls are auctioned on the streets in broad daylight.
Yet, within days of the attack on Ms. Nabb, the state government was in full damage control, launching an aggressive investigation.
The painful contrast is not lost on Olga Esparza, who has been looking for her daughter, Monica, since she disappeared from a northern Mexican university campus on March 26, 2009. “We have found that public authorities have no interest in our disappeared daughters or others.
No interest in them or in us,” she told a public hearing organized by the Nobel Women's Initiative investigating escalating violence in Mexico and Central America.
“Monica had so many dreams, including completing her degree in business administration. She was always on the honour role. ... Our life is empty without her,” Ms. Esparza said through tears.
Monica's mother, who lives in Ciudad Juarez, is but one of dozens of women who came from the most violent parts of Mexico to testify – at great risk – before the international delegation, which includes U.S. analysts, lawyers, activists and Canadian performers Tantoo Cardinal and Sarah Harmer. Weeping and shouting, broken or defiant, those sharing their stories make up a growing segment of a mobilizing Mexican civil society – the wounded women left behind to cope as their husbands, fathers and family die or disappear.
“I went to meet the President three times and I'm here today because nothing was done,” Ms. Esparza said.
Despite the recent burst of tourism propaganda to the contrary, no one has yet accurately gauged the true extent of violence in Mexico. This month, the world gasped at the latest statistics – an estimated 50,000 dead since 2006, when President Felipe Calderon sent the military in to confront drug cartels.
Yet, violence in Mexico is even greater than reported, says Laura Carlsen, the Mexico-based director of the Americas Program, a foreign-policy think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.
The statistics don't include the thousands more people who have been “disappeared,” most of whom are now presumed dead or enslaved.
“When people disappear here, as they increasingly do, there is often a waiting period before police will even take a report, yet that's the critical time to find them,” Ms. Carlsen says. “Many are afraid to turn to the police, who in some cases are complicit and don't count the disappearances as a crime. Cases aren't seriously investigated.”
Where do the thousands of missing wind up? Beaten, robbed, held for ransom, trafficked or tortured for sex, pressed into the drug trade, spirited north for cheap labour or killed. Those who demand basic human rights or protest against environmental degradation are often threatened or defamed before disappearing altogether, human-rights advocates say. Even Mexican Attorney-General Marisela Morales admits that the statistics are poor.
“The Attorney-General and her staff openly acknowledged that the government doesn't have the full picture of violence against women. The data is far from complete,” Ms. Williams said after meeting with Ms. Morales on Tuesday. “The silent war against women in Mexico is unrecognized, in large part because the tactics being used by state police and others targeting women is to disappear women.”
A new study released by the Mexican Congress, the National Institute of Women and the prestigious El Colegio de Mexico identifies a spine of violence pushing from the south, along the gulf coast and up into the north, to Chihuahua, Durango and Baja California – the same route travelled by drug cartels moving product to the U.S. and migrants seeking work. Already, the mayhem is crossing the border into states like Texas, as are well-heeled Mexicans escaping the violence.
“If people knew the real level of violence here, especially against women, they'd be shocked,” Ms. Carlsen said.
And shocked foreigners aren't good for tourism, which is why Ms. Nabb received the treatment she needed – and that her Mexican sisters deserve too.