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A woman’s disappearance arouses indignation in Mexico over gender violence

MONTERREY, Mexico – On the 13th day of his search for his missing daughter, Mario Escobar stood outside a gas station in the suffocating heath, clutching leaflets with his picture and the remnants of a desperate, lingering hope.

Hours later, in a flush of red and blue police lights, the hope was shattered.

Debanhi Escobar’s body was found last Thursday night in an abandoned underground water tank due to a motel in northern Mexico, which authorities had already searched four different times.

“I’m devastated,” Mr Escobar said of his daughter’s disappearance. “My life has changed completely.”

The case of Ms. Escobar, an 18-year-old law student who disappeared on April 9, has sparked outrage and protests over a phenomenon now uncommonly common in Mexico: the disappearance of women and girls across the country.

In just the last month, at least nine other women and girls have disappeared in the greater metropolitan area of ​​Monterrey, one of the richest cities in the country. Nationwide, more than 24,000 women are missing, according to government figures, and last year, about 2,800 women were reported missing, an increase of nearly 40 percent compared to 2017.

The rising rate of disappearances correlates with the general increase in violence in Mexico in recent years, security experts say, in addition to the increase in organized crime, such as sex trafficking, as well as high rates of domestic violence forcing many women to flee their homes .

But security analysts and human rights groups also point to a broader failure by state authorities to conduct proper investigations into missing women or prosecute women murder cases, fueling a culture of deep-seated impunity.

As a result, desperate families are forced to take search efforts and investigations into their own hands and seek justice for their loved ones who disappear into the wild in an increasingly lawless nation.

“The state has simply completely turned its back on its responsibility to investigate disappearance cases,” said Angélica Durán-Martínez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “It’s an environment that makes it easier for these practices to continue to spread because there is no punishment or justice.”

A spokesman for the State of Nuevo León, which includes Monterrey and was responsible for the search and investigation into Ms Escobar’s disappearance, did not respond to further requests for an interview.

In a report released this month, the UN Committee on Missing Disappearance called on Mexico to tackle the crisis, noting that more than 95,000 people are registered as missing. In the last five years, 8,000 people a year have disappeared. While most are men, the committee highlighted a “noticeable increase” in the disappearance of women, children and teenagers.

“Impunity in Mexico is a structural feature that favors the reproduction and disguise of forced disappearances,” the UN committee said in a statement, noting that as of November last year, only 2 to 6 percent of the disappearances had resulted in prosecution.

In response, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who made the fight against Mexico’s violence a key campaign promise, said the committee’s recommendations were being considered. At a news conference last week, he praised the federal government’s support for solving Ms Debanhi’s killings and swore that the injustices in Mexico are a thing of the past.

“Along with corruption, what has hurt Mexico the most because they go hand in hand is impunity,” Mr López Obrador said. “That is why we are talking about zero impunity, that the crimes that are being committed are being punished. ”

But in Nuevo León, authorities have been more dismissive of the crisis. As recently as last week, state prosecutor Gustavo Adolfo Guerrero cited a “lack of communication” among families as well as “rebellion” among teens as the cause of most women’s disappearances, adding that most were missing as a “voluntary” decision.

Before Mrs Escobar’s disappearance, public outrage had already built up for several weeks after the disappearance of a number of young women in Monterrey, which appeared to underscore the authorities’ negligence.

Yolanda Martínez, 26, disappeared on March 31. According to her brother Jesús, it took the authorities two weeks to visit their home at all. She has not yet been found.

“It is beginning to nourish our despair,” said Mr. Martínez. “I can not tell you that they do nothing, but I can also not tell you what is being done.”

Three days after Mrs Martínez disappeared, María Fernanda Contreras, 27, disappeared. Through a family contact, Mrs Contreras’ father, Luis Carlos, obtained mobile master data showing the approximate location of her phone the last time it was switched on.

Mr. Contreras searched the area and passed the information to the state prosecutor’s office. But he said it took authorities three days to close off and search the neighborhood. When they found her, Mrs. Contreras had been dead for several days.

“With all the information I had, I almost found my daughter, and these guys could do nothing,” said Mr. Contreras. “It’s ridiculous.”

Nuevo León’s Advocate General has denied that they were slow to act, noting that Mrs Contreras was killed the night she disappeared.

Then came Mrs. Escobar’s case, which intensified the anger. The uprising led to a rare stream of public support, with people offering everything from drones to sniffer dogs to help the search.

The night she disappeared, Mrs. Escobar had been to a party on the outskirts of town. According to state prosecutors, Ms. Escobar left the party in a private car, but in the early hours of April 9, she got out of the vehicle on the side of a highway where the driver apparently left her.

The driver had been interviewed twice by investigators, according to a prosecutor who was not authorized to speak in public.

Despite the staggering numbers, cases of missing women are often trivialized or ignored by the media and local authorities, according to security experts, with officials often involving women in their own disappearances or treating them as isolated incidents, not a systemic problem.

But with media attention surrounding the cases of missing women in Monterrey, authorities almost immediately opened an investigation into Mrs Escobar.

A photo of Mrs. Escobar taken by the driver who left her on the highway also went viral, thanks in part to the family’s efforts to make the case known. She is pictured standing alone along a highway, arms crossed and staring out into the darkness.

For almost two weeks, her family and friends led desperately, at times she walked through barren fields, pushing into the ground for signs of a buried corpse.

Eventually, complaints about a bad smell from the motel workers got tips to the authorities to check the water tank.

Nuevo León’s top security official, who spoke to reporters last week, acknowledged that the search for Mrs Escobar had been flawed.

“It’s a massive human failure,” said Aldo Fasci, the state’s secretary of state. “They were there four times and found nothing.”

The cause of death was a major wound, according to the state prosecutor, Mr Guerrero. In an interview with the newspaper Reforma, he said she was dead before her body was thrown into the cistern.

“We will use all the resources we have available to establish the facts,” said Mr. Guerrero in a video message posted on Facebook. “If these indicate that a crime has been committed, it will be prosecuted with the full force of the law.”

But the actions of state authorities have already been called into question.

On Monday, Karla Quintana, the head of the National Commission for the Search of Missing Persons, pointed out several mistakes by the prosecution, including the failure to inform Ms Escobar’s parents that a body had been discovered, which they heard about on the news. They were then denied access to Mrs Escobar’s remains and were given only pictures, Mrs Quintana said.

The day after Mrs Escobar’s death was confirmed, hundreds of women took to the streets in protest, shutting down traffic across Monterrey. Many held the leaflets of the missing person with the photo of the dead woman.

On Saturday, Mrs Escobar’s body was driven about three hours south of Monterrey to the town of Galeana, where her mother grew up. As the convoy of cars pulled into town, dozens of residents stood by the side of the road waving signs and white balloons.

After a mass inside a bare yellow church, the coffin was driven out of town, followed by a procession of dozens of people to the local cemetery, which sits on a hill overlooking soaring mountains.

“We are destroyed inside, our hearts are broken,” Mr Escobar said. “We are tired of everything that is happening in Mexico.”

Ms. Escobar’s coffin was lowered into a tomb covered with ashtrays. Wet cement was poured on top, followed by dozens of flowers. Then women in the crowd began to sing a joking hymn, their words being whipped away by the wind.

Chantal Flores provided reporting.

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