MEXICO CITY - The takeover of Mexico’s national Human Rights Commission was as unplanned as it was swift.
It started with a meeting that went awry between government officials and victims of human rights abuses, including one mother whose son had been assassinated and another whose daughter was sexually assaulted.
The following day, the feminists — many of them also victims — had pushed their way into the building, kicked out government workers, and declared the space would be a shelter for women.
The two mothers who started the unexpected takeover left the building soon after. But one month later, around 40 girls and women are living in the historic governmental edifice, which is graffitied from top to bottom with feminist, anti-authoritarian slogans. Government offices are dotted with sleeping bags. Piles of donated clothes litter the building’s lobby. Volunteers give classes on everything from self-defense to fire juggling.
Most of the women occupying the Human Rights Commission are in their late teens and early 20s, and wrap their faces balaclava-style so they can’t be identified.
“This institute is the one that is supposed to protect human rights. The one that is supposed to help us. And they’re not doing it,” said 26-year-old Cali, a member of the anarchist feminist collective El Bloque Negro, or Black Block.
Years of impunity have led to this moment. In Mexico, more than 90 percent of reported crimes go unresolved. And while stories abound of horrific tales of women being gruesomely murdered, it’s the everyday banality of violence that is fueling many of the protestors.
Among the building’s occupants are 10-year-old RJ and her mother. RJ was sexually assaulted three years ago, according to a criminal complaint she and her mother filed.
“I was told that it wasn’t rape, but just sexual abuse, because it had just been touching, that it was just a finger,” said RJ’s mom, Erika Martinez, one of the leaders of the takeover. “I felt helpless, because she is just a young girl, a girl that to this day wakes up scared every night. She wakes up sweating. She has a hard time sleeping without me. That’s my rage, and that’s my anger, and that’s why I’m here.”
The feminists here have a long list of sweeping demands— justice in their cases, gender-sensitive training for police, expansion of abortion rights, and that Mexico’s president publicly recognize the legitimacy of the feminist movement.
Instead, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has said seizing buildings is the wrong way to protest, and criticized the feminists for defacing the paintings of historical Mexican figures. Before the takeover, he said the issue of femicides “has been manipulated a lot in the media” and downplayed a surge in calls to emergency hotlines, declaring most of them false.
Infighting has hampered the women’s efforts. A few weeks after the takeover, the leader of a feminist collective known as Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) left the government building, saying there had been threats against her family and that government spies had infiltrated the occupation.
Since then, women from the anarchist group Black Block take turns guarding the front door at night, in case the government attempts to take back the building. It wouldn’t be difficult, a fact even some of the feminists inside the takeover acknowledge.
But for now, government officials have left the women alone — a tactic that seems aimed as much at avoiding negative media attention as draining oxygen from the movement. Rosario Piedra Ibarra, president of the human right’s commission and a longtime human rights activist herself, said she is seeking to negotiate the women’s peaceful exit.
“I agree the authorities have not done everything that they should have
. I understand their rage, their desperation, their helplessness,” she said. “The contradiction here is taking over an institution that exists to help victims.”