Cancun’s unsustainable development process helps explain femicide.
On January 13, Ruth Noh, a 7-year-old, was found raped and strangled to death in her bedroom in a Cancun apartment complex. The parents were taken into custody, and neighbors said the step-dad worked nights and the mom neglected the child, since she regularly drank alcohol with different men in the apartment.
In November 2015, a horrific streak of women killings in the Mexican city included the murder of a 24-year-old female in the same apartment complex. During this time, alarm engulfed the tourist hub as five disturbing homicides of women occurred within three weeks. Four of the victims died in the city’s periphery and one in the hotel zone.
The Streak Goes On
After the discovery of the fourth victim, the state public safety secretary, Juan Pedro Mercader Rodríguez, implemented a unified police command in Benito Juárez (the municipality that comprises Cancun) in light of the insecurity. However, Governor Roberto Borge stated that people are irresponsibly throwing around the word femicide in Quintana Roo, the state that is home to Cancun: “It’s not okay that people want to cut political profits and generate mass panic in the state.”
The following day, a fifth female victim of the streak passed away in an apartment in Region 223 of the city. She was identified as Deysi del Rosario, a 31-year-old Zumba instructor. Deysi was found naked on a bed, presumably strangled.
The panic that has since surfaced is due to the disconcerting violence utilized in all five homicides, and while in a handful of the cases authorities arrested suspects, citizens distrust the “proof” implicating these detainees and perceive pervasive impunity in these crimes.
The streak began on October 18, 2015, when Rebeca Rivera Neri, 24 and originally from Veracruz, Mexico, was found dead in the same apartment complex in Region 251, where 7-year-old Noh also lived. Her body was partially naked and her face was destroyed by thrashing. The cause of death was strangulation. According to Mexican authorities, initial investigations pointed to “a crime of passion” because “she went out with a lot of people.”
On October 27, Karen Carrasco, a 19-year-old college student, was found dead in an empty lot in Region 217; signs indicated severe force to the head and thorax, as well as rape.
Later that week on November 1, up to 5,000 people marched in Cancun to protest the violence and demand its place on the Mexican government’s agenda. Several civil society organizations requested a statewide gender violence alert. For this to occur, a civil society organization must make an official request to the Federal Interior Ministry (Segob), which would analyze the situation, and subsequently invite the state government to complete certain requirements by a given date. If the state fails to meet the requirements, the Segob could then declare the alert.
Late at night on the day of the march, a municipal police officer, in what authorities ruled a crime of passion, presumably murdered 18-year-old Paloma Guadalupe Balam in Region 248.
On November 3, the fourth victim, Abril Alejandra López Valencia, 36 and originally from Mérida, Yucatán, was found in the hotel zone. Authorities arrested the victim’s ex-boyfriend, César N, age 29 and originally from Mexico City.
Other smaller cities of Quintana Roo have witnessed similar cases. In mid-January, an unidentified woman between 20 and 25 was found strangled behind Hotel Paradisus in Playa del Carmen. On January 5, a 16-year-old student was found stabbed to death on a trash pile in a Tulum apartment complex.
Cases of Femicide
In spite of the brutal murders, the state secretary of the interior, Gabriel Mendicuti, and Prosecutor Carlos Arturo Álvarez have denied these cases are “femicides”—meaning murders of women due to gender-based reasons. If guilty of femicide in Quintana Roo, an aggressor could serve up to 50 years in prison, according to the state’s penal code reform in May 2012.
In the reform, gender-based reasons include: the victim and aggressor were relatives, concubines, married, dating, friends or neighbors; the aggressor had authority over the victim in terms of a work or school relationship; the body is found with signs of sexual violence; the body is found in a public area; or the body exhibits degrading injuries or mutilations. The reform also sanctions public servants who knowingly fail to act according to their capabilities and obligations or, without justification, to speedily conduct an investigation.
Nonetheless, the state only “created penal definitions that were difficult or impossible to accredit,” according to the National Citizen Observatory of Femicides (OCNF). Moreover, critics argue that the state does not have a protocol to classify femicides—frequently calling them homicides or suicides.
In 2014, the former state prosecutor, Gaspar Armando García Torres, stated by “decree” that authorities will only classify murders of women as femicides when they are serial murders. The state has only one case of femicide: Jorge Rosales Piña is accused of killing four prostitutes in Chetumal. García said the perpetrator was angry after a prostitute infected him with HIV.
