“I Don’t Want to Disappear”: How Mexico’s Criminal Violence Reshapes Women’s Lives
“I Don’t Want to Disappear”: How Mexico’s Criminal Violence Reshapes Women’s Lives
The photograph of Silvia Kezaline Corona, who was murdered in June 2019, is seen between women's red shoes that were placed in protest by activists and relatives of women and girls who are victims of murder and disappearances, in downtown Ciudad Juarez, M REUTERS / Jose Luis Gonzalez
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 13 minutes

“I Don’t Want to Disappear”: How Mexico’s Criminal Violence Reshapes Women’s Lives

As crime rises in Mexico, women are in particular danger – of “disappearance”, kidnapping, sexual assault and murder. The state has taken some steps to address this crisis, but it can do much more. 

Two years ago, Adriana stopped running in the mornings. It was a matter of personal safety: she realised a car was following her on her jogs. For this 34-year-old woman, who has spent all her life in the northern Mexican city of Zacatecas (the capital of Zacatecas state), the menacing experience of being pursued every day brought a lasting sense of insecurity. “I stopped running, but the fear remains”, she says. 

Adriana was one of 60 women participants in a half-dozen workshops Crisis Group conducted in Zacatecas in 2022. These discussions revealed that Adriana’s experience is disturbingly common. Participants – who ranged in age from eighteen to 43 and came from a variety of occupational backgrounds (they included students, professors, entrepreneurs, journalists and activists) – described how they had lost women friends and family members to criminal violence. The acute dangers they face changed how they navigate public spaces and curbed their participation in their communities’ social and political life.

While many of the perpetrators of these attacks are violent, abusive men who are not linked to criminal groups, the “war on drugs” has exacerbated the conditions under which gender-based violence takes place. For years, the Mexican government, urged on by Washington, has deployed the military to take on criminal organisations – causing them to splinter and leading levels of violence to spike. Women have, in effect, been caught in the crossfire.

Nearly half of all women in [Mexico] have been sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetimes.

Federal data underscores the daily perils Mexican women face. Nearly half of all women in the country have been sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetimes. In 2021 alone, almost one in five women was exposed to sexual violence. Between 2007 and 2021, the number of women reported to have “disappeared” increased by a factor of fifteen and the number of femicides (ie, killing women because of their gender) almost tripled. Even as women are subject to these heightened levels of violence amid overall rising crime, they are frequently blamed for the threats and abuse hurled at them. The broader message is that the onus is on women to find ways to stay safe, forcing many to give up their freedom of movement. Activities like jogging, spending time with friends after school, taking in a sunset outdoors – all common just two decades ago – are no longer safe. To engage in these pastimes places women at risk of being “disappeared” or killed. 

While Mexico has laws to address violence against women, much more can be done. In particular, Mexican institutions such as the National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence against Women (Comisión Nacional para Prevenir y Erradicar la Violencia contra las Mujeres) should work with and support civil society organisations that are in daily contact with survivors of violence in areas under the sway of criminal outfits. These organisations have earned women’s trust and, with appropriate support from the state, are best placed to be effective partners in promoting their safety.

The Case of Zacatecas

The rise of criminal groups has imperilled public safety in much of Mexico. Zacatecas state, in the north-central region, has been plagued by violence for at least fifteen years. The state’s location along a network of roads and railways has made it a coveted site for gangs operating trafficking routes: Crisis Group calculated in 2020 that around five armed groups were active in Zacatecas. Since 2010, vicious battles among the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, La Familia Michoacana and Cartel del Milenio – and, more recently, among the Sinaloa, Northeastern, Gulf, Talibanes and Jalisco New Generation cartels – have broken out in rural Zacatecas and the capital city as well. 

There has been a concomitant rise in violence: in recent years, Zacatecas has suffered the fourth highest murder rate of Mexico’s 32 states. An average of four people were murdered every day in 2021 and another two disappeared. According to the Secretariat of National Defence (SEDENA), 81 per cent of the homicides recorded in Zacatecas are linked to organised crime. Violence affecting women has increased as well. For example, rates of disappearance of women in the state rose by 50 per cent in 2022. In Zacatecas, and in Mexico in general, most of the disappeared women range in age from ten to nineteen.

There are several reasons that help explain why surges in criminal fighting trigger more violence against young women. Criminal groups deploy violence as a matter of routine, exacerbating the conditions in which gender-based violence arises and allowing it to proliferate. These groups also often operate migrant smuggling and human trafficking rings, forcing women into sex work and other forms of exploitation. (Young women are particularly vulnerable to these trafficking networks.) The ubiquity of firearms – which in many cases originate in the U.S. – also fuels homicide and femicide rates.

The government’s default response to rising insecurity relies heavily on deploying soldiers.

