'He will kill me if he sees me again': abused women seek refuge in Mexico

More Central American women are fleeing their homes, crossing borders to escape domestic violence in the region with the most female murders in the world

In the end it was a cup of coffee laced with poison that compelled Josefina Nieto to run for her life.

Nieto, 41, fled Guatemala with her youngest son last summer after surviving years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse from her husband, who she married at the age of 12.

A few months earlier, Nieto, a midwife, had obtained a restraining order against her husband and asked for a divorce after he falsely accused her of having an affair.

Her husband, a 52-year-old teacher and former police officer, was briefly detained after flouting the restraining order but returned home after paying a small fine. He warned her against going back to the authorities – “Till death do us part,” he said.

With no safe house or family to turn to, Nieto squatted in an abandoned house for several weeks with the two youngest of her five children until they were evicted by police. Out of options, they were forced to return home.

Just a few days later, Nieto was taken to the hospital after drinking a poison-laced cup of coffee prepared by her husband.

Even then the authorities didn’t arrest him, and instead advised Nieto to get a divorce.

“I had nowhere to go, no family to help me. I thought it was my destiny to stay and be killed by him,” said Nieto, wringing her hands nervously as she recounted her escape to Mexico.

Nieto is part of a growing number of women crossing borders to escape violence and poverty, in a global trend known as the feminisation of migration.

In Mexico, one in four undocumented migrants apprehended by border control agents last year were female, compared to only one in seven detainees in 2011.

While a growing number of female migrants are fleeing a deadly mix of gang violence, organised crime and abuses by security forces which plagues El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, home remains the most dangerous place for women and girls.

Edith Torres, 18, from Honduras stands with her newborn baby at a migrant shelter in Mexico.
Edith Torres, 18, from Honduras stands with her newborn baby at a migrant shelter in Mexico. Photograph: Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Latin America is the region with the most female murders in the world, accounting for seven of the 10 countries with the highest femicide rate.

“Domestic violence is one of the main motivations for women fleeing Central America but which has been made invisible by the domination of the gang discourse,” said Amarela Varela, a migration and gender scholar at the Autonomous University of Mexico City.

The decision to cross borders can take years. Nieto borrowed 300 quetzales ($40) and travelled to Mexico,where she found work in an unsavoury cantina and moved into a cluster of brightly painted bedsits in Tenosique, Tabasco, where several of her neighbours are also fleeing abusive husbands, ex-boyfriends, stepfathers and uncles.

One in three Central American women interviewed by the UN refugee agency (UNHRC) on Mexico’s southern border at the end of last year were fleeing gender violence.

It was through the migrant grapevine that Nieto heard she may qualify for asylum.

Mexico’s 2011 refugee law is broader than the 1951 Geneva convention and is regarded as one of the region’s most progressive. It specifically identifies gender violence as a valid basis for seeking asylum. Victims of sex trafficking, forced prostitution, child marriage and domestic violence can qualify as refugees under the legislation.

But in practice, it is hard for traumatized domestic violence survivors to convince the Mexican refugee agency, Comar, that they require international protection.

After two brief interviews, one of which took place over the telephone, Nieto was turned down by Comar on the basis she had continued living with her husband despite reporting him to authorities.

“To talk about intimate family violence to a stranger after crossing a border is like being asked to get naked in front of a stranger. It requires specialist assessment and analysis, not a quick interaction,” Rafael Zavala from the UNHRC told the Guardian from the agency’s downtown Tenosique office.

“This is partly why victims of domestic and structural violence remain invisible,” he added.

It took Nieto almost five hours to partially recount the complex cycle of gender violence that has ripped apart generation after generation of her family to the Guardian.

Desperate to escape the daily beatings she had received as a child, Nieto moved in with her future husband within a few weeks of meeting him.

A woman from Honduras, 20, who didn’t want to be identified and who is hoping to get refugee status in Mexico.
A woman from Honduras, 20, who didn’t want to be identified and who is hoping to get refugee status in Mexico. Photograph: Carlos Jasso/Reuters

“I knew after the first night I’d made the worst mistake of my life, I was just a child but I had nowhere to go. There are only two options for women like me: prostitution or marriage. I was taught that a woman who can’t endure a husband’s demands isn’t really a woman,” she said.