Over the past two years, several cases—labeled as femicides by the media and civil society, but not by government leaders—have made headlines. In April 2015, the 13-year-old María Fernanda Sánchez was found dead with more than eight stab wounds and sexual abuse in Region 251. In June 2014, the media described the case of Laura Jovita Guzmán Morán as one of torture, femicide and child pornography in Cancun. Also in 2014, Gloria García López, age 19 and eight months pregnant, died in her house in Region 10 from cranial trauma. The presumed aggressor was her partner who is currently a fugitive.
Alejandro Betancourt Pérez, president of the Lawyers College of Quintana Roo, said authorities would not label many brutal killings of women as “femicides” because, according to law, the term applies to aggressors who only attack women. The idea is that this indicates hatred toward the female gender. If this is not the case, courts consider the crime “a grave homicide.” It should be noted that given the “serial killer” requirement, a crime could be a “femicide” only if authorities determine the aggressor.
How can one begin to comprehend these disturbing stories in Cancun? A starting point is to understand the city’s development process, which revolves around international tourism, institutional abandonment of locals and short-term urban planning.
Mexico witnessed this process clearly on January 16, 2016, in the destruction of 143 acres of mangrove forest in Cancun. The objective was to build Malecón Tajamar, which would sport offices, shopping and apartments, involving 23 private companies. Before dawn on that day, 140 state and municipal police officers protected bulldozers and cranes that would flatten the area, where thousands of animals lived. Public manifestations accused the executive branch at the municipal, state and federal levels of not only being accomplices in ecocide, but also promoting it. Fonatur, the Mexican tourist board, promoted the project and expected immense profits for the region.
Despite laws passed in 2007 that protect mangroves, the Malecón Tajamar project, its advocates argued, did not have to abide by the law since it was originally approved five years prior. Activists fought the project hard, including an injunction pushed by 113 local children that was granted in September, but removed after a judge ordered them to pay around $1 million in compensation to the companies. However, as an article by Carlos Brown states, the “legal” is not always the ethically correct. But the cynical government attitude definitely has an impact on local well-being.
Mexico leads tourism growth in the Americas. From January to August 2014, international tourists to the country increased by 19% over the previous year. In Mexico, tourism provides 8.4% of the national GDP.
Cancun, strategic for this growth, grew from scratch for international tourism development purposes. Daniel Hiernaux-Nicolas explains the geopolitical selection of Cancun for a tourist hub. No important urban center existed in Quintana Roo until the invention of Cancun, and economic development was dubious. Given its proximity to Central America, the government feared an indigenous uprising in that rural area of the country. Similar concerns lie at the roots of tourism projects in Los Cabos, Baja California Sur and Ixtapa, Guerrero.
Thanks to loans from the International Development Bank and the World Bank in the 1960s, the Mexican federal government conceived the idea of Cancun as a center for mass tourism. Within a few decades, Quintana Roo passed from last place (of 32) in state GDP per capita to sixth place. Residents from surrounding deprived states paid attention to that growth. By 2007, the Benito Juárez municipality daily incorporated 74 new people, “required 15 homes, 11 cars, 42 vacancies in the labor market, schools and hospitals, among other basic services.” But today, “education is one of the sectors where” there is a greater lag.
Solidaridad, the municipality that contains Playa del Carmen, developed later than Cancun and today its population grows faster. It is important to mention that of all municipalities in Mexico with a population over 15,000, Tulum, Benito Juárez and Solidaridad rank in the top ten of rape reports per capita.
One may attribute this to tourists’ greater willingness to report rapes. However, this is not necessarily the case. A study by Contreras on sexual crimes from 2005 to 2006 in Benito Juárez shows that the majority was reported in Regions 103, 101, 100, 228 and 75 (a total of 49) on the outskirts of the city, while in the Hotel Zone there were 14.
This map shows the Regions of Cancun, geographically distant from the Hotel Zone. Five of the seven women killings mentioned in this article occurred on the city’s periphery: two in Region 251, and the others in Regions 217, 223 and 248.
A recent article by El Universal argues that Cancun once had the potential to be an urban sustainability model, but not anymore. The government designed Cancun for immediate profit. More than 160,000 of Cancun’s 650,000 inhabitants live in conditions of “high marginalization” and more than 50,000 in “very high marginalization.” Eighty-six percent of workers hold employment in the tertiary sector, and most of these jobs are seasonal, unstable and provide a precarious income, half of which goes toward rent.
