By Oscar Balderas and Jo Tuckman
An escalating storm over the case of a reporter who tweeted a video of herself being sexually assaulted in Mexico City has shone a spotlight on impunity for sex crimes in the country — and triggered an outpouring of misogyny.
It all began when Andrea Noel was walking down a leafy street last week in the trendy middle-class Condesa neighborhood and a man ran up to her from behind, lifted her skirt and pulled down her underwear, knocking her to the ground. He then ran away.
Noel, an American freelance reporter who contributes to VICE News, obtained footage of the incident from one of the many private security cameras in the area, and posted it on her Twitter feed. Then she went to the police.
Women’s rights activists in Mexico have long pointed out that the victims of sexual incidents, of all levels of seriousness, rarely go to the police. Calling out sexual assault on social media with video evidence is almost unheard of.
The fact that Noel did both triggered a media frenzy. It has also prompted an intense debate over the frequency of such incidents in a city with 90,000 police officers and 8,000 surveillance cameras, as well as the on the treatment of the victims.
Official reports have long acknowledged that sexual violence is a major problem in Mexico, though there is little sign that this has led to improvements.
A report released this month by the CEAV — the recently created government commission responsible for providing attention to victims of all kinds of violence — cites the latest figures from a survey by the national statistical service that found that nearly two thirds of women over 15 years old have suffered from some kind of violence.
“There are two important facts,” the report stressed, “That violence against women takes place throughout the country and that these are not isolated acts but part of a general trend.”
The report also underlines that the vast majority of victims do not take their cases to the police. It estimates that there were around 600,000 unreported sexual crimes in Mexico every year between 2010 and 2015.
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According to independent research carried out by Luz Estrada, who runs gender violence programs for an NGO called Catholics For the Right to Choice, only 10 percent of sexual crimes at a national level are even reported. Estrada’s research further indicates that only 2 percent of the crimes that are reported actually lead to a prosecution.
The assumption that the culprit will never be caught is, she told VICE News, one of the main reasons women do not go to the police. The other, she says, is the knowledge that they will be made to feel responsible for what happened to them if they do.
“In these types of crimes, the evidence is the body of the women, and that encourages the authorities to look at the victim’s behavior in order to explain the aggression,” she said. “It is very common for the first questions in an investigation to be: How was the victim dressed?”
When Noel first reported the aggression against her she found herself facing five hours of questions, many of which she says she did not know how to answer. She was required to provide details about her family, asked to “define sexuality,” quizzed about her sex life, and questioned about her relationship with her father.
“These type of questions make everything emotional,” she said. “I cried for five hours, trembling, because they stick their noses into everything.”
Noel is now concerned that if the authorities ever detain and charge a suspect in her case, his defense would have the possibility of obtaining access to her psychological profile.
Over a week after the event, and many more hours of questioning later, Noel said the investigation appears to be moving forward under the direction of a special office within the city’s prosecution service dedicated to sexual crimes. Their efforts, she added, are not helped by the fact that several police security cameras in the area were pointing in the wrong direction.
“I never imagined how long a process it would be to report [a crime like this]in Mexico,” said Noel, who stresses that few women in her situation in Mexico have the time or resources to dedicate to seeing the process through. “We’re still in the first stage.”
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Mexican activists argue that the reluctance of the authorities to take the victims of sexual crimes seriously, whatever the gravity of the assault, encourages the escalation of the problem to the point where the country is currently suffering from a wave of femicides.
These kinds of murders, which are at least partially motivated by gender, have been a particular problem in the State of Mexico on the outskirts of the capital. In recent weeks another nearby state, Puebla, has drawn attention because several of the latest victims have been pregnant women allegedly killed by boyfriends reluctant to become fathers.
According to the CEAV report, again citing figures from the national statistical service, an average of seven women were killed in Mexico every day in the previous two years.
Anayeli Pérez, legal adviser for the National Citizen Observatory on Femicide, stresses that the failures of the police and judicial system to pursue sexual crimes has deep roots in a long-standing culture of machismo.
“In general, the victim is not believed,” she said. “This didn’t come out of nowhere. Until recently Mexican penal codes required victims of rape, abuse, or sexual harassment to prove that their honorability [meaning modesty or reputation].”
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If the disincentives against going to the police are large, they are perhaps even more daunting when it comes to publicly calling out sexual aggression in a country where public opinion tends to either brush incidents aside as too trivial to make a fuss about, or consider them too delicate and painful to discuss openly.
In October last year a presenter of a TV show in northern Mexico walked off the set after her co-presenter first verbally harassed her and then fondled her breasts.
“I can’t work like this,” Tania Reza, said as she left. “Apologies to the people,” Enrique Tovar responded on camera, “My co-presenter is a bit hormonal.”
The subsequent furor led Televisa, the country’s biggest network, to dismiss both Reza and Tovar, arguing that they had been inappropriately acting a scene of sexual harassment on live TV. Reza initially complained on Twitter that said she had been pressured to admit to this, but then she went quiet. She was later rehired, and the case fell out of the public eye.
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In Noel’s case, the video of the assault on her that she posted on her Twitter feed immediately prompted a barrage of offensive and aggressive misogynist messages, and even death threats.
One of the early ones shows a man pulling a gun from his vest. “The boss isn’t happy,” the text says. “Don’t go out again without being careful.”
Since then, Noel has been interviewed widely on national Mexican media. Though much of the coverage has been sympathetic, she has also been singled out for abusive commentary on some established news sites. And, rather than ebbing away, the abuse and the threats have intensified.
This week she was in the company of police investigators near her home when she was sighted by somebody who recognized her, tweeted her location, and encouraged followers to “finish her off.” On another occasion she was located at a restaurant and a similar message was tweeted out.
On Tuesday night, she was in front of a window in her apartment when she noticed that her forehead was being marked by a green laser pointer from the street below.
“This has made a very serious cultural problem public,” said Noel. “This kind of mentality is not maintained by just individuals, it is a large faction of society.”
Noel, however, insists that the many supportive and positive comments she has also received have strengthened her determination to keep going with the case and defy the pressure.
“Today, for example, it is a very hot day in the city and I don’t want to change my way of life,” she said. “I’ll be out on the street in light clothing and that doesn’t give anyone the right to judge me or assault me.”
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Follow Oscar Balderas and Jo Tuckman on Twitter: @oscarbalmen and @jotuckman – Vice News