Ten yards was the nearest we could get to the river. Any closer and the smell was too much to bear. The water was a milky gray color, as if mixed with ashes, and the passage of floating trash was ceaseless. Plastic bags and bottles, coffee lids, yogurt cups, flip-flops, and sodden stuffed animals drifted past, coated in yellow scum. Amid the old tires and mattresses dumped on the riverbank, mounds of rank green weeds gave refuge to birds and grasshoppers, which didn’t seem bothered by the fecal stench.
El Río de los Remedios, or the River of Remedies, runs through the city of Ecatepec, a densely populated satellite of Mexico City. Confined mostly to concrete channels, the river serves as the main drainage line for the vast monochrome barrios that surround the capital. That day, I was standing on a stretch of the canal just north of Ecatepec, with a twenty-three-year-old photographer named Reyna Leynez. Reyna was the one who’d told me about the place and what it represents. This ruined river, this open sewer, is said to be one of the largest mass graves in Mexico.
When we visited, last September, the most recent discoveries included the body of a woman whose whole head had been wrapped in bandages; a teenage girl, between thirteen and seventeen years old, in a black plastic bag; and a woman about whom the police disclosed no information, except that she’d been “executed onsite.”
El Río de los Remedios is not the only dumping ground in Ecatepec. During the first half of 2019, the bodies of at least twenty women appeared on street corners and sidewalks and vacant lots known as baldíos. Near a public park, the police found a mother and daughter who had been raped and beheaded. On Apatzingán Street, officers were summoned to open a sack that contained two legs, one thigh, and part of a thorax. In a trash-filled ditch in the Cuauhtémoc neighborhood, a body was found in a transparent plastic bag, naked but for a red coat. At an abandoned construction site in the middle of a cornfield, a motorist stopped on the side of the road discovered a woman with her pants around her ankles, missing an arm. Her hair had been burned off.
Most of the women in these cases have not been identified. No one knows their names, where they came from, or why they were killed. El Río de los Remedios has become emblematic of a plague of unsolved murders—more than a thousand in the past year—that is being described as a feminicidio, or femicide. This is happening not just in Ecatepec but throughout the State of Mexico, a smoggy and mountainous region that borders Mexico City on three sides. The causes of the epidemic are not well understood, and its relationship to organized crime is ambiguous. The government is disinclined to acknowledge its existence.
Reyna and I hiked downstream, walking along a path through yellow-flowering weeds, with dandelion seeds blowing over us. The afternoon sky was overcast but luminous. Underfoot were shampoo bottles, nylon backpacks, phone cords, razor blades, paint rollers, and discarded blister packs. The ground was spongy and uneven where the earth had healed over earlier deposits of garbage. A light rain began to fall, mercifully suppressing the fumes.
At a bend in the channel, Reyna stopped to photograph a beach made up entirely of trash. Reyna describes herself as a “post-punk lesbian dominatrix.” She doesn’t shave her armpits, and she keeps her jet-black hair in a vamp bob that looks like a wig. I’d met her the week before at a feminist rally in the capital, held to protest the government’s inaction in the face of rising violence against women. She said then that she was planning to go to the river to take photos, and I suggested that I go with her. Our plan was to leave well before dark, and it was nearly five o’clock. Reyna descended to a lower level of the embankment to get a better shot, and came back gagging. “I’m going back to the car,” she said. “I can’t stand the smell.”
We hiked up the hillside, which was strewn with busted appliances. Waiting for us up top, patiently smoking, was the man who had driven us here, a native of Ecatepec whom I’ll call Joaquín—a friend of a friend who was doing this favor for little more than gas money. In his early twenties he had been a dreadlocked pothead and a volunteer at a turtle refuge. Now thirty-one, he was a maintenance man for Ecatepec’s cable-car company, Mexicable. He wore a mustache, a khaki work shirt, thick plastic eyeglasses, and a screen-printed trucker hat that commemorated two deceased friends. He kept the cord of his headphones draped over one ear at all times.
We got into his car, a battered little four-banger, one fender of which was painted in gold glitter. On the drive back, Joaquín, who was something of a joker—twice he’d made cracks about having me kidnapped—asked Reyna if she considered herself a “feminazi.”
“How can you compare us to Nazis?” she said. “Have we killed people?”
“No, just set fire to the metro,” he replied.
“If we march peacefully, you all just make fun of us.”
The grin on Joaquín’s face amounted to an admission of this. Having yielded the point, he returned his attention to driving. Far be it from him to argue that things weren’t messed up in Mexico. He lit another cigarette.
“We need safe spaces,” Reyna continued. “I was thirteen when I was attacked for the first time, on the metro. The guy was like thirty years old. Another guy followed me for more than a kilometer on the street. I was terrified.”
