“Don’t take risks – stay with us,” says one of the slogans at the Nueva Castilla motel, a $37.85 (£30) per night roadside inn in the Mexican city of Monterrey.
But the horrifying discovery of a dead teenager in the lodge’s water tank has sparked a nationwide outcry and protests in a country facing a spiraling femicide crisis that saw 1,000 women murdered last year because of their gender.
Demonstrators gathered outside the motel on Monday night for the latest in a series of rallies demanding justice for Debanhi Susana Escobar Bazaldúa, whose disappearance and apparent murder have rekindled devastating memories of a wave of killings in the border city of Ciudad Juárez two decades ago.
“Femicide nation,” read one of dozens of handmade placards left outside at a shrine remembering the 18-year-old law student.
“We are destroyed inside,” the victim’s father, Mario Escobar, told journalists on Saturday as his daughter was laid to rest at a hilltop cemetery in northern Mexico.
Mystery still surrounds what happened to Escobar, a budding lawyer who vanished after leaving a party in the early hours of Saturday 9 April and whose corpse was only found last Thursday, 13 days later.
But her case – the latest in a string of gender-related killings and disappearances of young women this year – has scandalized Mexico. At least 52 women have been reported missing in Nuevo León this year, the majority in or around the capital, Monterrey.
After Escobar argued with friends, a taxi was reportedly called to take her back to her home in the industrial suburbs of Monterrey.
Instead, for reasons unknown, the teenager was left on an empty motorway a few hundred metres from the motel. The driver, who has been accused of making unwanted advances on his passenger, took a haunting final photograph of the student standing alone on the roadside in a long brown skirt and high-top trainers.
Video evidence reportedly shows that soon after being dropped off, at about 4.30am, Escobar entered the Nueva Castilla motel. “Debhani went into the building and they are trying to understand what happened … and why she ended up inside this cistern,” her father told reporters on Monday.
Investigators, who say Escobar died from blunt force trauma to the head, initially suggested the victim might have accidentally fallen to her death – a version her father has emphatically rejected, claiming she was beaten and strangled.
“This was murder. They killed her … and I will not stop until this is cleared up,” Mario Escobar, who commissioned a second independent autopsy and vowed to seek a third if necessary, told reporters.
Public anger has been compounded by the fact that it took nearly a fortnight for Escobar’s body to be found, despite police searching the motel on at least four occasions in an operation that included sniffer dogs and drones.
Escobar’s death has exposed what activists call Mexico’s worsening gender violence crisis and the botched and apathetic response from authorities. Last year Mexico recorded 1,015 cases of femicide – when a woman is murdered specifically because of her gender – compared with 977 in 2020. Overall, about 3,500 women were killed.
“What happened to Debhani happens in thousands of other cases across the country on a daily basis,” said Edith Olivares Ferreto, the executive director of Amnesty International in Mexico.
“Eleven women are killed in this country every day. We have at least 20,000 women who are missing in Mexico. And the state’s failures in searching for these women and investigating what has happened to them have remained unchanged for almost 30 years now,” she added.
Activist Frida Guerrera, who tries to track down the perpetrators of such crimes, denounced what she described as a never-ending nightmare: “It is every single day.”
Guerrera blamed rampant impunity for the emergency in a country where more than 90% of all crimes go unsolved.
“When a woman is killed and nothing happens, it kills her whole family, her whole society. Police will find the body sometimes, and then the investigation just stops, so the predators are never brought to justice, and by the next day, they’ve taken another girl. People don’t understand until it’s their own daughter,” she said, urging Mexicans to take the crisis more seriously. “Society will forget again like it has forgotten before. But society should in reality be very worried.”
Many women’s rights advocates hoped for progress after the supposedly progressive Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president in 2018.
Yet López Obrador, a 68-year-old nationalist known as Amlo, has repeatedly clashed with the feminist movement, at times suggesting such campaigners were the tools of his conservative political rivals. In early 2020, after a series of murders provoked demonstrations that some called Mexico’s feminist spring, masked protesters surrounded the presidential palace in Mexico City and daubed its walls with the words: “Amlo is killing us”.
Last week, after Escobar’s body was found, Amlo drew further criticism for claiming citizens had no reason to worry. “This happens everywhere,” he said.
Olivares Ferreto voiced frustration at what she called Amlo’s repeated attempts to downplay the scale of the violence and government hostility towards “the legitimate struggle of Mexican women” to be safe.
“This is one of the governments that has been most vocal about attacking the feminist movement in recent decades,” she said. “All we want is for the state to do its job. We are not talking about reinventing the wheel.”
Olivares Ferreto remembered how nearly two decades ago her human rights group had released a report called Intolerable Killings about an internationally notorious wave of femicides in Ciudad Juárez – and the bungled official response.
“Tragically, what was happening in Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s, is now happening across the entire country,” she said. “This country has become one big Ciudad Juárez.”