Mexico’s next president must address violence against women in rural areas

Two of the leading candidates running to be the next president of Mexico are women. The vote on June 2 could see either Claudia Sheinbaum (the current frontrunner) or Xóchitl Gálvez elected to the highest office in the country, breaking the glass ceiling. Despite this testament to the progress made by Mexican women and society, a harsh reality persists: Women in rural areas face rising violence perpetrated by criminal groups.

According to recent studies, violence against women in Mexico has surged, with more than 70 percent of Mexico’s 50.5 million women and girls over the age of fifteen experiencing some form of violence. This brutal reality is heightened by the fact that many crimes in Mexico often go unreported, hindering governmental efforts to address the disproportionate impact of criminal violence on women in rural states such as Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. It is a serious problem in Mexico, and it is also a concern for its northern neighbor. It’s in the United States’ best interest to take a closer look at the increased effect of organized crime on women in Mexico and the growing migration pressures it is generating.

It is no secret that Mexico stands as one of the most violent countries for women. For years, Mexico has struggled with inadequate resources and institutions to safeguard victims and prosecute offenders.

Even urban areas such as Mexico City, which have more access to resources and investment than rural areas, have struggled to create a holistic security agenda that can ensure women’s safety. However, between February 2020 and 2024, the incidence of femicide in the capital decreased by 20 percent, according to the Secretariat of Citizen Security in Mexico City. Although this value does not encompass the full dimension of the violence women face in Mexico, the decrease may be a result of certain components of the city’s security agenda. This agenda includes implementing gender-sensitive training for military and police personnel, bolstering female representation in law enforcement, improving access to mental-health and victim-support services, and streamlining abuse reporting mechanisms through preventative policing measures.  

The most severe violence against women predominantly occurs in remote Mexican states characterized by pervasive poverty and the presence of criminal organizations. States such as Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Chiapas, plagued by poverty and host to multiple cartels, pose significant threats to women’s safety. These states are notorious for their danger to women, even though they do not always report the highest number of femicides or other cases of gender-based violence given the fear of victims to come forward and lower law-enforcement presence. A 2021 United Nations Development Programme study in Mexico indicates that in areas controlled by drug cartels, violence against women intensifies, with relatives often refraining from reporting crimes out of fear of retribution. Such violence becomes a tool of intimidation and a display of dominance for these criminal groups, perpetuating a cycle of violence. These mostly rural states serve as hubs for organized crime due to weak state presence and proximity to key transit routes. As a result, the convergence of poverty, crime, and violence has prompted mass emigration to urban centers and the United States, particularly among vulnerable populations.

To address this dire situation, it is important for the administration that takes office later this year to pay closer attention to violence against women in these states. To start with, reliable data is needed. In Mexico, an estimated 93 percent of crimes go unreported. In 2023, 2,580 women were murdered but only 830 were categorized as femicides. Strengthening transparent and trustworthy institutions that collect accurate data in these areas is crucial to fostering an environment where victims feel safe to come forward.

Security plans that have shown some success in urban areas are often difficult to apply as a whole in more rural areas, due to the lack of infrastructure and resources. However, there are certain transferable steps that can help improve women’s safety. For instance, recruiting more and better female police officers to ensure greater representation in police forces can make women feel safer when coming forward about their experiences. Failure to address these urgent needs perpetuates inequality and undermines Mexico’s potential as an economic powerhouse.

Furthermore, the increase in gender-based violence in Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas is greatly impacting migration dynamics, particularly toward those migrating to the United States. A 2021 report from the International Organization for Migration sheds light on the reasons behind this migration trend, revealing that 11 percent of respondents left Mexico due to gender violence. Moreover, 7 percent of those women interviewed mentioned encounters between criminal groups as a main reason for migrating. This migration pattern shows the immense need for addressing the root causes of gender-based violence in rural Mexican states, as it directly influences migration flows and exacerbates the ongoing migration crisis at the US-Mexico border.

The United States can help address gender-based violence in rural Mexican areas. For example, the US State Department’s Safe from the Start ReVisioned program is dedicated to eradicating all forms and threats of gender-based violence that women and girls encounter. Given adequate resources and attention, such collaborative efforts between the US and Mexican authorities can bolster capacities to prevent and respond to violence effectively. Other potential initiatives, such as skills transfer, training in conflict resolution, and trauma-informed care programs, can empower local communities to address violence comprehensively. By implementing innovative strategies and comprehensive support services, the incoming Mexican administration, along with its US counterpart, can make important progress in addressing the root causes of gender-based violence while cracking down on organized crime and undocumented migration.

As Mexico prepares for this year’s historic election, there is a unique opportunity to prioritize the issue of gender-based violence and enact meaningful change. Now more than ever, it is imperative for political leaders to recognize the urgency of this issue and commit to implementing policies and programs that prioritize the safety and empowerment of women, particularly in rural Mexican states.

Charlene Aguilera is a program assistant in the Caribbean Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Isabel Chiriboga is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Further reading

Image: Maria talks on her cell phone while waiting for her appointment through the CBP ONE app, as Mexican families continue to be displaced by cartel violence and are requesting asylum in the United States, in this undated photo taken at an undisclosed location in northern Mexico. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril