Mexico’s president had a confession to make. Women on social media were holding up signs reading, “President, break the pact” and Andrés Manuel López Obrador was confused.
He turned to his wife to set him straight. The women were describing the pact of the patriarchy, she told him.
But he waved off the plea.
The expression, he declared at a news conference last month, was imported. “What do we have to do with this if we are respectful of women, of all human beings?” he said.
For weeks now, the president – commonly known as Amlo – has faced mounting anger over a candidate for governor from his party who faces five accusations of sexual abuse, including rape. The disgust has spread to prominent women in the party, who last month called on its leadership to remove the candidate.
Behind the furor over the candidacy, though, is a women’s movement that poses an unyielding challenge to Amlo’s claim to be the champion of Mexico’s dispossessed.
This feminist activism has become the country’s most powerful opposition voice against the popular president, a leftist who swept into office in 2018 promising to rid the country of its entrenched corruption and lead a social transformation.
While Amlo has appointed women to powerful posts, including much of his cabinet, his policies have failed to address the pervasive violence that kills more than 10 women a day and forces many more to live in fear.
Instead of acknowledging their concerns, he has suggested that women’s groups are being manipulated by his conservative enemies. He even cast doubt on the rising rates of domestic violence registered during the pandemic lockdown, suggesting that most emergency calls were fake.
“He has placed the feminist movement as public enemy No 1,” said Arussi Unda, the spokeswoman for Las Brujas del Mar, a feminist collective based in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz that organized a women’s strike a year ago after International Women’s Day.
“We are not asking for crazy things,” she said. “We’re asking that women get to work, that women aren’t killed and girls aren’t raped. It’s not insane, not eccentric, it’s human rights.”
The new wave of feminism emerges from a younger generation of women, many of them from outside Mexico City, who have a more direct experience of violence than women’s rights advocates of the 1970s and 1980s.
Many of that older generation have joined Amlo’s government or represent his party, Morena, in Congress, seeing it as the way to advance a progressive agenda.
But younger activists believe that women’s voices have been muzzled inside the party.
“There is nothing feminist about Morena,” said Yolitzin Jaimes, an activist from the state of Guerrero, one of the country’s poorest and most violent regions. “The conservative one is the president.”
A year ago on International Women’s Day, Mexican women filled the streets in a vast, mostly peaceful, protest against violence. Before this year’s march, authorities have erected steel barriers around the national palace – creating what seems like a symbol of the division between the president and the women’s movement. On Saturday night, activists covered the wall with names of femicide victims.
“It is the best articulated movement in society,” said Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst who has written on social upheaval. He sees the current women’s movement as a turning point comparable to Mexico’s 1968 students’ movement and the 1994 Indigenous Zapatista uprising.
Given the movement’s focus on violence against women, the choice of Félix Salgado Macedonio to run for governor of Guerrero seemed almost a deliberate provocation.
In a letter to party leaders last month, 500 Morena supporters, including prominent female senators, wrote: “It is clear to us that in Morena there is no place for abusers” and called for Salgado Macedonio to be removed.
Amlo has repeatedly said that it is up to the people of Guerrero, where the candidate is popular, to decide.
Loyalty to the president runs so deep in the party that nobody has dared to criticize the president’s tacit support for the candidate outright. “You know that we are not going to be able to fight against the president,” said one female member of Morena.
Salgado Macedonio has a long legislative career, and as mayor of Acapulco from 2005 to 2008, he cultivated an image of rough machismo, riding a motorcycle and surrounding himself with pretty young women.
Late last year, Basilia Castañeda went to Morena with the accusation that he raped her in 1998 when she was 17. In response, she has faced attacks from the party and said in a video last week that she fears for her safety.
The attitude of the president and his supporters has come as a shock, said one of her lawyers, Patricia Olamendi.
“Personally, I am tremendously surprised by his speech. There doesn’t seem to be anybody who clarified the situation to him,” Olamendi said. “You would expect that when somebody governs, they govern for everybody.”
Salgado Macedonio faces a second accusation of rape from a woman who said he abused her in 2016 when she was working as a journalist for a newspaper where he was the editor. That investigation stalled.
Through his lawyer, Salgado Macedonio has denied the accusations.
A Morena party commission ruled that the allegations were unfounded but said it would repeat the selection process to pick the Guerrero candidate.
Before that happened, Salgado Macedonio went ahead and registered his candidacy with electoral authorities on Thursday.
If he continues in the race, it sends the message that “impunity is being institutionalized, not only in Guerrero but in Mexico”, said Marina Reyna Aguilar, a lawyer in Chilpancingo, the state capital.
Nestora Salgado, a Morena senator from Guerrero who still hopes to run for the party’s nomination, called on women to speak up. (She is not related to him.)
“As fighters, I think it is the moment to call on women – and for us to be taken into account,” she said. But she refused to condemn Amlo’s tacit support for the former Acapulco mayor.
That reluctance seemed to find an echo among other women in Morena who had asked for Salgado Macedonio to be removed.
“The president has been very congruent in his speech,” said Aleida Alavez, a congresswoman, even as she condemned the party’s leadership for limiting women’s participation.
Lorena Villavicencio was one of the few legislators willing to speak out about the president’s response. “It has been a very complicated moment for many women in Morena,” she said.
“There is a long conversation pending with the president of the republic,” she said. “Feminism is the most transformative movement in the world and I don’t think that has been adequately understood.”