Mexico’s feminist activists stage occupation in protest at femicide

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Demonstrators hope to force president Andrés Manuel López Obrador to deal with relentless toll of rape and murder

As Mexicans prepared to mark Independence Day celebrations on 15 September, a different kind of commemoration was held at the headquarters of the country’s human rights commission (CNDH).

Under a fluttering purple anarchy flag, women in black balaclavas lined the upstairs balconies of the 19th-century building – and speaker after speaker expressed their fury at the country’s crisis of violence against women.

One middle-aged woman whose niece and sister have both disappeared brandished a fistful of documents from their CNDH case files. “I did this correctly. I sat here for hours and nothing happened,” she shouted, before shredding the papers and tossing them from the balcony.

“The institutions can go to hell, because they don’t respect people’s human rights.”

The masked protesters stormed the building a week ago, and they have vowed to occupy it until the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes decisive action to stop the relentless toll of rape, murder and forced disappearance.

Until then, they say, the building will be repurposed as a shelter for female victims of violence.

The occupation is the latest in a series of increasingly daring direct actions by activists who say they will no longer tolerate a wave of gender violence that last year claimed the lives of 3,825 women.

In August 2019, feminist protesters set fire to a police station and a bus terminal in the heart of Mexico City after news broke of rapes committed by police officers in the capital. Activists have also sprayed graffiti on the iconic Angel of Independence monument and staged months-long occupations at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

In March, the murder of Ingrid Escamilla, 25, by her boyfriend – and the subsequent publication of graphic photographs of her mutilated corpse – prompted Mexico’s first ever national women’s strike and fresh calls for a reckoning with the country’s femicide problem.

Many of the protesters have focused their anger on the president, popularly known as Amlo, who has repeatedly downplayed the country’s human rights crisis in Mexico.

Following the occupation of the CNDH, the president repeated allegations that feminist activists have a partisan political agenda, claiming – without offering any evidence – that they were backed by “conservatives”.

Amlo also expressed outrage that the protesters had defaced portraits of historical presidents in the building, taking particular offence over an image of the revolutionary leader Francisco I Madero, which was embellished with lipstick and a purple forehead tattoo spelling out “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards).

The response of one of the occupiers quickly went viral. Erika Martínez told reporters she had become an activist after her seven-year-old daughter was abused and authorities refused to investigate.

“The president was indignant about a portrait – but why wasn’t he indignant when my daughter was abused?” she said.

For some activists, Amlo’s inaction has been particularly disappointing given his previous promises to victims of human rights violations. On Sunday outside the commission, relatives of forced disappearance from the state of Guerrero spoke directly to the president.

“I voted for you, Amlo,” said one woman whose husband was one of more than 73,000 Mexicans who have vanished without trace. “I believed you when you said, I will be on your side, I will study and check every single file. It’s not true. The files are covered with dust.”

Inside the offices, women in balaclavas sort through piles of donated clothes and food. The women have painted the walls with colorful murals, and they have taken over the staff kitchen to take turns cooking meals.

“They say we destroy and paint things, but it’s the only way to get the government to turn to look at us,” said one woman. “What a shame that the government wants us to destroy things.”

Around the country activists have occupied local human rights commissions in cities including Puebla, San Cristobal, Villahermosa and Tampico. But while authorities in Mexico City have insisted that they will not use force against the occupiers of the CNDH police elsewhere have responded with violence.

On Thursday afternoon, a group of women in the city of Ecatepec took over offices of the human rights commission of the state of mexico, which surrounds the capital.

Shortly after midnight, police entered the building and beat the women and children with them, before taking them away in unmarked vehicles to the prosecutor’s office in a neighboring municipality.

Police refused to give information to relatives of the detainees, and after protesters began to break windows of the prosecutor’s office, the police attacked the crowd outside with metal tubes and fire extinguishers.