Sexing Violence in Mexico

By Guest Contributor Michelle García, cross-posted from WIMN’s Voices

Video courtesy of Tell ‘Em Who You Are

He’s dead and she’s half naked. Two images I encounter at every newspaper stand in Mexico City– blood and babes. A magazine cover shows a marijuana leaf and a stiletto heel in the shape of a gun. One newspaper regularly divides its front page with a preening bikini clad woman and cadavers. I’m compelled to believe that the graphicness of the individual images is enhanced when harmonized.

I whipped out a video camera and asked a few questions.

Sex and violence in the media isn’t new; but in the case of Mexico, fantasy is built on painfully real violence. Newspaper vendor Victor Luna tells me the pairing is meant to catch readers with a double barrel shot- the violence of “daily life” and sex, for a touch of “glamour.” One, the sex or the violence is sure to hit.

My own interpretation: the sexy images make light of the violence suffered by Mexican women. Most folks, by now, know about the hundreds of unsolved murders in Ciudad Juarez, a wave of killings that began in the early 1990s that some have denounced as a ‘femicide.’ Lesser known, less publicized and less sexy is the rampant domestic violence, 1,000 women KILLED every year, nearly one-half of Mexican women reported they had experienced violence in their home in the prior year.

But later, in New York, the explanations seemed too tidy, and I continued to feel around for more, something to explain the message that I couldn’t quite decipher. I visited Debra Castillo, a professor at Cornell University and a contributor to a new anthology, a critique of media representations of gender violence on the Border with a focus on Mexican media. There’s a tint to the blood she tells me: the tint of class.

“Los apetecibles cuerpos de la miseria,” she explained, invoking the words of Mexican writer, Jose Joaquin Blanco. ‘The delectable bodies of the misery.’

The graphic images are sold to middle class readers or city dwellers far from the border as a spectacle of violence, she says, the violence of the lower classes. The men and women are objectified. The images reframe the violence to make it tolerable, palatable even, and create a distance between the violent “them” and us.

You can examine the images and follow the journey by watching the video report, which recently aired in New York.

I felt compelled to revisit the question of how we frame the border violence in this country. First, anyone covering the border is performing a heroic job, and one of the most dangerous in journalism right now. The questions have to do with framing. For all the press coverage the “drug war” has generated in the U.S., the attention has left many of the most important questions not just unanswered, but too often unasked. Reading the accounts of the violence from the last four years when the Mexican government launched its ‘war’, you might imagine this was a conflict between virtuous law enforcement officials and the ‘bad guys,’ when the reality has been far more ambiguous. And the perspective from the U.S. too often tinged with the needs and interests of the U.S.

For the most part, the story of border violence has been a man’s story and in a man’s story, men kill men, while women wail on the sidelines. The steady stream of bloody images at times borders on morbid fascination, a pornography of violence. Of course this is made easy when you have heads rolling onto dance floors, (a detail repeated ad nauseam) decapitated bodies dangling from bridges and, of course, the entire Santa Muerte phenomenon. It’s all so…..sexy. Add to that, an American gaze and imagination of the border imbued with lustful fascination and fantasy.

It is an area neither completely Mexico nor completely El Norte. And a dollop of danger, a quest for sin, was always part of its charm.

The U.S. version of “los apetecibles cuerpos de la miseria” all but omits women. With a read on the story of women appear readers would gain a clearer understanding of how Mexican officials have addressed, or failed to, violence in all of its forms and social attitudes toward ‘acceptable’ forms of violence. Instead, readers are left with a narrow understanding of the complex factors that feed the violence while contributing to menacing image of the Mexican man as– the wanton killer, the gruesome dead, but always, always exceptionally macho, except when he’s an illegal border crosser or the leering day laborer, then he’s emasculated and pitiful.

This morbid fascination and distortion jeopardizes clarity and reason.

When 72 migrants were killed on a ranch south of Brownsville Texas in August, the seemingly wanton brutality seized press and public attention. But few,most notably Dudley Althaus of the Houston Chronicle, bothered to ask why, after a survivor notified the military about the massacre, officials waited a full 24 hours to arrive on the scene. Alma Guillermoprieto expanded on this and other anomalies in her recent piece “The Murderers of Mexico.”

Late last month federal police officers in Ciudad Juarez fired on students who had taken to the streets in a march for peace; an incident that received little attention.

The shooting was the latest alarming episode by government agents in the so-called “drug war.” What has exploded on the border is a potent combination of drug demand, shortage of jobs or even schools for youth mixed with an abundance of impunity.

The experiences of women are critical in the border narrative because women round out the story and add depth to a seemingly simple narrative of trigger-happy, narco-corrido listening macho men run amok. It’s true, there are female drug traffickers and assassins, but consider this: women make up roughly one-half of migrants. And Ciudad Juarez is home to one of the highest concentrations of single female-headed households in Mexico, in part because the city has long taken in drifters, migrants, and people out to start a new life, including women fleeing poverty and or abuse elsewhere. To understand the violence of men, it helps to scrutinize violence and impunity in all of its forms that is suffered by women who raise the boys that become the men we fear.

The women who single-handedly raise their children struggle with a shortage of social services, schools and infrastructure. Less sexy images but critically important reports explain the phenomenon of the tens of thousands of NINNIs (ni estudian ni trabajan, kids who don’t study or don’t work), the massive shortage of schools in Ciudad Juarez, rampant domestic violence and official indifference to it, and pervasive discrimination against women, the assaults and violence, which go uninvestigated, unresolved and unpunished and harassment by the police and military sent to protect them.

Simply look at this small but significant story about L.R., a Mexican woman and domestic violence survivor who in an unusual outcome, received asylum in the U.S. The special prosecutor for crimes against women said victims faced
“enormous social and cultural tolerance of this abuse, resulting in the virtual complicity of authorities who should prevent and punish these violent acts.”

Such tolerance is fed by the babe and blood images in Mexico, and in the U.S., through simple neglect. With the U.S. supporting the Mexican government’s ‘drug war’ with the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a perception that is rooted in a good guys vs. bad guys, let’s send in the heavy armor narrative, runs the risk of promoting a misguided policy that makes for exciting Western-style gunfights but does little to address powerful cultural, economic and political forces that have failed people.

This brings to mind another curious episode during my Mexico City visit when I was presented with the choice to sit with the “general population” or in the women-only subway cars. Years ago, public outcry over sexual harassment suffered by female passengers on the city’s massive subway system resulted in a segregated car system in which women could comfortably and theoretically safely ride the train without being molested. Women-only buses soon followed. While this remedy may make the journey more peaceful in the short term, the degree to which it routs out offensive behavior is highly questionable because it reduces the authorities’ responsibility for meting out punishment. In much the same way, while it may be simple, even entertaining to view the border on the violence through the macho lens, doing so simply serves to powder over festering wounds.