A version of this article originally appeared on VICE en Español.
Frida Guerrera wakes up at 8 AM, makes coffee, and has breakfast with her husband Daniel. He then goes to the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where he teaches veterinary medicine. She stays at home to read the local newspapers, scouring for the latest cases of femicide.
Mexico has long been plagued by violence against women, and the problem has intensified over the last decade: according to a UN report from November 2017, an estimated seven women die each day in the country. Despite the establishment of government-run advocacy groups like the National Femicide Watch Group (or Observatorio Ciudadano Nacional de Feminicidio), the killers are treated with impunity and the murder rates haven’t waned.
Guerrera spends four to five hours conducting this daily research. Then, she updates her database—her personal log of women who have been murdered—selects a few of the cases, and starts to investigate. After two and a half years of dedicating herself to the task of documenting female murders, Guerrera has built a solid list of contacts at all the state governments in Mexico, which she leverages to communicate with the victims’ relatives.
In total, Guerrera has brought more than 200 stories into the public eye. Where the government fails to report, she pieces the accounts together: by visiting the victim’s home and talking with parents, husbands, and children, all of whom have been robbed of sleep, hope, and joy by way of absence and helplessness. Guerrera shares their stories on her blog and column with VICE Mexico as well as a nightly Periscope broadcast in which she provides a daily update on the subject. Her social life is limited due to the numerous death threats she receives and the constant anxiety that she may be the next woman on her own list. This is her life from Monday to Sunday, week after week.
Guerrera originally wanted to be an electrical engineer, not a journalist. Shortly after being accepted to the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), she realized that her passion was in human emotions, not circuits or cables. She shifted gears and decided to study psychology at UNAM.
In 2006, her life changed. She was trapped in a romantic relationship that she describes as "absolutely destructive and violent." One day, her partner’s aggression reached the point where Guerrera decided to abandon everything she had in Mexico City to reinvent herself somewhere else. “I left my house with 30 pesos [$1.46 USD] in my bag and my nose bleeding,” she recalled. “Broken in every sense.”
She left Mexico City for the southern state of Oaxaca. The region was fraught with socio-political tension: the teachers’ union was on strike, and the movement for Triqui autonomy, a clash between the Triqui indigenous tribe—which had long called Oaxaca home and was largely forced to flee the area due to cartel-related violence that worsened after the Mexican government launched its war on drugs—and the Oaxacan state government, who met the group’s demands with police brutality and repression, had plunged the region into chaos. Both events drove protests to erupt in the Oaxacan capital, filling the city with fire and ash. Guerrera was at the barricades, reporting all the while. “The state was as socially and politically troubled as I was [after I fled Mexico City],” she recalled. “It didn’t take me long to realize that living there was the best way I could start rebuilding my own life.”
That was the moment that Frida Guerrera was born. Her real name is Veronica, but the personal revolution she’d planned for herself was of such magnitude that for her, it warranted changing her name.
Ten years passed before she learned that María Salguero, a geophysicist, had begun to chart all the femicides in Mexico through a platform based on Google Maps. She immediately searched for it.
"When I saw the number of death points scattered throughout the country, I broke down again. I cried a lot. I thought: 'They are killing us in an unprecedented way and it seems like the authorities don’t care.' That's why I decided to do something about it. [I decided] to tell the stories, to not allow the lives of these women to be buried with [their bodies]. "
It’s been her raison d’être since 2016. The undertaking isn’t a safe one: she receives countless death threats, including one from the governor of a state, and gets several phone calls a day from the Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists, a division of the Mexican Attorney General's Office (PGR), to ensure she’s alive and safe. And she’s always carrying around a large unpaid bill: the one for her peace of mind.
Guerrera says she only sleeps three to four hours a night and that she frequently wakes up drenched in sweat. Every night, she dreams about the women she investigates during the day.
"It's hard to see [these women] every time I manage to sleep a little. And it’s worse to know that they’re the faces I saw during the day in photos, in scenes of unspeakable, irrational violence. Only in my dreams do I see them smiling and happy. Over time I’ve gotten used to it, and now I’m able to ask them to let me sleep. Sometimes I think going to bed means slowly going to hell," she said.
Guerrera believes her background in psychology helps her to provide support to the families of the victims. But the work still takes a heavy toll: She lacks the resources to cope with the permanent stress that marks her daily existence and the panic attacks that take her by surprise, causing her to lose her composure and temper.
“My pillar, my left and right hands, and my unconditional support are in my husband Daniel,” Guerrera said. “I can tell you a little about how I live with my work, but only he knows how it really is. When I returned from Oaxaca and told him I wanted to dedicate myself to [documenting femicides] and that he would have to be our breadwinner, he didn’t hesitate to accept that. He’s been on board with me from the very beginning.”
No one pays Guerrera to do her job. Her only real income is the weekly column that she publishes on VICE Mexico, where the stories of femicides that have most impacted her are published. Sometimes she receives funding from organizations to conduct research trips to other states, and she just published a book, Ni una más (“Not One More”) (Aguilar, 2018), the profits of which will be used to purchase bus tickets, copies of files, and forms of paperwork in many official agencies. Her work is her life’s pursuit.
In spite of everything, the activist, journalist, psychologist, and mother of a 23-year-old son is confident that things will change.
“I don’t know if [it’ll happen] soon, but I always view problems from the perspective of an optimist, and I trust that [resolution] is possible. I think the key is to stop putting all the blame on the government and assume our responsibilities as conscious, concerned citizens.”
In order for the rates of femicide and violence against women to decrease, Guerrera believes that the unraveled fabric of Mexican society must be rewoven to exclude government corruption and pervasive machismo attitudes. Do we need new laws and a renewed public conscience? Of course. But, she says, we have to start somewhere. And she’s already begun with more than 4,000 cases.
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