Migrants, Tourists and Corruption
Between 1995 and 2000, Quintana Roo was the state with the highest proportion of its population composed of migrants arriving in that period, representing 16.4% of its population. Migrants arriving between 2005 and 2010 represented 12.3% of the state population, with Quintana Roo ranking second place.
Migrants in Quintana Roo tend to arrive from Tabasco, Yucatán, Chiapas and the Federal District. They arrive with expectations to obtain employment within days. According to Ariadna Rabelo, director of the Project for Migration Flows and Evaluation of Migration’s Economic and Social Impact in the Northern Zone of Quintana Roo at the University la Salle, migrants can earn a better salary in Quintana Roo than where they originated. However, “in reality they are receiving minimum wages with increased costs of living … in the end the rural poverty that they live in becomes urban misery.”
The cost of living in Cancun contributes to this precariousness. According to Mercer’s 2015 Cost of Living Rankings, Cancun is the second most expensive city to live in Mexico, following Los Cabos, Baja California. The index considers housing, food and transport costs.
Tourism hubs are strategic points for organized crime, which benefits from high drug and alcohol demand, money laundering opportunities, sexual tourism, human trafficking and the production of child pornography. Child sexual exploitation through the Internet takes third place on the list of cybernetic crimes in Mexico (after fraud and threats), according to the federal police. In fact, “Mexico is among the tourist destinations most searched by pedophiles,” mainly due to government complacency.
Corruption flourishes in the real-estate market in Cancun. In Cancun, “more than 70 percent of the residential developments registered in the municipality operate with several irregularities because they did not complete all of the requirements for the municipal council to provide the corresponding public services.”
The accelerated growth in Cancun and Playa del Carmen detonated when the government incorporated ejidos into the urban terrain market, which produced uncontrollable urban problems, including rampant corruption, says M. Saul Vargas. Land invasion complicated the situation. Since the government failed to control these processes, “the settlers became the foremost agents of urbanization.”
Through focus groups, Araceli Nava observes that youth in Cancun experience violence in many aspects: suicides, family- and gender-based violence, juvenile delinquency and increases in homicides. “Youth perceive an accelerating violence in all aspects of socialization and social life. However, in the more marginalized sectors, this perception starts with the family.” Some young people in the focus groups perceived that “Cancun’s future will look like Ciudad Juárez or Michoacán,” and others observed a clear alcohol problem in the city. Young women reiterated they have experienced sexual harassment either personally or through near experiences. Focus groups of women with arrest records have experienced gender-based violence in the home from early ages, mainly by male or paternal figures.
Nava emphasizes that migration processes provoke in the floating population an inadequate formation of family and social networks, which can lead to depression or despair. Forty-five percent of suicides in Quintana Roo occur in Benito Juárez, and 86% of suicide victims died in a state of intoxication. Many of the victims are between 16 and 18 years old.
Infrastructure and adequate provision of basic services (like housing and clean water access in homes) to the locals did not accompany the rapid population growth in Cancun. Tourism development in Mexico has implicated displacement and property dispossession of local indigenous groups. One can speak of a de facto socioeconomic apartheid in many of Mexico’s tourist destinations. Authorities planned space in Cancun to separate the servants from the served. Cancun’s planners were very strict about segregation, more so than in Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta.
Where’s the Link?
Christopher Tamborini argues that the link between a city and global economy influences its development possibilities. In Mexico, export-oriented sectors—like global assembly and international tourism—mold patterns of female employment and gendered-jobs in the labor market. Literature has discussed the association between the maquila and femicide violence, but less so the link between tourism and gender-based based violence. Tourism culture reinforces commoditization of female characteristics and uses them—through advertising, for example—to invent an idea of paradise and the exotic to attract tourists. Vivian Kinnaird and Derek Hall explain this well:
“Unless we understand the gendered complexities of tourism, and the power relations they involve, then we fail to recognize the reinforcement and construction of new power relations that are emerging out of tourism process. From the values and activities of the transnational tourist operator to the differential experiences of individuals participating as either hosts or guests, all parts of the tourism experience are influenced by our collective understanding of the social construction of gender.”
While the causal relation among tourism development, migration, gendered-jobs, frenzied urbanization and gendered-based violence is imprecise, it may be a worthy starting point toward understanding femicide violence in Quintana Roo, as well as in the dormitory cities of the state of Mexico, petroleum towns of Tabasco, and export-oriented centers of Mexico’s northern border.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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