In 2014, Miriam Rodriguez’s daughter was kidnapped, held for ransom and murdered by the Zeta cartel in San Fernando, Mexico, which is about 85 miles from the Texan border city of Brownsville. In a country where at least 10 women are murdered every day, 20-year-old Karen’s death was not particularly newsworthy.
However, her mother’s decision to find and hold accountable those responsible for killing her daughter made headlines. A combination of police corruption, ineptitude and overarching misogyny as well as the terror most Mexicans understandably have of the drug cartels means that family members of missing and murdered women generally keep their mouths closed.
Not so Miriam Rodriguez. Over the three years following her daughter’s death, she approached her mission with what the New York Times called “meticulous abandon.” With no particular detective skills or experience – she had run a cowboy apparel store called Rodeo Boots in a local market until her daughter’s murder – she passed herself off as, among other things, a pollster, a health care worker and an election official in order to gain the trust of people she believed had information about her daughter’s death. She dyed her hair and wore a variety of disguises. She also carried a gun in her handbag at all times.
By 2017, she had “captured nearly every living member of the crew that had abducted her daughter,” 10 of whom were in prison for their actions. On Mother’s Day 2017, she was shot and killed in front of her home, bringing her campaign for justice for her daughter to an end.
She knew that going after the cartel would put her own life in jeopardy, but she was prepared to take that risk:
“I don’t care if they kill me. I died the day my daughter died.”
“We don’t deserve this treatment”
In many Mexican states, the intentional killing of a woman because she is a woman constitutes its own criminal offence: feminicidio (femicide). For the killing of a woman to be considered femicide, there must be a history of sexual violence, a relationship between the victim and the murderer, prior threats and aggression and the display of the body in a public place.
San Miguel, where I have spent time for the past several winters, is in the state of Guanajuato. With a population of more than nine million people, it is the sixth largest of Mexico’s 32 states, but has the highest murder rate of women in the country. Last year, 303 women in this state were murdered. On IWD, the women’s rights organization Ser Mujer, suspended 303 pairs of women’s shoes on red ribbons down the side of a house, one pair for each of those women.
It was a truly breath-stopping image; one that lingers close to the front of my mind, even after more than a year.
Many of us in the north first became aware of the extent of violence against women in Mexico in the early 1990s, when the murders of young women in the border city of Juarez began to make the news. Young women were drawn to the city because of possible employment in one of its many maquiladoras. They were on their own, without protection from their families, and vulnerable because of the long walks many of them had to make every day between their living quarters and the sweatshops where they worked. According to a 2003 Amnesty International report, between 1993 and 2003, more than 370 women and girls were murdered in Juarez, with anywhere from another 70 to 400 missing and unaccounted for. As viewers of the televisions series The Bridge will know, Juarez remains a very dangerous place to be a woman.
Despite the obvious lack of government action, even as he ordered metallic barriers to be placed around the national palace the day before IWD this year, President Obrador claimed in a social media post:
Given that Obrador has also slashed funding for day care and women’s shelters, and frequently claims that feminist activists are a conspiracy organized by his political opponents, it’s not surprising that most feminists beg to differ.
From writer to investigator
Frida Guerrera, born Veronica Villalvazo, is a journalist who has devoted the last five years of her life to tracking down men who kill women. She chose her nom de plume to honour artist Frida Kahlo and identify herself as a warrior in the battle to save women’s lives.
She began her work as a reporter, covering stories about violence against women and children, but then began investigating them because the police were doing so little to find those responsible. She works closely with family members and maintains a blog that contains photos and stories of hundreds and hundreds of missing or murdered women and children.
She says of herself:
No Perdonamos ni Olvidamos
Last September, a group of women occupied the Mexico City Human Rights Commission office, and more than a dozen of them are still there. As the hand-painted slogan in the front office says, translated into English, “We neither forgive nor forget.”
We have much to learn from courageous women like Miriam Rodriguez, Frida Guerrero and many others, who have refused to give in to fear, criticism and acts of retribution. Their commitment has meant that the stories of women whose lives, disappearances and deaths would otherwise be invisible are brought into the public and, in some cases, the men who have harmed them have been held accountable. As Guerrero has said in response to her critics:
“They’ve called me crazy. It’s their absurd way of discrediting the truth. We’re crazy because we don’t shut up.”
Let the rest of us also refuse to shut up.