“Did you report him?” Joaquín asked.
“Yes. We report and report, and they do absolutely nothing. You know this.” She recited a litany of recent atrocities, cases in which terrible things were done and no one was punished, speaking so rapidly that I couldn’t always follow her Spanish. She asked how it could be that there is nowhere in Mexico where a woman is safe from rape. “We’re not asking politely anymore,” she said. “We’re demanding justice.”
Of the thousands of femicides that have taken place in the State of Mexico over the past decade, about a dozen cases have come to represent the phenomenon. These are the faces that appear on placards at protests, the portraits that are stenciled in spray paint, the names that stand for the far more numerous unnamed. One such case is that of Fátima Varinia Quintana Gutiérrez, whose mother, Lorena, has spent the past five years hoping to see her daughter’s killer convicted. She now lives in hiding in another part of the country, but I managed to reach her by phone in early September. Lorena spoke with force and eloquence, her sentences ordered and deliberate, her command of the facts precise.
Asked to describe Fátima, Lorena thought for a moment and said that if you were to go into the evidence room of the state prosecutor’s office and look inside her daughter’s backpack, which still sits on a shelf there, you would know exactly what kind of girl she was. She always kept her books and notebooks organized, without so much as a dog-eared page. She was a perfectionist, preoccupied with tidiness, who spent most of her time reading. Her favorite books were the Hunger Games trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia series, and The Book Thief. Her favorite poem was “A Margarita Debayle,” by Rubén Darío. “She didn’t have a ton of girlfriends,” Lorena said. “She went everywhere with her little brother. She didn’t like to sleep alone. She was afraid of the dark.”
Fátima’s shyness comes across in photos. In one, she stands diffidently before the camera, hands clasped together, dressed in a navy peacoat over a teal dress. She’s tall for her age, and she resembles her mother. They lived in a rural part of the State of Mexico, in the terraced and deforested mountains west of Mexico City. The name of their tiny hilltop town was La Lupita Casas Viejas, in the municipality of Lerma, just east of Toluca, the state capital.
On the afternoon of February 5, 2015, Lorena was cooking lunch for her family when she realized that Fátima was an hour late coming home from school. Children are expected to adhere to strict timetables in Mexico, so this constituted an emergency. Lorena grabbed her husband, Jesús Quintana Vega, and ran out of the house without pausing to tie her shoes.
Fátima’s bus stop was on the edge of Casas Viejas, where the asphalt road descends into Lerma. A pair of brothers named Luis Ángel and Misael Atayde Reyes lived in the house nearest to it, overlooking the street. Three times in the course of her frantic search that afternoon, Lorena went to the Atayde place to ask if they had seen Fátima pass by on her way home from school. Three times the brothers denied it, as did a third young man who was at the house, José Juan Hernández de Cruceño. By the side of the house, Lorena noticed a bucket of water that looked pink, as if it had been used to clean up blood. “By this time,” she told me, “I had no doubt that those three had done something to my daughter.”
The Atayde brothers had known Fátima since the day she was born. Hernández de Cruceño, however, was new in town, and had the look of a malandro, or hoodlum. Photos taken before the incident show three young men mean-mugging for the camera, throwing up cholo mudras and middle fingers, smoking weed and drinking beer. Misael and Luis Ángel were seventeen and nineteen years old, respectively. Hernández de Cruceño was twenty-three. “He had been telling everyone that he liked Fátima,” Lorena said. “Asking my son to introduce him. She was twelve years old.”
Only about three hundred people live in Casas Viejas, and more than half of them came out to look for the missing girl. The search party turned into a lynch mob when they found her body in a ditch behind the Atayde residence. “They had stabbed her more than ninety times,” Lorena said. At first her telling of the story was matter-of-fact, but by the time she finished she was crying, practically moaning the words, as if to ask how it was possible that any of this was true. “The cut across her face was ten centimeters. The cut across her neck, ten centimeters. They had broken her shoulder. They fractured her wrists and ankles. All three of them raped her, vaginally and anally. All three of them. They bashed in her teeth. They put out one of her eyes. They did all of this while my daughter was still alive, still conscious. They killed her by stoning. How could they have such hatred for a twelve-year-old girl?”
The Atayde brothers and Hernández de Cruceño tried to run, but they couldn’t escape the outraged crowd that had formed around the house. In the absence of reliable law enforcement, mob justice is rife in Mexico, especially in rural areas. By the time the police arrived, an hour after they’d been called, the suspects had been soundly beaten and doused in gasoline. They escaped being burned alive only because a state marshal convinced Lorena and Jesús to intercede with the crowd. Bruised, bloodied, and reeking of fuel, the three men were handcuffed in the back of a police truck and driven to a hospital in Toluca.
