‘She did not deserve to die like this’: Salvadoran migrant’s murder by police sparks outrage in Mexico


Screenshot from @emmiartbook on Instagram

An artistic rendition of Victoria Esperanza Salazar Arriaza, a 36-year-old woman killed by Mexican police.

A disturbing video that showed a 36-year-old migrant woman from El Salvador struggling and crying out on the pavement as a female police officer knelt on her head and neck surfaced March 31. The death of Victoria Esperanza Salazar Arriaza brought forward international condemnation as the dismaying details of her death drew comparisons to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. 

Before Salazar’s death, police responded to a phone call from a local convenience store owner, Manuel Barradas, who said Salazar was displaying aggressive behavior. The video footage, posted on Noticaribe, an information and analysis page for the Mayan Peninsula, further revealed that while the police officer was kneeling on her head and neck — at one point keeping Salazar’s head on the ground with a hand in her hair — three other male police officers stood near the scene and watched before taking her lifeless body and placing it in the back of a police truck. 

“When I heard about this woman, you know, I read that she’s [36 years old], yes, a mother from El Salvador, and just like, you know, it really just — how can this be happening again?” said Susana Martinez, director of Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies at DePaul. “Especially now in the context of George Floyd and the trial that’s happening, it just, for me it really made me think for certain things there are no borders, right? For the way the police [behave], in terms of security, to me it made me think, how all of this militarization of the police is making us more insecure.” 

In a news conference on March 29 surrounding the empowerment of women’s rights, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico said that Salazar was subjected to “brutal treatment” and declared that there would be “no impunity,” according to Reuters. Additionally, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, along with Amnesty International, called for the officers involved to be brought to justice.  

Salazar was a mother of two daughters, 15 and 16, and was revered as a “good girl” by close friends and family members. She migrated to Tulum, a resort spot in Mexico City, in 2018 under refugee status for humanitarian reasons after fleeing her home due to the increased violence from street gangs. 

Martinez said she recalls the joyful environment of Tulum where she would often visit the historical Mayan site with her students on study abroad trips, but said it will be difficult to rid herself of the image of Salazar’s death, and for those who are aware and visit the resort, it will never be the same.

“It’s a beautiful Mayan spot, I’ve taken DePaul students on study abroad trips to Mexico in the Yucatan, and we loved being in Tulum,” Martinez said. “We always wished we could spend more time there, and for me, that really hit me hard to know that this was happening in a resort space where I’ve enjoyed the time with my students and now, you know, it’ll be hard to get that image of a woman being, you know, hurt in this place.” 

During Salazar’s funeral in southwest El Salvador at the La Generosa cemetery, relatives and friends wore floral arrangements as they mourned and demanded justice for her death

According to Vice, Salazar’s mother, Rosibel Arriaza, said, “even dogs are treated better than her. She is a human being and they abused her.” 

Gabriela Veliz-Hernandez, a freshman at Hinsdale Central High School who immigrated from Guatemala eight years ago and has done activism work with DePaul’s Student Bar Association, said she believes that the motives behind the officer’s violent acts were a manifestation of “prejudice and entitlement” where in that moment, the female police officer thought herself to be superior, and Salazar, inferior.

Police brutality is about abuse of power differences, and because of that, the motivation for this violence is multi-faceted,” Veliz-Hernandez said. “It’s really a manifestation of prejudice and entitlement, and as a female refugee, Victoria was already very vulnerable. Her circumstances fed into her vulnerability by inspiring a false sense of superiority in others.”

The attorney general’s office of Quintana Roo, a state on the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, released the autopsy report that revealed that Salazar suffered from a broken neck — the sheer impact of the placement of the officer’s knee shattered the first two vertebrae responsible for the movement of the head, according to the BBC. The report also states that the officers involved have been fired and arrested on charges of femicide and are currently being held in custody as they await trial, the BBC reported. 

According to Justice in Mexico, a research-based initiative focused on providing information surrounding laws in Mexico, femicide has been labeled as a “national epidemic” and carries a sentence from 45 to 65 years in prison, under Article 325 of Mexico’s Constitution. 

Karen Dianne, a militant feminist from Durango, Mexico, said that there are regulations put into place to regulate the amount of force used when detaining an individual, a manual containing guidelines for police officers, and that there was even an effort in 2014 to provide training for officers  —  who currently are not required to have any training. 

