This reporting was supported by a grant from the Fund for Constitutional Government.
Beginning in the summer of 2015, millions of women filled the streets of Latin America in a series of marches united by a hashtag at once a slogan and a goal: #NiUnaMenos, or #NotOneLess. The protesters would not accept the loss of one more woman to murder, nor would they remain silent about abuse or harassment. Every woman must be allowed to live, the throngs said. Their fervor grew out of the fact that Latin America has the world’s highest homicide rate outside of a war zone. Women are constantly victimized. Latin American nations make up nearly half of the list of countries where the most women are killed in misogynist attacks, the crime known as femicide.
At first glance, Latin America seems like the limit case for feminists who do not believe in locking people up. How else to handle such extraordinary levels of violence against women, violence for which the perpetrator is never punished or is quickly set free? Violence so persistent that millions of women flee and, if lucky, are granted asylum in countries like the United States — where the idea of Latin America as intrinsically violent both spurs solidarity and flattens the region into a stereotype.
Across the hemisphere, the failures of national governments to protect their vulnerable citizens are glaring, but so are the failures of punitive measures. Most of Latin America lives under systems of mass incarceration and police brutality familiar in the United States. As communities across the U.S. cry out to defund the police and bring about a new meaning of justice, feminists in Latin America offer examples of how to grapple with an indifferent or deadly state, turn the law to creative purposes, and demand collective reparations for individual instances of violence.
Feminist thought “is always divided by hemisphere — either above the Río Bravo or below it,” said Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez Aguilera, a Mexican decolonial feminist and Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Studies. “And that invisible border ends up demarcating fault lines when in reality, there’s a lot of similar thinking.”
One watershed example is the case of Inés Fernández Ortega and Valentina Rosendo Cantú, young Me’phaa Indigenous women who survived rape by soldiers in Mexico.
“I HAD TO LOOK FOR JUSTICE ELSEWHERE”
It was March 22, 2002, when 11 soldiers barged into Fernández’s home in rural southern Mexico, in the state of Guerrero. They were screaming about stolen meat and blaming her husband. As her four children watched, one pointed his gun at her and another forced her to the floor.
Two days later, Fernández reported the attack at the closest public prosecutor’s office. The officials handed the case to the military justice system, which archived it. Rosendo had been through something similar just a month before — and both knew they were not the only women raped since the military had been patrolling their territories, supposedly to intercept narcotrafficking. When it became clear that the Mexican justice system planned to do nothing, the women submitted their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, or IACHR, the overseer of international human rights law in the Americas. The court’s workings matter for Mexico’s reputation and can affect its eligibility for foreign aid, but its decisions are also binding on the state. So a judgment in the Me’phaa women’s case could not be easily ignored.
“I had to look for justice elsewhere, because here they didn’t help me,” Fernández told Mexican media. It took two years before the backlogged IACHR reached her case.
The women did not have the support of their whole community. Neighbors divided into camps: those who believed the women and those who didn’t, who argued the women were damaging the reputations of brave warriors. A third group saw truth as less pressing than safety; given the military’s likely vengeance, they pleaded with Fernández and Rosendo to just let it go.
“The fear of the Mexican army is historic,” said Sandra Alarcón of the Tlachinollan Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña, an organization that accompanied the women’s legal process. “Local communities know that it’s the military who kidnaps, who tortures, and the fact that Inés and Vale drew attention to them was seen as putting their communities at risk.”
The attacks they feared did materialize — but, Alarcón said, no one faced more “awful persecution” than the two women themselves. Fernández’s brother was murdered, along with two workers at an Indigenous organization that supported her case. Their children barely survived kidnapping attempts. Rosendo eventually fled into hiding, where she remains: an Indigenous woman exiled from her community. “What was taken from Vale was a part of her,” said Alarcón. The military still freely patrolled the area.
The festering division among neighbors amounted to an irreparable loss for the Me’phaa. “The harm didn’t end with the sexual torture the women suffered. There was also the problem of how to again foment that collectivity that was torn from them,” said Alarcón. “It’s extremely complicated to repair, and it’s impossible to return to how things once were.”
But the fact that the damage ran so deep “opened the possibility for community reparations” from the Inter-American Court, Alarcón added.
The justice the women sought had a wide horizon. Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo, an anthropologist and decolonial feminist who worked with the Me’phaa and was an expert witness in Fernández’s case, remembered her being adamant that “putting the soldiers who raped me into prison is not justice.”
“For me, justice is that what happened to me doesn’t happen again,” Fernández told Hernández. “For me, justice is that the military doesn’t enter our territories without permission.”
Fernández saw her story “as just one part of a very long history for her people,” Hernández added, “in which they have been systematically killed and violated.”
SYSTEMS OF ACTUAL ACCOUNTABILITY
Fernández’s insistence that prison was not the answer has echoes around the region, and in the U.S. “Those of us who are committed to ending the system of mass criminalization have to begin talking more about violence,” Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, told the New York Times in 2019. “Not only the harm it causes, but the fact that building more cages will never solve it.”
Mexico and more than a dozen other nations in the region have codified stricter punishments for femicide, but violence against women remains rampant. At the same time, longer sentences contribute to mass incarceration. The jailed population in Latin America has doubled since 2000, according to the Brazilian think tank Igarapé Institute. Incarcerated people languish in lockups that are notorious nightmares; it is not uncommon to die of a preventable disease or suffer torture at the hands of authorities or others in the prison.
