Police Killed a Refugee in Mexico by Kneeling on Her Neck

The killing of Victoria Esperanza Salazar in the tourist town of Tulum provoked local protests but no national outcry.
March 30, 2021, 6:59pm
A woman writes a protest message in Quintana Roo, Mexico following the killing of Salvadoran citizen Victoria Esperanza Salazar on March 27th by local police.
A woman writes a protest message in Quintana Roo, Mexico following the killing of Salvadoran citizen Victoria Esperanza Salazar on March 27th by local police. Photo: Medios y Media/Getty Images.

MEXICO CITY - Victoria Esperanza Salazar fled violence in her home country of El Salvador and obtained refugee status in Mexico, only for police officers to kill her over the weekend. 

Her death is eerily reminiscent to that of George Floyd’s in Minneapolis last summer, who also died pinned under an officer’s knee. Video shared on social media shows a police officer leaning on Salazar’s head and neck and she cries out, and then goes limp. Officers then drag her body into the back of a police truck.

Mexican officials condemned the officers’ actions, only to be confronted days later with yet another act of state brutality against a migrant. On Monday, Mexican soldiers shot dead a Guatemalan migrant at a checkpoint in southern Mexico, which had been erected to stop migrants trying to enter on their way through to the U.S. 

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Salazar, 36, was killed in the Mexican tourist town of Tulum on March 27th. The Attorney General of Quintana Roo, the state where Tulum is located, said four municipal police officers — three men and one woman — will be charged with femicide in Salazar’s death. The charge of femicide carries a penalty of no less than 40 years in prison.

Salazar cleaned hotels around Tulum and had fled El Salvador seeking a better life for her two daughters, according to her mother, Rosibel Arriaza. “I plead for justice for my daughter because she isn’t an animal, even dogs are treated better than her. She is a human being and they abused her,” said Arriaza in Salvadoran news reports.

Salazar received refugee status along with her two daughters in Mexico in 2018, according to immigration officials, and had made her home here. While one of Salazar’s teenage daughters has reportedly been taken into the custody of Mexican officials, the other’s whereabouts are unknown, according to Amnesty International.

Video obtained by local media shows that in the minutes before police detained her, Salazar entered an Oxxo— a common convenience store — with an empty water jug. She started swinging the jug around the store, prompting the police’s arrival. 

Video of her death has ricocheted around Mexico, shining a light on abusive police practices, especially toward migrants. An autopsy found that there was “a fracture in the upper part of the spinal column produced by the rupture of the first and second vertebrae, which caused the victim to die.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in a morning press conference that Salazar  "was treated brutally and killed” and that “there will be no impunity.” Tulum’s mayor said Monday that the town’s chief of police had been removed.

Salazar’s death has sparked an outcry in Mexico, with activists adopting the slogan: “She didn’t die, they killed her.” Hundreds of people in Tulum took to the streets on Monday to protest police brutality.

But as striking as the similarities are in the death of Salazar and Floyd, so are the differences in the reactions. While Salazar’s death has dominated headlines in the country, it hasn’t sparked national protests as Floyd’s did in the United States, or a meaningful push for police reform.

Still, it comes at an especially embarrassing time for Mexican officials, who on Monday began hosting a United Nations summit on gender equality. Violence against women in Mexico has sparked international condemnation, as an average of 10 women were killed every day in 2020. President López Obrador has consistently downplayed concerns, drawing ire from activists.

Salazar’s killing has also underscored the violence suffered by migrants in Mexico — both those traversing the country en route to the U.S. and also those living within Mexico. In February, 12 Mexican police officers in the state of Tamaulipas were arrested for their role in the brutal massacre of 19 people, including 16 Guatemalans. 

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele expressed outrage on Twitter over Salazar’s death and said that it is “much worse than we thought.”

He said that he was unable to give more information at the moment, but “there are more aggressors in this case, also more victims. Not all the culprits have been arrested, yet.”