War on Mexican Women

Mexico City.

“Sacan Sus Rosarios De Nuestras Ovarios!” The women, some of them bare-breasted, linked arms and chanted at the men in suits who were dashing towards the barricaded doors of the colonial edifice that houses the local congress in the central Mexican city of Queretero.

Indeed, some of the men were so eager to get to their desks on the floor of the state legislature that they squeezed through basement windows, risking wrinkles to duds that had been freshly pressed for the occasion.

By 9 AM September 1, in a classic “madruguete” (early morning vote behind locked doors to exclude dissenters), all 21 members of the all-male Queretero congress had unanimously passed a bill criminalizing abortions for all women with the exception of rape victims (but not victims of incest) and those whose lives would be put at risk for carrying to full term.  Any other woman who so much as inquired about the availability of abortion at a hospital or clinic could now be imprisoned for up to a year.

According to news reports, a week after the law was passed and signed off on by the rightist Queretero governor, one unfortunate and unidentified woman was in fact arrested for soliciting an abortion, held in jail overnight, and forced to pay a 4000 peso fine.

Queretero was the 15 Mexican state to criminalize abortion.  Days later, the conflictive southern state of Oaxaca became the 16th entity in the Mexican union to ratify what pro-choice organizations label “La Ley Machista” that defines life as beginning at fertilization and imposes prison sentences on women seeking to terminate unwanted pregnancies.  As in Queretero, the measure was vociferously dissed by pro-choice advocates and the legislature was forced to relocate to a secure alternative site to vote the Oaxaca version of “The Macho Law” up.

Criminalization of abortion bills are also pending in Michoacan, Sinaloa, Veracruz, and Mexico state.  With half of Mexico’s 31 states plus one now on record, the machos are assured that a constitutional amendment criminalizing abortion can be passed and such legislation is expected to be introduced in a coming session of the new Mexican congress.

Criminalization of abortion is turning Mexico into “a totalitarian state”, opines Diego Valades, a former attorney general and dean of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) law faculty – such legislation “cedes control of a woman’s body to the state and is itself unconstitutional.”  Valades proposes instead a constitutional amendment that would guarantee a woman’s reproductive rights.

The anti-abortion putsch is being orchestrated by the ruling right-wing PAN party in connivance with the Princes of the Catholic hierarchy. One goal is to force repeal of Mexico City’s free abortion-on-demand law.  Since the pro-choice legislation was deemed constitutional by a ten to one vote of the nation’s Supreme Court two Septembers ago after the law had been challenged by then-attorney general Eduardo Medina Mora, a proxy for President Felipe Calderon, and the National Human Rights Commission ombudsman Jose Luis Soberanes, an Opus Dei intimate, the city has provided free interruptions of unwanted pregnancies during the first 12 weeks of gestation to more than 30,000 women, an average of 41 a day, according to the Mexico City Womens’ Institute.

Abortion on demand has incurred the fierce wrath of Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the most powerful Churchman (there are no Churchwomen) in the land, who ordered all church bells in the capital rung in mourning to mark the court’s decision.  The Mexico City archdiocese has since bought a plot in the Dolores Cemetery where it stages funerals for aborted fetuses.

The 102-member Mexican Bishops’ Conference (CEM) is equally as obstreperous in its condemnation of Mexico City’s free abortion services, even those few liberationist bishops who have a voice and vote oppose the leftist capital government’s pro-choice initiative – San Cristobal de las Casas bishop emeritus, an apostle of liberation theology, once exhibited gory blow-ups of aborted fetuses on the esplanade outside the “Cathedral of Peace” in that Chiapas city.

“I am appalled by the CEM’s position.  The separation of Church and State is the foundation of the Mexican constitution,” an indignant Diego Valades reminded attendees at a recent National University academic conference.

