Italia Mendez refuses to be known the rest of her life as “one of the Atenco victims”. So instead she has become an outspoken global crusader against sexual torture by the state.
In May of 2006, Mexican police rounded up Italia and more than two hundred other protestors in a violent crackdown in the village of Atenco, Mexico State. They were taken into custody and driven more than 150 kilometers (about 93 miles) to a state prison. During the hellish ride, the police sexually tortured the 47 women. The torture continued even after arriving at the prison.
“Sexual torture” isn’t a concept most people are familiar with. Essentially, it refers to sexual violence used as a form of torture. The vast majority of victims are women. Mendez points out that as a routine practice of the state, sexual torture has a very specific aim: to silence and subjugate women. Typically, sexual torture includes multiple forms of rape and sexual assault and is accompanied by security forces warning the women to ‘go back to the home where you belong’, and contending that the women’s transgressions from traditional roles brought on their own abuse.
“It’s important to make public this structural violence of the state”, Mendez told a crowd of students, migrants and community members at New York University on Oct. 26, at an event on impunity and crimes of the state in Mexico co-sponsored by JASS.
“At this time of massive femicidal violence in our country, it’s urgent to talk about and name these state practices, these strategies to demobilize the society and to stop peoples’ grassroots organizations through fear and terror. They want to use women’s bodies to send these terrorizing messages, and we refuse to be vehicles for this kind of messages.”
From prison, the Atenco women wrote out their testimony of what happened to them and got it through isolation and out to the public. But speaking out was only the first step. Many spent months and years in jail, as their tormentors faced no consequences whatsoever. The group has faced investigations that sucked up time and resources and went nowhere, government attempts to buy them off, and threats, forcing its number to reduce to now eleven women still pressing the case. In the ten years since the attacks, not one person has been prosecuted for the crimes and Enrique Peña Nieto, the state governor who stonewalled investigations, was elected to the presidency.
Finally, good news came this November. The Atenco women, frustrated with the lack of access to justice in Mexico, filed their case denouncing sexual torture in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2008. The Commission decided to pass the case on to the Inter-American Court, where presumably a full investigation will be carried out and binding recommendations can be issued.
It could, and should, be a precedent-setting case. The extent of sexual torture in Mexico is mind-boggling. It forms part of the standard toolkit of security forces to repress movements, dissuade women human rights defenders and force confessions.
In 2016, Amnesty International released a report titled “Surviving Death: Police and Military Torture of Women in Mexico” based on interviews with 100 women tortured or abused in prison. Seventy-two percent reported sexual abuse during or after arrest and thirty-three reported being raped. In many cases sexual torture was used to extract forced confessions in order to show “progress” in Mexico’s disastrous war on drugs, launched a decade ago.
Although 66 women reported abuses, the Mexican government is investigating only 22 cases and no criminal charges have been filed in a single case. The Amnesty report states: “Despite the extraordinarily high number of complaints of sexual violence against women committed by the armed forces, the Army informed Amnesty International in writing that not one soldier had been suspended from service for rape or sexual violence from 2010 to 2015. The Navy reported that only four marines had been suspended in the same period.”
Italia’s voice still breaks and her eyes fill with tears when she recalls that day ten years ago. But she no longer sees it as her ordeal: She sees it as a cause.
“This goes way beyond denouncing what happened to me or to Norma or to Claudia,” Italia says, referring to her companions in the Inter-American case. “Unfortunately, we’ve met many women throughout the country who have been sexually tortured by the Navy, the Army, the police, agents of the public ministry – it’s a common daily practice used by federal and state forces.”
Does it work to force women into submission? Not with women like Italia and the other women of Atenco.
“In the context of generalized violence in the country, but specifically against women, we’re here to talk about how important women’s voices are, women in resistance,” she told the New York audience. “Not even through violence and state terrorism will they be able to stop women from advancing or block grassroots organizing. We’ll continue – continue to work and to fight for justice. We’re not giving up.”
Photo credit: http://www.cimacnoticias.com.mx/node/66367