8 February 2014
Lupita is in her 30s and works as a laundry maid in several houses in Mexico City. She can still remember the first time she saw a girl taken from her home village. “She was very pretty,” says Lupita. “She had freckles. She was 11 years old.”
Making a stand: a mother protests in front of a picture of her daughter, murdered by gangsters in Veracruz
Lupita was 20 when five men drove into the small community near Dos Bocas, outside the port of Veracruz. “When they got out of the van all we could see were the machine guns in their hands. They wanted to know where the pretty one was, the girl with freckles. We all knew who that was. They took her and she was still holding her doll under her arm when they lifted her into the van like a bag of apples. This was more than 12 years ago. We never heard from her again.”
The girl’s name was Ruth, Lupita tells me. “She was the first one they stole. Then we heard it had happened in other villages.” The men who visited the villages worked for the local drug cartels, snatching girls to be trafficked for sex. “There was nowhere in our village to hide,” explains Lupita. “Where do you hide? So we dug holes in the ground and if we heard there were narcos around, we’d tell the girls to go to their holes and be very quiet for an hour or so until the men left.” She remembers how one mother would leave paper and a crayon in the hole for her daughter. “This worked for a while until even the narcos began to know about the holes.” Two years later, Lupita left the village and came to Mexico City looking for work.
The lists compiled by government agencies and NGOs for missing girls in Mexico read like this:
Karen Juarez Fuentes, 10. Female. Disappeared going to school in Acapulco. Brown skin. Brown hair. Brown eyes.
Ixel Rivas Morena, 13. Female. Lost in Xalapa. 1.5 metres tall. 50 kilos. Light brown hair. Light brown skin. Oval face. Thin. Left ear lobe torn.
Rosa Mendoza Jiménez, 14. Female. Disappeared. Thin. Brown skin. Dark brown hair. Long. No more data.
They go on and on. According to government figures, kidnapping in the country increased by 31% last year. Those statistics tend to refer to victims who have been kidnapped for ransom, as people are more likely to report the crime when money is demanded. But there is another kind of kidnapping that goes unreported. When a girl is robada – which literally means stolen – she is taken off the street, on her way to school, leaving the movies, or even stolen out of her own house. No ransom is asked for. Her body is all the criminals want. The drug cartels know they can sell a bag of drugs only once, but they can prostitute a young woman many times in a single day.
To avoid the traffickers, families are now taking to extreme measures. Some women hide in secret shelters and homes, the buildings disguised from the outside to look like shopfronts. Many poor farming families have secret places in their shacks where they can hide their sisters and daughters from the constant raids from drug traffickers.
A woman who sells beaded necklaces on a beach in Acapulco tells me how her parents created a small crawl space between the wall and the refrigerator where she would be sent to hide if they heard that there were drug traffickers roaming around in their SUVs or on motorcycles. “There were shootings and kidnappings all the time,” she tells me. “We don’t live there any more. Nobody lives in that village any more.”
Another way to avoid the narcos’ attention is by being unattractive. Over and over again I hear mothers explain that they don’t let their daughters dress up or wear make-up and perfume. Some mothers from rural areas, who I meet at marches and protests in Mexico City, even make their daughters “ugly” by cutting their hair and making them dress like boys. “I told my daughter to keep in the shade,” Sarita from Chilpancingo, a large town in the state of Guerrero, tells me. “She never listened to me.” Sarita’s tears roll down her cheeks and she wipes upward, as if to put them back in her eyes. “We would fight all the time because I did not want her to wear lipstick. And I don’t know if she willingly ran away with a man, she was wanting to be loved, or was stolen, robada. I don’t know. She went to school in the morning and never came home.”
The red shoes: a moving memorial to kidnapped and stolen women at Ciudad Juárez. Photograph: /ReutersIn one town in the south of the country I visit a 17th-century convent that has been established by one of the few groups in the country that secretly works to help women leave dangerous situations. Here, the nuns, all over the age of 75, have 20 women and their children hiding in a basement to escape their husbands and boyfriends. I ask the nuns what would happen if one of the women’s husbands or boyfriends should appear on their doorstep with their gang, carrying AK-47s under their arms. The nuns tell me, without hesitation, that they would stand together and create a wall with their bodies and die for the women and children they protect.
At the convent there is a slim, brown-haired woman who is 18 years old. Maria has been living with the nuns for more than a year. Her husband first saw her at a party. “He looked at me and I knew I was trapped,” says Maria. “I hid in the bathroom for the rest of the night and he stood outside the door for hours. If you turn these men down, then they steal you. There is no saying no. A woman cannot say no. I finally left the bathroom and there he was. He raped me for days.”