If she could do it over again, Lorena said she would have let the people of Casas Viejas exact a fiery retribution then and there. Her family’s descent into hell, she told me, was just beginning.
The word “feminicidio” first came into usage in Mexico in the late Nineties, amid a similar epidemic of unsolved killings in and around Ciudad Juárez, on the border with El Paso. Nearly four hundred murders between 1993 and 2005 left the city with an enduring reputation as a dark necropolis, a land of pink crosses in the desert. Those deaths are thought to have been caused by sex trafficking and forced prostitution, violence around drug smuggling, lax law enforcement, an elevated level of domestic abuse, and the deplorable conditions in the shantytowns that developed around the border factories known as maquiladoras after the passage of NAFTA. But no one has been able to fully explain the savage mutilations and sometimes bizarre details that characterized many of the killings. Several bodies were found with one breast sliced off and the opposite nipple bitten off; others had symbols carved into their scalps; still others appeared to have been dressed after their deaths, sometimes in multiple layers of clothing.
Gang members performing initiation rites, organ thieves, Satan worshippers, and snuff-film producers have all been hypothesized. The idea that Juárez might have been some kind of sick playground for one or more foreign-born serial killers became a prominent theme in literary treatments of the crimes, particularly after local authorities arrested an Egyptian chemist named Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif—a violent rapist with a long rap sheet—and charged him with several murders. In Roberto Bolaño’s thousand-page novel 2666, which was in part inspired by the killings, a Mexican congresswoman uncovers a sinister sex-trafficking ring that caters to narcos, generals, bankers, and politicians. The prime suspect, however, is an enigmatic German-American computer-store owner, whose blue eyes may be able to see into the future.
In 2011, partly in response to international condemnation of the killings in Juárez, the Mexican Congress passed a federal law making femicide a distinct category of murder that carries harsher punishment, not unlike a hate crime in the United States. (Several other countries in Latin America, including Argentina and Honduras, have similarly amended their penal codes.) Femicide is defined as the killing of a woman for gender-based reasons, including murder committed in connection with rape or kidnapping; murder preceded by stalking, harassment, or abuse; murder committed by a romantic partner; murder characterized by sexual violence, degrading injuries, or desecration; and murder followed by display of the body in a public place.
According to a judicial ruling issued in 2015, authorities must investigate every violent death of a woman as a potential femicide, but police and prosecutors do not apply these criteria in any systematic way, and the records kept are flawed and incomplete. Nevertheless, it is clear that the rate of femicide has at least doubled in Mexico over the past four years, and has risen even more precipitously since 2017. One of the most severely affected states continues to be Chihuahua, where Juárez is located; the killings there never really ended, only leveled off. The cartel battleground states of Nuevo León and Veracruz are even more dangerous, judging by the official numbers. But nowhere is femicide more common than in the State of Mexico. According to the federal government, there have been 368 cases in the past three years, and that is almost certainly an undercount, as even the officials in charge of record keeping admit. There’s reason to believe that the true number is closer to four hundred or five hundred a year. Ecatepec today is an order of magnitude deadlier for women than turn-of-the-century Juárez.
Yet, a few days after visiting El Río de los Remedios, I met a cabinet-level official who told me straightforwardly that the problem of femicide was overblown. “It’s statistically insignificant,” he said. According to his records, there were 33,753 homicides in Mexico in 2018, an unprecedented number, and 92 percent of the victims were male. For the past thirteen years, Mexico has been caught in an interminable meatgrinder of a dirty war, instigated by the United States and fed by American guns and money, that ranks among the twenty-first century’s deadliest conflicts. The Mexican military has recently disengaged to some degree, but fighting among the cartels is raging hotter than ever. In northern Mexico, homicide is now the leading cause of death for men under the age of thirty. At a national level, then, Mexico’s falling life expectancy looks more like an androcide: the systematic killing of men and boys. “The overall problem that’s happening is sicarios and drug dealers fighting among themselves,” the official said. “That is the issue we have to address.”
His boss, Mexico’s new president, the social democrat Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was elected in 2018 on a promise to demilitarize the narco war, eradicate corruption in the government, and reform the army and police, among other herculean tasks. The administration has created a commission on femicide, appointed experts to study it, and issued a number of “gender alerts”—a toothless protocol similar to the United States’ terror alert level—but violence against women is a subject that López Obrador rarely mentions in his famous harangues. When questioned about femicide directly, he tends to pivot to the more general theme of reestablishing public security.