The campaign to criminalize abortion is only one front in the war on women being waged by the PAN, the Roman Catholic Church, and their political allies.  Last month (September), the Mexican Senate confirmed Arturo Chavez Chavez, Calderon’s handpicked designee, as the country’s new attorney general over the intense objections of feminists and human rights activists.  As chief prosecutor in the northern state of Chihuahua during the mid to late 1990s, Chavez Chavez was charged with investigating the murders and disappearances of 192 women in the gritty border city of Juarez.  Mothers of the dead women – “Las Muertas” – accuse Chavez Chavez of gross negligence.

In testimony at his confirmation hearing, the future attorney general insisted that he had cleared 60 murders during his years as Chihuahua’s chief prosecutor but the truth is more diffuse – Chavez Chavez prosecuted one suspect, an Egyptian chemist Omar Latif Sharif, for 60 killings.  Sharif, however, was convicted of only one murder, that of a sometimes girlfriend, and is currently serving a 30 year sentence in a Chihuahua penitentiary.

Paula Flores, whose murdered 17 year-old daughter Maria Sagrario has become an icon for the mothers of Las Muertas, recalls a less than empathetic Chavez.  When 11 years ago she went down on her knees before him to plead for justice for Sagrario, the aspiring attorney general just walked around her as if she didn’t exist.  Later, Chavez Chavez’s investigators mistook Sagrario’s tomb and opened up an adjoining gravesite, carrying off the remains of another Muerta for an autopsy.

Such confusion tainted the Calderon nominee’s years at the helm of the investigation.  In 1999, United Nations rapporteur for extra-judicial killings Asma Jahangir denounced Chavez Chavez’s “arrogance” when she sought to question him about the investigations.  A second UN rapporteur  on judges and judicial processes, Dato Parran, who visited Juarez in 2002, doubted that any of the more than 100 remaining cases had even been investigated.  In 2003, Amnesty International found “intolerable negligence” in the investigations of the dead women’s murders carried out by Chavez Chavez and his successors – autopsies did not meet international legal standards and inquiries were only initiated after pressure from grieving families.  Many of the disappeared women were dismissed as runaways.

Jurist Eduardo Buscalgia, who headed a UN commission that reviewed the violent deaths of 258 women in Juarez between 1993 and 2003, uncovered what he recently described as “procedural horrors” in the investigations of the deaths of Las Muertas.  Many of the victims had apparently been tortured and some of their bodies burnt.  Eight women had one breast cut off and were bitten by their attacker(s) and their remains thrown out on the same desert lot, evidence that suggested a serial killer was at large yet no serious investigation was ever launched by Mexican authorities.  Instead, Chavez Chavez blamed the women for their own grisly murders, intimating that they had provoked their killers by wearing mini-skirts.  “Only bad women go out at night,” he concluded  – many of the victims like Maria Sagrario Flores had been working late night shifts at Juarez maquiladoras and were still wearing their “batas” (work smocks) when their bodies were discovered.

Despite overwhelming evidence of Arturo Chavez Chavez’s inept, misogynist investigation into the deaths of Las Muertas, he was confirmed September 24 by the Mexican Senate as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.  When, in protest, the mothers of the dead women painted 106 pink crosses (the number of unsolved cases) on the walls of the prosecutor’s offices in Juarez, they were investigated for the destruction of federal property.

In another notorious case of violence against women, 11 victims of sexual abuse during police raids in the farming village of San Salvador Atenco May 3-4, 2006 have once again been denied justice.  This September, the Special Prosecutor for Violence Against Women (FEMIMTRA), which operates under Chavez Chavez’s jurisdiction, rejected their claims that they had been sexually manhandled and penetrated during their arrests and turned the cases back to Mexico state authorities that had already vindicated the police. Charges against 22 state cops were dropped, five are pending while the accused are out on bail (if previous accusations of sexual battery against the police are any precedent, they will never be prosecuted), and one police agent who was sentenced to three years imprisonment paid a $400 USD fine and is now reportedly back on the Mexico state police payroll.

