Mexico

Mexico: The Age of Women: Stigma and Violence Against Women Protesters

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Feminist demonstrations and women’s groups unaffiliated to any feminist women’s collectives, groups or organizations (referred to in this report as, feminist demonstrations and protests against gender-based violence against women), are protected by the human right to freedom of peaceful assembly. However, Amnesty International has documented how various authorities in Mexico have responded to women exercising this right with violence and human rights violations.
Various police forces have violated women’s and girls’ rights, including the rights to peaceful assembly; to liberty; to physical integrity; to freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and to a life free from violence. Amnesty International has found that the authorities have responded to protests by women and against gender-based violence against women with excessive and unnecessary use of force, with illegal and arbitrary arrests, with gender-based verbal and physical abuse against women and with sexual violence.

As this report shows, despite being mostly peaceful, feminist demonstrations and protests against genderbased violence against women have started to be stigmatized as violent. By characterizing the protests in this way, the authorities and various parts of the media create an environment hostile to women’s right to freedom of assembly, undermine the legitimacy of their activism and make violence against them by both the authorities and private individuals more likely.

The stigma faced by feminist demonstrations and protests against gender-based violence is based on and reinforces harmful gender stereotypes about women; that is, roles and concepts traditionally assigned by society to women. For example, the idea that women should stay at home instead of making trouble for themselves by demonstrating; or that actions such as painting slogans, breaking windows or targeting monuments, are not what women do. Indeed, trying to justify the human rights violations experienced by women on the basis of the behaviour of the women themselves constitutes, in itself, a stereotype that discriminates against them for daring to protest. Effective measures by Mexico to comply with its obligation to eradicate gender-based stereotypes that negatively affect women are long overdue.

The stigma of violence hanging over feminist demonstrations and protests against gender-based violence, and the gender stereotypes on which the violent responses against protesters are based, intersect with other forms of exclusion and marginalization, such as those experienced by women from the outskirts of the city; that is, the urban areas around Mexico City where there is a high rate of impunity for violence against women and women are excluded from exercising their human rights.

Several of the protesters who experienced human rights violations whose cases are documented in this report were aged between 12 and 17, so the authorities, far from guaranteeing the best interests of the child, are violating their human rights.

This report also shows the discriminatory and biased attitudes held by officials, whereby women who cover their faces – even with face masks as a hygiene measure to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection – or who dress in black, are viewed as suspects who are about to commit or have committed a criminal offence.
Covering one’s face or wearing black cannot be equated with committing a crime, or assumed to be linked to acts of violence during demonstrations.

According to international human rights law, demonstrations are considered peaceful, and therefore protected by the right to freedom of assembly, except when there is widespread and serious violence. In the context of the right to peaceful assembly, only the use of force that is likely to result in injury or death or serious damage to property should be considered violent.2 Therefore, the authorities should not brand as violent actions by protesters such as painting slogans, targeting monuments or breaking windows, since these expressions are protected by the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

While state authorities can justifiably impose certain restrictions to prevent damage to public and private property, they should not take measures that unduly restrict human rights and prevent those who do so peacefully from demonstrating. Even if a group taking part in a protest uses violence, the authorities have a duty to ensure that those who are protesting peacefully can continue to do so, without using the acts of violence as a pretext for restricting or preventing others from exercising their right to protest.

This report documents how the police authorities, contrary to their international obligations regarding the use of force and firearms, misused tactics such as kettling to cordon off large numbers of female protesters in Mexico City, which resulted in violations of the human rights of those demonstrating peacefully. It also details how they made arbitrary use of lethal force – which should be used only as a last resort when there is an imminent risk of death or serious injury to one or more people – to disperse a demonstration held on 11 November in the city of Cancún, municipality of Benito Juárez, Quintana Roo, resulting in three people being injured.

