Little has changed in the two years since Imelda Virgen, a 40-year-old Guadalajara psychologist, was beaten to death on the orders of her husband. The suspects remain in custody but have yet to be sentenced.
Much to the disappointment of the family, authorities have refused to classify the case as a femicide (a crime motivated by hatred of women) despite the requests of human rights groups.
This appears to be the norm. According to the Committee of Women’s Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean (CLADEM), 1,061 women have been murdered in Jalisco since 1997. In 2013, only 12 of the 133 murders of women were classified as femicide. Of these, only one individual was sentenced for the crime.
Meanwhile, the Virgen family is forced to live with their bereavement and uncertainty, campaigning to make their voices heard in a society wracked by violence against women.
“Months ago, life was full of restless, daily fluctuations,” Sofia Virgen said at her sister’s memorial. “With joys that you wait for and feel certain will arrive, joys that you live intensely without realizing that they might never return. In the house, the rush of your high heels told us whether you came or went. Your presence brought a smile that gave us peace. Suddenly one morning, that world left without trace: police, nurses, and public officials told us things that neither our hearts nor our minds understood, the color red, the shock, the broken heart of a mother, your still body under a roof of glass, and the pain of your violent death mixes with the memories of your sweet life.”
Gilberto Enrique Vazquez Cortes, a 44 year old psychologist, testified to the police that on the night of September 28 2012, he drove Imelda’s blue Chevrolet to collect her from the city center, where she taught at the University of Guadalajara. Soon after she got in the car, two men opened the back doors and forced their way in. He said they ordered Vazquez Cortes to drive in the direction of the industrial zone. Upon arrival, they forced Imelda out of the vehicle. She was raped and beaten to death. The two assailants escaped in the car, and Vazquez Cortes contacted the police.
When the police arrived, they questioned Imelda’s husband and discovered various contradictions in his version of events. They pressed him for details, and he buckled under pressure, confessing to having hired the men to murder his wife in exchange for the Chevrolet and a payment of 50,000 pesos (about $3700).
A week later, two suspects, David Ceja Calzada and Sergio Fabián Sánchez Belmontes, were arrested along with a suspected accomplice, Joceline Juviana Calzada Ceja. Another man, Emmanuel Álvarez Quezada, told the police that Vazquez Cortes had tried to convince him to hire someone to murder his wife.
“He told me that he wanted to kill her before they divorced so he could collect the life insurance,” Álvarez Quezada testified.
The violence of Imelda’s death contrasts starkly with her life. A child psychologist who worked for the University of Guadalajara, in her spare time she led yoga classes, illustrated, and rescued stray dogs.
The tragedy has turned the Virgen family into activists. Her sisters have set up a Facebook page: “Justice for Imelda Virgen, Justice for All,” that keeps members updated on the case.
Yet the campaign has been ignored by state authorities, who designated the crime a parricide, and refused to classify it as a femicide. This is despite a reform, passed five days before Imelda’s death, that recognized femicide as a distinct crime under the penal code of Jalisco.
For CLADEM coordinator Maria Guadalupe Ramos Ponce, the refusal highlights the disinterest of the judicial authority in applying a gender perspective to their investigations. “What they’re trying to do is ignore the problem,” she said.
In June of this year, a member of the police (asking to remain anonymous) spoke to local newspaper La Cronica de Hoy. “If the suspect doesn’t confess that he killed her because she was a woman,” he said, “we don’t classify it as a femicide.” According to the officer, detectives had “been asked not to box things into that category unless there exists no other possibility.”
Yet the sociologist Celia Magana is critical of this approach. “The categorization of femicide would help to establish a climate of condemnation towards violence against women.” She believes that femicide is a public rather than a private problem. “It’s not just a social and cultural problem, but an institutional and political one,” she said.
The non-governmental organization Mundubat has also pointed to the connection between violence against women and wider social conditions. It argues that the phenomenon has its root causes in educational and economic inequality, with less equal societies tending towards higher rates of violence.
There is even a correlation between the rise in femicides and the violence of the drug trade, according to a study carried out by Mexico’s National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence against Women (CONAVIM), which showed the number of killings more than doubling in the five years following the escalation of the drug war, rising from 1,119 in 2007 to 2,630 in 2012. The study provided a stark indicator of how organized crime affects the population, even when they are not directly involved in the drug trade.
Numerous campaigns, some organized by high-profile, international groups such as Amnesty International, have highlighted the incremental nature of violence in relationships. As Celia Magana points out, the physical abuse is preceded by psychological and verbal mistreatment: “Femicide is just the last phase of a chain of violence.”
Imelda Virgen’s case is typical in that her death was the culmination of a pattern of abuse. The aggression began with accusations and stalking.
“I always suspected that she had been unfaithful,” Vazquez Cortes declared in his police statement two years ago. “On several occasions, I followed her to find out who she was with. I never caught her, but since I suspected that she was having an affair, I wanted revenge.”
After Imelda went back to live with her family, her husband directed his anger at her pets, poisoning her dogs while she was away. When she decided to divorce him, he started planning her murder: “If you´re not mine, you’re nobody’s,” he later remarked on his thinking.
Vazquez Cortes made a second statement at a hearing on May 2 2013, but his version of events had changed dramatically. He currently claims that the police forced his confession. “It’s false that I paid anyone. It’s false that I hired them,” he wrote. Statements by the other suspects however, coincide in their presentation of him as the intellectual author of the crime.
The Virgen family is still waiting for the verdict. Meanwhile, they continue to campaign for greater awareness of gender violence. They led a march yesterday to commemorate two years since Imelda’s death.