Woman's grisly murder in Mexico puts country's president on the defensive

Protesters and security forces scuffle amid a cloud of tear gas during a protest against gender-based violence in downtown Mexico City on Feb 14, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

MEXICO CITY (BLOOMBERG) - Demonstrators in Mexico City, outraged by the horrific murder of a 25-year-old woman, on Friday (Feb 14) sprayed graffiti on the presidential palace and disrupted President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's daily press conference.

Even in a nation accustomed to rampant homicides and frequent violence against women, the case of Ingrid Escamilla was particularly shocking. Pictures of her dismembered body were leaked on social media, causing widespread revulsion, anger and despair.

The shouts from protesters outside the palace could be heard as reporters questioned the president about measures to reduce killings.

A crowd of about 100, most of them women, spray painted slogans on the ornate building that dates to the 16th century. Some splashed red paint on its doors. One chant: "We are not dying. They are killing us."

Mr Lopez Obrador has enjoyed widespread popularity as he implements a leftist agenda to take on Mexico's traditional power brokers. But many see stemming the nation's epidemic violence as his biggest test. Drug gangs kill with impunity, leaving their enemies' defiled corpses displayed as warnings. Murders of female workers have been a plague in border regions, with many disappearances uninvestigated.

In 2019, Mr Lopez Obrador's first year in office, killings overall reached a record. The pace of women being killed more than doubled in the past five years, while the overall homicide rate is up 35 per cent in the period, Attorney-General Alejandro Gertz said this week.

Mr Gertz and the president known as Amlo have been fielding criticism by feminist groups that say they are trying to downplay violence against women as a special phenomenon.

Ms Irene Tello Arista, director of an organisation called Zero Impunity, which ranks the jobs prosecutors perform around the country, said Friday that Mr Lopez Obrador also has failed to make the crucial distinction.

"He needs to know that when it comes to public policy, he can't do that," she said. "They are different phenomena."

Marches against gender violence have grown frequent in the nation's capital amid reports of rape and sexual harassment on campuses, including the main public university of Mexico, and as cases of brutal killings of women have emerged.

The death of Ms Escamilla has galvanised opponents. The victim was murdered in an apartment complex in Mexico City this past weekend, according to news reports.

Her 46-year-old partner confessed to the killing in a video taken after his arrest, according to national media. News outlets reported that he admitting stabbing her after an argument. She made a violence complaint against him in 2019 that she later dropped, according to El Universal newspaper.

Pictures of Ms Escamilla's mutilated body were leaked and widely circulated, causing outrage on social media. Hashtags such as #JusticeForIngrid began circulating and led to Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum calling for "maximum punishment."

On Friday morning, questions in the press briefing quickly turned to what Mr Lopez Obrador plans to do to reverse the trend.

Mr Lopez Obrador has tried to respond to rising concern about gender violence, but has also grown defensive at being questioned over the matter. "We're doing things every day to guarantee peace and tranquility. I'm not sticking my head in the sand, I'm not evading my responsibility," he said.

After several questions from reporters, Mr Lopez Obrador reeled off 10 declarations, including "it's cowardice to hurt a woman," and, "women need to be respected," and, "the government I represent will always be working to guarantee, always, the security of women."

He didn't commit to specific actions to protect women, such as creating a special prosecutor to investigate the killings.

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