Mexico’s feminist movement is broadly aligned with López Obrador, but activists criticize the administration’s failure to take the problem of femicide seriously. “López Obrador doesn’t see femicide, only generalized violence,” said María de la Luz Estrada, director of the National Citizen Observatory on Femicide. “But one kind is committed by men fighting for territory. Sexual violence is different.” According to her, the real reasons authorities are reluctant to acknowledge the epidemic are their unwillingness to investigate organized crime and the complicity of the military and police in sex trafficking. The authorities in places such as Ecatepec are wary of the stigma that became attached to Ciudad Juárez, so they deny or downplay any comparison, though the similarities are plain. “Of the ten murders of women a day, five have characteristics of femicide,” María said, citing the bodies left in public places, deliberately exhibited with legs spread, pants pulled down, or in a fetal position, having been burned, tortured, or otherwise desecrated in an intentional display of desprecio, or contemptuous devaluation. She told me that in Juárez, they would sometimes find victims wearing three pairs of underwear, which someone must have put on them after death. Strange, fetishistic details like those, the kind that baffled and obsessed Bolaño’s fictional reporters in 2666, indicate a different species of violence from narco killings.
One clue as to the killers’ motivations comes from Lydiette Carrión, a journalist who wrote a book about Ecatepec and El Río de los Remedios, titled La Fosa de Agua, or The Watery Grave. When I asked her about the seemingly irrational sadism on display, she brought up Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, in which a band of revolutionaries commits a murder, one purpose of which, she said, is to “reinforce the bonds of complicity.” “Typically, the aggressors in these cases are very young guys, in precarious neighborhoods, who grew up alone. When gangs form, they have initiation rituals.” She alluded to analogous rites among football teams, fraternities, and the like. “In the case of criminal groups,” she said, “how do you establish complicity? Commit a crime. When it’s a femicide, when corpses are mutilated, it doesn’t have so much to do with her. It’s a message between them, within the band. It’s something symbolic, done to the body of a woman.”
In June 2017, the elder Atayde brother was convicted of Fátima’s murder and sentenced to seventy-three years in prison. The younger got off with five years because he was a minor at the time of the crime. But Hernández de Cruceño turned out to be connected to organized crime. According to Lorena, prosecutors told her that he and his family were involved with the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, known as the CJNG, the most powerful criminal militia in Mexico. Based in Jalisco, the CJNG is a nationwide paramilitary alliance of hundreds of armed gangs and corrupt military and police units, chiefly dedicated to trafficking drugs and stealing oil and gas from the state.
Shortly after Hernández de Cruceño was arrested, unfamiliar vehicles were spotted around Casas Viejas. One night, as Lorena’s family slept, the front windows of their house were shot out. A short time later, Jesús, a bus driver, was on his usual route when a truck cut him off and another pulled up alongside, boxing him in. The men inside didn’t say anything, but their purpose was clear: “To show me they knew where I worked,” Jesús said. He quit the same day and hasn’t held a steady job since. Fátima’s little brother had to be withdrawn from school, at the request of the teachers, for the safety of the other children. Lorena still insisted on giving testimony against Hernández de Cruceño, even after the state’s special prosecutor for femicide warned her in private that she was risking her life. “The government wants me to shut up,” Lorena said. “Of course I’m not going to.”
Lawyers with offices in the wealthy Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City arrived to defend Hernández de Cruceño in court. “Very expensive, very good lawyers,” Jesús told me. They introduced a video purporting to show the defendant at his job as a security guard at the time of Fátima’s killing, in the town of San Mateo, about half a day’s drive from Casas Viejas. Lorena said the video’s metadata had been manipulated, an easy trick. “The whole town saw him here,” she said. “The whole town beat him up. He was admitted to the hospital.” Nevertheless, on the basis of the supposed alibi, a judge found him innocent and ordered his release. The defendant’s father stood up in the courtroom and pointed at Lorena. “Bitch, you better be shaking,” he said. “You already signed your own death sentence.”
Fátima’s entire family—parents and siblings and nephews, seven adults and five children—fled Casas Viejas for Toluca, and later left the State of Mexico altogether, fearing retribution from the CJNG. The family has a place to stay near the U.S. border, at least for the time being, but the children must remain indoors, with little to do but play video games. It’s not safe for them to walk to the park, much less enroll in school. Jesús found a job at an establishment willing to pay him in cash under the table, but the work is not much more than mopping floors. They can’t have phones, or anything else that could be used to track them. The youngest boy, Fátima’s constant companion in life, needs counseling. He was there when they found her body. He has spoken little since.
Ecatepec is an enormous municipality, covering nearly as much area as Mexico City, with no real center and an outline like a bomb blast. To identify the streets or neighborhoods where the most femicides have been recorded, I turned to an activist named María Salguero Bañuelos, who has created a digital map that is far more detailed and complete than the government’s records.
María is a forty-year-old engineer who studied geophysics at Mexico’s most prestigious polytechnic school, but she still lives in the rough neighborhood in downtown Mexico City where she was raised. When we met at a coffee shop in La Roma, she arrived on a bicycle, and was still wearing her helmet as she took a seat. I congratulated her on being named to Forbes’s 2019 list of the most powerful women in Mexico. “My pockets don’t reflect it,” she said with a grin.