The government’s default response to rising insecurity relies heavily on deploying soldiers. The military does not seem to have done much to improve public safety in Zacatecas. There is a robust military presence in the state: two military bases were built there in 2011 and, according to SEDENA, in 2022 there were 3,983 soldiers operating in the state, including National Guard members, as well as 2,509 federal police officers from the Secretariat of Public Security. But criminal violence has not ebbed, and the presence of the military is not uniformly welcomed by local women. Lorena, a 28-year-old participant in the discussion group, explained: 

As they [the military] are everywhere, my big worry is being liked by a military man. They walk around feeling like they own everything. They look at you disrespectfully. … I lower my gaze when I have to pass by them, because if they like you, you’re already theirs. It’s the same as with the narcos, only they have licence to do whatever they want with you.

Constitutional reforms to the criminal justice system in 2008 allowed the military to detain people deemed suspicious based on criteria such as their appearance, where they are travelling or the time of day – in essence providing licence for arbitrary arrests. Women who are detained by the military are at particular risk. According to the National Survey on Imprisoned People, SEDENA is the state force most likely to use torture against detainees, especially those accused of involvement with organised crime, before they are brought before a judge. While both men and women are subject to abuse, the violations against women tend to be sexual in nature: 21 per cent of women arrested by the military reported sexual harassment, forced nudity, fondling, touching, attempted rape or threat of rape, while 9 per cent reported being raped. The proportions among men detained by the military were lower, at 7 and 3 per cent respectively. 

Criminal violence and the increasing presence of the military have also endangered the work of feminist collectives that provide services such as accompanying women to abortion clinics and sheltering survivors of domestic violence in Zacatecas. Many members of these groups migrate to the state capital in search of safety, only to find they are not secure there, either. Members of collectives and organisations working on behalf of women survivors of violence report being threatened on a daily basis. Alina, 35, a social worker from a local civil organisation providing protection to victims of domestic violence, spoke of the harassment her group faces.

We are very unprotected. In this city everyone knows where the shelter is for women victims of domestic violence. So, it is easy for the aggressors to come and threaten us. It has happened on several occasions, and with a lot of pain, we have to let the woman go with her aggressor to protect the other fifteen or 20 women who are there and also to protect us as a team. The job in those places is harsh. Not only do we have to deal with the lack of resources, the poor salaries and the stories of the women we serve, but we also have to live under death threats. There is a lot of burnout among the personnel and many decide to quit. 

Living with Fear

A majority of women in the workshops had personal experiences with losing a woman friend or family member to violence. Seven of ten women said their friends, schoolmates, daughters, sisters or neighbours had been disappeared, kidnapped or murdered. These losses marked a turning point in their lives. Harrowing personal accounts show that this violence affects not only the lives of the women who are disappeared or killed, but also their families, friends and neighbours.

Pilar, a 23-year-old university student, was profoundly affected by the way she found out about the death of a close friend. 

My best friend was “picked up”. ... She went shopping downtown and didn’t come home. [The authorities] asked me a lot if I knew anything because we were always together. ... I felt suspicious, as if I had to know something. ... A month later, a package arrived at my house. It was her arm. I recognised it because it had a tattoo. ... I was in shock for about a week. I couldn’t eat or sleep. ... All I could think about was who could have done something like that to L. and why they would have sent me her arm. The neighbours whispered that we were involved in some dodgy business (malos pasos), but the truth is that we only liked to party. We weren’t into anything. ... It was horrible to deal with the gossip on top of everything else. ... My parents sent me to an aunt for a few months. There I tried suicide, and then she sent me back.

The participants were traumatised by their exposure to violence. Many described suffering from depression and panic attacks. Some dropped out of school or were forced to move. But even though attacks on women are common, victims’ friends and family members find it hard to talk about these murders and disappearances; they worry about making others feel uncomfortable or afraid. Women in Zacatecas thus endure intimidating, often terrifying conditions in profound isolation. 

Institutions such as universities do little to address the mental health issues women suffer in the wake of persistent abuse. Institutions of higher learning, moreover, appear reluctant to press for justice for acts of violence or support students affected by attacks. The testimony of Sofía, a 21-year-old university student, is illustrative.

In 2019, a student was murdered, right here at the university. I was in class. ... It was horrible. After that, the university didn’t even speak out. ... Here it’s like pretending that nothing is happening. She was my friend, and it wasn’t easy to keep coming back, to pass by the stairs when her blood was still there. ... It’s still hard for me to pass by there.

The women taking part in the workshops acknowledged that constant exposure to bloodshed had led them to tailor their daily routines to reduce the possibility of becoming the next victim. The threat of being levantadas – ie, taken by force from a public space or even from a school or home – has become a regular part of conversations among friends and relatives. Women said they make a point of informing their social circles of their whereabouts. They had heard stories of disappearances being passed off as the result of a personal choice, and they did not want people or the authorities to say, “She must have gone off with her boyfriend” – a common response that reveals deep mistrust of women – if they too were kidnapped and killed. “I have told my mum that my plan will always be to come back home. … I will never leave without a word”, said a workshop attendee who had just turned eighteen.

