Eleven years ago, Norma Andrade's teenage daughter was kidnapped and killed in the border city of Juárez, Mexico, near the factory where she worked. Andrade says Lilia Alejandra's body was found in a vacant tract where a Costco and Home Depot have since been built, signposts of the city's industrial boom. Norma Andrade, who herself assembled televisions and computers for 17 years before becoming an elementary school teacher, tried in vain to get police to prosecute her daughter's killers and eventually became a prominent activist against femicide (the killing of women).
She's been roughed up by guards for local officials, received countless threats, and seen her colleagues injured, killed, or chased into asylum to the north. Her truck-driver husband died of cancer. Then, in December, she survived five gunshot wounds. This month she was slashed in the face. In what seems like an ominous verdict for Mexico, this scrappy woman now says she cannot safely return to her hometown. She's even considering leaving her country altogether.
The 51-year-old Andrade met with me in a Mexico City restaurant last week. A small bandage on her right cheek covered the knife wound from 10 days before. Her right hand was packed in a soft velcro cast, which she removed to show the scar from a bullet, and her left arm, partially paralyzed, was wrapped in a black sling. Her grandson, whom she adopted along with his sister after Lilia Alejandra's death, sat at another table with two bodyguards provided by the government of Mexico City, where Andrade is undergoing physical therapy. She's considering an offer of refuge in Spain, or might seek one in the United States. The thought of it suddenly fills her eyes with tears. "To have to leave my city, a whole life, like I'm a criminal, when I am not one...." she says, her voice trailing off. "But in reality, yes, I'm afraid."
The plight of activists like Andrade raises questions about Mexico's nascent democracy, bedeviled as it is by deepening violence. To be sure, not all the news is bad. The last decade has witnessed dramatic growth in Mexico's civil society. Newspapers rip into politicians daily, and there are countless groups watch-dogging transparency and corruption.
But activists say that the last year has been perilous. It's hard to confirm if it's worse than in the country's violent recent past, but a recent report by the National Center for Social Communication (CENCOS), an advocacy group, cited a "deterioration" in conditions and "evident ineffectiveness of institutions to impart justice." Their report counted 69 threats and attacks against activists. That appeared to be up from the 32 the group counted from April to December, 2010, when it started keeping track. The list includes 31 murders, up from just three in the period from April to December in 2010. Some activists simply disappeared. Drug gangs took credit for killing four people they accused of using social networks to inform on their activities. The Committee to Protect Journalists counted three reporters killed for reasons related to their work and four others killed out of unclear motives.