María started work on the map in 2016, after noticing news reports of sharply rising numbers of femicides all over Mexico, and seeing little recognition of the problem by the government. She drew on police statements, newspaper articles, and a network of informants to keep her map up-to-date, working long hours for no pay. Her efforts have earned her media coverage, threats from the CJNG, and a job offer from the new presidential administration that turned out to be illusory. For “bureaucratic reasons,” she said, sounding disappointed. “Nothing has changed since the election of López Obrador, nothing at all.” In fact, since he assumed office on December 1, 2018, the pace of femicides across the country has increased markedly. María scoffed at the government’s claim that there were only 112 femicides in the State of Mexico in 2018. According to her count, there were 456, and she expects the yearly totals to continue to rise. “The authorities have no idea how many there have been,” she said, placing her arms on the table for emphasis. “Ni idea.”
I pulled up her map on my laptop. The whole country appeared carpeted in red pins, each one representing a case of femicide. I zoomed in on Ecatepec, with 1.7 million inhabitants, the largest of the moons orbiting Mexico City. In the satellite image, the surface of the earth here looked scraped to the bone. “Ecatepec is a trash can for human beings,” she said. “A dumping ground for corpses. Many people say it’s the worst part of the country.” When the government subdivided Ecatepec, it did so without planning, she said. “Everything is spread out. People have to travel two hours to get into Mexico City. There is no street lighting. You have to cross vacant lots. It gives refuge to predators.”
Forty percent of the victims María has identified had a man in their family or social circle involved in organized crime. She calls these “feminicidios por pertenencia de un enemigo,” femicide related to an enemy, often distinguishable, she said, by the use of high-powered American weapons such as AR-15s and semiautomatic handguns. “It’s a way of damaging an opponent, to kill their women. This pattern is common in Ecatepec.” According to María, the victims of femicide get younger with every passing year. She said the state prosecutors are saturated with cases and carry out very few investigations. Police lack the resources to order DNA tests and are untrained in the basics of investigative practice. Instead, María said, “They blame the victim. They say she wasn’t in school, she was taking drugs, she got pregnant and ran off with a boyfriend. Or they’ll say she committed suicide.” She estimated that there were around four thousand orphans as a result of femicide. “No one knows where they are, with whom, if they’re eating, if they’re going to school, if they’re with the family of the aggressor. Sometimes the children of victims are sold.”
Asked to identify the most violent part of town, María narrowed it down to two neighborhoods on the east side of the city with a combined area of three and a half square miles, where the digital pins were most concentrated: fifteen cases in the roughly hexagonal barrio of Ciudad Cuauhtémoc and twelve in the triangular Jardines de Morelos subdivision. This swath of Ecatepec is said to be a redoubt for gangs of armed robbers, where every business establishment and form of transport is subject to the derecho de piso, an illegal tax imposed by a dozen-odd local mafias—some old-school, some newer—working under the aegis of two or three major cartels, predominantly the CJNG. This part of the city is considered too dangerous to visit, off-limits to outsiders, abandoned by the police, a “black hole,” as it was described to me on more than one occasion. But the next time I talked to Joaquín, he said he could take me there safely because he worked for the cable-car company. Everyone knew his vehicle, with its one glittery fender, its trunk that wouldn’t shut, and its deeply tinted rear windows, sufficiently opaque to obscure the pale visage of a gringo. I decided to take him up on the offer one day in mid-September.
We met at the Mexicable station on the south side of Ecatepec, the farthest that an Uber would venture. Our driver for the day was Joaquín’s buddy, also thirty-one, who went by the nickname Pelón. He wore a long T-shirt thoroughly stained with engine grease, equally greasy sweatpants, and disintegrating sneakers. He had a tattoo of the evil clown from the movie It on one forearm, the drawing skillfully done but incomplete. “I’m waiting for the sequel,” he explained.
Driving into Cuauhtémoc, Joaquín told us about a party he went to at the house of a trafficker in exotic animals, where someone had offered to sell him a girl of about seven or eight for two thousand varos, or bucks. “The girl was just sitting there, not talking,” he said. “She was indigenous, morenita.”
“Everyone here has a family member who has disappeared,” said Joaquín. His sixteen-year-old niece went missing a few years ago. “I hope she’s dead,” he said, without apparent emotion. “I don’t want to imagine her life if she’s not.”
Joaquín pointed out a slaughterhouse and hastened to roll up his window. There are many industrial sites in Ecatepec—including canning and bottling facilities, a limestone mine, and a thermoelectric plant—but none smell as bad as the meat-processing facilities, they told me. We drove by the La Costeña factory where they pickle the jalapeños I buy at my grocery store in Austin. Behind the building, Joaquín said, was a “lost world,” a makeshift encampment of drug users and underage sex workers.
