It started with a text.
“Mom this man looks suspicious and rude,” wrote Laura Karen Espíndola, a thirty-year-old resident of Mexico City, in a WhatsApp message. It was close to nine o’clock on a night last December. Half an hour earlier, Espíndola had texted her mother to say she’d boarded a cab and was on her way home.
Her mother replied immediately: “Get out my love and take another taxi.”
Espíndola didn’t answer. When her silence lingered into the night, her brother logged in to Facebook and asked for help finding his sister. He closed his post with #TeBuscamosKaren (#We’reLookingForYouKaren). Within hours, the hashtag was trending throughout Mexico. Local and national press picked up the story, beseeching the public to keep an eye out for the missing “young mother of three.” Outlets published an attractive selfie of Espíndola in which she wears a flowery blouse and bright red lipstick, her long blond hair combed out.
The hunt was on. The following morning, nearly eleven hours after Espíndola sent her final text, Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum announced that she was personally looking into the case and that a police investigation was already underway—an unprecedented move in a country where women disappear every day and law enforcement is notoriously unresponsive.
Of the more than sixty-one thousand disappeared people in Mexico, a quarter are women. Their faces appear in public service announcements, on flyers, and on billboards. In the wake of Mexico’s #MeToo movement, which saw women take to the streets en masse throughout 2019 to protest gender violence, particular attention has been paid to disappeared women, many of whom are sold into human-trafficking rings or murdered. (According to the United Nations, Mexico has the second highest number of gender-based murders in Latin America, after Brazil.) In the past few years, abductions by taxi and Uber drivers have headlined the news, with some publications compiling what are essentially listicles of “famous” cab disappearances. Just two days before Espíndola went missing, Cintya Gabriela Moreno Hernández, a twenty-five-year-old woman, was found dead in the trunk of a taxi.
But Espíndola hadn’t been taken. Fourteen hours after her brother’s Facebook post, she came home. CCTV footage leaked to the press showed she had spent the evening with friends. The WhatsApp message, which she sent from a bar, was a pretext to have a night out.
The press turned on her. “Karen sent the whole country into a panic… from a bar,” one headline stated derisively; “Karen mobilized society, social networks, and Mexico City… while she was out partying,” read another. Many outlets published footage from the CCTV tape—looped video of her dancing with a man. Instead of the attractive selfie, the updates to the story included a still from a video capturing her arrival home the morning after her supposed disappearance, looking a bit haggard and noticeably less filtered.
Espíndola’s story dominated the national news for nearly forty-eight hours, with popular, mainstream outlets like El Universal and Milenio publishing more than a dozen articles each on the subject. The abrupt change in tone—from casting her as a martyred Madonna to condemning her as a girl gone wild—prompted women’s groups to denounce Espíndola’s treatment in the press as a “public lynching.”
Her story reads like a funhouse mirror version of the disappeared-woman narrative. It’s the kind of mocking press coverage that plays into false and sexist tropes about women and bolsters inaction from law enforcement.
“Very often, the first thing authorities say when a young woman disappears is, ‘She ran off with her boyfriend,’ ” says Mely Arellano, cofounder of Lado B, an independent publication based in Puebla that covers human rights and corruption.
If the media echoes the “boyfriend” argument, says Arellano, authorities feel less social pressure to search for women—even though minors are frequently lured into trafficking rings by men posing as their “boyfriends” online. For this reason, when Arellano reports on missing women she omits details of romantic liaisons.
Getting authorities to act quickly is a fraught process already. The most important window of time to find a missing person is within the first seventy-two hours. In Mexico, national protocol establishes specific actions authorities must take within the first twenty-four hours, then the next forty-eight, and finally, after seventy-two.
Despite this, says Viridiana Valgañón, a litigator with feminist human rights organization Equis, “the Public Ministry tends to tell families that a missing person’s report can’t be filed until seventy-two hours have passed.” Add to that the problems of excessive bureaucracy, shoddy training, and lack of personnel, and even those with the will to enact proper protocols are likely to fail.
If the media acts as a loudspeaker for “stereotype-heavy public opinion,” says Valgañón, it not only can delay authorities from taking action, but can also tacitly justify their inaction after the fact. The press “constructs a profile of the victim that makes so that the public believes that the victim deserved to get killed. They blame women’s disappearances on their particular lifestyle, because of their line of work, their habits.”
“Honestly, we feel that sometimes journalists don’t support us, because instead of putting a spotlight on the disappeared, they discredit our cause,” says Diana Gutiérrez, the coordinator of Buscándote con Amor (Searching for You with Love), a grassroots collective made up of relatives of disappeared persons who, in the absence of government action, conduct searches themselves. “They tarnish us by creating this image that we, women, lie.”
Beyond the mainstream papers, however, a robust network of feminist publications and reporters endeavor to provide a “gendered perspective” to their work. Celia Guerrero, a feminist columnist at Pie de Página, an independent digital publication, explains that such coverage first became widespread in the early 2000s, during a femicide epidemic in Ciudad Juárez. But as violence spread throughout the rest of Mexico, and as disappearances related to the war on drugs skyrocketed in the mid-2000s, gendered readings of the violence fell away. Journalists like Guerrero and Arellano are working on bringing it back.
The journalists I interviewed agreed that characterizing women’s disappearances as gender violence, as most news outlets do, is an important step forward. Blurbs accompanying the Espíndola articles in El Universal, for instance, defined “sexual violence” and described potentially threatening behavior to watch out for in taxi or Uber drivers. But these well-intentioned warnings can easily slip into victim blaming: one article, also in El Universal, titled “Twenty-something, alone, and going to trendy clubs: rapist taxi drivers’ target,” warns that victims are generally “fun” and “attractive,” as if a woman’s good looks were a prerequisite for gender violence. Attaching a red flag to “fun” also creates a strange sort of cognitive dissonance: wanting to have fun is what discredited Espíndola.
In an agonizing twenty-minute television interview conducted the day after Espíndola returned home, a Foro TV journalist prodded her for a play-by-play of the night. Espíndola, looking deeply uncomfortable and occasionally on the verge of tears, repeatedly apologized for her actions, saying she never imagined her text would spin out of control. She insisted she’d spent her evening with a group of friends of both sexes. “They only showed the bits when I’m with a man,” she says of the CCTV footage, looking away from her interviewer and into the camera.
Why would Espíndola feign an abduction rather than tell her mother she was going out with friends? For Guerrero, the question is as worthy of exploration as the rest of the story.
“We’re missing coverage that is conscious of structural machismo,” she says. “We, the media, are not able to read events properly. We haven’t been able to talk about why women hide or lie about going to a party because we live in a society where women don’t have permission to have fun.”