How Mexico's Drug War Fuels Violence Against Women

Latin America and the Caribbean

The negative effects of the drug war in Mexico have been in the media spotlight since corruption and abuses by security forces and government officials were revealed in the high-profile case of 43 students forcibly disappeared last September. But, within the mass media coverage of Mexico, little attention has been given to the specific culture of impunity for gender-based violence committed by security forces.

In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, historically unequal power relations between men and women have been further exacerbated by a hyper-masculine security approach that relies on the armed forces and militarized policing to combat organized crime and drug trafficking.

As the Mexican military has been increasingly tasked with public security functions, concerns over human rights violations have predictably increased. Increased militarization, paired with a broken and corrupted justice system in Mexico, has exacerbated an already harmful culture of unchecked and unpunished abuses against women.Source: CCTV

Last month, Juan Méndez, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture, released a scathing report on the widespread problem of torture in Mexico. The report, based on a fact-finding mission last spring, indicates that torture and ill treatment of detainees are generalized in Mexico across all levels of the security apparatus and are carried out with impunity. Méndez says the increased use of torture by security forces – including local, state and federal police, as well as the military – is directly linked to government pressure to quell organized crime with the start of the drug war in 2007.

In the torture report, Méndez expressed specific concern about “the use of sexual violence as a form of torture, mainly against women detainees.” Sexual torture, one of the many forms of abuse wielded by security forces on a daily basis, includes forced nudity, verbal humiliation and groping, not to mention repeated rape.

There are currently at least 128 open complaints of sexual torture, but widespread impunity for Mexican security force abuses means that few of these cases have been investigated and numerous victims have been dissuaded from filing complaints. An exemplary case of this impunity is the May 2006 assault on the municipality of Atenco in México state. The attack on civilian protestors was ordered by then-governor Enrique Peña Nieto, now the president of Mexico.

Nearly 3,500 state police reportedly engaged in excessive use of force, beating and detaining hundreds of people. The police reportedly sexually tortured 47 women while transporting them to a detention facility. Although eleven of those women sought justice at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), after almost nine years no public officials at any level have been punished for the acts of sexual torture committed against the women of Atenco.

The IACHR has held hearings on sexual torture for the last four years, but the Mexican government has yet to define "sexual torture" by security forces as a distinguishable offense in the law, opting instead for the term “sexual violence.” Human rights defenders involved in the “Breaking the Silence: All together against Sexual Torture” campaign say that classifying these abuses as less serious violations is an attempt to glaze over the systematic practice of sexual torture by state agents.

When victims of sexual torture file complaints or seek medical treatment, they are often re-victimized and face stigma in their communities. During the 2015 IACHR hearings, human rights defenders illustrated these issues by recounting the story of a group of women who had been illegally detained and sexually victimized by security forces. When these women later took to the streets in their community to protest impunity in their cases, they were told by police officers to stop complaining, go home and make tortillas.This story illustrates the way that women are targeted by state-level violence, then get relegated back into the home.

Violence against women in Mexico is deeply entrenched in the drug war, yet it is often perceived as a private sphere issue manifesting itself as domestic violence or sexual abuse committed by an intimate partner or family member. However, numbers show that as military deployments increased in Mexico and Guatemala, so did the number of femicides. As the Meso American Working Group explained:

The result (of the drug war) is the escalation of violence by powerful, armed men on both sides. In a machista society, where discrimination and misogyny continue to permeate all levels of society—both public and private—women are more vulnerable to all kinds of violence, from targeted retaliations to sex trafficking and domestic violence. Their bodies become part of the territory in dispute and the spoils of war. Examples include a Mexican drug kingpin supported by local police who kidnapped high school girls on a regular basis to rape and release.

In everything from enforced disappearances to femicides and domestic abuse against women, police officers throughout Mexico often ignore such crimes because they’re bought off by organized crime. Gender crimes are also fed by a culture of machismo, impunity, misogyny, a dysfunctional justice system and social norms that allow violence to be ignored or accepted as a normal part of life. As the United Nations torture report on Mexico indicates, few cases of sexual abuse by the police “have been investigated or punished, or else they have been classified as less serious conducts.”

The United States has long been involved in the security operations of countries throughout Latin America, particularly Mexico, Colombia and the northern triangle states of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. As security forces have come under scrutiny for reported human rights violations and alleged collusion with drug cartels and organized crime groups, the massive security assistance provided by the United States has also come into question.

Since the creation of the Mérida Initiative in 2008, the U.S. Congress has appropriated more than $2.5 billion to fund training, weapons and intelligence for Mexico’s police and military forces, in spite of these massive problems. To date, the United States does not appear to have taken these security forces to task in a serious way for these allegations of human rights violations, including the grossly under-reported, but rampant use of sexual violence. 

In other countries across the Western Hemisphere, the drug war has served as a platform for gender-based violence. Most recently this has been seen in Colombia, to which the U.S. has provided over $8 billion in assistance under Plan Colombia. A new report commissioned by the Colombian government revealed that 54 underage Colombian girls had been sexually assaulted by U.S. military troops and contractors stationed in Colombian military bases between 2003 and 2007. Immunity agreements between the U.S. and Colombia have prevented both U.S. and Colombian prosecutors from making any arrests.

As organized criminal organizations have permeated Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and as these states have responded with heavy-handed tactics, violence against women has also intensified. Guatemala currently has the third highest rate of femicide in the world, with 6,797 women murdered between 2000 and 2014. El Salvador is close behind, with 5,300 femicides recorded from 2000 to 2014.

Rampant impunity makes it so that in Honduras, 95 percent of the 900 cases of femicide reported in 2013 and 2014 alone have never been investigated or taken to court. The impunity rate for femicides is even higher in Guatemala, estimated at 99 percent. Women in all three countries often do not report cases of domestic, sexual or gang violence for fear or reprisals, distrust of police or skepticism that an investigation or prosecution would take place within this established environment of violence and impunity.

After years of deep U.S. involvement in these countries' security operations, it is necessary to acknowledge and address the ways that this rampant impunity, a heavy-handed, militarized security strategy, and deep-seated corruption has created a culture of unchecked violence and exploitation of women with little to no access to justice.