As we entered Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, there were no armed men to be seen. I spotted only one police vehicle, stationed at an intersection: an armored truck with a machine-gun turret that looked like it had been through battle. The main avenues were bleak expanses of concrete, lined with billboards. There were gas stations every few blocks, and the sky was smudged with brown exhaust.
The pedestrians looked like the working class anywhere in Mexico: wearing jeans and sneakers, carrying backpacks or plastic bags, trudging to the bus stop or buying food from street vendors. Despite the neighborhood’s forbidding reputation, there were few obvious signs of organized crime. Joaquín indicated a handful of chacas, or crooks, hanging out on a street corner, but to me they looked more pitiful than intimidating. “The really bad guys come out at night,” Pelón said. Robbery is the most pervasive crime around here. “With a gun, not with a knife,” he added. Whole blocks were closed off by barred gates, and in the parking lots, cars were locked in cages. I saw only one drug dealer, an old man in filthy clothes crouched on the sidewalk methodically wrapping rocks of crack cocaine in aluminum foil. If he wasn’t worried about the police, it was likely because he had paid his weekly bribe of 2,500 pesos, about $140. “There may be a city in Mexico where the police aren’t corrupt,” Pelón said. “I don’t know where, but it’s possible.”
We passed a series of pulque stands, a soap factory, auto shops and garages, and an overpopulated graveyard where faded pinwheels spun. A sad little garden plot in the median of the road had a hand-painted sign that read: no se roben las plantas (“Do not steal the plants”).
Other than palms, the only trees were invasive eucalypti and chinaberries that looked dusty and sick. Bougainvillea was a colorful relief, as were the street murals. One next to a mechanic’s shop depicted frogs and birds and jaguars arrayed around an indigenous warrior in a headdress, a spray-painted memorial to the pre-Columbian paradise that once existed here. It wasn’t a coincidence that every feminist I met in Mexico was also an environmentalist. A few days earlier, I’d seen graffiti scrawled across the side of a building in Mexico City: “The killing of Mother Earth is the biggest femicide of all.”
Now in Jardines de Morelos, we slowed to a stop in front of a plain concrete house near a vacant lot. On the sidewalk down the street was a taco stand where a man in a soiled apron was chopping raw chicken on a table. As we got out of the vehicle, my guides traded jokes about cannibalism. This used to be the home of Juan Carlos Hernández Bejar, better known as the Monster of Ecatepec, and his accomplice wife, Patricia Martínez Bernal. The pair killed at least twenty women—the real number may be closer to fifty—some of whom they cooked and ate.
We stood on the far side of the street, wary of getting any closer. We had all read about the Monster of Ecatepec in the tabloids. Long before he was arrested, in October 2018, the neighbors had noticed strange things about Juan Carlos and Patricia. They had almost no furniture, just cardboard boxes and black plastic bags. They came and went at odd hours, sometimes pushing a stroller. A bad smell hung over the empty lot nearby. Reeking fluids sometimes trickled into the gutter. They made money selling secondhand clothes and used cell phones.
There are serial killers everywhere, but Mexico’s homicide crisis gives them cover by greatly reducing the chance that any given murder will lead to an investigation. When the couple’s next-door neighbor, Arlet Samanta Olguín, went missing in April 2018, the police made her mother, María Guadalupe Hernández López, wait three hours to file a report. Then they saw her for five minutes and told her to come back the next morning. Three months of bureaucracy, delay, and inaction followed. “From April to June, the story was, ‘Don’t worry, we’re working on it,’?” María Guadalupe told me. “But nothing happened with the file.” Another young woman who lived nearby disappeared in July, and a third in September. “Three cases with the same pattern of characteristics,” she said: “Young, single mothers, all of them dark-eyed brunettes with long hair.” María Guadalupe learned from a local tabloid reporter that the other two women were last known to have answered an advertisement for secondhand clothes that Patricia had placed. The mothers of the victims and the reporter took the information they had gathered to the police. “The prosecutor wouldn’t listen to us,” María Guadalupe said. “We told them, ‘It’s Juan Carlos. Arrest him.’ They said, ‘We don’t have proof.’?”
That October, a vigilante posse including María Guadalupe returned to the police station to inform the authorities that they intended to deal with the couple on their own. It must have been clear that they were serious, because the police finally sent officers to check out the house. When they arrived, they happened to catch the pair outside pushing their baby stroller. Inside were chopped-up body parts. It would later be reported that Patricia had served her husband tamales made with flesh from Samanta’s body. They had sold her bones to a practitioner of Santería.
