CHILPANCINGO DE LOS BRAVO, MEXICO — The first time that ARA, a young Nahua woman from the municipality of Mártir de Cuilapan, suffered sexual violence was in 2021. In October 2022, she contacted authorities for the first time, after her aggressor hit both her and her mother. Her town’s absence of a judicial district investigation unit specializing in cases of violence against women prevented her from filing a report. She had no choice but to travel 64 kilometers (40 miles) to Chilpancingo de los Bravo, the capital of the state of Guerrero, to start a costly bureaucratic process to obtain justice.
ARA’s is not an outlying case. In Guerrero, indigenous women who live in rural areas do not receive immediate help from the authorities when they find themselves in situations involving gender-based violence. The cause is a dearth of specialized investigation units. It forces them to leave their communities to report crimes in one of the eight — out of 85 — municipalities in the state that have them. Doing so incurs expenses for travel and a plethora of services, straining the women’s finances and sometimes those of their families.
According to 2021 government data, the municipalities in Guerrero that had specialized investigation units for sexual crimes and family violence were Acapulco, Ayutla de los Libres, Chilpancingo de los Bravo, Iguala de la Independencia, Coyuca de Catalán, Zihuatanejo de Azueta, Ometepec and Tlapa de Comonfort.
“It is not easy at all, because with everything you spend, you’re limited. Transportation is where most of the money goes,” says ARA, who is identified by her initials to protect her safety.
In Guerrero, 68.8% of women 15 years of age and over have experienced some type of violence — psychological, physical, sexual, economic or patrimonial — during their lifetime, according to the 2021 National Survey on the Dynamics of Household Relationships, published by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. In response, the Comisión Nacional para Prevenir y Erradicar la Violencia contra las Mujeres, a government agency responsible for designing policy to prevent violence against women, has issued gender-based violence alerts in nine of the state’s municipalities: Acapulco, Ayutla de los Libres, Chilpancingo de los Bravo, Coyuca de Catalán, Iguala de la Independencia, Zihuatanejo de Azueta, Ometepec, Tlapa de Comonfort and Chilapa de Álvarez.
The gender-based violence alert is “the set of government emergency actions to confront and eradicate femicidal violence in a determined territory, whether it is carried out by an individual or the community itself,” as stated in the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence, a national law.
But these measures have not prevented crimes against women.
The Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan is an organization in Guerrero that provides support in situations of poverty, migration, agrarian conflicts, militarization and violence against women in the communities of the state’s Montaña and Costa Chica regions. Between January and September 2023, it registered 635 cases of indigenous women who had experienced some type of violence. Domestic, economic, psychological and institutional violence made up most of these cases. It also reports that nine arrest warrants for femicides committed between 2015 and 2022 have not been executed in the Montaña region.
“There are no public prosecutors’ offices, experts or police [in the Montaña region]. They’re leaving some areas vulnerable, and [people] aren’t getting the treatment they’re due. There are many [open] cases filed away,” says Neil Arias Vitinio, a lawyer at the organization.
Avigaí Silva, GPJ Mexico
Martín Jacinto Meza, former commissioner of Atzacoaloya, a town in the municipality of Chilapa de Álvarez, says that their local judicial mechanisms have grown “obsolete” when it comes to investigating reports involving crimes with gender-based motives, like femicides. Both Chilapa and Mártir de Cuilapan lack agencies that specialize in gender-based crimes, which is why Jacinto says he often refers complainants to Casa de la Mujer Indígena de Chilapa, a space that focuses on culturally relevant care, gender issues and women’s rights, or to Chilpancingo.
Neither the Guerrero State Attorney General’s Office, which oversees the specialized investigation units for sexual crimes and family violence, nor the authorities in Mártir de Cuilapan responded to interview requests.
Reporting crimes far from home: a financial toll
Reporting a crime in another city often places complainants and their families under financial pressure. Expenses can range from transportation to food, overnight stays, photocopies and procedural fees. And they can add up to hundreds or thousands of Mexican pesos each month. By contrast, the average monthly salary in Guerrero is 4,060 pesos (235 United States dollars).
“Poverty obstructs access to justice because there are no places that meet their needs in their communities,” says Marina Reyna Aguilar, executive director of Asociación Guerrerense contra la Violencia hacia las Mujeres, a nonprofit that supports women who are facing violence.
It took ARA one year to see her legal process through to the end. Within that time, she estimates she traveled to Chilpancingo de los Bravo 15 times. And by her calculations, she and her loved ones spent approximately 70,000 pesos (4,063 dollars) on travel expenses for her and her mother, who always went with her; legal assistance; and additional transportation for others who supported her during the process. She was able to pay these expenses through a combination of help from relatives, her own savings and selling animals she raised in her backyard.
Avigaí Silva, GPJ Mexico
“I believe that, without the support of my relatives, I wouldn’t have made it even halfway into the process because there are so many expenses,” ARA says. “They gave me a great deal of strength because they supported me at every moment. I’m also at peace and feel calmer thanks to them.”
Many women who file reports do not have the same luck, and they must go through the judicial process alone.
EGG, also identified by her initials, is from the municipality of Metlatónoc, in the Montaña region. She is a 38-year-old single mother, and her first language is Me’phaa, which is spoken in central and southern Guerrero. In 2020, she reported her partner for sexual violence against her daughters, but her relatives did not support her.
Without clear guidance, EGG first went to Tixtla de Guerrero, a city 23.2 kilometers (14 miles) away from Mártir de Cuilapan, where she was living at the time. The authorities there told her she had to go to the specialized investigation unit for sexual crimes and family violence in Chilpancingo de los Bravo, 19 kilometers (12 miles) away.
After she initiated the legal process, EGG returned to her hometown of Metlatónoc, 262 kilometers (163 miles) from Chilpancingo de los Bravo. From then on, she had to travel constantly between her hometown and the capital in order to complete the process. She says no one informed her that she could have done it in cities closer to her, like Tlapa de Comonfort.
“The institutions don’t have the tact it takes to work with people. They lack sensitivity,” EGG says.
Avigaí Silva, GPJ Mexico
In her case, each trip cost at least 2,000 pesos (116 dollars), which she raised by going out into the streets of her community to sell face masks and doradas, corn tortillas fried in oil. She says she’s spent an estimated 15,000 pesos (871 dollars), which has not been enough to complete the legal process. As of now, only one of the two cases against her daughters’ aggressor has been resolved.
“You face many difficulties. And that’s why a lot of women choose to keep things quiet, because they know they won’t get any support,” she says.
Arias, from Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan, says one of the problems they face is that personnel at the institutions responsible for investigating crimes involving violence against women, including police and public prosecutors, are not trained in gender-sensitive approaches and do not follow protocol for these cases.
Nonetheless, EGG is confident that “if you have the will and you fight for it, you’ll find justice.” Both she and ARA believe they made the best decision when they reported the violence, institutional obstacles notwithstanding.
“To the women who have gone through what I went through, I would say keep pushing forward. Despite the difficulties we indigenous women face, it’s worth it,” ARA says. “There is always a reward for the effort one makes.”