Institutional Shortfalls

Although over the past two decades Mexico has developed a fairly comprehensive legal and regulatory framework to punish violence against women, it has not had a discernible impact. The threat remains strong, and the level of impunity is high. The country has specialised prosecution offices for crimes of violence against women (fiscalías especializadas) and Centres for Women’s Justice (Centros de Justicia para las Mujeres), but they tend to be understaffed and poorly resourced. They are open from 9am to 5pm and, unlike other public prosecutors’ offices, they do not function on weekends. They are also usually located far from city centres, making it hard for many vulnerable women to reach them. Moreover, they focus almost entirely on identifying and prosecuting the guilty parties, without ensuring adequate protection for the women making the complaints and without guaranteeing that the violence does not recur.

They said prosecutors’ offices tend to traffic in gender stereotypes that assume women are either “good” or “bad” victims.

Women in the workshop reported feeling investigated and judged when they tried to file a criminal complaint, with their behaviour factored in as a possible cause of the violence they had experienced. They said prosecutors’ offices tend to traffic in gender stereotypes that assume women are either “good” or “bad” victims. Good victims are those who conform to gender stereotypes insofar as they are submissive, do not drink alcohol or consume illicit substances, and do not go out at night, associate with criminals, dress too conspicuously, or have conflicts with neighbours or family. 

Another government initiative aimed at protecting women was the creation of Gender Violence Alerts (Alertas de Violencia de Género). The alerts – which were established under the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free from Violence in 2017 – oblige local, state and federal authorities to work cooperatively to address femicide in particular geographical regions. Currently, over half of Mexican states have an alert in place; as a result, they have received federal funds to support local initiatives and train officials. Governors are in charge of allocating these resources, but there is little transparency in how the funds are used. Local women’s organisations have mostly not been allowed to weigh in on how funding is allocated, despite the fact that these collectives are the ones that have gathered the relevant data and demanded the declaration of local alerts. The net effect is that the Gender Violence Alerts have generally failed to prevent femicide. By 2021, the amount of funding for states and municipalities had been cut


Given the grave dangers they face and the limited protection the state can offer, women in Zacatecas, and in Mexico in general, have taken matters into their own hands. All the workshop participants said they share their location and journeys by smart phone app and report when they arrive home. Some have protocols for action in case they fail to check in within twelve hours. Others have joined self-defence groups for training in how to respond to attacks.

Many have also taken to the streets to demand justice. The demonstration in Zacatecas on 8 March 2023 for International Women’s Day drew over 10,000 women, evidence that women refuse to resign themselves to being locked up in their homes, living in fear under male guardians. “The hopeful thing”, said Mónica, a feminist activist from Zacatecas, “is that there are more and more of us, more and more young women who are coming to the movement, who want to know more, who have that rage in their eyes, that spark”. 

“As long as there is rage, there will be hope”, she concluded

Women protest at the 8 March 2023 demonstration for International Women’s Day. The poster reads: “In Zacatecas they are killing us”. CRISIS GROUP / Angelica Ospina

Another way in which women organise themselves to respond to criminal violence is through joining collectives of mothers, wives or relatives of disappeared people known as buscadoras (searchers). While the state does little to identify the levantadas, these groups search for bodies in clandestine graves that are reported anonymously through their social networks. They not only keep files on the disappeared, but they also put pressure on the authorities to identify the recovered remains. These efforts, however, expose them to criminal reprisals. In 2022, five buscadoras were murdered in various parts of Mexico.

There are at least five groups of buscadoras in Zacatecas. Every Sunday, women, mostly the mothers and wives of disappeared people, meet to weave thread into a large red tapestry, in remembrance of the bloodshed caused by femicides and disappearances in the state. As they weave, they share stories of their disappeared loved ones, the results of their meetings with government officials and their new plans. The buscadoras’ campaigns have been fundamental to legal and institutional progress in addressing Mexico’s blight of disappearances, including the approval of several laws that aim to protect women who have been disappeared. 

Beyond Justice

Appalling acts of violence – whether homicides, femicides or disappearances – have become quotidian in Mexico. Until efforts to improve security and end impunity bear fruit, women will continue to live amid fear and violence, reconfiguring their lives as they try to preserve their safety. This does not just circumscribe their freedom of movement. It deprives broader society of their full participation in shaping Mexico’s political and social life.

There are steps the Mexican government can take to protect women who live in conflict zones. Supporting buscadoras collectives; funding community programs with high levels of participation by women; providing resources to address women’s mental health needs; and creating public spaces where women can talk about living with criminal violence would all be welcome steps. So, too, would improving care for survivors of violence. Making it easier for women to get justice for crimes committed against them or their relatives is obviously important, as is combating networks of corruption and collusion within the state. But so is addressing the silence around violence against women. That is also important for Mexican women who are trying to survive at the heart of the country’s crime wave.

This piece was written with support from Sara Velázquez Moreno.

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