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A murder mystery, a cover up, and femicide in Mexico

Episode Summary

Ariadna López was found murdered on the side of a road in Mexico, one of thousands of women murdered every year in the country. But her death outraged the country like never before.

Episode Notes

Ariadna López was found murdered on the side of a road in Mexico, one of thousands of women murdered every year in the country. But her death outraged the country like never before.

Today, the problem of femicide in Mexico — and whether Lopez’s death will help change that. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times Mexico City bureau chief Patrick J. McDonnell

More reading:

A single mother in Mexico was blamed for her own death. Now a well-connected playboy has been charged

Femicides in Mexico: Little progress on longstanding issue

In Mexico, a grisly killing inflames debate about femicide

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: Last fall, two bikers came across a grisly scene outside of Tepoztlan, a popular town just south of Mexico City. It was a woman's body, dumped underneath a highway bridge. Unfortunately, this is a much too common scene in Mexico. The country has struggled for years with high rates of femicide, and many murdered women are simply never identified. But this victim was Ariadna López, and Mexico hopefully won't soon forget her. 

Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” It’s Monday, March 20th, 2023. Today, how one woman's death sparked a public outcry in Mexico. But will fear of holding perpetrators accountable limit progress in addressing longstanding violence against women?

Here to talk to me about all this is my L.A. Times colleague, Mexico City Bureau Chief Patrick McDonnell. Patrick, welcome to “The Times.”

Patrick McDonnell: Un placer, Gustavo.

Gustavo: So, sadly, you and I have seen femicide happen all across Mexico for decades, like the murdered women of Juarez on the border that made international headlines in the 1990s and 2000s, and authorities always pledge to do something about them, but just how common is femicide, that is the murder of women and girls, in Mexico? 

Patrick McDonnell: Well, I mean, it's been a huge problem for a long time. I mean, the statistics are something like 10 women or girls are killed daily. In most of these cases, at least according to feminists, there's really no justice. It's a case of impunity.

“Feminicidio,” as it's become known here, is a major problem. In Mexico it's really kind of critical-massed in recent years, with marches largely focusing on what authorities need to do to kind of reduce it.

Gustavo: So last fall, two bikers discovered the body of a woman who would later on be identified as Ariadna López. What did they find that day?

Patrick: Two bikers were basically doing a day stroll. This was actually October 31st, kind of the day before the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico, which is rather a big deal. They were going down to a town called Tepoztlan, which is a colonial town about 50 miles south of downtown Mexico City. Tepoztlan is in the neighboring state of Morelos, the capital of which is Cuernavaca.

They stopped for a break at a spot along the highway. And, they came across the body of this woman, her arms outstretched, her legs stiff, her dress pulled up over her waist and obviously deceased. So what to do is what occurred to them.

The bicyclist’s name was Ricardo Calderon and he knows Mexico, and his first instinct was to worry that this woman who was unidentified, had no belongings, could end up being one more murdered woman dumped along the road in Mexico. So he was looking for identifying features and he used his cellphone to take some photographs of her very distinctive tattoos in the hopes that this would in the future help her family identify who this young woman was, abandoned by this roadside outside of Mexico City.

Gustavo: So Ariadna López, who was she?

Patrick: She was a 27-year-old woman from eastern Mexico City, working-class woman, one of five kids. She, uh, was a single mother. She had a 7-year-old boy and she was recently working as a beautician, but, previous to that had worked for some time as a hostess in a bar called Sixties, the Sixties, which is kind of in a chic Condesa neighborhood, and it's basically a place where a lot of rich men go and drop a lot of money and share tables with the hostesses who work there, who are basically paid by and large on commissions that they get from men spending large amounts of money on, on food and, uh, drink. And this was interesting because, according to her family, this job kind of put this working-class woman in touch with a different strata of Mexican society, namely rich men, some of them playboy-types with a lot of money to spend, who go to these places, uh, in search, shall we say, of female companionship.

Gustavo: What do we know about the circumstances that led to Ariadna's death? Where was she? What had she been doing?

