Rapes Stir up Controversy Over Justice in Mexico

Over the past few months, three American women have been raped in a Mexican town known for being an expatriate haven. Locals are upset because the foreigners are trying to force the government to take action when, they say, this happens to Mexicans all the time and no one does anything.

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Some Americans who thought they'd found a haven abroad now have to worry about an attacker. A serial rapist has been targeting foreign women in Mexico in the town of San Miguel de Allende. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro traveled to a town better known as an artist's colony that welcomes Americans.

(Soundbite of voice over microphone)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

In an auditorium inside the palatial fine arts building in San Miguel de Allende, dozens of well-heeled elderly Americans listen attentively to a reading of a new work by a resident writer. On any given day here there are plays, gallery exhibitions, creative workshops and any number of other events that cater to the large expatriate community.

San Miguel has a population of about 80,000 people. Ten thousand of them are American. Another 4,000 are Canadian. In total, people from 30 nationalities live in this mountain community, making it one of the most accessible places to live in Mexico as a foreigner. Even the water is filtered so you can drink from the tap.

But what was a safe inviting haven for the many single older women who come to live here has become a place of fear.

Ms. MEG SMITH (Resident, San Miguel): My name is Meg Smith and I moved here three, three and a half years ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a street with impressive Mexican-style stucco and stone homes painted ochre colors, she calmly sits in the house where she was assaulted one morning in January.

Ms. SMITH: What happened was--four in the morning, a flashlight was shown in my face. It was a bright, blinding light and in that instant I wasn't really sure what was happening, but knowing what had happened to two other women in town, I knew that there was a rapist in the bedroom.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Meg Smith was the third woman to be attacked in exactly the same way. Three of the four women the rapist has targeted are over 50. He comes in at night and stays for hours. In between the violations, he likes to talk in English. The authorities believe he may have spent time in the United States. Nearby in another house on a cobblestone street is the most recent victim. She does not want her name to be used.

Unidentified Speaker: He basically, you know, raped me for about five hours with a knife at my throat and, you know, it's just an absolutely revolting experience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The two women also have similar tales of what happened next. Even though there had already been other rapes, when they went to tell the police what happened, their reception was less than helpful.

Unidentified Speaker: They interviewed me in Grand Central and as pass--people passing through--finally I said, you know, I'm not gonna say one more word until you close the doors and have this be a private interview. Because you're talking about the most intimate things that were done to you, and everyone is listening in like it's a bit of jollity, you know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She found out later that the police had made jokes about what had happened. The local attorney general, Pablo Gonzalez, says though, the Mexican authorities have dealt with the investigation in a respectful and thorough manner. But when asked about other rapes that may have happened in San Miguel not related to this case, he has this to say:

Mr. PABLO GONZALEZ SIERRA (District Attorney, Guanajuato): (Through Translator) A girl comes and tells us she was raped, but in a second declaration, perhaps two hours later, she says the person that raped her was her boyfriend, that she went voluntarily into his car. The boyfriend comes and says that, indeed, they did have sexual relations but it was consensual and they had a fight. We asked the girl again and she says that is the way it happened.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: According to government estimates, as many as a 130,000 women are raped each year in Mexico. In many states, the age of consent is 12 and incest is considered consensual sex. Women's groups here charge that Mexican institutions fail victims at every step of the way. They cite the continuing rape and murder of women in Juarez as a case study in government apathy and ineptitude. The attacks haven't stopped and police have detained people on scant evidence to show progress. San Miguel mayor Luis Alberto Villarreal is young, handsome and has already set his sights on national politics. He's credited with doing a lot for the city and the expatriate community.

Mr. LUIS ALBERTO VILLARREAL (Mayor, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico): They come because this is a magical place and they come here because they wanna have a better quality of life. We have a secure city. We have a beautiful city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The mayor is very concerned about the rapes. San Miguel is growing, fueled by money from wealthy, older expatriates. The Four Seasons Hotel Group is about to build a hotel. Property value has gone through the roof. The attacker is targeting the very people San Miguel hopes to attract.

Mr. VILLARREAL: This man is shooting us in the kind of people we're trying to bring here, not just as tourists, as well people we're that we're trying them to buy a house here, to live here in San Miguel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The rapes have been affecting all sectors of San Miguel in different ways. Mexican resident Mercedes San Martin(ph) has attended a number of town hall style meetings on the rapes and she is furious.

Ms. MERCEDES SAN MARTIN (Resident, San Miguel): (Foreign language spoken) (Through Translator) The women from the U.S. who have been raped come from a culture of speaking out, so they don't have a problem telling people what happened. We Mexicans don't tell because we know that they will mistreat us. The authorities really care that San Miguel has an image of non-violence. They are trying to cover things up. The problem in Mexico is that we come from a patriarchal culture. We women are treated like second-class citizens.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she admires the American victims for demanding that justice be served. Next to her Maria Antoniatille(ph), an older Mexican woman with bright red lipstick, says that all too often in Mexico, it's not.

Ms. MARIA ANTONIATILLE (Resident, San Miguel): (Foreign language spoken) (Through Translator) There was an attempted rape on my sister while she was stranded on a highway. When she went to make a complaint to the police, they told her she was at fault for stopping on the road. Her car had broken down. She was wearing shorts and had make-up on, so the police said she was asking for it.

Unidentified Speaker: She woke up at 2:30 in the morning cause she heard noises in the house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At an Italian restaurant in San Miguel, a group of American women are having dinner.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: It doesn't take much prompting to turn the talk to the rapes. They've all been following developments closely.

Ms. PATRICE WYNN (Resident, San Miguel): I lock myself in my room at night. I check my house, every room, every door and I put double locks on my door and I have a pot that I pee in, in the middle of the night--cause I don't wanta go outside.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Patrice Wynn is a writer and photographer who moved to San Miguel five years ago. Dressed smartly in a green shirt with nail polish to match, she waves her cigarette around as she talks. Sitting next to her is the author of Riding in Cars with Boys, Beverly Donofrio, who has a mop of gray hair surrounding an unlined and youthful looking face.

Ms. BEVERLY DONOFRIO (Resident, San Miguel): The United States to me is like an adolescent. Mexico is like a grandmother--and it's safe, and nurturing, and warm--and that's why we moved here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Susan McKinney(ph) is married to a Mexican and is a long-time resident of San Miguel.

Ms. SUSAN MCKINNEY (Resident, San Miguel): I think it's an illusion to think that we're safe, and I think we so want to buy into that illusion when we come down here to live. That's part of the outrage. Our illusion is broken. We're not in our safe haven anymore. I don't think it ever was a safe haven.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: These women, Meg Smith and the other rape victims, say they will not leave San Miguel. They say they found strength and support in their friends here in this second chapter of their lives being built in a foreign country they're struggling to understand. And the Mexicans in this town, too, are learning from them. Mercedes San Martin:

Ms. SAN MARTIN: (Foreign language spoken) (Through Translator) The people of San Miguel will tell you, don't talk about it. Our dirty laundry should be washed at home. If we don't talk about it, it's as if it isn't happening. But we must say what is happening, too. I profoundly respect these women who have spoken out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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