“This is as far as your dreams go, bitch, don’t stick your nose into town matters again.”
That was the message given to the now 34-year-old mayor of Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca, when she first got involved in local politics to fight for women’s rights.
It was December 2014 and Elisa Zepeda headed a group of women who, having been dispossessed of their land, participated in a town meeting in the hope that a new mayor who was sympathetic to their plight would be elected.
Instead, she almost paid for her activism with her life.
On the same day as the meeting, Zepeda and three other women were ambushed in the town’s central square by then-mayor Alfredo Bolaños and his associate Jaime Betanzos, who both fired guns at the women.
“All I could do was run to a house on the corner to hide but I heard them shouting: ‘Elisa’s there, get her. Don’t let her escape.’ When they found me, they beat me in the face with the shotgun, hit me and dragged me to the corner to hand me over to them,” Zepeda told the newspaper Milenio.
Amid a vicious beating by Bolaños, Betanzos and other accomplices came the warning not to meddle in the town’s affairs. The men also held her up by her hair and showed her to the other women, seemingly as a warning that the same thing could happen to them.
Zepeda soon lost consciousness and the men left her abandoned on the ground. They then proceeded to loot houses and vehicles in the immediate vicinity after which they set them on fire.
Sometime later, Zepeda regained consciousness and managed to get to her feet and stagger to her family’s home where her brother let her in.
However, the angry mob wasn’t far behind, arriving at the house with the intent of finishing what they had started, Zepeda explained.
“With the beer that they stole and the pleasure they got from beating a woman, the men felt more emboldened and arrived at my house. There the scene was much more terrible, they came in burning everything: my house and my brother’s workshop,” she said.
As the men tried to attack her with a machete, Gustavo — a municipal police officer and friend of the family who was visiting at the time of the incident — tried to intervene but received a machete blow to the head and later died from his injuries.
Zepeda’s brother also died, shot down by bullets from a machine gun that were meant for his sister. His body was later taken to the town’s main square where the men exhibited it for public view.
Zepeda said the two men sacrificed their lives to save those of her mother and herself. However, both were brutally beaten and Zepeda’s mother lost an eye.
“They left my mom and I unconscious, they thought that we were dead. They left us lying there while the house was burning. It was the most violent act that we’ve had in the municipality but from then on there has been an incredible effort on the part of the community to rebuild,” she said, sobbing.
Seven people were arrested that night including Bolaños, Betanzos, a town trustee and four municipal police officers. A further 29 arrest warrants were subsequently issued.
Zepeda explained that she lost virtually everything in the fire that engulfed her home but over time she has managed to recover and rebuild her life.
A year and a half after the incident, Zepeda was elected mayor. It is the first time ever that a woman has headed up the local government.
Now, more than three years after that the terrifying ordeal the atmosphere in the small, largely indigenous community is very different.
People stop to greet the mayor as she walks through the quiet streets and teenage girls quarrel about who will be the next female mayor.
Now that she is in a position of influence, Zepeda continues to fight for women’s rights and is determined never to see a repeat of the kind of violence that she endured.
“It’s been worth it . . . with the simple fact that my mother and I got out alive, despite the terrible pain that the loss of my brother and Gustavo causes, [the fact that] since then we haven’t allowed a violent situation to get to that extreme means it has been worth it,” she said.
Source: Milenio (sp)