Patrick: Those photos of those tattoos, the bicyclist, he put them on social media in the hope, he said, that someone would find them. In fact, on the social media message, he said, “Please share. I don't want her to end up in a common grave.” And by this point, uh, Ariadna's family was frantic, because she had gone out the night of October 30th with some friends to a bar and later to an apartment. And while she was out, like a lot of women here in Mexico City do, she was texting her location to friends. Obviously people are very worried about this notion of femicide, so people knew where she was and she was in touch with them. 

She texted her roommate and at least one other friend that she was with a friend of hers she had known from the Sixties, a guy by the name of Rautel Astudillo, and Rautel Astudillo was with his girlfriend, a woman named Vanessa Flores, who was 20 years old and was another ex-barmaid at the Sixties. So it was clear to her friends and family that she'd spent the previous evening with  Rautel Astudillo and his girlfriend and they'd gone from a, a restaurant to his apartment. But then, you know, she went off kind of off grid around, maybe 7:30, 8 o'clock at night, her phone, she wasn't receiving messages. 

The next morning, she didn't come home. Her roommate became alarmed, contacted the family. Two days later, they saw these tattoos and recognized them as Adriadna’s. And at that point, family and friends get in three cars and go down to the prosecutor's office in Morelos to do what they presume will be this very lamentable task of identifying Ariadna at the prosecutor's office.

They went to the prosecutor's office. They ended up spending almost 10 hours. At first, they said they were never really shown the body. They had to make an ID off what they consider to be a fuzzy computer-screen photo. They ID’d the woman. And then they gave statements, as did her friends and her roommate’s friends said later that they felt they were being treated like suspects in, in this case. And their cellphones were taken from them by the prosecutor's office in Morelos state. And the cellphones were important evidence because they had these text messages that she had been out with Rautel Astudillo the previous evening and his girlfriend. 

Gustavo: What did officials tell them about how Ariadna died?

Patrick: The prosecutor’s office in Morelos told the family that an autopsy had showed that the cause of death was broncoaspiracion, uh, it was severe alcohol poisoning that led to her  vomiting and choking that way, which is called broncoaspiracion, or bronchoaspiration, I guess in English. Basically, she had suffocated because she was in an advanced state of alcoholic poisoning, according to the prosecutors. So they said this case did not have signs of what's known here as femicide. Family was very suspicious about that. When they got the body the next day they noticed extreme bruising, a lot of bruising.

So that's kind of where things stood. The family had the body, was very suspicious. They decided to ask Mexico City prosecutors for a, uh, another, another autopsy because they didn't really believe what they were being told in Morelos state about the death of Ariadna.

Gustavo: After the break, the dueling autopsy reports.

Gustavo: So, Patrick, after Ariadna López’s family was suspicious about the initial autopsy by prosecutors in Morelos, you said that they went to prosecutors in Mexico City. So what happened there?

Patrick: OK. First they had a wake in Mexico City at a funeral home in which all of Ariadna's friends showed up. But among those showing up was, uh, Rautel Astudillo and his girlfriend, who'd been with him the night before. And by that point, you know, the press was becoming suspicious. Femicide’s kind of a big story in Mexico, and it was a mystery about what happened to this woman. So a number of reporters showed up at the wake and Astudillo spoke to them, and confirmed that he had indeed been with her the night before, but kind of lost track at her at his apartment. He assumed she'd gotten a taxi or an Uber home. After the wake, the Mexico City prosecutors’ forensic team take away the body. They do a new autopsy, and a day or two later, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Scheinbaum and and her associates, including the prosecutor, basically come out with kind of a, a bombshell.

Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo: Buenas tardes .…

Patrick: Claudia Scheinbaum, the mayor of Mexico City, she said that this woman did not die because of severe alcohol poisoning. In fact, she was the victim of, of femicide who was murdered. And she died from multiple blows all over her body, but especially to the back of her head. Seventeen different bruises plus two contusions to the back of her head.

Claudia: Esta necropsia determinó que el motivo del fallecimiento fue un trauma muy, múltiple que se clasifica de mortal.

Patrick: And moreover, Mayor Scheinbaum, who was the first woman elected mayor in Mexico City, declared that the prosecutor in Morelos, whose name is Uriel Carmona, was guilty of a cover-up.

