Peace Heroes: Rodolfo Domínguez Márquez Fights Femicide with Accountability in Mexico

2,746 women were killed and more than 10,000 went missing in Mexico in 2016 alone.

A further 600,000 sexual crimes are committed annually, with women representing 90 percent of victims. According to the report, Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence against Children issued by the Executive Commission of Attention to Victims (CEAV), girls under the age of 15 make up 40 percent of those victims.  According to UN Women, Mexico ranks 16th globally in incidences of femicide.  Mexico’s National Institute of Women (INMUJERES) reported that every 24 hours, seven women are murdered.  Forced disappearances are on the rise. According to the state attorney general’s offices, in an 18-month period between January 2014 to June 2016, 10,157 women disappeared in 12 states across the country.

Rodolfo Domínguez Márquez, a Mexican lawyer specializing in gender-based violence against women and protection mechanisms for women, is a leading figure in the fight to shed light and accountability on this crisis. He was part of the strategic litigation team appearing before the Mexican Supreme Court, that successfully argued for the recognition of femicide as a category of crime and ensuring due diligence in its investigation and prosecution, setting a new legal precedence. He has influenced the implementation of the Declaration of Alert for Gender Violence across the Republic.

As Coordinator General of the Justice, Human Rights and Gender Civil Association, Márquez is also a member of the National Citizens’ Femicide Observatory (OCNF) and the global Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL). He speaks here about the cause for which he fights and his own pathway to this work.

How did you come to do this kind of work?

As a lawyer, I’ve been involved in defending human rights for over 10 years. My work made me aware of the violence committed against women; that is a serious problem, normalized and deeply rooted in my culture and society. My first contact with violence issues was as a public official (2009) providing advice to victims of gender-based violence and discrimination. Later, as a civil society defender of human rights (2010), I advised on, and monitored, cases of imprisoned women, particularly on issues related to the exercise of sexual and reproductive rights, and abortion.

Since 2011, I’ve been involved with the work of the OCNF, particularly advising and accompanying the Case of Mariana Lima Buendía, a victim of femicide, whose death, originally, was investigated as a suicide.

Mariana’s husband murdered her, but her death was investigated as a suicide. Her mother, Irinea Buendía fought to find out the truth and get justice. From November 2011, as part of the OCNF, I accompanied Irinea as a member of the strategic litigation team working on behalf of Mariana Lima Buendía at the National Supreme Court of Justice. We set a precedent regarding femicide and due diligence in its investigation and prosecution. It took another 5 years but on March 25, 2015, the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice issued a decision related to the investigation of Mariana’s violent death.  This judgment sets forth the first decision related to femicide. The decision also recognizes the right of women to a life free of violence and discrimination, underlining the state authorities’ obligation to investigate and prosecute with a gender perspective. It also establishes the need to recognize comprehensive reparation based on human rights violations.

The court analyzed the proceedings undertaken by each public servant involved in the case, and revealed how the absence of a gender-sensitive approach had led to the violation of human rights of both the victim, Mariana Lima and her surviving mother. The court also issued legal protection for Irinea Buendía. Eventually, the husband, Julio César Hernández Ballinas was arrested, and the case set a precedence for femicide investigations. Today, as a human rights defender, Buendía supports other families in the country who have lost women to gender-related killings and helps them access justice.

Since then, I have been fully involved in the issue of femicide, as the most extreme expression of violence against women. I’m involved in the strategic litigation of cases of femicide and violence against women, as well as promoting the implementation of protection mechanisms for women, such as Alerts for Gender Violence, protection orders, and training civil servants and public officials in how to investigate and research with a gender perspective on femicides and when they grant the protection orders.

Can you tell us about more about the court ruling, what does it mean in practice?

The precedent forces the prosecution to investigate the facts again, under the hypothesis that a violent death of a woman can be categorized as a ‘femicide’. It is fundamental because it establishes that the actions carried out during the investigation of the case must be done with a gender perspective. Moreover, they must take into consideration the highest international standards in the matter, particularly those established in the ruling of “Campo Algodonero “And” Veliz Franco vs. Guatemala “, issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the protocols for investigating the crime of femicide.

