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Freedom in Motion: The Women of Atenco, Mexico

by Anne K. Ream | Voices and Faces Project
Thursday, 2 April 2015 16:08 GMT

Photography by Patricia Evans, The Voices and Faces Project

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The following is an excerpt from Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors by Anne K. Ream. Reprinted with permission of Beacon Press.

Italia Mendez Moreno knew that she was, at last, going to lose consciousness, which frightened her even more than the thought of remaining awake and aware of all that was being done to her. Over the course of the previous few hours, she had been taken from a private home, brutally beaten, thrown into a police bus on top of dozens of other battered and broken bodies, and then raped. Now she was in a lineup of women who were ordered to press their foreheads against the seats of the bus, their backsides vulnerable to further violation. It was then that the consciousness she had clung to for hours began to ooze out of her.

“But I began to hear a voice, and the person pressed next to me was saying, ‘Look at me.’ I did, and for the first time I saw Norma,” says Italia three years later, as she recounts the violence she endured on May 4, 2006. “She began talking to me very calmly, until I could focus again and feel my body again, and that kept me from fainting. It was like love at first sight. Later, when another woman in the bus became hysterical, I was able to calm her because of what Norma had taught me.”

“I did not know Norma before, and now I cannot imagine my life without her,” continues Italia. “She is my sister.” As she turns toward Norma Jimenez Osorio, who is seated next to her, Italia’s eyes—which are large and dark and had until that point remained unsmiling—lose their somber look and seem almost joyful. Italia’s memory of being calmed by Norma in the past moves her in the present.

Italia, Norma, Claudia Hernandez Martinez, and Edith Rosales Gutierrez are sharing their stories with me in a Spartan but bright room at Center Prodh, a Jesuit-founded human rights organization based in Mexico City. The center has engaged in a seven-year le- gal battle on behalf of these four women and seven others who were raped and tortured by the Mexican police during a May 2006 raid in San Salvador Atenco. The story of the Women of Atenco—as they are known to the international human rights community—is a window into a country where state-sanctioned rape and sexual torture are used to repress activist communities, squelch civil unrest, and marginalize Latinas.

San Salvador Atenco, a municipality of the state of Mexico, has been the scene of populist protest and government ire since 2002, when local farmers successfully halted government plans to build a national airport on their land. Four years later, on May 3, 2006, a group of flower sellers who had negotiated a labor agreement that was to have allowed them to set up stalls in a nearby downtown area arrived at the market square and found police waiting for them. In the ensuing protest, which would last for two days, dozens were seriously injured, and two people—including a fourteen-year-old boy— were killed.

On May 4, the protests continued in Atenco, drawing aid groups, human rights activists, investigative journalists, and volunteers seeking to help the wounded. Among those arriving that morning were Edith, who was participating in a health brigade organized by her labor union; Italia, who worked for a foundation focused on at-risk children; Norma, who wanted to write about the protests for a feminist magazine; and Claudia, who was a political science student at the time of the protests. None of them had been on the ground in Atenco long before local, state, and federal police began to use beatings, house raids, and indiscriminate detentions to take control of the city. Of the hundreds detained during the police crackdown, forty-seven were women.

Edith, who was fifty-one years old at the time of the protests, remembers May 4 well. She was preparing to care for the injured when the police first fired tear gas in her direction. She began to run and was swiftly apprehended by several officers. “I feel they are pulling on my hair, pulling me backward, beating me all over my body, and then they make a row and begin to kick me down. I try to raise my hands to keep from falling, and they beat me with their nightsticks . . . saying ‘Get up, whore.’ Later they throw me in a bus where people were piled on top of each other, and I hear them say, ‘We are going to stick them from behind.’”

Edith was raped, beaten, and sexually assaulted during the hours- long ride to an area prison, and beaten again upon arrival. Ultimately, more than two dozen women reported that they had also been raped, sexually assaulted, beaten, or tortured on the ground in Atenco, in the police bus, or at the area prison where the detainees were held.