Claudia: Porque el fiscal general de justicia del estado de morelos está encubriendo y tratando de tapar un feminismo.

Patrick: And that, um, Rautel Astudillo, whom Arianna had been with the night before, had deliberately driven out of Mexico City into Morelos state to dump the body there, knowing that he would be basically unlikely to be prosecuted there because of his quote-unquote connections or relationship with the prosecutor.

Claudia: Porque queremos que nunca más se culpe a una mujer se le victimice, se le menosprecie y se encubra un ….

Patrick: And along with that, the mayor's office released these very damning and, and shocking and rather gruesome videos of an apartment house in Mexico City, in which a man —a baldish man who's later identified as Astudillo — carries the corpse of Ariadna through the landing of his building, goes into a stairway down to the garage, taking the body and apparently putting in his car and driving it off.

So there was this very incriminating video and Mexico City authorities proceeded to, order the arrest of both Rautel Astudillo and his girlfriend, Vanessa Flores. So that was kind of a bombshell, uh, and the case really galvanized the capital.

Gustavo: Yeah, friends of mine from Mexico City WhatsApped me articles and footage from what Mayor Sheinbaum said from that press conference. It was quite remarkable, but just how reflective is Ariadna's case when it comes to the issues that Mexico faces in dealing with femicide? 

Patrick: I think it was very surprising to most people because, you know, these things are kind of hushed over or not talked about it. A lot of times, the classic thing is to blame the victim. But, I mean feminists looked upon this as kind of a classic case that basically had everything: a woman abused, her body dumped, a prosecutor saying it wasn't a femicide, despite all these bruises, and so to, you know, feminists and to the mayor of Mexico City this was just a classic case of impunity. But also of class, because you had a, um, a suspect from, uh, a wealthy family in Morelos, who the mayor alleged was essentially protected by that. And you had a, a kind of a working-class, bar girl beautician, single mom kind of struggling. And, you know, her body was kind of tossed by the side of the road like a sack of potatoes. So it just had these kind of iconic elements of injustice class and alleged cover-up that really made this issue, and this particular case, take off publicly.

Gustavo: Yeah, as you said, Mayor Schienbaum's press conference was pretty unprecedented. So what was the public's reaction to what she revealed?

Patrick: As I said, I think people were shocked, particularly by the allegation of a cover-up, and it was almost like bearing all of the suspicions that many woman and others had had for years. So I think there was a shock. There was massive indignation. 

There were several protests in Mexico City, the largest one on November 25th when hundreds of women came out to denounce what had happened to her, and many of them, you know, had images of Adriadna as they marched.

They were chanting a chant along the lines of, uh, “Adriadna, we're on your team. We're with you.” “You didn't die from alcohol poisoning. You were murdered.” They were chanting that and it was a clear sense of outrage.

Gustavo: More after the break. 

Gustavo: Patrick, you mentioned earlier that something like 10 women or girls are killed every day in Mexico. So what do you think it was about Ariadna's death that galvanized so many people?

Patrick: I’ve thought a lot about that, and I think there's a couple of things. I mean, the allegations from a mayor accusing a prosecutor and, you know, the D.A. from a state, which is a pretty big position here in Mexico, of, of essentially a cover-up publicly. That’s, that's, possibly unprecedented, it's a very serious allegation. And then these very explosive and gruesome videos of a young woman's body, you know, just being kind of transported from an apartment on a guy's shoulder, like, like at a sack of garbage or something through his apartment, kind of being squeezed through a doorway in the stairs. And then more security video of him kind of walking through the parking garage with this body on his shoulder, you know, as if you were kind of dispose of some trash really from one's apartment. So it was just very shocking. And there were several other cases at that time that kind of helped, you know, galvanize this issue.

Another teacher was found and also dumped by a roadside, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend. There was also a case of a young woman who worked in a beauty shop who realized she was being kidnapped in a taxi, which lamentably happens here sometimes, jumped out of the taxi, hit her head and was mortally wounded. So all those cases happened around the same time, late October, early November. So there was a massive degree of outrage. The whole issue just, you know, kind of exploded and took off.