The ruling issued by the First Chamber recognizes that, in this specific case, the authorities committed serious omissions and negligence with the attempt to hide the truth of the facts during their investigation of Mariana’s death. It means that those who were responsible for violating the right to access to justice can be investigated and punished. This includes the prosecutor himself, by virtue of his duty to monitor, enforce and, where appropriate, punish his subordinates for their obligation to act with due diligence, non-discrimination and guarantee access to justice. The ruling ordered that the investigations be nulled and forced them to be carried out again, with a gender perspective.

Are there other cases that affected you deeply or left a mark on your life?

The experience of working with women in prisons has marked me deeply. In Mexico, women in prisons live a truly stormy life. Not only because of the overcrowding or isolation in which they found themselves, or because of the lack of minimum conditions for their sustenance, but because of the sexual and labor exploitation of which they were victims.

Flora Hernández Lugo was one of the women I met in a jail. She was raped by her father-in-law, and because of the stigma in her community, she had to hide her pregnancy. But because of the lack of medical care, the physical violence and the poverty, she suffered from a miscarriage.  But instead of recognizing what had happened to her, including the rape, the system charged her with aggravated homicide. The discrimination, the stigmas, the gender stereotypes of the judicial authorities, all unjustly condemned Flora.

Although I sought to help her, the legal resources that we presented were not enough for her to obtain her freedom.

For me it was a terrible failure, to this day I still feel guilt for that case, to think, that I could have done more things.  But Flora and the experience with imprisoned women reinforced my ideals of fighting for justice and respect, promotion and protection of human rights.

What do you see as a man in this world of work dominated by women – why/how do women make a difference?

As a man, the first thing I see and recognize is the leadership of my female colleagues and by extension the feminist movement. They showed me another perspective—the gender perspective. It has transformed my whole world. It has been thanks to the example and guidance of the feminist women with whom I have collaborated that I managed to realize my professional work as a lawyer and as a defender of human rights.

Because of them I have been able to see and learn about the diverse experiences of women leading processes, movements, struggles, organizations in Mexico and in other countries. They have had tremendous success in developing strategies for peace, for the fight against extremism and violence, and in the fight for the recognition, respect and guarantee of human rights. They show me the need to continue fighting for the respect, promotion, protection and guarantee of women’s human rights, to transform our society towards a more egalitarian one.

The leadership of women seems fundamental to me to be able to reverse the context of extreme violence that we live in the world. Our societies are patriarchal societies, which historically have relegated women to the background. Inequality, discrimination and violence against women, and the construction of a world dominated by men, has led us to a critical situation as humanity.

Can you please tell us what the situation is in Mexico, when it comes to violence against women?

There is a pattern of systematic impunity, reflected in the lack of access to justice for women, and lack of comprehensive policies to enable fair and equal treatment. The vast majority of the cases involving violence against women are neither duly investigated nor tried by the justice system, at either the federal or state level.

When a woman or girl disappears, search operations are not immediately undertaken, nor are relevant alerts issued to locate them. There is no official public register regarding missing women, which would allow for the establishment of effective strategies to deal with this problem. The majority of the missing are girls between 11 to 17 years of age. This is a clear indicator of human trafficking or sexual exploitation. There are 1,640 police reports of sexual violence crimes every day and although Mexico considers rape to be a serious crime, the registration of cases does not reflect the magnitude of the problem; it is estimated that only 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported. The absence of reports in most cases is due to the social stigma that persists for women, adolescents and girls who suffer sexual violence, in particular rape. This includes fear for retaliation by the aggressor, shame, an absence of support networks for victims and lack of trust in law enforcement systems and administration of justice.

What exactly does your organization do?

Justice, Human Rights and Gender is a nonprofit organization created by young women and men. It was legally established in February 2014, however, its work dates back seven years, in collaboration with the National Citizen’s Observatory on Femicide. We support strategic litigation and accompany women victims of violence and their families as they try to navigate and access the justice system and get protection. We also work with partner organizations in researching and analyzing the context of violence against women in different states of Mexico, particularly regarding the implementation of protection orders for women in situations of violence. We also educate legal practitioners and raise their awareness of the gender dimensions and specificities of violence and train and educate various other justice and security actors regarding criminal investigation protocols and protection orders.

