Victoria Salazar Vigil

Impunity and Police Brutality Characterize Rise in Femicides in Mexico

Migrants and advocates attend a vigil to protest against the death of Salvadoran migrant Victoria Esperanza Salazar, at the US/Mexico border in Tijuana, Baja California state, on April 2, 2021. (GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images)

The recent murder in Mexico of Victoria Esperanza Salazar—a young Salvadoran refugee and mother of two—sparked indignation and outcry. Video of her murder circulated widely and captured police kneeling on her neck and back, breaking her neck while she was handcuffed. According to initial newspaper reports, none of the four police officers that participated in the murder tried to resuscitate her or call for medical assistance. Her murder has since become a symbol of the widespread impunity, police brutality, and gender-based violence in Mexico today.

As thousands of Central Americans before her, Esperanza left her home country due to lack of economic opportunities and high levels of insecurity and crime. Mexican authorities, including President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, have claimed there will be no impunity for her murder. However, to many observers, human rights advocates, and feminist activists, AMLO’s words provide little, if any, sense of reassurance or hope. In a country where 93 percent of crimes go unpunished and where an estimated 10 women are killed per day across the country, the fear that Esperanza’s murder will soon be forgotten and engulfed by the country’s deep-rooted levels of impunity is absolutely warranted.

Esperanza’s recent murder is symptomatic of the high levels of violence that impact Mexico’s contemporary context, but that tend to receive much less attention than other stories of violence connected to the drug trade or to organized criminal organizations. In particular, this incident sheds light on the violence experienced by women, undocumented migrants, and the economically disenfranchised in contemporary Mexico, many times at the hands of security forces.

Part of this violence is the intentional murder of women because of their gender, a form of violence that has increased in the country since 2015. Although many of these femicides are committed by someone known to the victim, including their intimate partners, several cases have also been attributed to the police and military. According to a report on femicides in Mexico and Central America, violence against women has intensified in the context of these countries’ militarized and repressive approaches to insecurity and crime.

Although AMLO praises himself for being a progressive leader and for having a historic number of women in cabinet positions, his response to femicides and violence against women more broadly has been marked by indifference and dismissiveness. In addition to downplaying the number of cases of violence against women, which have increased under the lockdowns produced by the COVID-19 pandemic, AMLO has shown nothing but disdain for women protesters and their efforts to decry femicides. He has repeatedly claimed women activists are being manipulated by the opposition and has openly condemned feminists for vandalizing public buildings during their demonstrations. For many Mexican women, including the mothers of victims of femicides, AMLO’s indignation and outrage with respect to feminists’ storming of public buildings presents a painful contrast to his government’s seeming indolence towards the violence suffered by women.

The violence and harm experienced by Central American migrants on Mexican territory—be it at the hands of criminal organizations or of members of the police and the military—has also become widespread.  Every year, thousands of people from the northern triangle of Central America—Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras—flee their countries in order to escape criminal violence, environmental disasters, and economic deprivation. Like Victoria Esperanza Salazar, many of them intend to migrate to the United States, but harsher controls at the US border, together with Mexico’s increasing control of Central American migration, force many to stay in Mexico.

Despite AMLO’s pledge to offer a more humane response to the Central American refugee crisis, he has instead stepped up the militarization of Mexico’s southern border by sending out members of the National Guard to prevent migrants from entering the country. More so, Mexican authorities have failed to protect Central American migrants from torture, sexual violence, and extrajudicial killings at the hands of police and military. In January of this year, for instance, the bodies of 19 undocumented migrants—16 from Guatemala—were found in a small community in the municipality of Camargo, in the northern state of Tamaulipas. Twelve state police officers are being investigated in connection to this massacre. (Tamaulipas is also the state where 72 migrants were massacred in 2010 at the hands of the criminal organization Los Zetas).

There is also the high levels of brutality and abuse of force that characterize Mexico’s police and military. Mexican security forces’ discretionary and disproportionate use of force has increased in the context of Mexico’s war on drugs. According to one study, between 2007 and 2014, for every alleged aggressor or suspected criminal injured by the Mexican military, another eight were killed. More so, police and military personnel have been directly involved in some of the most visible and pernicious massacres over the last few years in Mexico. These include the killing of 22 people in Tlatlaya in June of 2014 at the hands of the military; the disappearance and massacre of 43 male students in the town of Iguala in September 2014; and the massacre of nine members of a Mormon family with dual US-Mexican citizenship in the state of Sonora in November 2019, perpetrated by criminal groups in connivance with municipal police.

Furthermore, as Esperanza’s murder demonstrates, police brutality is not limited to counter-narcotics operations. Instead, the abusive and violent tactics of the police are the outward expressions of long-standing problems within Mexico’s security forces. Such problems include lack of adequate professional training, poor disciplinary oversight, and the tendency to use retribution against suspected criminals, particularly those within vulnerable and economically marginalized groups.

Victoria Esperanza Salazar’s murder at the hands of the police is yet another example of the ways in which violence in Mexico cannot be explained as an expression of state absence or the lack of police presence. In my recently published book, I examine the longer history of impunity, police abuse, and extralegal violence in the country through the lenses of lynching. Many extrajudicial killings involved the participation of police officers in extralegal forms of violence—including lynching—against suspected criminals. Several of the victims were women who were brutally murdered at the hands of lynch mobs with the implicit or explicit sanctioning of local authorities. In Mexico and several other Latin American countries, state representatives that are principally responsible to uphold the rule of law, have instead historically contributed to undermine the law through their illegal and overt use of violence.

In a series of recent interviews, the mother of Victoria Esperanza Salazar demanded justice for the killing of her daughter. Hopefully, the increasing demands of Mexican citizens for justice and the vocal and powerful mobilization of women across the country will help bring that justice. In this as in other cases of police abuse, however, an effective response needs to go beyond an exemplary punishment for the accused police officers. It should involve a systematic effort to increase the professionalization, accountability, and oversight of Mexico’s security forces, as well as their transition towards more humane and citizen-centered forms of policing and violence prevention.

Gema Kloppe-Santamaría is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Loyola University Chicago and the author of the recently published book “In the Vortex of Violence: Lynching, Extralegal Justice and the State in Post-Revolutionary Mexico.”