“In Mexico, police officers are not paid well; they are very exploited people,” Dianne said. “What the state does is turn the working class against the same class and working class, the poor against the poor. Their salaries are really low and this job gives them some safety. They don’t receive any type of training, they are not well-equipped. I am not mentioning this to excuse their behavior, but to merely point out that this is a well-rounded crime coming from the state.”

Justice in Mexico wrote in an article  that policymakers and legislators have struggled to contend with femicide, as an average of 11 women were murdered every day in Mexico last year, and less than 10 percent of cases were solved. According to a report published by the Mexico Secretary General of National Security, femicide increased by 139 percent between 2015 and 2019. In another report published by Milenio, a national newspaper in Mexico, approximately 320 women were murdered in January of this year, and of that number, 73 were victims of femicide.

“In Latin America, there is a very prominent racism toward indigenous peoples or those who have more prominent indigenous features,” Veliz-Hernandez said. “Combined with colorism, the darker you are and the more indigenous you look, the lower on the social hierarchy you’ll be, in theory. The whiter people who have more European features feel superior to those that don’t, and discrimination is extensive in all aspects of life.” 

Subsequent woman-led protests have ignited throughout Tulum and Mexico City as women are seen carrying posters with slogans such as “La policia no nos cuida, nos mata” — “In Mexico, the police don’t care about us, they kill us” and “Ni una migrante menos” — “Not one migrant less.” However, President Obrador has labeled female activists as “politically motivated,” according to The New York Times, fueling criticism of his downplaying of gender violence within Mexico.

“Women are the ones doing it — sometimes women are the only ones doing it — and we have such a history in Latin America of mothers, the mothers of the disappeared, the mothers of Central American migrants searching all over Mexico for any trace of their children who have been, you know, kind of disappeared in this whole network of kidnapping and extortion of migrants,” Martinez said. “So, women are sometimes the only ones who are, you know, honestly brave enough, and they won’t let go.” 

While femicide isn’t something new, the footage of Salazar’s death shared a glimpse into the insidious world of injustice and persecution inflicted upon women. Martinez said that hardships for migrant women start the minute they leave their home. 

“So there’s going to be several layers of violence that migrants are going to experience, and then of course, the sexualized violence against women,” Martinez said. “You know, there’ve been stories in Central America of young women, you know, taking birth control because your chances [of] rapes and violence against women, you know, increase as you go. So imagine, you know, having to have that as a possibility but your reasons for leaving are much stronger than your options for staying home.” 

This isn’t the first time that distressing images and media of femicide have surfaced on a media platform. Last February, social media users and media networks faced criticism after widely sharing gruesome images of Ingrid Escamilla, a victim of femicide who was killed by her husband in Mexico City. According to Article 19 of Mexico’s Constitution, the sharing of such images are condemned as they violate the human rights of female victims. Further, Article 6 establishes the protection of personal information and data belonging to the victim, with exceptions. 

Francisco Canul, a reporter for Noti Tulum, an online news service, described the consequences he experienced after capturing the video of Salazar’s death. After returning from a trip with his family, Francisco discovered that the locks to his home were tampered with, the iron barricades to the gate enclosing his house were torn off and his wooden front was destroyed, according to Proceso

Video footage captured by Canul and published by Proceso, a Mexican news magazine, shows furniture and papers in Canul’s home strewn about, drawers thrown open, clothes, boxes and personal belongings scattered along the floor in a frenzied state. 

“It was not a simple robbery,” Canul said to Proceso.  “There was a lot of fury inside the house. They broke furniture, tore drawers… but the only thing that was stolen were my work equipment, cameras, computers, hard drives and screens with which I broadcast live, and some documents.”

As protests continue to demand justice for Salazar, and as the voices of women continue to travel globally, bringing awareness to decades-long hardships women in Central America have been experiencing, young women like Veliz-Hernandez hope that people in power will speak out against such waves of oppression.

“I hope in the future it doesn’t have to get to the point of a woman having her ribs and neck broken and dying for crises to get pointed out and for attention to be brought to them,” Veliz-Hernandez said. “I also hope that politicians and those in power will have the integrity to address the problems plaguing their countries both correctly and in a straightforward manner. Downplaying the struggles of marginalized groups and antagonizing those advocating for progress and for the human rights of these marginalized groups cannot be tolerated any longer, those that are suffering deserve recognition, a voice and proper treatment. Prejudices rooted in white supremacy, misogyny and classism cannot continue to rule our way of life and our governments.”