How U.S. policy contributes to gendered violence in Mexico

Mexican woman sits with her daughter in her lap.

Image Credit

For anyone paying attention to the immigration debate in the U.S., you’ve probably heard something about drug-related violence in Mexico. Quite possibly it was explained as “their” problem, an issue isolated to Mexico’s history and concern. 

Last year, a group of citizens in Mexico’s state of Michoacán took up arms to defend themselves against the violent tyranny that a local drug cartel known as the Knights Templar had maintained over their communities. Since then, these self-defense groups have attracted significant media attention, however few outlets have covered the ways in which women are affected. Carolina Drake notes over at Bustle that the rise in violence has infiltrated all aspects of women’s lives, even their ability to work.

“Because of the confrontations between the warring groups, most commerce activity and even hospitals have been temporarily closed. This is affecting the economy in the region and the income of women (called jornaleras) who work in low-wage jobs in the nearby fields, and cannot go to work.”

Further, the situation in Michoacán bodes terribly for women’s safety. Already, women in the Tierra del Fuego region have been suffering increasing rates of violence at the hands of all warring groups, with little help or support from government security forces who are in fact some of the worst perpetrators of violence. One of the principal reasons cited by the defense leaders for taking up arms was to fight back against the drug cartels’ use of sexual violence as a means of control.

Gendered violence increases in conflict zones like these, but women also bear the brunt of the structural violence Mexico has faced since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA was implemented in 1994, opening up trade across North America and creating insurmountable competition for most of Mexico’s small farmers. As U.S. companies dominated the agricultural industry, hundreds of small farmers in Mexico were put out of business, leading to a huge population of rural poor with little government infrastructure to support them. This created the ideal opportunity for drug cartels to fill in where the government left off.

Soon drug cartels dominated the lives, safety and stability of the communities upon which they preyed. That’s the thing about illegal drugs: their illegal nature—and therefore their position outside of the dominant system of governance and justice—means that they too often serve as an alternative source of revenue for communities whose governments aren’t doing their jobs. Globally, the poor often turn to drugs to support their communities. And, globally, the poor are either prosecuted for doing so—when it’s convenient—or implicated in feeding the consumption of wealthy drug users.

Woman loads gun with young girl in the back of a moving truck.In general, neoliberal policies have forced thousands of Mexicans to leave agricultural work and seek other means of survival: some in the violent drug trade, some by migrating to the U.S. Migration serves up its own list of woes, as it forces migrants to risk their lives, and then places them in a country that systematically discriminates against them and deports them away from their loved ones.

By increasing violence and inequality in Mexico, NAFTA and other neoliberal policies hurt women disproportionately. When inequality grows, women make up the majority of the growing poor. In conflict areas, organized groups tend to abuse women as a way of asserting dominance over communities and rival gangs, and violence committed against women is three times more likely to be deadly.

So though the autodefensas are popping up more frequently in international news, it’s not because there is a novelty to the violence occurring. It’s because this is the first time that civilians are successfully challenging the Mexican government security forces and the drug cartels–the two most powerful groups in Mexico. This is simply the most recent manifestation of a pattern that treats women as collateral damage for larger economic gains. And the U.S.’s heavy involvement in the policies that create this pattern means that no, this is not only a Mexican problem. It’s ours too.

Image Credit


Juliana thinks that everything is a feminist issue.



Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

Read more about Juliana

Join the Conversation