President Andrés Manuel López Obrador rose to power in 2018 pledging a transformation of Mexico after decades of one-party rule and rampant corruption. He promised to democratize Mexico and put an end to the devastating neoliberal policies that have dominated the country in recent decades.
In a country where seven out of ten live in poverty, this is no small promise. But the president’s vision, which places the disenfranchised at its core, has largely been blind to the violence Mexican women regularly face. Mexicans are bombarded with news of violent deaths and disappearances on a daily basis. But the murder of twenty-five-year-old Ingrid Escamilla in Mexico City in February, stabbed and dismembered by her partner, shocked the public after pictures of her skinned body appeared on the front page of a local paper and circulated across social media. The leak and subsequent publishing of Escamilla’s picture — under the headline “It was cupid’s fault” — stoked more outrage.
Feminists protested outside the National Palace where López Obrador holds daily morning press conferences, chanting, spray-painting, and setting fire to the five-hundred-year-old palace’s front door to demand justice for Escamilla and the women who are murdered daily. A week after Escamilla’s murder, a seven-year-old girl’s body was found inside a plastic bag after she was kidnapped outside of her school and sexually assaulted. Protesters demanded a clear position from the president, who described the murder as “unfortunate” and said city officials were investigating.
On February 10, during his daily morning press conference, López Obrador invited Mexico’s attorney general to present a huge cardboard check his office had recovered from a corruption probe worth 2 billion pesos. Instead, reporters questioned the attorney general over his proposed bill to change the definition of what constitutes a femicide. But the proposed bill quickly fell apart due to backlash from feminists, who saw the proposal as a de facto elimination of femicides from the criminal code by turning it into aggravated assault. They claimed this was a step backward in Mexico’s fight for women’s rights and commitment to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
A clearly displeased López Obrador ordered reporters to stop. “I don’t want femicides to be the only topic [today],” he said, and continued with “the most important issue above all,” his fight against corruption and white-collar crime. But femicides have increased 137 percent in the last five years in Mexico; ten women were murdered every day in Mexico in 2018. Instead of detailing measures to end the impunity that results in only 3.2 percent of femicides being solved, López Obrador claimed the protests were an orchestrated assault from the right-wing opposition.
“It’s a strange thing that conservatives have turned into feminists, and we are now ‘machistas,’” he said sarcastically. “If [conservatives] have a problem with us, they shouldn’t dress up as feminists because that’s immoral.” The president often conflates his critics with members of the conservative political elites who have opposed him for decades. In the same way, he claimed conservatives had infiltrated the feminist cause to attack him. Since condemnation of his reaction came from all fronts, including opposing political parties and outlets ideologically close to them, he called them hypocrites.
“We are on women’s side, we are not ‘machistas.’ We come from a leftist movement,” he said in one of his daily morning briefings. “Do you know where the ‘machismo’ is? Who are ‘machistas’? The conservatives.”
In response, on March 8, at least eighty thousand women in Mexico City came out to demand an end to gender violence, chanting, “Me cuidan mis hermanas, no la policía” (“My sisters look after me, not the police”) and the now-famous Chilean refrain, “El Estado opresor es un macho violador” (“The oppressor state is a macho rapist.”)
Violeta Vazquez is a linguistics professor at the Colegio de México and an outspoken sympathizer of the “Cuarta Transformación,” the “fourth transformation,” as López Obrador’s political project is known. “There are different movements in ‘Obradorismo,’” she said. Since beginning his political career in the mid-1970s, AMLO has advocated for democracy and social justice. He identifies strongly with the nineteenth-century liberal president of indigenous heritage, Benito Juárez, and the leftist president Lázaro Cárdenas, who governed from 1934–1940, nationalized Mexico’s oil, and redistributed land to dispossessed peasants.
The first time López Obrador ran for the presidency in 2006, he ran as part of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and lost in what is widely acknowledged as a stolen election. In the aftermath, he mobilized tens of thousands of his supporters and occupied the heart of Mexico City for forty-eight days, closing down main streets and causing the city big losses.