After local authorities publicly dismissed their calls for justice, the women of Atenco initially turned to the federal attorney general’s office with their case. After two years of being denied justice at both the state and local levels, they took their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, with the legal support of Center Prodh and the Center for Justice and International Law. In 2009, the Mexican Supreme Court issued a statement affirming that there were widespread human rights abuses at the hands of police and urging the prosecution of those responsible. Yet, though dozens of police officers were identified by prosecutors as presumed perpetrators of the violence against these women, only three people have been tried. One was given a sentence of time served, and a small fine, which was overturned on appeal. Two cases are ongoing. Ranking officers and political authorities at the highest levels of government—those ultimately responsible for the human rights violations on their watch— remain untouched.

“What happened in Atenco is not an isolated case,” says Stephanie Erin Brewer, a Center Prodh attorney who has represented the eleven women before the Inter-American Commission. “This is a high-profile example of a broader use of repression and torture—in particular, sexual torture as a weapon against women—to try to crush social protest. What is extraordinary about this case is the ceaseless struggle of these women.”

“These survivors were willing to do what the government never imagined they would do: say to the world, ‘Yes, I was raped by the Mexican police.’ And they have continued to do this despite the freedom of the police who did this to them and the power of the authorities implicated in their case.”

The women of Atenco are pushing back against that power with a weapon of their own: their voices. With the support of Amnesty Inter- national and other human rights groups, they have shared their stories in the United States and Europe, with representatives from the European Union, and with other foreign governments, and they have been joined in their fight by activists and organizations from dozens of countries. Their case remains a high priority for Amnesty, which is driving a multi-year letter-writing campaign on their behalf, and for Centro Prodh, where lawyers continue to fight on behalf of the women.

In 2009 and 2012, Claudia traveled to Chicago on behalf of Women of Atenco, calling for the end of impunity for all who commit rape and torture. The case resonated deeply in a city with its own history of police brutality, which is most often unleashed against women and men of color. “I was surprised by how many people in Chicago supported us,” says Claudia. “Some said to me that they had gone through similar situations with the police in the United States. We gave strength to them as we spoke of our case, and they gave strength to us with their stories. This is not only a problem in Mexico; it is something systemic on a larger scale.”

Given the freedom of the men who did this to them, and the power of the politicians who have been accused of either tacitly or actively encouraging such violence, I ask Italia, Norma, Edith, and Claudia if they have ever hesitated in their pursuit of justice. Their answers are varied, but the CliffsNotes version of each is a resounding “no.”

“If something should [happen to us], people would know about it because we accuse our assailants,” says Claudia, leaning forward. “We denounce what the government is doing and the individuals who did it. We denounce those involved in the case, such as Enrique Pena Nieto (now President of Mexico) and Eduardo Medina-Mora (now Mexican ambassador to the United States). We say it clearly: it is they who were responsible for sexual abuse, kidnapping, and murders.”

“Once someone asked me if I was scared when I was arrested,” says Edith. “I was scared, but then I thought, ‘Now, it’s my turn.’ We are not the first ones; it has happened to other women who protest, and also to everyday people who were at home in their beds when the police broke in. Yet, of course, it is hard to believe it when you yourself have to live through it.”

That simple statement—“Now it’s my turn”—underscores some- thing I find especially compelling about these women. During the time that I spend with them, they seem utterly without self-pity, even when pity of one’s self would be understandable (and perhaps even psychologically beneficial). The women of Atenco rarely speak of the violence that they lived through as a personal, or even a collective, tragedy. Instead, they talk about it as a political event. They look backward at the stories of their mothers and grandmothers and generations of Latina women who have been victims of sexual violence. They look forward, imagining the new world that they are working to create, one in which those who rape and torture will never do so with impunity. But they do not seem to often look inward. These are women who prefer the word “we” to the word “I.”