This report documents the unnecessary, excessive and disproportionate use of force as a way to restrict the right to peaceful assembly, by “preventively arresting or seizing”individuals in order to arbitrarily detain those who wanted to participate in demonstrations or because they were “suspected” of criminal intent. In Culiacán, Sinaloa, the municipal police “preventively detained” three women who wanted to demonstrate on 10 September 2020, because they suspected that they were going to daub paint on the city’s Town Hall. A civic court judge4 fined them for “causing a nuisance on a public thoroughfare”, although he did not specify the specific conduct that he considered was the “nuisance” constituting a public order offence.

In León, Guanajuato, Amnesty International was able to establish that the municipal police illegally and arbitrarily detained at least nine of the 23 people arrested after the 22 August 2020 demonstration. These individuals, most of them women, were not committing any crime or administrative offence. The police authorities did not identify themselves to the detainees or tell them the reasons for their detention and used unnecessary and excessive force to arrest them.
In Ecatepec de Morelos, state of Mexico, on 10 September 2020, staff from the Attorney General’s Office of the state of Mexico, used excessive use of force to evict women who were occupying the headquarters of the State Commission on Human Rights (CODHEM) in an act of peaceful protest. Personnel from the Attorney General’s Office detained them without a court order and transferred them in unmarked vans not to the office of the Public Prosecutor’s Office for that municipality, but to that of the municipality of Atizapán de Zaragoza in the same state, which involved a 30-minute journey in the early hours of the morning in the open air in the back of pick-up trucks. The women protesters were transferred along with several children in these conditions, without adequate measures being taken to guarantee the best interests of the children.

During a demonstration in Atizapán de Zaragoza on 11 September to demand the release of the detained women who had occupied the CODHEM offices, staff of the Attorney General’s Office used unnecessary and arbitrary force against the protesters, throwing heavy objects at them to disperse them and pursuing them even after they had dispersed.
During the 9 November demonstration in Cancún, Quintana Roo, eight people demonstrating peacefully were detained, seven of them women. Two sustained head injuries during their illegal and arbitrary detention and did not receive the necessary medical attention. The eight were “preventively seized” for alleged damage to property. They were transferred to the Quintana Roo State Attorney General’s Office and then to the Public Security Secretariat of the Municipality of Benito Juárez without having been brought before a competent authority or receiving a medical certificate.

During the arrests and transfers, several of the detained women and girls were subjected to physical violence of various kinds, as well as threats and verbal abuse based on gender stereotypes. All of the above, were designed to teach them a lesson for daring to go out and demonstrate and behaving in ways that are counter to gender stereotypes according to which women should stay at home and not go out looking for trouble.

In the various demonstrations documented in this report, the detained women felt intense fear of being victims of enforced disappearance, which can breach the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The arbitrary nature of the detentions, the excessive use of force, the failure of police officers to inform them of the reasons for their arrest and identify themselves properly, the solitary confinement to which several of the protesters were subjected, transfers by unusual routes without knowing where they were being taken and, in some cases, without being brought before a competent authority, all reinforced this fear.

The use of various forms of sexual violence by members of the police against the protesters, as a form of gender-based violence and as a tactic to teach protesters a lesson for allegedly disturbing public order, is worrying. These forms included: threats of sexual violence, comments of a sexual nature, sexual harassment and failing to take measures to address sexual harassment by other male detainees, as well as medical examinations carried out in the presence of people who were not health personnel and without the consent of the protesters. Information was received that at least four protesters were subjected to sexual touching: two adolescent girls in León, Guanajuato, and one adolescent and another woman in Ecatepec de Morelos, state of Mexico. In Cancún, Quintana Roo, a woman reported that she was raped and information was received from another detained woman who experienced the same type of sexual violence.
Under international human rights law, rape is considered a form of torture. Other forms of sexual violence experienced by the protesters can also be considered contrary to the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment because they were intended to teach protesters a lesson and caused them intense suffering. The authorities that received complaints or reports of the sexual violence experienced by the protesters failed to implement the Istanbul Protocol, while the criminal investigation authorities were negligent and did not ensure a prompt, timely and impartial investigation of reported rape cases.