Both husband and wife were swiftly convicted on multiple counts of femicide and murder. While I was in Mexico, they were sentenced to a combined 327 years in prison. There’s a video online of a police psychologist questioning Juan Carlos about his motivations and state of mind. The Monster of Ecatepec is stocky, moreno. He sits in a chair, handcuffed, wearing faded jeans and a black T-shirt. “I’m completely sane and well,” he says. In the twelve-minute clip, he rants about what a whore his mother was, brags about how smart he is and how many women he’s had sex with, sobs until his whole body shakes, and talks about a head injury he suffered as a child.
After Juan Carlos was sentenced, María Guadalupe had the opportunity to confront him in court. “I told him he was a coward because he only killed women. He answered me, ‘I also killed men.’ I told him my daughter was a queen, unlike the nameless thing at his side, who calls herself a woman and is an embarrassment to our gender. He said, ‘Your daughter is never coming back.’ I don’t know where I got the strength to speak to him without crying. He said he hates women. Because his mother did very ugly things, and at times his girlfriends had cheated on him. And since then he’s hated women. He said it in open court. That he couldn’t bear to see us go on breathing.”
On a cloudy afternoon later in September, I knocked on the door of a publishing house in La Condesa, a tranquil and tree-lined enclave of Mexico City. I had come to meet four members of a collective called Marabunta, an “assemblea autodefensa feminista” whose name evokes a swarm of ants. Three of the four women were recent graduates of Mexico’s biggest and best university, known as UNAM. Part of their ethos is not to discuss the collective, but they agreed to talk about their individual participation in the protests that had disrupted downtown Mexico City over the previous two months. We settled into a lamp-lit conference room, where they arranged themselves on a couple of couches. They were fashionably attired in baggy sweaters and jackets, ripped jeans, and chunky boots and sneakers.
The largest demonstration of the summer had taken place on August 12, incited by the rape of a seventeen-year-old girl by four Mexico City police officers. What appeared to be one or two thousand self-described radical feminists had shown up, mostly college-age women, many of them hooded or masked, wearing the green bandannas that symbolize the movement. They marched to Paseo de la Reforma carrying portraits of murdered women, tagged sidewalks and walls with spray paint, and left broken glass everywhere they went. “Verga violadora, a la licuadora,” they chanted. (The translation, “Rapist member, into the blender,” greatly understates the profanity of the original.) The police formed a cordon around the attorney general’s office and stoically withstood being berated at close range and hit with handfuls of glitter. Fires were set. The riot culminated in the vandalism of the Angel of Independence, a grand obelisk at the city center. méxico feminicidio was painted across the plaque of the pedestal. On the monument’s base was written estado violador: rapist state. It took the city weeks to clean up.
Aleida Salazar, a thirty-year-old director of content at a software company, said it was the first time she had ever seen a group of men move out of her way with fear in their eyes. “Normally, it’s the reverse,” she said, to the laughter of her friends. “Honestly, I enjoyed it.”
I asked if they could rightly compare the dangers and annoyances they face here in the city to the horrors stalking poor working women in the surrounding state. “The situation of women in La Condesa is not the same as in Ecatepec, but in general the situation of women in Mexico is terrible,” said Aura García-Junco, a thirty-one-year-old writer. The rest of the group chimed in. Even rich women are at risk in their mansions, they told me. “The so-called suicides,” said Irasema Fernández, a twenty-nine-year-old artist. The others murmured knowingly. “It mostly affects the most vulnerable women, but it’s also something that can happen to you at any time,” Aleida said. “Your husband, someone in your family.” In November, a woman was gunned down not far from my hotel in Coyoacán; her abusive ex-husband, formerly the CEO of Amazon Mexico, is accused of ordering the hit.
Femicide is distinct from the cartel violence that constitutes the bulk of homicides in Mexico, according to Sujaila Miranda Moreno, who was twenty-three and had recently completed a degree in literature. “Men don’t suffer this kind of triple death,” she said. “One, they violate and destroy your sexuality. Second, they annul you completely as a person, by murdering you. Third, they mutilate your body, as a final objectification.”
They believe that femicide is only the most extreme manifestation of Mexican machismo, an attitude of exaggerated masculinity, virility, and dominance over women. At its most quotidian, machismo manifests as street harassment, which is pervasive in Mexico City. “I can’t go one day without being accosted in public,” Irasema said. I interrupted, slightly skeptical, and asked what had happened today, for example. She replied: “On the way here, I passed a guy on the sidewalk, and he goes, ‘Move it,’ like, ‘move that ass.’?”
“Whenever we complain, the first question they ask us is, ‘Did you report him?’?” Aura said. “It’s always the same thing.”
“The police are just going to revictimize you,” said Sujaila. “They’ll ask, ‘Why were you wearing those clothes? Why were you walking by yourself?’?”