Of course, mass incarceration in Latin America was not caused by feminist laws. In fact, activists say that anti-femicide laws, for instance, are not enforced frequently enough. But still, in this context, there is a queasy weight to any feminist appeal to the law.
“We know that prisons are shitty and completely unjust, and they are racist,” said Rodríguez, the doctoral student, who has done research in Mexican jails. “They’re full of the Indigenous and the poor. Prisons are part of a very rotten system.”
Legal scholars across the Americas have concluded that punitive laws have little impact on behavior, “yet, that’s the belief that guides most of these calls for reform,” said Mariana Prandini Assis, a Brazilian human rights lawyer and feminist academic. “Just by enacting new laws, I don’t think we will solve problems.”
The modern concept of femicide, created by U.S. and Latin American feminists, first made its way into an Inter-American Court ruling in a case where three women were murdered in Juárez, Mexico. In the 2009 decision, the court found the Mexican state responsible for enabling the murders and failing to punish the perpetrators. It spelled out sociological roots of the violence: for instance, the proliferation of narcotrafficking, and the arrival of corporate sweatshops to Juárez, which drew thousands of women to work outside the home for the first time. Many men interpreted these changes as a threat, the court found, due to “deeply-rooted gender inequality in society.” In other words, the court blamed the patriarchy.
Cases like these show the importance of the codification of femicide, Rodríguez argued, for all the law’s limitations. The concept transformed individual murders into the manifestation of a structural problem, enabled by negligent states. With that clarity, a community that loses a woman can grieve together, feeling rage and impotence, “a spark or a seed to mobilize,” Rodríguez said. “The act of naming the perpetrator of femicide in the juridical process — on paper it looks individual, but what’s behind that is collective,” they said.
Broadening the concept of justice beyond the individual also animates the work of Black feminists advocating anti-carceral politics in the U.S. Writer and abolitionist adrienne maree brown said she uses the language of “transformative justice” to mean something much more profound than a mere legal verdict can deliver.
“Right now I point to the work and thinking of Mariame Kaba, Andrea Ritchie, Shira Hassan, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others who are pointing us toward reparations and a radical redistribution of funds that would build up life systems, systems of actual accountability,” brown said.
AGENTS OF SOCIAL CHANGE
In 2010, the IACHR found the Mexican government responsible for the rapes of Fernández and Rosendo, having enabled “institutionalized military violence.” The court ruled ordered the government to open a new investigation into the women’s cases, and demanded a change to the country’s military code: The army can no longer investigate human rights violations by its own personnel.
Fernández and Rosendo had also requested community reparations, something the court had never awarded for an individual attack. But it agreed, ordering the government to build and maintain the two public women’s centers Fernández and Rosendo had asked for — a shelter that offered human rights education and a health clinic.
To design the centers, the women sought help from another Indigenous community in Mexico. In the 1990s, in the mountains of the state of Puebla, the women of the Nahua people created their own shelter and community center, La Casa de la Mujer Indígena. The Nahua had first founded an artisan cooperative, but because many of them faced domestic violence, they used income from the cooperative to build the shelter. Then they took out a loan to build an eco-hotel, the proceeds of which also financed their spaces.
Several years later, in response to demands in the Zapatista uprising — when a group of mostly rural Maya people in Chiapas revolted against the imposition of the North American Free Trade Agreement — the Mexican government created a network of Indigenous tribunals throughout the country that operate parallel to state law. As the Nahua set up their tribunal, the women, more powerful for their cooperative enterprises, changed how the community handled domestic violence.
Traditionally, the Nahua encouraged reconciliation between abusive men and their partners, instead of sending the men to prison, in the interest of not rending community fabric. “But often, that meant the man would ask forgiveness and the woman would promise to not disobey again,” said Hernández. The Nahua women transformed this. Now the abuser had to admit before the community that he had a problem with violence. He had to commit to a men’s support group in which he would learn to recognize how he was taught to be violent. His transformation was what he owed his partner and the entire community to rectify the abuse. “It’s a process of spiritual healing for violent men,” said Hernández.
Inspired by the Nahua, Fernández and Rosendo made their plans. “The reparations permitted the women to be agents of social change, and not only passively receiving the sentences,” said Marcela Martino, a lawyer at the Center for Justice and International Law, which was part of the women’s legal team.
Of course, judges may overcome carceral logic but that doesn’t mean the state will see it through. A decade after the ruling, the Mexican government has still not allocated funding to the human rights shelter, although the building stands. The health center chronically lacks personnel and medicine. And the state carried out only five of the court’s more than two-dozen sentencing recommendations, said the women’s legal team.
“Mexican authorities haven’t changed the chip in their brains,” Alarcón said. They don’t recognize “that any violation of human rights must be investigated, that victims deserve the best treatment possible.” Such failures spur the country’s feminist movement to continue to demand #NiUnaMenos. Last September, furious about mounting femicides and impunity, women commandeered a federal building in Mexico City, evicting federal workers and trashing portraits of forefathers before declaring it a women’s shelter. (In October, the group was criticized after it expelled trans women from the occupation.)
In Fernández and Rosendo’s cases, the IACHR couldn’t force the Mexican government to act in good faith. But it put its old legal machinery at the service of new demands, listening to the women on multiple levels. “For a long time, Inés and Valentina were called liars who were seeking to delegitimize the army,” said Alarcón. The women insisted they were telling the truth — and that they wanted justice to serve their whole community. The resulting sentence validated their stories and took seriously their vision. “As a woman,” Alarcón said, this “means that they believe you.”