50.50: Opinion

Inside the occupation: Mexican activists rise up against femicide

I spent 24 hours in Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission – taken over by feminists demanding justice for rape survivors and murder victims.

Pamela Cerdeira
16 September 2020, 11.08am
The Black Block collective unites for justice. Mexico City, 2020.
Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto/PA Images

I was the only journalist in the building when a group of feminist activists stormed the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico City on 4 September in support of two mothers who refused to leave the day before. They’ve long sought justice for their children – one had been raped and the other murdered – but felt ignored by a government that has failed to act against femicides.

More than a week later, these feminists are still there – and they’re still angry.

At a table at the commission’s entrance, they've mounted a perfect exhibition for the media. Donations of toilet paper are displayed alongside feminist movement merchandise, including fabric ‘empowered dolls’, with purple or green bandanas covering their faces. 

The dolls symbolise those fighting for women's rights who must guard their identities from the police. They are handmade by Erika, the mother of a seven-year-old rape victim. 

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Beyond the table, activists have painted four portraits of national heroes, either giving them female attributes, adding horns or displaying them upside down. 

These paintings have become one of the most powerful symbols of the occupation because of the outrage their modification has provoked, including from the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has accused the activists of failing to know Mexico’s history and being ‘conservative’ as a result. 

But the most interesting things happen inside, away from the media spotlight.  That’s where I spent almost 24 hours. 

“Just don't ask too many questions,” the activists told me. Wearing a mask because of COVID-19 makes blending in easier among the activists clad in black face masks.

The interior walls of the building have been spray-painted with messages including ‘Women fighting against patriarchy’ and ‘Femicides are state crimes'.

“The walls have been spray-painted with messages including ‘Women fighting against patriarchy’”

A handmade sign on one of the office walls signals that it's only to be used by the Black Block feminist collective, an anarchist section of the activists. 

The building’s paintings will be auctioned off. Mexico City, 2020.
Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto/PA Images

Another door has a big ‘visitors’ sign. Amid government failure, these feminists have taken matters into their own hands, with this part of the building being turned into a place where activists can provide services for women who need them. 

During my 24hour stay, three women arrived in need of help. The first was a survivor of multiple rapes. The second was a young mother who had left her baby at home to escape from a violent husband. The third was a woman who thought her violent neighbour might kill her and her daughter.  

The three were offered shelter, food and legal advice. Activists also offered to accompany the young mother to her home to fetch her baby.

In the upstairs kitchen, Maribel says she has spent the last years pushing dipsticks into the ground trying to find her lost son's body. 

“Maribel has spent the last years pushing dipsticks into the ground trying to find her lost son's body”

Maribel was one of the first women who entered the building, alongside another mother, Yesenia, whose room is next to the kitchen. Yesenia has been in the spotlight since protesting against the murder of her daughter years ago. 

She carries around a small cookie tin with money she has earned from selling bandanas and water bottles with protest messages, and her own quotes from a speech that made her well-known throughout Mexico: “The one who wants to break, may break, and the one who wants to start a fire, may start a fire, and the ones who won't, don't get in our way.”

Past Yesenia's room is the biggest office, which used to be the ombudsman's office, where the group of people who are searching for their family members stay. 

A violent crackdown

“We are different movements. That's their space, we don't go there,” one of the activists tells me. Some of the mothers who initially refused to leave on the first day have left after seeking the services they needed; it’s the feminist activists, including the Black Block’ who are holding the building, with about 20-30 women staying there overnight.

When night falls, protest music on the speakers and a woman called Flor de Fuego (meaning fire flower) performs a fire show with a replica of one of the portraits painted on her back. 

Yesenia receives a night call from someone who tells her that the state secretary wants to meet her right away. “Tomorrow. It's late now. And not too early. I want to sleep late,” she replies, more to the crowd than the person on the phone. 

In a small office with the lights on, two other women and I try to sleep, while we discuss feminism and whether they should sell the paintings. The next morning the discussion continues as one of them washes the dishes. Yesenia is already awake, as are the women at the door who take turns  to guard the entrance.

As I write this, other Human Rights Commission facilities in the country have been taken over. There has been a violent crackdown by police, leading to arrests of women, including one who is pregnant. After the women’s release, though, they went back to the building to set it alight.

I can’t stop thinking about Yesenia's answer to my question: “Have you noticed you're starting a revolution?” I asked her before I left. “No, I'm completing it”, she responds.

  • Eleven Mexican women are estimated to be murdered every day, often after being sexually assaulted. Their killers are seldom found. Only 10% of total criminal cases result in prison sentences, and when it comes to rape, only 2% of assailants face jail time. Over the past few years, feminist activists have become more militant in their demands for justice.  

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