“They would never ask a robbery victim, ‘Why were you carrying valuables?’?” Aura interjected.
“Their attitude is that if you weren’t killed, don’t worry, take it easy,” said Irasema. “The reality is that the ones who are supposed to protect us are the first to attack us. It’s well known—the violence of the police, the army, the marines, the state.”
In the case of the rape that provoked the August 12 march, the four accused police officers were initially put on leave but were ultimately allowed to return to the force. “The law is totally patriarchal,” Aura said. “The institutions are permeated by machismo.” That may be why, when asked to articulate their specific demands on society and the government, they fell uncharacteristically quiet. “Recognizing the problem is the first thing,” Irasema said. “They must no longer disguise the number of femicides. They must properly classify them. Just this first step will require a great deal.”
Mexico remains socially conservative, in the grim Iberian tradition. The most elaborate social rituals include the quinceañera, the wedding, and the beauty pageant. Women with tattoos and dyed hair marching in the street are seen as importing a global culture that is alien to traditional values. On the first day of one of her classes, Sujaila recalled, the professor asked those students who identified as feminists to raise their hands. Only two did, including her. “And it was a course on feminist literature,” she said.
Attitudes toward feminism are even more hostile outside Mexico City. But the mothers I interviewed who had lost a daughter to femicide all had good things to say about the chicas feministas who had been setting off smoke bombs and lighting trash cans on fire to draw attention to the killings. “Of course they are helping,” Lorena said when I asked her opinion. “Ni una más,” she added, echoing their rallying cry: not one more.
Lorena has not given up trying to hold Hernández de Cruceño accountable for her daughter’s murder. Over the past three years, she has made frequent, grueling bus trips to and from Mexico City. She has attended marches and protests, contacted journalists, and given interviews. Articles about Fátima have proliferated online. In November 2017, the Observatory on Femicide, the organization led by María de la Luz Estrada, agreed to take up the case. Lawyers associated with the Observatory filed a petition in federal court to force the State of Mexico to reopen criminal proceedings against Hernández de Cruceño. After more than a year of litigation, they succeeded in having the charge of femicide reinstated. On July 10, 2019, he was jailed pending the outcome of the case, which is now on appeal in Mexico City.
In late September, I arranged to meet Lorena and Jesús during their trip to the capital to attend the hearing. At their request, we chose a crowded public place, the grand plaza beside the Palacio de Bellas Artes. There were fountains flowing, kids screaming, and hurdy-gurdy men cranking barrel organs. On Avenida Juárez, sanitation workers were scrubbing graffiti from the latest green-bandanna rally, which had taken place the week before. Lorena and Jesús arrived on time, looking like an ordinary, tired-out, middle-aged couple, wheeling a pair of suitcases. We settled on a concrete bench. They had three hours before the eighteen-hour bus trip back north, followed by a taxi ride and a long walk to the place where they live as inconspicuously as possible, telling no one their real names. “We don’t live, we survive,” Lorena said. “We are the walking dead. We are prisoners in our own country.”
They were not trying to reach the United States. They had no money to pay a smuggler. In any case, the passage was too dangerous these days. Especially for children, Jesús added. “We think Canada is a more peaceful country,” Lorena said. They had gone to the Canadian Embassy but were not allowed past the gates. They had only a vague understanding of the process of applying for asylum. “We need help getting out of here,” she said. “And if they won’t take me and my husband, at least take the children. Because they will kill us all here in Mexico.” They feared they could disappear at any time. A truck would pull up and men would step out and that would be it. They would be driven to a desolate place, perhaps a river filled with trash, perhaps a desiccated cornfield, or one of those military bases where the ground is packed with bones. “All Mexico is a mass grave,” Lorena said. “A vast, vast lake of blood.”
“Sometimes I think it’s all a conspiracy,” she continued, half to herself. “Not just of this government, but governments of all the world. They don’t realize what they’re doing. We, the women, are the ones who give life. If they destroy us, they destroy everything.”
The family will never go back to Casas Viejas. “Fátima was murdered in 2015,” Lorena said. “They are killing twice as many women and girls now. Every day the murders get more sadistic, more frightening.” In October and November, the instances of femicide in and around Ecatepec that María Salguero added to her map included a woman in her thirties whose naked body looked to have been mauled by a pack of dogs and a woman of unknown age found beaten and gagged on the side of a highway. In December, a woman was thrown from a van and set on fire, and an eighteen-year-old girl’s body was found alongside a footpath on a weed-grown lot. She had been arteramente asesinada, “artfully” or cunningly murdered, in the ambiguous phrasing of María Salguero’s informant, in a manner said to have caused “indignation” in the neighborhood. The girl’s name was Anayeli. The other women have not been identified.