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Female rappers take a stand in Mexico’s capital of violence against women

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On average more than one female per week is killed in Ecatepec, on the outer edge of Mexico City. But despite living with this constant threat of barbarism, local female hip-hop artists are use their music to try to change attitudes

As darkness descends over the imposing green mountains on the outskirts of Mexico City, Luz Reality, a 32 -year-old rapper, steps under a faded orange tarp and through a metal security doorway into the underground venue. Though a veteran of the citys hip-hop scene, she admits she still get unnerved by the constant threat of assault in the areas around Ecatepecs clandestine concert venues.

In recent months, this barrio has been plagued by a grisly series of abductions and murders. In one case, a woman was received burned on an empty patch of grass. The victim somehow survived the brutal attack and was still alive when police find her, but succumbed subsequently from her injuries.

As is almost always the case in Ecatepec, the murder went unsolved. People here know better than to expect investigations and apprehends but lately the neighbourhood has been on edge. Frustrated with the violence, residents have banded together to beat and publicly shame alleged felons on several occasions.

Tonight, Luz couldnt even find a taxi driver willing to fell her off at the venue for her display: an empty Ecatepec lot. She had to walk from the main avenue down desolate streets where abducts can happen unnoticed.

The neighbourhood has become regarded as Mexicos capital of violence against females. Luz knows the narratives about females disappearing, but tries not to let anxiety restriction their own lives. Since 2012, on average more than one woman has been killed each week in Ecatepec, and last year such violence escalated.

The dynamic is similar to what took place in in the northern perimeter city of Ciudad Jurez, just south of the Texas border, in the early 1990 s. Earlier this month a Spanish girl was kidnapped from a wealthy region of the city, killed and dumped in a canal in the state of Mexico. Between 2005 and 2015 , no fewer than 3,604 girls were killed in the state of Mexico, where Ecatepec is located. Its an alarming tendency yet each individual assassination is just another statistic that scarcely gets mentioned in the capitals biggest newspapers.

Not formally part of Mexico City, Ecatepec is a residential area that has grown in fits and explodes. A generation of people from the countryside came to settle here in the 1980 s and 90 s, trying to carve a niche for themselves on the fringe of Mexicos rapidly transforming, globalised economy.

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A man hangs a flag depicting photographs of missing and dead women in Ecatepec. Photo: Henry Romero/ Reuters

The streets surrounding the venue hosting Luz and her friends tonight are a shabby agglomeration of dull-grey cinderblock buildings, most of which were improvised one storey at a time. In contrast, the rappers look like fireworks of fluorescent pink and purple, their gold watches and neon garb shimmering over the sea of cement.

With the bass beat thumping, Luz psyches herself up for her performance. She eyes a cadre of teens in t-shirts holding plastic beakers of beer and Buchanans whisky( the local favourite ), who form a semi-circle in front of the smaller, second-storey stage. The crowd is young and riled up. In the back corner, a few scruffy humen cut up lines of cocaine on a cell-phone. Inside the cement-block walls, the thumping music generates a warm refuge from the world outside.

Were women and we deserve respect! Luz hollers into her microphone.

One of Mexicos best-established female rappers, she has made a career out of bringing positivity to a negative environment. As she steps out to join her three rapper friends in the centre of the second-floor stage, Alix Toxik( Luzs skinny, ebullient group-mate) grabs the microphone and screams: Ladies In Tha Hood in the casa !

Alixs beet-red hair and gold chains dance as if they are pulsating with an electric current. Then Luz steps out towards the edge of the stage and hollers: In Mexico there are a lot of femicidios so this song is called For My Girls.

As a manic, minimalist beat creeks out of the DJs speakers, Maya La Insana, Luzs heavyset partner in verse, bobs her head and unleashes a rapid-fire volley of lyrics: I dont enter into negotiations with fiction, only the truth. We listen and we stay quiet. Its better to operate your mouth Where are the people who want to criticise me?[ The people] who want to finish me off?

In the crowd, a imperil, broad-shouldered man in black clothes and sun-glasses holds up his smart telephone to take video, while a group of teenage boys rises from their refuge along the cement wall to watch the performance.

To the side of the stage, Luz and Alix dance frenetically to the energetic beat, jumping up to rap in unison for the ballads chorus: I still help my daughters in the street; I still help my daughters on the stage!

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High heel shoes are seen in front of a cross outside the Municipal Palace of Ecatepec during a protest against the murders of women. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images

Even with a few technological difficulties, the show is a welcome reprieve from what has been a difficult period in Ecatepec. A few weeks earlier, an entire family was dismembered and stuffed into containers in the railyard that runs through the neighborhood. In another incident, two policemen were killed during their lunch break.

For 20 years, though, rap has helped Luz process the world around her. She first heard about it as a teen in the early 1990 s. Her friends households came from different parts of Mexico, so hip-hop became the common chord that tied them together.

