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Activists In Mexico Met With Force While Protesting Violence Against Women

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Mexican women took to streets across the country yesterday to protest the pervasive violence they face. In Mexico City, the demonstration turned violent, with dozens of police and protesters suffering injuries. The demonstrators are also angry at the president's backing of a political candidate accused of sexually assaulting women. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Women, many sporting purple shirts and bandanas, a symbol of Mexico's feminist movement, poured into the capital's Zocalo Plaza, filling the huge square...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

KAHN: Chanting, wake up, the feminist fight is on the move in Latin America. The women protested against the often fatal abuse they face. In Mexico, as many as 10 women a day are murdered, and tens of thousands are raped every year. Eighteen-year-old Sofia Villalos says she's also fed up with the daily harassment she faces on the streets and on public transportation.

SOFIA VILLALOS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's like a self-imposed curfew we girls have. I don't leave my house out of fear. You never know if you're going to come back home alive," she says. Some of the protesters directed that anger towards a huge metal barricade erected to protect the national palace where the president currently lives. Armed with hammers and crowbars, women battled police for hours well into the evening. They lit aerosol cans on fire and hurled them at officers standing behind the barriers. More than 60 police officers were injured, as well as nearly 20 protesters, according to city officials. But some of the protesters just kicked the steel wall in desperation and cried. Eighteen-year-old Jessica Rodriguez Espinoza and her mom watched the violence from a distance, impressed with the women's determination.

JESSICA RODRIGUEZ ESPINOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They don't pay any attention to us when we just talk nicely," says Rodriguez. Feminists are also angry at President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's support of a political candidate who five women have reportedly accused of sexual assault, including rape. Many women, including those from within his own party, have demanded the candidate withdraw from the race. They accuse the president of maintaining what they call the patriarchal pact that keeps men in power. Lopez Obrador says these ideas have been imported to Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They are just copies," he said at one of his recent press conferences. He accuses feminists of being in the pockets of his political adversaries, conservatives, the rich, who he says have the most to lose as he transforms the country and champions the poor. But as Mexican women have watched the #MeToo movement topple powerful men abroad, they've grown more enraged by the president's refusal to withdraw his support from Felix Salgado Macedonio, running for governor of the state of Guerrero.

PATRICIA OLAMENDI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The words of the president play a very important role in politics and in society," says Patricia Olamendi, one of the lawyers for a woman who says Salgado raped her when she was a teenager. Another woman says Salgado drugged and raped her and videotaped the assault. Salgado, a longtime politician and ally of Lopez Obrador, denies all charges of sexual assault against him. Political commentator Denise Dresser says it's a mistake for the president to dismiss feminists and their movement.

DENISE DRESSER: It is growing. It is national. And it is populated by many young women taking to the streets and forcing real change.

KAHN: And they are proving to be the loudest opposition to the president in the country. Arussi Unda is with the feminist group Witches of the Sea, based in the Gulf state of Veracruz. She says every corner of Mexico now has an organized women's group in it. And these women are not backing down.

ARUSSI UNDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Women in Mexico have a long and exhausting fight ahead of us for justice," she says. "But if we don't act now, then when?"

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.