Sobbing mourners released a cloud of tiny white butterflies as a coffin holding the remains of 14-year-old Diane Angelica Castañeda Fuentes was lowered into the ground, 18 months after she disappeared on her way to a friend’s house in Ecatepec, a dusty suburb on the northern fringes of Mexico City.
Diana’s skull and feet had been found in a plastic bag dredged from a foul-smelling waterway known as the Great Canal, which runs through the State of Mexico – the country’s most densely populated state.
The schoolgirl, a devoted fan of One Direction and Justin Bieber, was the first to be positively identified after the remains of dozens of people were recovered last year from the black waters of the canal.
Her funeral on 26 March was attended by members of several other families whose own missing daughters are among the thousands of young women to have disappeared in the past decade from the state, known in Spanish as Edomex.
The mourners’ sorrow was shot through with anger as they called on the country’s authorities to stop the violence which has made Edomex the most dangerous place in Mexico to be female.
“Enough!” they cried. “Not one more girl!”
A staggering 1,258 girls and women were reported disappeared in Edomex in 2011 and 2012 – of whom 53% were aged between 10 and 17, according to figures obtained by the National Citizens Observatory on Femicides. Over the same period, 448 women were murdered in the state. Many of their mutilated bodies were left displayed in public places like roads, parks and shopping centres – an act which criminologists and feminist scholars say is associated with gender hate crimes.
The violence in Edomex is disconcertingly reminiscent of a previous epidemic of femicides: between 1993 and 2005, 379 women were murdered in Ciudad Juárez, a city in the border state of Chihuahua. Many were sexually assaulted and dismembered before their bodies were left in the desert.
Protests in Juárez prompted media coverage north of the border, which in turn helped galvanise international outrage, multiple inquiries, new legislation and at least two Hollywood movies.
But in the same period, 10 times as many women were murdered in Edomex than in Ciudad Juárez. Most of these killings have gone unreported and unnoticed by the outside world, the victims mourned only by their loved ones.
“Edomex is a poor state, people are anonymous, and there are no campaign groups, so it has remained invisible,” said Galicia.
Activists say there is no single explanation for the wave of violence against women in Edomex. As in Ciudad Juárez, evidence suggests that some girls and women have been trafficked into prostitution, while others have fallen victim to gender hate murders, said Lucia Melgar, a leading culture and gender academic.
“We can also hypothesize the violence is linked to big business owners, corrupt politicians and organised crime just like in Juárez, but we really don’t know as there are no investigations. The impunity in Edomex is brutal,” she said.
But fewer than 5% of murders – and only a handful of trafficking cases – are successfully prosecuted in Mexico, and activists worry that a full reckoning of the Edomex killings may never be possible.
Since 2010, the Observatory – a coalition of 43 groups that documents serious crimes against women – has been petitioning for a gender-based violence alert to be activated in Edomex. The emergency mechanism, introduced into law in 2007 as part of the post-Juárez reforms, would oblige the state government to launch an in-depth investigation into violence against women, and take concrete steps to tackle the problem.
But officials have repeatedly said they need more proof that women in Edomex are being systematically targeted because of their gender, rather than falling victim to the violence of Mexico’s drug wars. Last year, the state governor’s spokesman said there were “more serious issues to deal with” than gender-based violence.
Maria de la Luz Estrada, director of the Observatory, told the Guardian: “The situation in Edomex is grave and desperate. This is an emergency, authorities must start investigating and sanctioning perpetrators. Access to justice for women must be a reality, not just something which exists on paper.”