Just like any other day, Dr. Jessica Sevilla Pedraza went to work at the hospital that morning, came home for a quick lunch and then left again. The plan was to see more patients, hit the gym and be back in time for dinner.
Instead a hospital co-worker showed up at the family’s door in the evening. She said a man had come in with a bullet wound in his leg and told doctors he had been with Sevilla when gunmen intercepted them, shot him and took off with the doctor in her own car. “Ma’am,” the woman told Sevilla’s mother, Juana Pedraza, “it’s my duty to tell you that we cannot locate your daughter.”
Two days later Pedraza identified 29-year-old Jessica’s body at the morgue. She had been shot in the head and decapitated, and the skin had been flayed from her skull.
“I can’t understand why,” Pedraza said. “Why so much fury? Why so much hate?”
Sevilla’s gruesome death was part of a wave of killings of women plaguing the sprawling State of Mexico, which is the country’s most populous with 16 million residents and surrounds the capital on three sides. The crisis of femicides – murders ofwomen where the motive is directly related to gender – prompted the federal government to issue a gender violence alert in 2015, the first for any Mexican state, and has recently prompted outcry and protests.
Sometimes the deaths are caused by domestic abuse. Other killings appear to be opportunistic, by strangers. Often the bodies are mutilated and dumped in a public place – which many read as a message to other women: there is no safe place, time of day or activity.
The week before Sevilla’s killing, 18-year-old Mariana Joselin Baltierra vanished when she walked to the corner store in Ecatepec, a suburb of Mexico City. Her body was found in a butcher shop next door; she had been sexually assaulted and disembowelled. The suspect, an employee at the shop, allegedly took the money in the register and fled. He remains at large.
In June, Valeria Teresa Gutiérrez Ortiz, 11, disappeared in Nezahualcoyotl after taking a public bus home from school. She was later found dead in the abandoned vehicle, partially clothed and with signs of sexual assault. The bus-driver was arrested for the killing. Three days later he was found dead in his cell, a cord around his neck.
The State of Mexico officially ranks second to the nation’s capital with 346 killings classified as femicides since 2011, according to government statistics. Dilcya García Espinoza de los Monteros, deputy state prosecutor for gender violence crimes, said femicides fell by about a third between January and July this year compared with the same period in 2016, but that can hardly be read as an indicator of improvement.
“We should not fall into this incomplete dance of figures where if we see an increase we believe we have to work extra hard and if there is a decrease we have no more work to do,” Espinoza said. “This problem is difficult to eradicate because it is rooted in ideas that assume that we as women are worth less than men, that we as women can be treated like trash.”
UNRELIABLE DATA. The government’s classification of “femicide” allows significant room for interpretation, and many say the official figures are understated and unreliable. Violent crimes such as disappearances often go unreported and unpunished, and the State of Mexico is widely considered ground zero for killings of women in the country today. The non-profit Citizen Observatory Against Gender Violence, Disappearance and Femicides in Mexico State counted 263 femicides in 2016 alone.
Before Mexico State, it was Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, that was notorious for killings of women, with nearly 400 slain there since 1993 and only a handful of cases resulting in convictions. Common to both places are marginalised communities with high levels of violent crime, corruption and impunity.
President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was Mexico State’s governor before assuming the presidency in 2012, said during his state of the union address this year that the country’s rising murders have more to do with common crime than organised crime. But that has been no comfort for families who grieve for lost mothers, sisters and daughters, and who too often face daunting hurdles when seeking justice.
Femicides have been getting increasing attention elsewhere in Latin America as well. In Argentina, a coalition of activists, artists and journalists started a movement known as Ni Una Menos, after a spate of killings. The name came from a poem about the killings in Ciudad Juárez by Mexican writer Susana Chavez, who herself was slain in 2011.
Jessica Sevilla lived in Villa Cuauhtemoc, a small town outside the state capital, Toluca, with her parents, four younger sisters and one-year-old son, Leon. Her mutilated body was eventually found on a highway about 30 kilometres from where she was last seen alive. A week after the burial, Pedraza marched across town with family members carrying a stone cross to mark her grave. The murder remains unsolved.