When Rape Culture Meets Impunity In Mexico

How the Mexican justice system fails victims of sexual assault
05/01/2017 03:47 pm ET Updated May 01, 2017
SAÚL RUÍZ via El País
SAÚL RUÍZ via El País

It is no secret that victims of sexual assault in Mexico rarely report their abuse for fear of social and institutional backlash. Mistrust of the justice system is a predominant reality, especially among sectors of the population that would most need to have recourse to it. A look at the case of Daphne Fernández presents a clear explanation for this reality. As a 17-year-old, Daphne was forcibly dragged into a car by a group of four men, assaulted by two of them and later raped by one. The four perpetrators fit a very specific social demographic: ultra-wealthy, ultra-powerful and ultra-privileged. Her case has elicited exceptional attention from the Mexican public and served as a catalyst for a society that has become embittered by the leniency afforded to certain pockets of Mexican society.

The latest development in the case has only further reinforced public outrage over the matter. In early April, a judge determined that one of the accused perpetrators, Diego Cruz Alonso, was innocent of rape because his actions weren’t meant “with lascivious intent.” He qualified the assault as “accidental touching or fondling” and insisted that it would not be considered a crime as it “was not done to satisfy a sexual desire.” The immediate outcry from activist groups and prosecutors following the decision has produced positive results. The judge has been suspended and is currently being investigated, while the accused remains behind bars. However, the incident was enough to illustrate the fundamentally inequitable nature of the Mexican justice system.

Some have suggested that the judge’s verdict was conditioned by ignorance rather than misogynist malice, given the fact that multiple laws have been implemented in the past decade to provide a framework for protecting women against violence. After signing both the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979 and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (Belem do Para) in 1994, Mexico has made great strides in creating legislation and mechanisms aimed at reducing discrimination, promoting gender equality and curbing violence against women.

Ultimately, in cases such as Daphne's, the defining factor in obtaining justice isn't based on facts."

At first glance, these mechanisms appear to mark a very progressive step in the struggle for women’s safety. They include both structural and punctual measures aimed at eradicating violence against women.  They clearly elucidate the State’s responsibility in protecting women from individual acts of aggression. They address the subliminal nature of culturally ingrained ideologies that normalize gender violence. Mainly, however, they explicitly provide guidelines for educating and training civil servants to responsibly handle accusations of violence and abuse. Unfortunately however, the thorough legislation on the matter does not seem to have translated into thorough implementation.

It is unclear whether the judge was previously made aware of these changes in mechanisms. From the way the case was processed, it would appear that he was not. Unfortunately, as is too often the case in Mexico, his being acquainted with these guidelines would not have necessarily made a difference in his verdict, mainly due to the inherent dissonance that exists between official normative guidelines and procedural practice in our legal system, which seems to safeguard the interests of the ultra-privileged and silence the demands of those whose identities have historically been subjugated.

Ultimately, in cases such as Daphne’s, the defining factor in obtaining justice isn’t based on facts, evidence or legally mandated instruments. It’s based on political influence, culturally embedded misogyny and social clout. Violence against women does not occur in a vacuum. It is a structural problem. It has a history, and as such, is fundamentally entrenched in the interactions between men and women. It is the result of culturally sanctioned behavioral dynamics. In a country with rampant inequality, vulnerabilities become heightened when coupled with gender, social and economic injustice. The impunity afforded to these young men, mainly as a result of their parents’ wealth and high social standing, is unfortunately emblematic of our skewed justice system. The dismissal of Daphne’s lived experience is representative of the importance, or lack thereof, accorded to women’s voices in our communities.

It would be naïve and, in fact, irresponsible to assume that Daphne’s case and its manifestation of the unconditional privilege afforded to rich, powerful men, was a mere flaw in the system. It would be reckless to afford this judge and this procedure any form of benefit of the doubt. The case of Daphne, and that of every other woman who has been wronged by the Mexican legal system, is without a shadow of a doubt the embodiment of a system that protects wealthy, influential men above everything. A system designed by them and continuously reinforced by them to the detriment of anyone lacking social and political leverage.

The extraordinary thing about this case is how extremely ordinary it is. Statistics show that 44 percent of Mexican women will experience some form of sexual violence during their lifetime. Violent crimes against women are ubiquitous ― that’s a hard fact to deny. And yet, an estimated 91 percent of these crimes go unreported. Of the cases that do go reported, barely eight percent end in conviction. Daphne’s ordeal is, therefore, unfortunately not an exceptional occurrence. The only exceptional thing about it was the mediatic attention it was able to garner. Much like the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa in 2014, the governing authorities have been forced to acknowledge the problem only after the incidents gained momentum in the eyes of international media. Were it not for the heightened scrutiny brought about by activist movements and media coverage, Mexican authorities would have no problem continuing to silence and oppress demands for justice.

It is of absolutely no use to have treaties, mandates, bills and conventions designed to protect marginalized identities if these identities continue to be dismissed, undervalued and underrepresented at the highest levels of government. When rape culture is so inherently embedded in a society, no amount of carefully crafted legal mechanisms will be able to bring justice to victims of abuse. We can write laws to the point of exhaustion, it won’t make a shred of difference if, as a society, we continue to normalize victim blaming and silence women who speak out.

Mexican society has a serious issue affording women the integrity and respect owed to them as individuals. This is exacerbated when the women in question have the audacity to come from underprivileged backgrounds, specifically in terms of class and ethnicity. Until we actively enforce social policies that promote gender, class and race equality through education and socialization, existing legislative mechanisms will continue to fail women and victims of sexual assault. If men, both in Mexico and the world, fail to recognize women’s safety and health as a basic human right, experiences like Daphne’s will continue to be invalidated by officials and peers alike and we will continue to systematically abuse the most vulnerable elements of our society.

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