>> Content warning: descriptions of sexual abuse and gendered violence.
On November 25 the 16 days campaign against Gender-based violence began with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and ended on December 10, Human Rights Day. In the lead up to the campaign, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) launched the report Feminist Movement and Women resisting the War on Drugs bringing together the voices of women across regions and movements, highlighting the war on drugs as a feminist issue. This article highlights the impact of gendered violence and the war on drugs on women in Mexico.
Although sitting president López Obrador has claimed that the war on drugs is over and has begun a strategy directed at preventing and treating drug use, current policies still prefer detention over effective decriminalization. Furthermore, the state lacks of a professional, evidence-based public net of residential drug treatment centres; on the contrary, most centres are operated by dubiously legal and seldom certificated private centres, which are religion-based and often resort to psychological and physical torture. As TalkingDrugs has reported, this is not a practice unique to Mexico.
Y la culpa no era mía
Women who use drugs and are kept behind bars or closed doors in Mexico are still silenced by gender-based violence, discrimination and stigma. The triple burden of sexist violence, punitive drug policy and systematic torture that prevails in Mexico keeps their voices hidden. However, for the past nine months, women who use drugs and are deprived of their liberty in prison centres and in residential treatment centres in Mexico, generously shared their stories with Equis: Justice for Women / Equis: Justicia para las Mujeres, A.C., one of the few feminist organizations in Mexico concerned with the specific impacts of the War on Drugs on women in prison, women affected by drug courts and women who use drugs.
As a researcher for the University of Chiapas and Equis, I have spoken to about fifty women and girls currently incarcerated for different offences – kidnapping, drug sale, armed robbery, multiple homicides as hit-women, and so on – as well as women in residential drug treatment centres, both public and private. I entered, not without concrete danger for myself and the women and girls who talked with me, private centres for people with little economic resources.
Usually referred to as barns (granjas) or “annexes” (anexos) these centres are places where physical punishment is common, together with psychological ill treatment, forced labour, sexual abuse and killing. For those women who use drugs and are forced to live in these centres indefinitely, the threat of not making it out alive is a central concern.
In Latin America and around the world a chant is heard: “Y la culpa no era mía, ni dónde estaba ni cómo vestía. El violador eres tú” (I was not to blame, nor where I was or what I was wearing. You are the rapist).
Women and girls in Mexico share a common struggle in that they are systematically invisibilised, erased and ignored by the judicial system, the prison system and “treatment” centres, unless for the purpose of inflicting more pain: over 90 per cent of women we interviewed were victims of repeated sexual violence during childhood, between the age of three and eleven. Step-fathers, cousins, grandfathers and neighbours were the main perpetrators according to our research. Silence or misbelief reinforced the subsequent unravelling of events in the lives of these women.
Diana was raped by her grandfather when she was sixteen years old: when she told her mother, she did not believe her. Diana ended up stabbing her grandfather to death and was convicted to two years in a juvenile centre. When I met her, she was 20 years old and she was locked up in a private treatment centre in the North of Mexico, a place she can never leave until her family decides so. Basically, she is an adult illegally deprived of liberty, purely on the basis of her family consent.
Shona, 23 years old, came to the interview stating “I have taken many drugs, I have been in many rehab centres, I have lived on the street and I’ve been the victim of lots of violence. I want to help other girls”. Her story began on Sunday afternoons between the age of six and eleven, when her cousins would abuse her every week after mass while the family was gathered in the adults’ room. “I just wanted my mother to open that door”, she said. She never spoke to her mother or anybody in her family about it. To the eyes of her family and society, she is just “a drug user”, someone gone astray, a moral failure, a bad mother and an ungrateful daughter who threw her life away to drugs, dishonouring the protestant pastor’s perfect family.
When she was sixteen, Alejandra was kidnapped and raped on two occasions by men from her poor, rural village. When they kept her secluded for three days, the beating and the raping occurred in front of some other children her age and her captives told them “Look and learn how to treat women”.
Out of violence, out of stigma
Violence perpetrated by men and the family disbelief or further accusations reported –such as “you provoked your stepfather” – are reproduced and augmented by the state. As five women in prison affirmed: “The state only detains, beats or kills us”.
Women who use drugs and are deprived of their liberty in Mexico are still relatively invisible as victims of the war on drugs. Our purpose, now, is to make their voices heard, with the caution and care that their courage to speak out entails. While in prison, women are under the total control of state, or, arguably higher risk situations under para-legal detention in treatment centres.
We listen so that we might start talking about specific forms of gender-based violence and their collusion with the war on drugs as a feminist issue, but also so that these women and girls can shape the future horizons for women who use drugs. Out of violence, out of stigma. Y la culpa no era mía.
*Corina Giacomello is a researcher at the University of Chiapas and Equis Justicia para las Mujeres, Mexico; firstname.lastname@example.org