MEXICO CITY (AP) — A Mexican woman who killed a man defending herself when he attacked and raped her in 2021 was sentenced to more than six years in prison, a decision her legal defense called “discriminatory” and vowed to appeal Tuesday.
The ruling against Roxana Ruiz spurred anger from experts and feminist groups who said it speaks to the depth of gender-based violence and Mexico’s poor record of bringing perpetrators of sexual violence to justice.
“It would be a bad precedent if this sentence were to hold. It’s sending the message to women that, you know what, the law says you can defend yourself, but only to a point,” said Ángel Carrera, her defense lawyer. “He raped you, but you don’t have the right to do anything.”
The Associated Press does not normally identify sexual assault victims, but Ruiz has given her permission to be identified and participates in public demonstrations led by activists who support her.
While the Mexico State court found Monday that Ruiz had been raped, it said the 23-year-old was guilty of homicide with “excessive use of legitimate defense,” adding that hitting the man in the head would have been enough to defend herself. Ruiz was also ordered to pay more than $16,000 in reparations to the family of the man who raped her.
In May 2021, Ruiz was working selling french fries in Nezahualcoyotl, one of the 11 municipalities in the Mexico State with an ongoing gender alert for femicides and another one for forced disappearances of women.
While having a beer with a friend, Ruiz, a Indigenous Mixteca woman and a single mother from the state of Oaxaca, met a man she had seen around the neighborhood. After hanging out, he offered to walk her home and later asked to stay the night because it was late and he was far from home.
Ruiz agreed to let him sleep on a mattress on the floor. But while she slept he climbed onto her bed, hit her, tore off her clothes and raped her, according to Carrera, Ruiz’s legal defense. Ruiz fought back and hitting him in the nose, and he threatened to kill her. In the struggle to free herself she killed him in self defense, Carrera said.
In a panic, Ruiz put the man’s body in a bag and dragged it out to the street where passing police arrested her.
Despite telling police she had been raped, Carrera said a forensic exam was never taken, a crucial step in prosecuting sexual violence cases. Instead, an officer responded that she probably wanted to have sex with the man at first and then changed her mind, he said.
“I regret what I did, but if I hadn’t done it I would be dead today,” Ruiz told the AP in an interview last year, adding, “It’s evident that the state wants to shut us up, wants us to be submissive, wants us closed up inside, wants us dead.”
Women’s rights groups have repeatedly accused Mexican authorities of revictimizing survivors and failing to judge cases with a gender perspective.
Ruiz spent nine months in jail on charges of homicide with excess of legitimate self-defense, and was finally released to await trial.
The court responded to public outcry of the sentencing Wednesday, saying the judge did examine the case with a gender perspective. It also noted that a blow to the head during the struggle left the man unconscious at one point, saying the court found that was “enough to contain the physical aggression.”
The woman’s lawyer said the court’s defense “is totally false.” Carrera said that while there was some evidence the attacker received a blow to the head, it was never proven the man lost consciousness. He said the defense hopes to challenge the court’s statement in its appeal.
Despite the sentencing, Ruiz still remains free pending further judicial steps.
Nearly half of Mexican women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, government data shows.
In 2022, the Mexican government registered a total of 3,754 women – an average of 10 a day – who were intentionally killed, a significant jump from the year before. Only a third were investigated as femicides.
That number is likely just a fraction of the real number due to rising disappearances and lack of reporting of violence in the country.
Angelica Ospina, gender fellow for International Crisis Group in Mexico, said she worries that the sentencing may empower victimizers while discouraging women from reporting gender-based violence or defend themselves.
The case points to just how “normalized” gender-based violence is in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, Ospina said.
“When a woman defends herself, the system is particularly efficient in processing and sentencing her without taking into consideration the conditions in which she killed the man,” Ospina said.
Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, women carried signs and chanted “justice!” A tearful Ruiz stood before the crowd, thanking feminist groups and the women who had supported her through the years-long judicial process.
Speaking to the crowd, she thought of her 4-year-old son.
“My son, I hope to see him again. I hope to stay with him, to be the one who watches him grow up,” Ruiz said.