Yet something shifts in the room when we begin to talk about those whose stories are at once ever present and rarely told: the women who survived sexual violence and torture in Atenco physically but never returned from it psychologically. “Some of us had more to rebuild our lives with than others,” says Edith. “Many of our companions didn’t have access to help. They were released from jail later than we were, they moved, and they didn’t have access (to our community). Their escape was to withdraw. Not all of us experienced the same conditions in terms of economics or family support.”

Italia nods, adding that that disparity in resources and experiences among the over two dozen women who were victims haunts her in a way that is difficult to explain. “This caused me more pain and stress than the actual torture. It was a strange feeling, between guilt and something else, knowing that some of my companions didn’t receive therapy or were in jail longer than I was.”

It is then that Claudia leans forward to speak. She is physically small, but from the moment I first met her, she radiated fearlessness with her willingness to “name names” and her tendency to speak rapidly while gesturing sharply with her hands. Nothing about her could be described as soft. But now she begins to speak slowly, as if she is uncertain that she wants to move forward. But she does.

“When I got out of jail, I stayed in my house for a year,” says Claudia. “I cried, and I suffered so much. I had had plans for the future with my partner, but when I got out of jail, he left me. I felt like the whole world had turned its back on me because I was a rape victim. During that time, I began to drink a lot, and I started to go to a lot of bars. I did many things I didn’t normally do. And then I realized that the government had tied me up for a moment. They laid the first stone of my destruction. But even with all of this, I said to myself, ‘I am still Claudia! I am still Claudia! I was raped, but this does not take away my dignity.’”

Earlier in the day, Norma, who is the quietest of the women, described the first time she saw the faces of the other women who had been raped and tortured during the raid on Atenco: “When we were first in prison, they separated the women from the men and made us look down. When I could finally lift up my face, and I see all my companions who I had never met before, I recognized myself in them.”

I recognized myself in them. Norma’s words were the most gorgeous (albeit unconscious) definition of sisterhood I had ever heard, and Claudia’s testimony is an expression of that same idea. By all appearances, Claudia has gone on with her life and used her experience with violence to give that life a new purpose. She might have merely sympathized with those who were unable to do something similar. But instead she identified with them, seeing herself and the most painful pieces of her story in their struggle.

Claudia’s words connected her experience to the experiences of almost every rape survivor I have ever interviewed. There is violence, there is grief, and there is the expression of that grief, which can take many and often painful forms (turning to alcohol being one of the most common). Then there is the realization that, underneath all of our sadness and self-harm, we are still there, facing the challenge of coming to terms with who we once were and who we now are.

It has been over seven years since the events in Atenco, and today the case exists in a legal limbo. The federal government has claimed that, because the perpetrators are state police, they must be prosecuted in Mexico State. The state government, aware that the Inter-American Commission is analyzing the case, has opened criminal trials of just two of the dozens of named perpetrators but has not officially accepted jurisdiction over their cases. The remaining police and other authorities responsible for the violence against the women of Atenco roam free in a country where rape and sexual abuse have reached epidemic levels. Over 120,000 rapes—one every four minutes—occur in Mexico each year. A 2012 report co-produced by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and Just Associates found that government officials and their security forces were often the worst perpetrators of sexualized violence used to “intimidate and subdue” women.

“This is an ongoing struggle,” says Stephanie Erin Brewer, “because the Mexican government can see that they cannot outlast or exhaust these women. This case is not going to disappear. The women of Atenco and their allies are not only in this fight for the long run; they are in it for life.” As they await the Inter-American Commission’s ruling on their case, the women of Atenco have launched Freedom in Motion, a new campaign against impunity. The campaign is both a reminder to the government that the Atenco women are not resting until they have justice and a clarion call to the community: Get engaged. Get involved. Change things.

When I ask the women what justice will look like, Edith again turns her attention to the broader struggle. “It is not enough for the perpetrators to pay for what they have done to us as individuals. Justice will arrive only when there is change for the benefit of all people.”

Claudia nods, but qualifies her agreement. “Yes, justice will be something systemic, a social change. But it will be a very long transformation that perhaps we will not live to see.”

Take action now on behalf of The Women of Atenco. Find out more at Amnesty International.