Maria explains how, after a few days, she managed to crawl through a window while the man was asleep and make it back to her family home. “When my mother saw me walk in the door I thought she was going to hug me, but instead she picked up the telephone to call that man to tell him where I was,” she says. “My mother said that she was not going to die for me. He beat me badly after he came to pick me up. One night, months later, he took me into the woods so that I would help him dispose of a barrel of hydrochloric acid in which a body was decomposing. He wanted to make sure I was an accomplice.”
There are no precise figures as to how many women and girls are being stolen and trafficked in Mexico. In rural areas few trust the police forces as they are often involved in local mafias, so many cases of missing girls are not registered. One fact all government and non-government agencies agree on is that instances of forced labour, debt bondage and sex trafficking are growing at an alarming rate. The government has vowed to find a more effective means to fight the country’s violence – the head-on fight with the drug cartels has killed up to 70,000 people in the past six years – but has yet to produce any kind of plan.
Last November the president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, stood beside Rosario Robles, Minister of Social Development, as she opened a women’s centre in the remote, impoverished community of Tlapa de Comonfort in Guerrero. “In Mexico in the 21st century the worst expression of discrimination against women is violence,” said Robles. “In this modern Mexico there are still states where the punishment is greater for stealing a cow than stealing a woman.”
Epic tale: detail from a collage made by an inmate in Mexico City’s women’s prison. Photograph: Luis Manuel SerranoAt the cathedral in Xalapa, Veracruz, families of missing, stolen or killed women staged protests last year on International Women’s Day. As part of the protest, the shoes of missing girls and women were left on the cathedral steps with the names of their owners written next to them. A sign beside one pair of size-two sandals reads: “You took her alive, bring her back alive.”
“We stopped taking our daughters to the market,” one mother there told me. “It was too dangerous. You’d let go of your daughter’s hand to pick up a papaya and in a second she was gone. This happened to my cousin. They took her daughter at the market. She felt a movement, a push, and she fell on the ground. They pushed her away and picked up the girl. She was only seven. When my cousin went to talk to the policeman that is supposed to guard the market he said only an idiot would take her daughter to the market. You can have another child, he said to her. You’re still young.”
In Mexico City’s women’s jail, Santa Martha Acatitla, prisoners wear one of two colours: those who are sentenced wear navy blue and those awaiting sentencing are dressed in beige. The women’s jail faces the men’s jail and the prisoners can see each other through the cracks in the concrete walls. A man and a woman can look at each other for 35 years. They see a flash of skin, the shadow of a face, a blown kiss across a courtyard of cement and barbed wire. They wave handkerchiefs at each other.
The artist Luis Manuel Serrano has given collage workshops at the jail for more than 10 years, helping women tell their stories by cutting images out of magazines and gluing them to large pieces of cardboard. Serrano explains to me that collage technique allows the women to express themselves and tell their stories, without needing technical skills. The collages tell an overwhelming number of stories about women who were stolen, then used or sold as prostitutes, and then jailed for working as prostitutes.
Serrano says the most frightening collage he ever saw was made by a young woman called Marcela. She was from Tijuana and had been walking away from school to take the public bus home when she was snatched off the street and thrown into a car. She was 14 years old. She became a paradita – literally “one who stands” – in Tijuana’s well-known prostitution area called Callejón Coahuila, where the women stand out on the street and lean against walls. “We were all little girls, really,” she told Serrano. “How did I know we were all little girls? We only had to look at each other’s small, small breasts to know.” Serrano says her collage was black and white and covered in skulls. “It’s the only time a collage has frightened me,” he adds. “It shook me up.”
Almost every woman I meet in the prison testifies that her life here is better than it was outside. Proof of this is that the jail authorities never tell the inmates when they are going to leave. Instead, very late at night, a prisoner is taken from her cell and released quietly. The prisoner, or her friends, might otherwise do something (place drugs or a weapon in the cell or attack a guard) in order to remain in jail. Luis Manuel Serrano tells me that, once released, women often commit crimes so they can return: “Here, for the first time in their lives, many are safe and cared for.”
The main activity at the jail is beautifying; sometimes it almost seems like the largest beauty parlour in Mexico. The jail smells of hair spray, nail polish remover and perfumes, and the prisoners spend most of their day painting their nails, dyeing their hair all kinds of colours and applying false eyelashes. A couple of years ago, several members of staff were fired for hosting a Botox party in the infirmary. Perhaps here, inside the prison, it feels safer for the women to be pretty.