Quintana Roo is Mexico’s sunshine state, a booming tourists’ playground that draws record numbers of holidaymakers to its golden beaches, coral reefs and Mayan ruins.
But, in recent weeks, this region on the Caribbean Sea has been badly shaken by a string of brutal murders of women, which authorities seem keen to downplay. Within 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.
The murders have renewed tensions between activists against gender violence and state 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 a “time bomb” of violence against women had exploded because state officials played down 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.”
Reporter tortured for exposing plot
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.
This year is looking even better, 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, state authorities have long preferred to minimise the region’s problems.
In 2005, an 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. It was later revealed to be a plot to silence her.
“I have been systematically accused by the governor and his news outlets of being an enemy of the state because I have 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.
High rates of human trafficking
Quintana Roo still has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in Mexico, according to the United Nation’s World Tourism Organisation. The state law against trafficking remains stuck in congress because of a political party deadlock.
Quintana Roo also has the highest level of reported sexual violence in the country. It has no DNA lab and only one refuge for women.
This latest grisly wave of gender violence began on October 18 when the naked body of Rebeca Rivera Neri (24) was found in Cancun. Originally from the state of Veracruz, she had been strangled and beaten.
The next victim was a tourism undergraduate student, María Carrasco Castilla (19), who was raped, murdered and her body left in a vacant lot.
Her murder drove thousands on to 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 Juárez.
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 the string of murders was part of a broader pattern 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. – © Guardian News & Media 2015