He ran again in 2012 and lost to Enrique Peña Nieto, a symbol of Mexico’s notoriously corrupt old regime, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that governed for seventy-one years straight. AMLO created his own party, MORENA, which began as a “movement of national regeneration” and became a registered party in 2014.
MORENA was his launching pad to run in the 2018 elections for the third time, and was made up of a wide coalition that cut across political currents, age, gender, and class. The disillusionment that many Mexicans felt toward the status quo — rampant corruption scandals, growing inequality, over sixty thousand disappearances related to the drug war — set the stage for his victory.
AMLO took office on December 1, 2018 with 53 percent of the vote. The president’s popularity is still overwhelmingly high, but his approval ratings have dropped in his last year in office, according to polls, due to a sluggish economy and high levels of violence, including gender violence. There were about 34,608 homicides in 2019, an increase from 2018, and March 2020 has been the most violent month of his presidency.
Violence is the problem that most “worries and occupies” the president. For this reason, he holds a daily meeting with his security cabinet and uses his morning press conferences to give periodic reports on homicide data and security strategy. The same goes for the president’s anti-corruption campaign. When López Obrador wants to show he is fighting corruption or carrying out social programs for the poor, he gives weekly updates during his press conference on topics like oil theft, banks’ commission rates, or the construction of his flagship infrastructure projects.
Vazquez would like to see the president implement a similar communication strategy to inform the public about femicides and make clear that there is no impunity, that investigations are taking place and perpetrators will be punished. But she was disappointed in the president’s personal response to the feminist protests. “If he avoids the subject, it’s bad; if he addresses it, it’s worse. If he calls himself a feminist, it’s bad,” she said about the disconnect between political discourse and action. “If he calls himself a humanist, it’s worse. There’s nothing that can comfort anyone at the moment.”
Not Deaf, but Stubborn
AMLO’s agenda has provoked fierce opposition from elites tied to prior administrations, prompting smear campaigns in the media and the flexing of political muscles to stop his growing popularity. As a result, he uses every opportunity to fend off critics and created a morning daily press conference as his stage to respond to critics and label some as “adversaries,” “conservatives,” and “neoliberals.” These pressers can go up to two and a half hours and include questions, but it’s mostly AMLO exercising what he calls his “right to respond.”
The president has been opposing the status quo all throughout his political career in a system that mobilizes corporate interests and the media against rivals. Past administrations spent large amounts of money on advertising and creating alliances with Mexico’s media moguls. This partnership was a win-win for those administrations, who had the press in their pocket, and the media giants who made millions.
López Obrador made a point of ending this cycle by slashing the government’s advertising budget and pinning digital media against traditional outlets which he claims are angry at the loss in revenue from the government. He publicly condemns some media companies but has kept a close relationship with others. The morning pressers are split between these two camps, traditional media versus “bloggers,” as the personalities who have their own platforms are disdainfully called by reporters. The morning pressers have sometimes turned into a kind of boxing match between the two groups, and the president is known for favoring these independent outlets in the Q&A portion of his press conference.
AMLO subjects himself to public scrutiny with daily press conferences. So far he has relied on a combative attitude to face every hurdle in his first year in office: the coronavirus pandemic, cartel violence, a sluggish economy, rising homicides, Mexico’s relationship with the United States, and its agreement to stop migrants from reaching the US border. He has said multiple times that columnists at leading national media outlets, opposition parties, and conservatives are all eager to see him fail. The problem is, his tone doesn’t seem to change when he responds to feminist demands.
The president’s more conservative views on women have peppered his response to the coronavirus epidemic. Recently, he claimed women were better equipped than men as caregivers, calling them the “nurse” of the family. These regressive, conventional notions may be tied to the president’s Christian values that are often present in his speeches. AMLO has a wide support base among evangelicals; he has not taken a clear stance on abortion, for example, and has chosen to avoid speaking about legislation backed by his party to legalize it.
As long as AMLO’s personal views don’t get in the way of actual policy, Vazquez doesn’t worry too much about the message. “Even though the ‘Fourth Transformation’ is one of AMLO’s trademarks, it is broader [than just the president]. It is a broader transformation, and some of us want to make it deeper,” even if a feminist perspective doesn’t dominate his speech in the same way that indigenous rights, dignified retirement for the elderly, access to education for impoverished youth, and other social justice issues do.