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Ecatepec exploded as a byproduct of Mexicos shift from a pervert, state-led development strategy based on protectionism and nepotism to the current paradigm of neoliberal economic policy and export promotion. Subsidies that had supported small-time agriculture were dismantled, so poor, rural residents flooded down from the mountains into the valley in Mexico City.

As Mexicos economy dipped into crisis and virtually collapsed, the newcomers found themselves in a precarious position. Households construct small shanties using found the documentation and the neighborhood expanded up into the hills. In 1995 Mexicos economy imploded, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers competing for jobs in the informal economy hawking sodas at stoplights, selling tacos from carts or working as foot soldiers in Mexico Citys expanding criminal enterprises. As kidnappings surged to unprecedented levels and every day was marked by multiple murders, it became known as the worlds most dangerous city.

In this environment, Luz and her friends learned to navigate the street, shopping for hip-hop cassettes at open-air markets called tianguis and seeing consolation in the bravado of early-9 0s gangster rap. Cypress Hill were Luzs favourite group; the lyrics helped her take ownership over a difficult environment.

Where Im from, the[ firearms] be smoking/ Ill be damned if you think Im jokin/ Know that Ill come with the static, erratic,. 45 automatic . Its is a Cypress Hill verse that was written about LA, but also reflected the mentality in Ecatepec. Luz was inspired; she started penning her own raps to Cypress Hill beats, but tried to find a way to forge her own version. Were not chicanas [ Mexican-Americans ], she explains.

As the decades passed, families have replaced cardboard and sheet metal with sturdy cement bricks and added multiple storeys to their homes. In a parallel trend, Mexico City has considered a boom of real-estate investment and a new wave of renovation. Now the city centre is filled with the hulking skeletons of new skyscrapers, and upper-middle class neighborhoods are enjoying a surge of new construction and rehabilitation.

As infrastructure and security have improved, Mexico City has become recognised as a major hub of culture activity. The New York Times named the capital as the top place to visit in 2016.

The situation on the periphery of the city, however, is less stable.

Luz
Luz Reality stands next to graffiti on the outskirts of Mexico City. Photo: Nathaniel Parish Flannery

Now in the parks there are drug addict, thefts, Luz explains. Most people go to Mexico City to work; they dont work here.

The US Chamber of Commerce in Mexico ranks Ecatepec as the second most challenging security environment for businesses in the country. According to this analysis, the suburb trails only Reynosa, Tamaulipas the border city that serves as a base for the notorious Zeta cartel in terms of security problems.

Ecatepec has evolved since the early 90 s, but in many ways it hasnt improved. Even though there are malls now, they dont help. Its ugly and violent, and is no place to raise children, Luz says.

I was proud of Ecatepec.[ But now ,] if I had the chance to leave, I would. I dont watch a future here, she says.

A number of multinational companies have constructed new factories in Ecatepec, but Luz has never ran at any of them. The shifts are long and pay is low. To work you have to go to Mexico City or find self-employment selling things at the markets, she says.

After she saw a female colleague get kidnapped, Luz left a job teaching kindergarten for a post at a small stationery store near the main plaza. While she has friends who have found employment opportunities in IT and marketing departments in the steel and glass skyscrapers downtown, Luz herself like virtually 60% of the women in Ecaptepec works in the sprawling, informal economy, in a job that doesnt include benefits.

Ecatepec is now home to 1.6 million people, more than half of whom live below the poverty line. Too many aspects of life here still feel improvised and incomplete. There may police patrols on the wide throughways, but on the side streets security is scarce.

Luz
Luz pulls on a pair of headphones while recording a rap video in the main plaza in Ecatepec. Photo: Nathaniel Parish Flannery

A few weeks after the concert, Luz meets up with bandmates Alix and Maya at a pizza place. The girls have broken their self-imposed curfew to have a celebratory dinner to mark the end of a successful day recording a video.

In the afternoon, they revel in the activity in the bustling square, rapping to the camera in the golden afternoon light. The plaza brings together old men who have expended decades working in the area with young mothers taking their toddlers to watch the clowns, with teens on BMX bikes and skateboards. As is the case in little town in the mountains, Ecatepecs main plaza is the centre of community life: Its representative of Ecaptecs culture. Youve got the skaters, the rappers, the B-boys, Luz explains.

As night situates in, Luz and her band-mates bounce in front of big graffiti murals down the street from Luzs house, use a friends automobile headlights to illuminate the last few shootings of the working day. With the camera off, the swagger subsides quickly.

The pizza eateries windows and doorways are made of heavy steel bars that seem strong enough to stop a truck from crashing through. Although a few people gathering at a nearby taco eatery and a food truck still stands down the road, mostly the streets are empty.

