Facing violence, Mexican women learn to fight

Facing violence, Mexican women learn to fight
PHOTO: AFP

Ecatepec - The slender, 24-year-old Mexican female nurse faces off with a much bigger gun-toting man, twists his hand to snatch the weapon, points it at her attacker and pulls the trigger.

Fabiola Arteaga is not being threatened on the streets, but is taking part in a practice bout at a martial arts academy in a sprawling Mexico City suburb.

Arteaga is among a growing number of women and teenage girls taking self-defence classes at several training centres in Ecatepec, a crime-ridden city of 1.6 million where killings of women have surged in recent years.

Students learn techniques such as disarming a man with a gun or a knife, kicking him, breaking his nose, escaping a chokehold, or twisting his arm when he tries to grab them from behind.

Some 600 women have been murdered in the State of Mexico, which nearly surrounds Mexico City, in the past four years, with most homicides taking place in Ecatepec, according to the non-governmental National Citizen Observatory of Femicides.

The bodies of women turn up every week in the rough suburbs of the capital. They are abandoned at the foot of hills or dumped in canals. The corpses are often burned or bear the scars of abuse.

The State of Mexico now competes with Ciudad Juarez, the city bordering the United States that became infamous for its spate of femicides, for the grim title of the most dangerous place for women in the country.

"These are crimes that are clearly filled with hatred" against the victims because they are women, said Maria de la Luz Estrada, head of the observatory.

Determined not to join the grim list of victims, Arteaga has been learning tang soo do, a Korean martial art, for the past five years at the Xtreme Martial Arts academy, in a poor and dimly lit neighborhood of Ecatepec.

Her community is plagued by "extreme violence, with women raped and killed," she said, recalling that one of her nieces was killed at age 15.

The classes have taught her to "always be prepared and observe everything," Arteaga said.

"Stepping back is useless," the instructor, Mario Ramirez, shouted at a teenage girl as a young would-be assailant tried to stab and hit her.

"There's no law in Ecatepec," he said, shouting again: "They don't know that we know how to defend ourselves!" Fabiola Zamora, a 15-year-old tang soo do green belt, had a stark reason to take the classes.

"I saw how girls were taken away at my school, so I thought that I had to defend myself in one way or the other," she said.

Zamora was not the youngest taking a class.

At the tender age of nine, Kenya already knows about the dangers lurking in her city. She already fears being "kidnapped and cut to pieces." She has been learning self-defence moves for the past year "so that I don't get kidnapped," Kenya said.

She could have been taking ballet lessons. Instead, she watches as women learn to fend off assailants, hoping she can also learn ways to "stay alive" amid the "bang" of fake guns being fired.

At least 47 per cent of women 15 and older have suffered some sort of attack in the country of nearly 120 million people, according to the National Public Security System.

In the State of Mexico, the prosecutor's office in charge of investigating femicides has opened 254 cases since 2011, but only 72 have ended in sentences so far, said the head of the unit, Dilcia Garcia.

The problem is too big for the suburb and the 5,000 police officers patrolling the vast streets are not enough, Garcia said.

Last year, the federal government declared a "gender alert" in Ecatepec and 10 other State of Mexico municipalities, a move aimed at providing a set of measures to combat femicides.

But Garcia said that the state has yet to receive the federal funds that the gender alert provides to open special judicial centres to protect women.

She said murders and kidnappings are continuing because crime prevention efforts have failed.

"It's good" that young girls are taking self-defence classes and that adult women are learning to disarm and shoot their assailants, Garcia said.

Manuel Amador, coordinator of the non-governmental State of Mexico Femicides Network, said that the authorities "don't seem to care about the victims" and that "machismo has turned into crime in Ecatepec." The hundreds of murders in Ciudad Juarez also prompted women to change their ways.

Many go to work in factories in groups while one woman gives free rides in her minivan to keep others off the dangerous streets.

"If Ciudad Juarez horrified the world, Ecatepec should horrify all of us," said Azucena Cisneros, head of the Mestizas civil association.

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