ECATEPEC, Mexico (AP) — On a November afternoon, Mónica Citlalli Díaz left home in a sprawling suburb of Mexico’s capital and headed to the school where she’d been teaching English for years. It seemed an ordinary day, but on this one, she never arrived at work.
Her absence was an immediate red flag — Díaz loved her job and was diligent about showing up. Friends and relatives papered their city, Ecatepec, with flyers featuring her photo.
After four days without any sign of Díaz, 30, they blocked the street in front of her school for hours to demand action from authorities. Two days later, her body was found alongside a highway.
Women in Mexico state, which wraps around Mexico City on three sides, were already dying at a frightening pace. From January to November, there were 131 femicides — cases of women killed because of their gender. Díaz was the ninth apparent femicide during an 11-day spate of killings in and around Mexico City from late October to early November.
The country saw more than 1,000 femicides last year — second only to Brazil in Latin America. On average, 10 women or girls are killed daily nationwide. Officials have recognized the femicide rate and violence against women as problematic for decades, yet little progress is evident in national data.
Experts and advocates say the rampant killings and history of femicide can be attributed to cultural machismo, gender inequality and domestic violence, as well as a justice system riddled with problems — police officers who don’t take reports, clumsy investigations, officials who revictimize women.
With so many cases of femicide, most get little attention. But the recent run of killings, paired with the protests from Díaz’s family, put pressure on authorities and garnered headlines.
Three days after Díaz disappeared, Supreme Court President Arturo Zaldívar called for a national protocol for handling femicides. The next day, at his daily press conference, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he agreed.
Some states have tried to address the problem by creating prosecutor’s offices for gender crimes. The federal government has declared more than two dozen gender violence alerts since 2015. The alerts obligate local, state and federal authorities to take coordinated emergency action and to address biases in access to justice.
In Mexico state, an alert was declared in 2015. It still stands. Ecatepec is one of the state’s 11 municipalities operating under that alert. But by authorities’ own admission, gains from alerts and other measures are limited.
Six days after Díaz disappeared, Olvera found herself looking at images of her sister’s body, as photos began circulating of the latest dumped victim. Olvera recognized her sister’s pants, her shoes, her hands.
“They left her tossed out like a bag of garbage.”
In the wake of the killings of hundreds of women and girls in the state of Chihuahua in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mexican legislators formed a commission on femicide. The panel found that despite alarming violence against women nationally, it was nearly impossible to get accurate data showing the scope of the problem.
As a result of the commission’s work, the General Law for Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence was signed in 2007. It created the gender violence alerts. In 2010, lawmakers added femicide to the federal criminal code.
Still, last year there were more than double the number of femicides nationally than in 2015, according to federal data. Some of that increase could be attributed to better record-keeping — not all Mexican states had codified femicide as a crime until 2017 — but the death toll has risen yearly.
Dilcya García, who leads Mexico state’s prosecutor’s office on gender violence, said the issue is part of the cement of the social structure: “Violence against women is very complicated to tackle.”
The day after Díaz’s family blocked the street in Ecatepec, García sat down with them. The prosecutor told them she was committed to finding Díaz, but raised the possibility she might not be alive.
Later, it would be García who called Olvera to tell her they found her sister’s body.
In Ecatepec, a bedroom community of 1.8 million with one of Mexico’s highest concentrations of poverty, Díaz was fortunate to have a job she loved. She’d had her troubles. Díaz had her daughter Keila when she was 19. She left the girl’s father after bouts of domestic violence, according to her sister Olvera.
She moved in with her parents and waited tables, struggling to make ends meet. Then she found Quick Learning, a chain of English schools, where she studied before going on to teach.
This year, Díaz met Jesús Alexis Álvarez Ortiz, an athletic 27-year-old who worked at a hotel. He was possessive, Olvera said, and she saw changes in her sister. She lost weight, stayed out late. Still, she never missed work.
The evening Díaz disappeared, her boyfriend showed up at the family home. Álvarez Ortiz appeared nervous, tripping over his words and changing his story, Olvera said.
The next day, Díaz’s parents went to the school, where they found Álvarez Ortiz again. He accompanied them to report Díaz’s disappearance to police. Two days later, Álvarez Ortiz stopped answering the family’s messages and calls. His mother reported him missing.
Authorities say that after leaving her home that afternoon, Díaz took one taxi to a shopping center, then another to Álvarez Ortiz’s house. Surveillance video showed her enter the home but never leave. A search of the home turned up Díaz’s blood-stained clothing.
Two days after Díaz’s body was found, police arrested Álvarez Ortiz’s mother. The next day, they arrested him. An autopsy indicated Díaz had been beaten and died of a blow to the head.
Álvarez Ortiz has been jailed on a charge of forced disappearance. Diaz’s family hopes that at his next hearing, in March, prosecutors will be ready to add a femicide charge.
A lawyer for Álvarez Ortiz did reply to messages left by The Associated Press at a school where he teaches.
Olvera, like the relatives of hundreds of other victims in recent years, demands justice and wants to see those involved held accountable.
“If the authorities don’t give me a favorable answer, I’m going to go back to the street to close the avenue,” she said. “I’m going to stand there until they pay attention to me and do justice.”
AP photojournalist Eduardo Verdugo contributed to this report.
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