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This Musician Nearly Died in an Acid Attack. Now She’s Back on Stage.

A man threw acid in the face of María Elena Ríos, a saxophone player, two years ago. She believes her ex-boyfriend ordered the attack.
Mexican musician María Elena Ríos is an acid attack survivor.
Mexican musician María Elena Ríos is an acid attack survivor. Images from IG @elenariosax

Two years after a man threw a bottle of acid into her face, Mexican musician María Elena Ríos stood in front of the public for the first time this weekend, her face covered by a flowered face mask and her saxophone hanging from her neck. 

“I feel free,” she said before starting her concert along with her all-women band. “This is a very special day for me.”

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In September 2019, Ríos was attacked with acid as she was sitting in her studio in the small village of Huajuapan De Leon, Oaxaca. She believes it was her ex-boyfriend who ordered the attack. 

“It was truly hard to be back on stage. The attack changed my whole life and made me live with fear and guilt. One of the hardest parts is to uncover my face to play the sax and receive mocking, hate and a lot of digital violence,” Ríos said in a telephone interview. 

A year after the incident, authorities arrested the man who attacked her. But after Ríos delivered several boxes of evidence to the investigators showing who ordered the ambush, he remains a free man, she told VICE World News. 

Still fearful of her attacker and of what she calls “digital violence” for her looks, Ríos stepped up to the front of the stage to make a statement: “What he did to me was not an attack. It was an attempt to murder me.”

She used the musical performance by the group “Banda Femenil Regional Mujeres del Viento Florido” to draw attention to Mexico’s ugly record of femicides. More than three women are murdered each day just for being women, according to Mexico’s National Public Safety System (SESNSP for its Spanish acronym). Other sources suggest 10 women are killed every day. Government figures show an increase of 137 percent in femicides over the last five years. 

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During the last 20 years at least 29 women have been victims of acid attacks, according to local news and the Carmen Sanchez Foundation, which represents acid attack victims. 

In expectation of today’s march to mark International Women’s Day in Mexico City and to protest violence against women, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called on women taking part “not to fall into violent acts.” 

“We have information that they are getting ready with torches and Molotov’s. That’s not stepping up for women, that isn’t even feminism,” he said

His remarks sparked outrage amongst women across Mexico, including Ríos. 

“Mexico’s president has a very unethical approach to our demands. Today the Zócalo [Mexico City main plaza] is walled and he [Lopez Obrador] comes out to justify the aggressions against us,” Ríos said. 

In 2020, Mexico witnessed a historic turnout on the International Women's Day march when an estimated 80,000 women carried out a protest on Mexico City streets. 

Last year, Mexico's legislators approved a mandate to bring gender equality to Congress and other public seats. But Ríos believes there isn't any real advance towards justice or protection for women in Mexico.

“Mexico hasn’t made any progress in reality to stop femicides,” she said. “It has all been a simulation that in reality disregards all of us.”