President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) won the 2018 election on a campaign of combating the underlying causes of the social ailments impacting Mexican society. He vowed to fight violence and narcotics trafficking by eliminating its root cause, poverty. His plan was summarized by his tagline, “hugs, not bullets.” AMLO has sought to be the voice of the marginalized and to end the endemic corruption in Mexican politics. In September, during his state of the union speech, he claimed that most crime was down under his administration, including kidnapping, robbery and femicide. His track record thus far, however, disproves his claims and leaves much to be desired, especially when it comes to violence against women.
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On August 3, the president celebrated a victory over the arrest of one of Mexico’s most wanted criminals, Jose Antonio Yepez Ortiz, “El Marro,” the alleged leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel. That win was soon followed by the extradition from Spain of Emilio Lozoya, ex-chief of the state-owned oil company, PEMEX, on bribery and money laundering charges, which ultimately implicated ex-presidents and various congressmen.
While Lopez Obrador touted these examples as clear evidence of his administration’s success, he, like many populists in the region, believes that he can shape public opinion and reality solely through his own declarations, despite all the evidence to the contrary. However, on the heels of these so-called victories, a July government report captured a staggering statistic: 17,493 homicides in the first half of 2020, indicating a nearly 2% increase since last year, putting 2020 on track to be the deadliest year on Mexico’s record.
Among the record-breaking homicides figure lies a much greater policy failure to combat femicide — the murder of women based on their gender. Femicide is up 9.2% compared to the first half of 2019, totaling 489 deaths through June this year according to the Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection (SSPC). Femicide shot up by 36% alone from May to June. While violence against women has long been problematic in Mexico, COVID-19 lockdowns have only worsened the situation by forcing many victims into dangerous circumstances with their aggressors.
Budget cuts to federal and state programs due to the economic recession and diminishing tax revenues will likely make it harder to respond to domestic abuse calls and to prosecute femicides. Amid these extraordinary developments, AMLO’s response so far has been to downplay the chronic nature of gender-based violence in Mexico.
Emergency calls show just how endemic the violence really is. Through the end of July, the emergency helpline had received 154,610 calls reporting gender violence incidents, up 47% from 2019, according to the SSCP. AMLO has claimed in a press conference that 90% of these calls are “false.” While experts agree many of the calls are “inadmissible” or “unfounded,” due to poor connections, the victims hanging up and even prank calls, inadmissible calls don’t exceed 77%.
The president is attempting to use the inadmissibility argument to refute the verified emergency call statistics of his own government. The figures also cannot account for the many victims who do not contact authorities out of fear. According to an independent NGO, 9 out of 10 women do not report gender-based violence in Mexico. Rather than providing compassion and answers to victims, the president has selfishly claimed that his opponents are using femicide statistics for political attacks.
Beyond the physical trauma, domestic and state abuse against women can also have profound effects on women’s economic well-being. According to a 2018 report by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography of Mexico (INEGI), over 19 million women reported being victims of domestic abuse, with 64% of incidents leading to severe violence. As a result, each victim lost an average of 30 days of paid and 28 days of unpaid work annually. INEGI estimates that between October 2015 and October 2016, the total cost of lost income by women who missed work due to domestic violence amounted to 4.4 billion pesos ($184 million).
These losses often perpetuate women’s dependence on their aggressors, worsening what already are unequal economic circumstances. According to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Gender Development Index, women on average earn $11,254 per year, less than half of men, who make $24,286. More women rely on informal employment, with 56.6% working in the informal sector (excluding agriculture) compared to 48.4% of men. The Mexican Social Security Institute noted that women only comprise 38% of social security beneficiaries. This economic and labor inequality has meant that women have been disproportionately hit by the COVID-19 lockdowns, rising unemployment and lack of access to social security benefits.
AMLO has failed to adequately respond to the issue, and the situation is likely to worsen unless the government makes a concerted effort. In August, a reporter confronted the president about a June report showing a cut of 37.5 million pesos to the National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence Against Women. After the president’s denial, the government released a statement saying that no such cuts would be made because fighting gender violence was an essential task.
However, the response still falls well short of a meaningful attempt to stamp out the endemic issues in the criminal system and within Mexican machismo culture at large. The president’s austerity measures cannot come at the expense of rising femicide rates and violence against women throughout the country. Rather, a July report from the UNDP recommends that the government take on more debt to spend on protecting the most vulnerable groups from the socio-economic effects of the pandemic.
As endemic as femicide is in Mexico — it trails only Brazil’s total number of cases in Latin America — gender-based violence is a pandemic that is claiming the lives of countless victims across the hemisphere. According to the United Nations’ Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean, the countries with the highest rate of femicide per 100,000 women are: El Salvador (6.8), Honduras (5.1), Bolivia (2.3), Guatemala (2.0) and the Dominican Republic (1.9). Mexico’s rate of femicide is 1.4, which suggests that in addition to national measures taken to halt this pandemic, Latin America as a region has much work to do to protect the well-being of half of its citizens.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.