MEXICO CITY — They're groped on the train and abused at home. Girls are assaulted at school, women at work. They're killed in big cities and small villages.
So they have made one. They kicked the government workers out of the federal Human Rights Commission building in Mexico City. They covered the walls with the names of rape victims and hung posters with the faces of the dead. Then they invited women and children to shelter.
“In here, you realize that you’re not really alone, that we have all suffered some kind of gender violence and nobody has taken care of us — not the state, not the police,” said Cali, a 26-year-old member of the group Bloque Negro, who like others spoke on the condition that her full name not be used for fear of reprisal. “So, it makes you feel safe to know that in here we can take care of ourselves.”
The occupation of the stately marble building in Mexico City’s central historical district, which began in September, is one of the most extreme acts of a feminist movement that has grown more aggressive amid the intensifying violence and what its members say is official inaction.
Last year, authorities here reported a record 3,142 femicides — the killing of girls and women for their gender. Activists say an undercurrent of machismo that runs through every part of Mexican society — families, communities, the government — is as much to blame as the perpetrators who kill, on average, nearly 10 female victims a day.
Elected leaders “say that they don’t know why we are angry, they say that everything is fine in the country,” said Doc, a 21-year-old who helps treat injured protesters. “But the situation is abysmal.”
Protests to fight the physical and sexual violence have overtaken cities across the country. None of the activists’ demands — including police training, a public review of government actions to stop the violence and a guarantee of the protesters’ safety — have been met.
The shelter has been a safe harbor for women fleeing violent homes, abusive relationships, sexual assault, threats or the fear of being female in a country where researchers say femicides have grown by 130 percent in the past five years.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has spoken against the violence. But he has also condemned the vandalism and violence at the feminists’ demonstrations. Protesters have dumped paint on statues, vandalized monuments, shattered windows and set fires.
López Obrador, a populist who rode a wave of dramatic demonstrations to prominence himself, has suggested the activists are protesting the “wrong way.”
“Without a doubt the feminist movement deserves all our respect, but I do not agree with violence,” he told reporters in September. “That we all achieve peace and tranquility, that is an objective that we have. We are working toward that.”
The activists say the vandalism isn’t a byproduct of their protests — it’s a tactic.
“For years, they protested peacefully, going to the Monument [to Independence] with photos and candles, and nobody paid any attention,” said a 22-year-old university student at the shelter who wore a black hood and mask. “It was not until private property began to be destroyed that the country turned to look.”
Yesenia Zamudio, whose 19-year-old daughter was found dead after being thrown from a fifth-floor window in Mexico City in 2016, is a frequent protester around the capital.
“I have every right to burn and break,” she told a crowd in February. “I’m not going to ask anyone for permission, because I am breaking for my daughter.”
The approach carries risk. Protesters gathered in Cancún after the body of 20-year-old Bianca “Alexis” Lorenzana Alvarado was found dismembered this month. When they tore down plywood boards blocking the entrance and windows to the state attorney general’s office, police opened fire. Two journalists and several demonstrators reportedly were wounded.
A 2020 government survey found that nearly 80 percent of Mexican women don’t feel safe in their own country. Ten percent of criminal cases here result in prison sentences; when the victims are women, the percentage is lower. Human rights groups estimate that only about 2 percent of accused rapists in Mexico are ever jailed.
The World Health Organization has reported that about half of all women in Mexico will experience sexual or intimate-partner violence during their lifetimes. But many suffer several attacks.
Yaderi, a 36-year-old university student and retail worker who lives in Mexico state, said she has been sexually assaulted six times, beginning at age 7 and most recently six years ago. But it wasn’t until she had a daughter, she said, that she felt compelled to join the movement.
Two years ago, she said, the child came home from preschool crying. She told her mother a man had touched her sexually.
“I teach my children that their body is theirs, but we live in a country where that is not true — not for children, not for women,” she said. “Enough.”
Her last name is being withheld to protect her daughter’s identity.
Yaderi joined Ni Una Menos, a grass-roots movement across Latin America to fight violence against women and push for more effective laws and harsher punishments.
“All these girls know somebody that has been killed or disappeared, and they have watched the government do nothing about it,” said Angélica Nadurille of the Equity and Gender Collective. “They’re angry. And they are right to be — the government is part of the problem because they have closed their eyes to the problems that exist, and I think that is because of the personal belief of the president.”
López Obrador has said feminist groups have been infiltrated by his political rivals and co-opted to undermine his administration.
He has expressed outrage over violence against women, but he has also slashed funding to the National Institute of Women amid coronavirus-related austerity measures and threatened to withdraw government funding from shelters operated by nonprofit organizations — suggesting instead that women fleeing abuse could be given a direct cash payment.
“When the pandemic started, he said violence against women should be less because the home is a very safe place to be,” Nadurille said. “And when we said this is not true, that it will actually make things worse, he said no, that’s not possible, because the family is a happy place.”
López Obrador’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Dozens of families have sought shelter at the human rights office. They sleep in converted offices and live off donated food and clothing.
Children race up and down hallways as mothers and volunteers prep meals in a communal kitchen and sort donations of clothes, art supplies and toiletries. Men are not allowed inside the building.
Those who have sought shelter here are looked after by a rotating cast of young women in black balaclavas — the Bloque Negro, or the Black Bloc.
Bloque Negro activists stand guard with baseball bats, hockey sticks and pipes. Atop a mini-fridge sit neat rows of ready-made molotov cocktails, rags hanging from the tops of old beer and tequila bottles.
It makes women like Erika, 42, and her 10-year-old daughter feel safe.
Erika, a working-class mother of three, was among the small group of women who took over the offices in early September. Today, she’s one of the handful that remain. Infighting has driven wedges in the movement and led some women to leave.
Zamudio has denounced the work of Bloque Negro at the shelter. In occupying the building, she said, they have lost sight of the movement’s greater purpose: justice.
But for Erika, the two go hand in hand.
“I took this building because in response to my complaint, I was forced to leave my home, I was stripped of my home . . . and the authorities did not protect me,” she said. “We are no longer fighting against the abuser, the rapist, but instead we are fighting this government, this system, these authorities.”
A housekeeper and doll maker, she and her youngest daughter moved into the shelter after months of homelessness. The two no longer felt safe in their own home, Erika said, after the child, then 7, said she was sexually assaulted by a family member.
For two years, Erika said, she begged police and prosecutors to do more to resolve her daughter’s case. Erika was sexually assaulted herself when she was 10, she said. But when she told her mother, her family did nothing to help her.
“How many women put aside their complaint because they prefer to work and eat than to lose their job, their life, like me?” she said. “I have lost three years of our lives, my daughter’s and mine, fighting for this man to pay and not do the same to other women. That is why we fight: to stop this from repeating.”
Her daughter can’t imagine a future that doesn’t involve living at the shelter, surrounded by women. An energetic child, she bounces as she talks and runs fast through the open courtyard as her dark hair trails behind her.
She likes that men aren’t allowed in, she said, and that the women are free to do and say what they like. She likes the wall paintings and the black hoods. She helped paint over an oil portrait of Francisco Madero, the tragic revolutionary hero. She gave him bright red lipstick; others filled in green eye shadow and purple hair.
“I’m going to stay here for my whole life,” she said.
Erika said the shelter has changed the girl’s life.
“She can sleep without worrying that something is going to happen to her,” she said. “She can enjoy the entire building without worrying that something is going to happen to her. I can let her run and play without worrying that something is going to happen to her.”