As part of the National Citizens’ Observatory of Femicide that is active in 22 states across Mexico, we collaborate to monitor and advocate for greater accountability among the institutions that are responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of violence against women and femicide. We also collaborate to implement the femicide’s criminal investigation protocols and mechanisms to protect women in situations of violence.  Collectively we contribute to reports such as “Protection Orders in Mexico: Violence against Women and Lack of Access to Justice” that highlight the situation of violence.

What keeps motivating you and what worries you?

I am motivated by the struggle of the victims of femicide and disappearances and, the tireless struggle of families for truth and justice. The accompaniment of the victims strengthens me to continue doing the work I do. It motivates me to be part of an international alliance of organizations and movements led by women who fight against violence, extremism and for the construction of a path towards a better world. And very soon I will be a father, now it’s my main reason. I have to fight for a better world for my child, a world with more freedom, fairness and less violence.

I am concerned for my country and worried about our level of inhumanity here and in other parts of the world. I am concerned about the risks we face in defending human rights. So often we put our own lives at risk because we are threatened by aggressors and corrupt authorities. The defense of human rights has become a high risk activity in Mexico. I am also concerned about the difficulty in accessing funds that finance the work that is done.

What kinds of threats do you face? Can you give us examples of threats/dangers you faced before?

Our work is sadly high risk, because we accompany victims’ families in the femicide cases and demand implementation of the alert for gender violence, we are often threatened.  When we’re litigating the cases, the aggressors (the suspects) threaten us. In some cases, they are wealthy powerful people, in other cases, they are linked to organized crime, or are part of the police force or other institutions so they have support networks to promote their impunity.

In the case of Mariana Lima, since her murderer was arrested, her mother Irinea Buendia’s family have faced a lot of threats and attacks. On August 12, 2017 they attacked her son with a sharp weapon, in the face, they beat him until he was knocked unconscious and asked him to drop the case. As companions and human rights defenders of the victims, if we have security incidents and attacks, we assume it is because of the work we are doing.

Due to our advocacy for the implementation of the Gender Violence Alert, we have also been maligned by conservative groups that resist the modification of laws that are discriminatory against women, particularly with regard to legal and secure access to abortion. They were violent and tried to stop us from entering Congress for a meeting in September 2017.

You mention the Gender Violence Alert, what is that?

On February 2007, Mexico was the leader in Latin America as it established a legal framework for women’s human rights by publishing a General Law for Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence. This legal framework includes a mechanism called the Gender Violence Alert Declaration, for the purpose of eradicating all kinds of community violence against women.

This protection mechanism is designed to be urgently activated to address situations that threaten the lives and the safety of women. It requires the government to carry out a series of actions, including investigation, enforcement and administration of justice that would shed light on cases of violence, ensure the arrest of the perpetrators, and grant access to justice for the relatives of the victims of femicide. It’s a great law but its implementation has always been a problem.

We have advocated and litigated state by state to encourage its implementation, for example in Estado de México, Chiapas, Nuevo León, Veracruz and Jalisco. We have long struggled for the activation of the Gender Alert in the State of Mexico (Estado de Mexico). We’ve faced and tried to overcome obstacles like the lack of political will of the authorities, particularly the federal ones, which overtly refuse to comply with the ruling. Moreover, they have no intention of thoroughly investigating the systematic violence against women that exists in Mexico.

How does ICAN help you and your work?

The relationship with ICAN has been very fortunate. It has been important because it allowed me to meet and learn from women leaders from all over the world, who work in contexts of extreme violence, and who have managed to develop successful strategies to combat religious, military and diverse extremisms. To know and share the experiences so varied, has helped in the work we are doing in Mexico, at Justice, Human Rights and Gender.

Being part of WASL, an international alliance of organizations and movements led by women, provides a fundamental support that greatly helps in our work.

International Civil Society Action Network is a U.S.-based nonprofit whose mission is to support civil society activism in promoting women’s rights, peace and human security in countries affected by conflict, transition and closed political space. ICAN aims to support women’s efforts through bridging the divisions between activists and the policy community, elevating the voices and experiences of women activists, building skills and ensuring the exchange of knowledge and resources.

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