Luz ties Ecatepecs hip-hop culture to the cholo culture popularised by Mexican-Americans in early-9 0s California, Cypress Hill among them. She and the rest of her generation are still wedded to these traditions of DJing, rapping, graffiti art, and breakdancing.

But she fears the neighborhoods younger generation is more tuned in rapping as a form of aggressivenes notably in rap battles and, worse, as an ancillary activity to drug dealing. The younger rappers are less interested in painting murals or organising dance rivalries and far keener to embrace criminal culture.

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A grey graffiti mural in the Ecatepec neighbourhood. Photo: Nathaniel Parish Flannery

Waiting for her pizza to arrive, Luz explains: What I want is young people to know me. I think there are fewer rappers, fewer graffiti artists now. She sees her neighbourhoods cholo culture fading away. Its dying, she says.

The hard-edged bravado of the new generation may be more in tune with the current reality of Ecatepec, where medication gangs recruit teens and local mob bosses have turned the neighborhood into a depot for the retail narco trade. The crime wave has overrun the local police and made a new environment of violence and impunity.

Its changed a lot. Before it was safe , now its the most hazardous municipality in Mexico state. Its the worst place in Mexico for femicidios , Luz explains. On 7 August, the body of a young lady was determined near a canal in the nearby town of Zumpango. The victim had been raped and tortured. Theres a lot of gender-based violence. I think its getting worse, Luz says.

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The pizza parlor is empty and playing loud banda music, but Alix, usually so exuberant, lowers her voice: As a woman, when I have to go to the Ro de los Remedios neighbourhood, Im scared. I have amigas who live there. They say that daughters coming out of the subway there get kidnapped and taken away in autoes. They disappear.

The subway stop is next to a highway and few tarp-covered stands selling bootleg Cds. From the stairs that lead down from the train tracks, visitors can see a long field of cement builds and only a few patches of green in the distance.

It takes a lot of hazard to go on the road, says Luz softly. Theyve taken a lot of women.

The assaults on females have been well documented by the local tabloids. In December 2015, police detected the body of a 20 -year-old, raped, and beaten to demise in an empty lot in Ecatepec. In March, 2016 one of Ecatepecs own police officer fled town after torturing and killing his own girlfriend.

Taking a moment to cut and serve slice of pizza, Luz says: I think its worse than ever.

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An activist wearing rubbish bags and rope, to replicate the route female murder victims are procured, takes part in a protest on the banks of the Remedios River, where corpses often wash up. Photo: Nathaniel Parish Flannery

She lives in a gated community with a guard who watches through a heavy metal gate. Inside, residents have built fencings to separate their houses from the street, some girded with razor wire. Outside of her neighbourhood, Luz feels unsafe: After 7pm you dont go out. Not in automobile, stroll, or in taxi, she says. You can go to the supermarket and the taxi driver will rob you.

Her brother was carjacked right in front of the security post at the entryway to her neighbourhood. They set a gun on him and took everything “hes having”, even his gum, Luz explains.

But she continues to grind, penning lyrics and recording videos. One of her new songs, Im Still On My Feet, sums up her attitude. Over a bouncing, bass-driven beat she raps: After everything Ive been through, Im still on my feet. I dont let myself get beaten.

She tries to stay positive but the situation in Ecatepec is heart-breaking:[ Now] its worse. There are more femicidios than Ciudad Jurez, more kidnappings..

In some instances, the violence is meted out by partners and ex-partners. In others its organised crime, kidnapping women to force them to work in the sex trade. Other periods random assaults are carried out by crooks in a realm of impunity.

On 4 September, infuriated residents banded together and cornered two thieves, beating them severely before police arrived. Luz knows that many neighbourhoods now hang signs warning would-be offenders that burglars is likely to be lynched. The vigilantism doesnt attain her feeling safer.

When shes home, inside her house, behind the security gate at the entrance to the street, Luz feels safer Ecatepec is her cradle, but also her prison. Its stagnating I think it will get worse. Its like love-hate: I was born here, but Id like to leave. I dont want my son to grow up here.

Luz isnt the only local artist trying to draw attention to the violence in Ecatepec. A few weeks earlier, a group of activists had staged a demo by the murky Remedios River that cuts through the neighborhood.

Wearing trash bags around their bodies and rope around their limbs( the accoutrements routinely determined tied to corpses that wash up on the rivers shore ), they hollered in protest: The river has become a watery grave! Girls are kidnapped and left here in trash bags! Ecatepec is a tomb!

Meanwhile the traffic zoomed by on the freeway next to the canal, truck drivers honking as they passed, drowning out the womens voices. Then a police car stopped on the side of the highway. An policeman walked up to the demonstration, took a few paintings on his cell phone, and walked back up the hill to his car.

There are thousands of women who have disappeared. We are asking for justice! a woman shouted. The officer didnt react.

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