Breaking the Silence, Holding the Gaze: Women Denounce Sexual Torture in Atenco Before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

by | Jan 8, 2018

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About Tania Sordo Ruz

Tania Sordo Ruz is an attorney specializing in gender and human rights. PhD in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies from the Autonomous University of Madrid. Master in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies and Master in Lantinamerican Studies: Cultural Diversity and Social Complexity from the Autonomous University of Madrid.


Tania Sordo Ruz, “Breaking the Silence, Holding the Gaze: Women Denounce Sexual Torture in Atenco Before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights” (OxHRH Blog, 8 January 2018) <> [date of access].

In the coming months, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will issue its decision on the Atenco case, regarding acts of sexual torture committed against women by Mexican state agents. On November 16 and 17, 2017, a public hearing was held in the case of Mariana Selvas Gómez et al. v. Mexico, known as the Atenco case, before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR). This is a case regarding human rights violations committed against eleven women in Mexico.

In 2006, Mexican state agents committed physical, psychological, and sexual torture against the eleven petitioners as part of a police operation carried out in the State of Mexico. The acts occurred in the towns of Texcoco and San Salvador Atenco on May 3 and 4, when current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was the governor of the State of Mexico. During the operation, two persons died, including a minor, and others were tortured, illegally and arbitrarily detained, and jailed without cause. In the wake of the incident, several foreign nationals were promptly deported, including women who also claimed to have been sexually tortured.

The eleven women are survivors of sexual violence and rape as torture as defined under international and regional standards, due to the presence of intention, severe physical or mental suffering, and purpose. The sexual torture constitutes discrimination and a form of gender-based violence against women.

The use of gender stereotypes incompatible with international human rights law was also present as an element of the sexual torture and in the statements of high-level Mexican government officials. As a part of the sexual torture, state agents told the women that “this is what you get” for not staying home and taking care of their children, and that they should be at home cooking. Mexican officials even claimed that the women were lying about the sexual torture, including the then governor of the State of Mexico, Peña Nieto, who said that “It is well known that in the handbooks of these insurgent groups, these radical groups, the first thing the little handbook (says) is for women to claim that they were raped.”

These statements reveal gender stereotypes related to women’s role in society as homemakers, dependent upon men and confined to the private sphere, as well as gender stereotypes of women as liars or manipulative in cases of sexual violence. The use of gender stereotypes in this case constitutes gender-based institutional violence against women and an obstacle to access to justice (Amicus Curiae).

Faced with impunity for their assailants and the lack of an effective response or due diligence by the Mexican government, the eleven petitioners took their complaint for sexual torture to the Inter-American Human Rights System with the assistance of Center Prodh and CEJIL. Their petition was lodged with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2008 and the Commission took the case to the IACtHR in 2016.

The petitioners have adopted the slogans “break the silence” (romper el silencio) and “hold the gaze” (sostener la mirada) to represent their resistance and their determination that no more women in Mexico will ever have to go through what they went through. Their testimony is an act of bravery with particular significance in a country in which the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has stated that torture and abuse are widespread, and in which women face a systematic lack of access to a life free of discrimination and violence in all its forms. Torture committed against women in Mexico is characterized by certain forms of violence committed against them because they are women or specific forms of violence that affect women disproportionately.

In the coming months, the IACtHR will issue a decision on the Atenco case, which will have great significance for Mexico and the region. The courageous struggle of these brave survivors of sexual torture in Mexico, who are breaking the silence and holding the gaze in the face of stigma and countless obstacles, transcends their specific cases. As Judge Elizabeth Odio Benito, the only woman judge on the IACtHR, put it, “It is never wrong for women to fight for our rights.” Thanks to the unflinching fight of these eleven women who have denounced the acts of sexual torture committed in Atenco, women everywhere continue to march down the path of defending and upholding our human rights.


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