Violence against women is spiraling in Mexico.  On the day Arturo Chavez Chavez was confirmed (September 24th), five women were shot and killed in the Sierra of Petatlan in Guerrero state where army troops have been pursuing purported guerrillas for months.  One week later, four women – one a police domestic violence investigator – and a little girl who was playing nearby were gunned down in Ciudad Juarez.  According to a grim roster held by the group “Justice For Our Daughters”, 67 women have been murdered or disappeared in Juarez in the first nine months of 2009 – 28 bodies remain unclaimed in the city morgue.

From July 2007 thru June 2008, 227 “feminicides” were recorded in 13 northern Mexican states by the private Citizens Observatory on Feminicides and 1014 counted nationally.  60per cent of the killings occurred in and around the womens’ homes.

Despite the on-going slaughter, the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, which has long been under the thumb of the Catholic Church and the PAN, is the only one of Mexico’s 31 states that has not enacted a law to protect women from domestic violence.  Guanajuato is home to the extreme right-wing “El Yunque” (The Anvil), a secret organization with roots in the 1926-29 Cristero uprising against the anti-clerical president Plutarco Elias Calles, founder of the modern PRI party that ruled Mexico for 71 years until displaced by the PAN’s Vicente Fox, a Guanajuato native, in 2000 – three members of Fox’s cabinet were reportedly affiliated with El Yunque.

When the school term began this fall in Guanajuato, first year high school students found themselves without biology text books because books published by the federal Secretary of Public Education (SEP) had been withdrawn under orders from PANista governor Juan Manuel Oliva who adjudged that they contained “perversions” – the biology books included anatomically-correct reproductions of human genitalia and addressed birth control, even daring to use the two dread words “condom” and “abortion.”

Instead, the Guanajuato Education Secretariat (SEG) distributed 114,000 of their own biology textbooks that demonized masturbation and homosexuality, skipped any mention of AIDS prevention, and advocated abstinence as the only method of avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

When the federal SEP (ironically controlled by the PAN) insisted on teaching the original biology texts, a group of women in Leon, the state capital, headed by a local rightist councilwomen burnt hundreds of the SEP books in the central plaza of the city.  “They want to make my son wear a condom,” explained the councilwoman Hortencia Orozco.

The PAN is hardly alone in its pogrom against women.  The Chavez Chavez nomination was voted up by the PRI and the Mexican Green Environmental Party (sic) that together hold an absolute majority in the Mexican congress.  Eight of the 16 states that have criminalized abortion are governed by the PRI whose party president is a woman.

600,000 abortions are performed in Mexico each year according to the Secretary of Public Health, 100,000 of them under dangerous, clandestine circumstances.  The prohibition of legal abortion stirs the specter of the dark ages of back alley butchers scraping women with clothes hangers. In six of the 16 states that have criminalized the interruption of unwanted pregnancies, maternal mortality is five times the national average.

Both local and national legislatures in Mexico are male dominated.  The number of women holding congressional office (27 per cent) is well below Cuba (43 per cent), Argentina (40 per cent), Costa Rica (39per cent) and African nations such as Mozambique, Tanzania, and Rwanda (49 per cent.) Only 15 per cent of high echelon executives in the Calderon government are women in a country where women (52per cent) are the majority – in Ecuador 35 per cent of all executive positions are held by women and Argentina and Chile have women presidents.

Two years ago, Mexico revised its electoral code to insure that women would comprise 40per cent of the federal congress but this September 2nd when the recently elected Chamber of Deputies met for the first time, eight recently elected women rose from their desks one by one and asked for permanent leaves of absence.  Their seats were then delegated to their all-male substitutes (“suplentes”), at least one of who was the husband of an electee.  Denouncing violation of the so-called “Equanimity of Gender” clause of the reformed code, feminist Gabriela Rodriguez, writing in the left daily La Jornada, blasted the flimflam as “nothing less than electoral fraud against women.”

JOHN ROSS’s “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City, “a love letter” to the most contaminated, corrupt, and conflictive city in the Americas (Kirkus Reviews), will be published next month by Nation Books. His “Iraqigirl” (Haymarket), the diary of a teenager growing up under U.S. occupation is now in the stores.  The author is scouting venues for a 2009-2010 book tour. Any ideas? Contact johnross@igc.org


JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org