Gustavo l: What about the two suspects in Ariadna’s death — Rautel Astudillo and Vanessa Flores. What's their status?

Patrick: I mean, once the Mexico City autopsy was made known and the videos were made known, both Rautel Astudillo and his girlfriend Vanessa Flores were both arrested, charged with femicide, and they're both in jail now awaiting charges. They could face, theoretically if convicted, up to 70 years in jail, which is somewhat enhanced from a normal case of, uh, aggravated homicide here, which I think the maximum is 60 years. So there are enhanced penalties in femicide cases. So they're awaiting trial. And, um, well, I mean, the, uh, prosecutor stands by the autopsy. Now he has kind of backed down from his statement that there was no  violence when there was 17 bruises plus two contusions on the back of the head. He has said that the autopsy was impeccable. Uh, I talked to the medical examiner there. They stand by their results, and they basically still don't conclusively say that any of these bruises or the contusions on the back of the head that may have been fatal were from violence. They could have been from a fall. And they, they, do say that tests showed that the alcohol blood level in Ariadna's body was, was extremely high, more than six times the legal drinking limit for alcohol driving in the United States. And they have, you know, they have lab tests showing that, if one believes them. So, um, they've kind of stuck by their story in Morelos and there is a political dimension to this. Claudia Scheinbaum, the mayor of Mexico City, is probably a leading be elected president next year. There's national elections. Uriel Carmona is from a completely different and rival political camp, so there were immediate allegations, including from the prosecutor in Morelos, that this was all about politics. Uh, now of course, Scheinbaum denied she was grandstanding politically and said this was basically a human rights issue in a case of femicide that was about to go unpunished, until Mexico City authorities got involved at an autopsy and found those surveillance videos, which were pretty damning.

Gustavo: So the case of Ariadna’s death is still ongoing, but all these protests: Have people been able to sustain their anger and determination to address the bigger picture about violence against women. 

Patrick:That's the ultimate question, isn't it? And many feminists and others are extremely skeptical that, despite all this anger, despite all this, these marches and these horrific cases that have come out publicly, will anything change? I mean, I think it's a big challenge for Mexico and for other countries. I mean, let's be honest: Femicide is a problem in the United States. I mean, I read a statistic recently that any number of women, maybe more than one or two a day, are murdered in the United States by their partners or ex-partners. So it's not an issue that's confined to Mexico. However, the justice system here, according to critics, has been clearly very ineffective at dealing with it.

Now, that said, Mexico has tried to improve that. I mean, many states, including both Morelos and Mexico City, have improved investigative protocols with femicides, have enhanced sentences for in femicide cases. There have been some improvements, in terms of at least the letter of the law. But if you get a case where there was an alleged cover-up by a prosecutor, um, that sort of throws the system into disarray to some extent.

Gustavo: Finally, Patrick, what do you think is holding back progress in getting justice for Ariadna and other women like her?

Patrick: Well, I think a clear theme of this story, of reporting this story, was the fear of people in and around the case — deep, deep fear. The bicyclist, for instance, who's kind of an untold, at least in the view of the family, untold hero of the story, he told the family he got death threats and didn't want to be associated with the case any longer. And he basically scrubbed his social media profile and we couldn't find him. The roommate and at least one other friend feel that they've gotten threats and that they're very worried about speaking publicly. For the family to actually, once they got the body and for them to go to the Mexico City prosecutors, they, they talked about it together, uh, her siblings, Ariadna’s siblings and relatives. And they, they told me that they had no doubt that this was something that was going to affect them and, and could affect their lives and, actual Mexico City police did provide some additional protection to them, because they were so worried about the possibility of retribution from the family of the suspect. 

You know, this is a country where murders for retribution are, lamentably, quite common. So this deep sense of fear of speaking out is clearly an impediment in many of these cases.

Gustavo: Patrick, thank you so much for this conversation.

Patrick: OK, como siempre un placer … Gustavo. Gracias.

Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” Kasia Broussalian and David Toledo were the jefes on this episode. It was edited by Heba Elorbany, and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown.

Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our fellow is Helen Li. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.