Femicide crisis rocks country’s largest state
Killings of women plague sprawling area of 16 million residents
VILLA CUAUHTÉMOC, Mexico — Like any other day, Dr. Jessica Sevilla Pedraza went to work at the hospital that morning, came home for a quick lunch and then left again. The plan was to see more patients, hit the gym and be back in time for her usual dinner with her father before he went to his nightshift job.
Instead, a hospital coworker showed up at the family’s door that evening. She said a man had come in with a bullet wound in his leg and had told doctors he had been with Sevilla when gunmen intercepted them, shot him and took off with the doctor in her own car.
“Ma’am,” the woman told Sevilla’s mother, Juana Pedraza, “it’s my duty to tell you that we cannot locate your daughter.”
Two days later, Pedraza identified 29-year-old Jessica’s body at the morgue. She had been shot in the head and decapitated, and the skin had been flayed from her skull.
“I can’t understand why,” Pedraza said. “Why so much fury? Why so much hate?”
Wave of killings
Sevilla’s gruesome death was part of a wave of killings of women plaguing the sprawling state of Mexico, which is the country’s most populous with 16 million residents and surrounds the capital on three sides. The crisis of femicides — murders of women where the motive is directly related to gender — prompted the federal government to issue a gender violence alert in 2015, the first for any Mexican state.
Sometimes the deaths are caused by domestic abuse. Other killings appear to be opportunistic, by strangers. Often the bodies are mutilated and dumped in a public place — which many read as a message to other women: There is no safe place, time of day or activity.
The week before Sevilla’s killing, 18-year-old Mariana Joselín Baltierra vanished when she walked to the corner store in Ecatepec, a hardscrabble suburb of Mexico City. Her body was found in a butcher shop next door; she had been sexually assaulted and disemboweled. The suspect, an employee at the butcher shop, allegedly took the money in the register and fled. He remains at large.
The State of Mexico officially ranks second to the nation’s capital with 346 killings classified as femicides since 2011, according to government statistics.
“This problem is difficult to eradicate because it is rooted in ideas that assume that we as women are worth less than men, that we as women can be treated like trash.” said Dilcya García Espinoza de los Monteros, deputy state prosecutor for gender violence crimes.
The government’s classification of “femicide” allows significant room for interpretation, and many say the official figures are understated and unreliable. Violent crimes such as disappearances often go unreported and unpunished, and the state of Mexico is widely considered ground zero for killings of women in the country today. The nonprofit Citizen Observatory Against Gender Violence, Disappearance and Femicides in Mexico state counted 263 femicides in 2016 alone.
Before Mexico state, it was Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, that was notorious for killings of women, with nearly 400 slain there since 1993 and only a handful of cases resulting in convictions.
Common to both places are marginalized, peripheral communities with high levels of violent crime, corruption and impunity.
President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was Mexico state’s governor before assuming the presidency in 2012, said during his state of the union address this year that the country’s rising murders have more to do with common crime than organized crime. But that has been no comfort for families who grieve for lost mothers, sisters and daugh- ters, and who too often face daunting hurdles when seeking justice.
Jessica Sevilla’s mutilated body was found on a highway about 20 miles from where she was last seen alive at a gas station in her new red Mazda. A week after the burial, Pedraza marched across town with family members carrying a stone cross to mark her grave. The murder remains unsolved.
Pedraza raised her five daughters to be confident that they are equal to men and that nobody can hold them back. She is now tasked with raising her grandson, León.
“With little León, we have the idea that we are going to teach him how to be a man,” Pedraza said. “You don’t hit women. You don’t insult them. If she can clear your plate, you can do it, too. … Equality and respect, above all.”