This profound sense of worthlessness has been drilled into Nieto her whole life.

Her mother, Pilar, was disowned by her own parents after daring to leave her violent husband, Nieto’s father. Pilar was coerced by her subsequent partner into giving away three children, including Nieto, aged four, and her younger sister.

Nieto ran away and spent the next eight years as a de facto slave in her grandparents’ house, where her uncle and grandmother would beat her with a belt and force her little hands into flames as punishments.

Her younger sister was forced into prostitution and died from a HIV-related illness at the age of 36. According to Nieto, her sister sold one of her daughters as she couldn’t support her.

Nieto weeps and scratches at her arms as she explains that her own daughter was raped, by one of her brothers. She is deeply traumatized; her life story is complex and difficult to hear.

But after years of making excuses for the cruelty she has suffered, Nieto is now clear-eyed about the dangers awaiting her in Guatemala. The state cannot or will not protect her from her husband, she believes.

“He will kill me if he ever sees me again. I don’t understand why Comar rejected me.”

In Guatemala, almost 10 women in every 100,000 are killed. In 2015, 854 women or 16 per week were murdered, in a country of 15 million people.

Many Latin American countries boast specific laws targeting violence against women, and several including Guatemala and Honduras have special courts and prosecutors to deal with femicides.

A woman from Honduras, 40, who didn’t want to be identified and who is hoping to get refugee status in Mexico.
A woman from Honduras, 40, who didn’t want to be identified and who is hoping to get refugee status in Mexico. Photograph: Carlos Jasso/Reuters

But strong laws have not translated into strong actions.

Women and girls who dare report sexual abuse, rape and beatings by so-called loved ones are routinely failed by the deep-seated machismo that pervades public institutions.

It’s this failure of the state to safeguard them that victims of domestic violence must prove in order to gain international protection in Mexico.

“Gangs in Central America are now recognised as a group causing refugees, whereas individual partners are not,” Zavala said.

Nieto is currently appealing the decision.

Comar is facing unprecedented pressures as Central Americans increasingly opt to seek refuge in Mexico rather than risk their lives reaching an ever more hostile US.

There are some signs that women fleeing domestic violence are increasingly recognised as needing international protection.

Marta Chávez, 29, from La Ceiba in northern Honduras, was shot eight times at close range on Boxing Day 2012 by killers hired by her boyfriend who wanted the deeds to a small plot of land they owned together. Chávez suffered a perforated lung but survived.

Trouble started after her partner was deported from the US with a drug addiction. He became increasingly aggressive and paranoid as his drug intake escalated and finances nosedived.

The attempted murder took place soon after Chávez caught on to a scam he was plotting to acquire her share of the land.

After being discharged from the hospital, Chávez left her son, aged five, with a cousin in another town and fled to Mexico in 2013. She never filed a police report.

“I was too scared to file a report, it would have made no difference anyway, so I ran,” said Chávez, revealing a scattering of unsightly bullet scars across her arms, chest and legs.

Marta Chávez was attacked and wounded by sicarios paid by her husband to kill her.
Marta Chávez was attacked and wounded by sicarios paid by her husband to kill her. Photograph: Encarni Pindado/The Guardian

An average of 10 women have been murdered each week in Honduras over the past decade. Domestic and sexual violence cases are handled with “systematic indifference of the police,” according to the UN’s Human Right Council.

Chávez had two more children before returning to Honduras to collect her son last year. Upon returning to Mexico, she applied for asylum and was granted complimentary protection – awarded to applicants who don’t meet the criteria for refugee status but would be in danger if forced to return home – in 2016.

With her stay in Mexico now legal, Chávez is making plans.

She rents a good-sized apartment, albeit in a seedy neighbourhood, where she launders clothes to support her children. Every evening they head to a local supermarket where her son, now nine, bags groceries for tips while Chávez sells chewing gum with her daughters aged two and five months in tow.

“These women’s stories don’t just reflect failures of the state and institutions,” said Varela, the migration expert. Fleeing is an act of resistance – not just victimhood.”


Nina Lakhani in Tenosique, Tabasco

The GuardianTramp

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