Safe World for Women Logo

A march in Cancun by several thousand people protesting the murder of women in November. Photograph: Twitter

Source: Guardian | Nina Lakhani

Horrific murders of Mexican women in region that includes Cancun and Playa del Carmen has community demanding justice

Quintana Roo is Mexico’s sunshine state, a booming tourists’ playground which draws record numbers of holiday-makers to its golden beaches, coral reefs, Mayan ruins and all-inclusive package deals.

But in recent weeks, the Caribbean region has been badly shaken by a string of brutal murders of women – which authorities have seemed keen to downplay.

Within the space of three weeks, seven women have been murdered, bringing the total to 18 so far this year. At least two of the victims were strangled, and several had been sexually assaulted before their bodies were dumped in public places. All the women were Mexican.

This latest surge in murders has renewed tensions between activists against gender violence, and government officials who accuse them of trying to derail tourism and economic progress.

Celina Izquierdo Sánchez, from the Quintana Roo Observatory of Social and Gender Violence, said that a “time bomb” of violence against women had exploded because state officials played down the scale of the problem.

“Nothing was done due to the false belief that recognising and tackling gender violence would affect tourism,” she said. “Justice will not reduce tourism.”

Visitors enjoy the beach in Cancun, Mexico, in April 2015. Photograph: Cassi Alexandra/Bloomberg/Getty Images Visitors enjoy the beach in Cancun, Mexico, in April 2015. Photograph: Cassi Alexandra/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Situated on the lush tropical Yucatan peninsula, Quintana Roo is the jewel in the crown of Mexico’s flourishing tourism industry. A record 10 million holidaymakers and four million cruise ship passengers visited the state in 2014, accounting for almost 30% of tourists to the country, according to the Tourism Board (Sedetur).

This year is looking even stronger, with millions of North Americans and Europeans expected in Cancun and Playa del Carmen during the winter months.

But in an attempt to protect its idyllic image, authorities have long preferred to minimize the state’s problems.

In 2005, investigative reporter Lydia Cacho exposed the involvement of high profile businessmen and politicians in a child pornography and prostitution ring operating in Cancun. She was arrested for defamation, tortured and threatened with rape in what was later revealed to be a plot to silence her.

“I’ve been systematically accused by the governor and his news outlets of being ‘an enemy of the state’ because I’ve demonstrated institutional weaknesses, high levels of impunity, corruption and violence – including gender-based violence, the increase in torture and use of the justice system as a punishment tool against political enemies,” Cacho recently wrote.

Quintana Roo still has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in Mexico, according to UN’s World Tourism Organization. The state law against trafficking remains stuck in Congress due to a party political deadlock. Quintana Roo also has the highest level of reported sexual violence in the country. It has no DNA lab and only one women’s refuge.

 Rebeca Rivera Neri, 24, who was murdered and found dumped in Cancun. Photograph: Courtesy of the family Rebeca Rivera Neri, 24, who was murdered and found dumped in Cancun. Photograph: Courtesy of the family


This latest grisly wave of gender violence began on 18 October when the naked body of Rebeca Rivera Neri, 24, was found dumped in Cancun. Originally from the state of Veracruz, Rivera had been strangled and badly beaten.

The next victim was tourism undergraduate student María Carrasco Castilla, 19, who was raped, murdered and abandoned at a vacant lot.

Her murder drove thousands onto the streets of Cancun’s upmarket hotel district to demand the declaration of a ‘gender alert’ – an emergency mechanism introduced into law in 2007 following a surge of hate crimes against women in the border town of Ciudad Juarez. But just hours after the protest, the body of another murdered woman was found in the city.

The state governor Roberto Borge Angulo, who was attending a tourism convention in London at the time, issued a statement in which he claimed the murders were all cases of family violence.

“Those who speak of femicides and promote the [gender] alert are only looking to attack the success of Quintana Roo, hamper the development and sustained growth in tourism, employment generation, and the economy of families,” he said.

Dr Monica Franco, a forensic criminologist and gender violence expert, said that the murders were part of a broader context of violence against women.

“Femicides are not an isolated phenomenon. They are part of a chain of events beginning with a failure to tackle abuse and violence in the home, which eventually grows into murder,” she said.