Despite the government’s centralization, with López Obrador’s “transformation” directing actions and policies in every federal agency, not all women in his cabinet think like the president. In fact, López Obrador elected the first cabinet composed equally of men and women in Mexico’s history, with women heading half of the top federal agencies.
Dulce Colin is a feminist public servant in Mexico City’s local government and a member of Democracia Deliberada, a civil society group. “Feminists are always looking for cracks in the system,” she said. “What makes me continue supporting this movement is the fact that there is a crack, a group of women who are organizing even to push back against the president’s actions.”
On March 5, days before the March 8 women’s march, the women of the cabinet gathered to declare support for the march and women’s demands. Feminist protests in Mexico City have grown in size and intensity in recent months and have been met with condemnation by the media and large swaths of the population. An August 16 protest in Mexico City sparked by the alleged rape of a seventeen-year-old woman by police officers inside their patrol car left many historical monuments vandalized, including the iconic “Ángel de la Independencia” in the popular Paseo de la Reforma avenue. Demands that feminist protesters be prosecuted became common on social media.
But in AMLO’s defense, both the local and federal governments upheld the right to protest and promised to abstain from using force. Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum took time to side with feminist protesters, and so did female top officials in AMLO’s cabinet. Interior Minister Olga Sánchez Cordero addressed the press on March 5 to say women are the priority of the Fourth Transformation.
“We want to let women know that the government is listening to their demands and is paying attention to their concerns,” she said surrounded by eight top female state officials.
Colin also believes that López Obrador’s own views on feminism are beside the point, even though she disagrees with his handling of the protests. “I don’t think he is deaf, but he is very stubborn,” she said. “He downplays the specific violence women face.”
“Of course, the Right is involved [in the call for action],” AMLO said in one of his morning press conferences. “Just as there are women who are there out of conviction and who protest freely, there are also opportunists.”
But feminist protesters on social media and on the streets aren’t affiliated with a political party. They belong to civil society collectives like Brujas del Mar which called for the massive “day without women” strike on March 9 across the country. For the first time in Mexican history, hundreds of thousands of women in the public and private sectors — government workers at the federal and local levels, banks, supermarket chains, schools, public transportation — stayed home to protest violence against women.
The president’s unremitting opposition from conservative politicians and the corporate media is no excuse for his disparagement of Mexican feminists. “Feminists are neither conservatives nor are they financed by the Right,” said Colin. “The antithesis of feminism is the Right.”
The women of Democracia Deliberada, including Colin, published a manifesto in which they urge the government to use all state resources at their disposal and all its political will to protect women. “I don’t think it’s all lost,” said Colin. “I don’t think he will become a feminist from one day to the next, but he is someone who springs out of social movements, and I do think social movements can make him listen.”
Femicides and gender violence dominated the news for most of February and early March, before all eyes turned to the coronavirus pandemic. But while it seems like feminists’ demands have been upstaged by the current crisis, many continue the fight in whatever avenues are still available to them. Hashtags like #NoTeLavesLasManos (“don’t wash your hands,” referring to responsibility) have called out the ongoing violence against women. Groups began using the hashtag #StayAtHome, which has gone viral under the pandemic, to talk about domestic violence. When asked about the spike in domestic violence reports as women are forced to spend more time with their abusers due to the stay-at-home call, López Obrador said he has “a clean conscience” in regards to the government’s actions.
Feminists continue denouncing femicides committed during the pandemic and demanding justice. Despite campus closures, militant students maintained a five-month-long occupation of the School of Philosophy and Letters at Mexico’s top public university, UNAM, and its affiliate high schools over authorities’ inaction in the face of widespread sexual harassment, assault, and even the deaths and disappearances of students.
Despite the López Obrador’s remarks, his supporters are still hopeful that his government can implement a feminist agenda.
“We have to act in the face of disappointment. To jump ship now would open the door to the return of the Right,” said Vazquez. “That’s a risk I don’t want to take.”