More than two years after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued the ruling in the Case of Women Victims of Sexual Torture in Atenco v. Mexico, 6 Amnesty International found that Mexico has made minimal progress in adopting and implementing specific and effective measures to address gender-based violence against women, including various forms of sexual violence, in the context of demonstrations. Gender-based violence against women, including sexual violence, continues to be used by the authorities as a way to deter women from exercising their right to peaceful assembly. It is an illegitimate tactic and contrary to international law on maintaining public order and was used as a means to teach women a lesson for challenging gender stereotypes when they left the private space to take to the streets.

Amnesty International considers that the level of violence experienced by women and girls who take part in demonstrations in Mexico and the escalating violence against them by the authorities create a particularly dangerous environment for feminist demonstrators and those protesting against gender-based violence. The Mexican authorities must, therefore, adopt concrete measures to guarantee the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, the right to live free from violence, and all demonstrators’ human rights in all the protests in which they participate.
Based on the research carried out, Amnesty International makes the following recommendations to all Mexican authorities at the various geographical levels:

RIGHTS TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

• Refrain from making stigmatizing statements against feminist demonstrations and those who protest against gender-based violence against women.

• Ensure ongoing recognition through the most wide-ranging means available of the legitimacy of feminist demonstrations and protests against gender-based violence against women.

• Ensure ongoing recognition through the most wide-ranging means available that painting slogans or symbols, as well as altering monuments, are manifestations of freedom of expression and cannot be considered acts of violence prompting the use of force during demonstrations or arrest.

• Ensure that those who participate in protests can cover their faces if they wish and thus exercise their right to assembly anonymously. And ensure that protesters will only be required to show identification when their conduct offers reasonable grounds to justify their arrest.

WOMEN’S RIGHT TO LIVE A LIFE FREE OF VIOLENCE

• Adopt effective prevention and protection measures and guarantee women’s right to live a life free of violence, particularly in the face of feminicides or gender-based killings of women and various forms of sexual violence.

• Guarantee access to justice and adequate reparation for those who have suffered gender-based violence and refrain from revictimizing those whose right to live a life free of violence is violated.

TORTURE AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE

• Strengthen the Follow-up Mechanism for Cases of Sexual Torture Committed against Women (Mecanismo de Seguimiento de Casos de Tortura Sexual Cometida contra las Mujeres), allocating the necessary resources and ensuring that there is inter-institutional coordination in its operation.

• Carry out prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations into complaints of all forms of sexual violence brought by female protesters, which must apply a gender perspective, to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice and guarantee victims comprehensive reparation for the harm experienced.

• Ensure that the testimony of those who experience these human rights violations is treated as credible evidence in investigations into all forms of sexual violence and sexual torture and take measures to avoid revictimization.

• Strengthen the carrying out of forensic examinations in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol, ensuring gender-sensitive treatment of survivors and that female medical personnel are available to care for female victims and viewing the survivor as someone who has total control to decide how they wish to be treated.

USE OF FORCE AND FIREARMS

• Respond to possible acts of violence by specific groups of protesters in a differentiated and proportionate manner, respecting and protecting the right to peaceful assembly of those who demonstrate peacefully.

• Carry out prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations into unnecessary and excessive use of force during demonstrations to establish the responsibility of individual police officers as well as those in the chain of command.

• Ensure ongoing and thorough cycles of evaluations of human rights training for police forces, their outcomes and impact.

• Put in place a professional civil service career for police forces which operates in accordance with obligations to respect and guarantee the employment rights of members of these bodies and is based on performance, with indicators linked to building trust with the public and respect for human rights.

• Ensure that there is a specialized, independent mechanism, external to police forces, in charge of monitoring, supervising and improving these institutions.

• Guarantee an inter-institutional response during demonstrations, in such a way that there is not only coordination between different police forces, but also that coordinated and directed responses are given by a non-operational body.

ARBITRARY DETENTIONS

• Guarantee that no one is detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression or peaceful assembly.

• Immediately and unconditionally release anyone who has been detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression or peaceful assembly, drop any related charges that are still pending and close the respective investigations.

• Ensure that every member of the police guarantees the right of every person to be informed, from the moment of arrest, of the reasons for their detention and their rights, including the right to immediately contact a lawyer of their choice and their family.