MEXICO CITY — The death at the hands of police of a woman who was a refugee from El Salvador has drawn international condemnation and potential embarrassment for Mexico, which on Monday began hosting a United Nations summit focused on gender equality.
The woman, Victoria Esperanza Salazar Arriaza, died on Saturday after being detained by the police in Tulum, a resort town on the Yucatán Peninsula. Videos shared on social media show an officer kneeling on the woman’s back as she cried out. Officers can later be seen dragging her limp body into the back of a police truck.
Authorities in the state of Quintana Roo confirmed on Monday that the cause of death was a fractured spine, and four officers were arrested in connection with the killing.
On Monday afternoon, the mayor of Tulum, Victor Mas Tah, said at a news conference that the city’s chief of police had been removed from his post.
“She was treated brutally and killed: It is a fact that fills us with sorrow, pain and shame,” said President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a morning news conference at which he inaugurated the U.N.’s Generation Equality Forum. Mexico and France are the forum’s hosts this year.
“To her relatives, to Salvadoran and Mexican women, to the women of the world, to everyone, men and women, I want to say that those responsible will be punished,” he added.
The jarring moment in a news conference centered on gender equality highlighted the discrepancy between Mexico’s foreign policy, which has often focused on elevating women’s rights, and its woeful domestic record, with an average of 10 women killed every day in 2020.
The death of Ms. Salazar, 36, highlights the parallel crises of violence against women, as well as the regular abuses endured by an ever-increasing number of Central Americans who are traveling the length of Mexico in a bid to reach the United States.
Mr. López Obrador has come under intense criticism for his inaction on gender violence from local feminist activists, whom he dismisses as being politically motivated. Earlier this month, hundreds of women marched on the president’s residence, the National Palace, attacking with bats and blowtorches a metal barrier erected by officials to protect the building. On Sunday night, family members of women killed in Mexico held an all-night vigil outside the National Palace to demand justice for the dead.
“The meaning of that barrier was to put a wall between us the victims and this government,” Araceli Osorio, whose daughter Lesvy was killed in 2017, said outside the presidential palace. “A wall that has not allowed our demands to be heard.”
Ms. Salazar was granted refugee status in Mexico in 2018, and was in the country on a humanitarian visa, according to Mexican immigration officials. There was no indication that she was bound for the United States. Tulum, a town known for its beaches and Mayan ruins, is off the usual migrant routes.
Even so, the death of a Salvadoran national underscores Mexico’s dismal human rights record when it comes to the thousands of Central Americans who traverse the country every year. They often face exploitation and violence from the authorities, criminal gangs and human traffickers.
Last month, 12 police officers were arrested in the massacre of 19 people, including several Guatemalan migrants, in the northern state of Tamaulipas, the latest in a long line of killings in Mexico involving government forces.
On Sunday night, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador sent out a flurry of tweets condemning the killing of Ms. Esperanza and calling on Mexican authorities to punish the officers involved.
“I am sure that the Mexican government will apply the full weight of the law on those responsible,” Mr. Bukele said. “My condolences to Victoria’s family, especially her two daughters, to whom we will give all possible help.”
Ms. Esperanza’s killing in police custody also drew comparisons to the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, who similarly died under an officer’s knee, sparking nationwide protests in the United States and an international reckoning on race and police brutality.
On Sunday, dozens of people marched through the streets of Tulum demanding justice for Ms. Salazar and an end to violence against women in Mexico, local media reported.