When 19-year-old Denisse Velasco left school earlier this month in Guadalajara, Mexico's second biggest city, she walked as she always does to a bus stop on Avenida Americas. It was 11am on March 7, and there was no one else around when a taxi pulled up beside her.
"Get in, they sent me for you," the driver told her. Unconvinced that anyone would have called her a taxi without letting her know, Velasco chose to ignore him.
"Then he started shouting rude words and telling me to get in," she recalled. "In that moment I heard a voice over the taxi radio say: 'Get out and grab the bitch.'"
The driver was slim, with light skin, blue eyes, and gray hair, and he stood about 5 feet 6 inches. When she saw him getting out of the car, Velasco fled and took refuge in a nearby pharmacy.
"I was in shock but when I explained what had happened to the people inside they told me the taxi was no longer there," she said.
It was one of many similar attempted abductions of young women in recent weeks across Guadalajara, the capital of the western state of Jalisco. Yet local authorities have sought to downplay the problem, and many of the victims have encountered difficulties when they tried to report what happened to the police.
The attempted kidnappings highlight a concerning trend in Jalisco, where the number of women reported missing has risen steadily in each of the last four years, peaking at 1,161 disappearances in 2015. Another 187 women were reported missing here in the first two months of this year, prior to the surge of cases in March that has drawn greater attention to this issue.
'In that moment I heard a voice over the taxi radio say: 'Get out and grab the bitch''
Having narrowly avoided becoming another statistic, Velasco immediately called an emergency police hotline to report the attempted abduction. The officer on duty told her she must have misinterpreted the situation, and that surely a family member had called the taxi for her.
Velasco insisted, but when she admitted not knowing the taxi's license plate, the officer told her she would not be able to file a complaint. Besides, she recalled the cop saying, "attempted kidnapping is not a crime."
Incredulous and indignant, Velasco went to the attorney general's office to make a formal complaint two days later.
After filling out a form and waiting nearly four hours, police eventually told her that the person who was supposed to handle her case would not be coming. They said she provided insufficient evidence to file a report, and that she should return in 15 days to check for an update.
The day after the taxi incident, on International Women's Day, Velasco read a post on Facebook by Guadalajara Mayor Enrique Alfaro in which he dismissed recent reports warning of attempts to kidnap local women. The stories circulating on social media were mere "rumors" spread by "those who want to generate fear," Alfaro said. He affirmed that the local authorities had received "no recent reports of cases of attempted kidnappings of women."
The same day, the attorney general's office in Jalisco sent out a tweet urging the public to ignore "false messages" about missing women in the city. It said that these were intended to "create psychosis."
Outraged, Velasco replied to Alfaro's post. If victims were unable to file reports with the police, she said, they would continue to talk about their cases on social media and none of these cases would ever be solved. She did not receive a response.
The spate of disappearances and attempted abductions comes at a time of growing concern over all kinds of violence against women in Jalisco. Last year, state authorities officially reported that 1,161 women — the vast majority of them under age 18 — had officially gone missing. Authorities say just 158 remain unaccounted for, but an unspecified number of the 1,003 who were said to have been "located" were found dead. Of the 187 women who have been reported missing in the first two months 2016, there is still no trace of 70. It's also unclear how many of these missing women have been found murdered.
Altogether, 150 women were murdered in the state last year, the second highest figure on record, according to the Jalisco Institute of Forensic Sciences. In total, 1,344 women were murdered in Jalisco from 1997 to 2015, with over half of those killings committed in the last five years.
An art exhibition of 1,600 handkerchiefs that highlights the disappearance and murders of women in the city of Guadalajara. (Photo by Ulises Ruiz Basurto/EPA.)
Dozens of accounts similar to Velasco's have been posted on social media throughout March, including several that detailed attempted abductions in broad daylight in downtown Guadalajara, or in the city's trendy Americana neighborhood. The reports drew considerable attention from the local press, and the mounting pressure eventually led the authorities to change their stance.
On March 17, nine days after he dismissed the kidnapping stories as malicious rumors, the mayor held a press conference to affirm that his government was taking the issue seriously. "We will act firmly and responsibly," Alfaro said. "We cannot and will never ignore a problem that is clearly affecting the quality of life of the city's inhabitants, particularly women."
Alfaro said the attorney general's office had received four formal reports about women who had gone missing in recent weeks, and claimed that three of the victims had since been found. Neither he nor the attorney general has revealed the circumstances under which these women disappeared, or whether any arrests were made.
Alfaro said another five attempted kidnappings had been formally reported in the past two weeks, and that his office had logged informal reports on social media of attempts to abduct another 19 young women across the metropolitan area.
'She's like what we're looking for'
Municipal authorities were providing seven of these victims with psychological, medical and legal support, he said, adding that from now on, all female victims of crime would receive assistance filing reports with state authorities.
In a separate press conference, Jalisco Attorney General Eduardo Almaguer said there was no evidence that a single band of kidnappers was behind the phenomenon, although he did note certain similarities in the cases.
Most involved one or two aggressors driving in a truck who tried to grab a young woman off the street and pull her into their vehicle. Whenever passersby have intervened, the assailants have backed off and driven away, he said.
Darwin Franco, an independent investigative journalist who has spent the last five years documenting disappearances in Jalisco, believes the current wave of abductions may be linked to instability within the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which has grown rapidly into one of Mexico's most powerful criminal organizations over the past five years.
Franco speculated that recent arrests of cartel leaders may have caused smaller criminal cells to break away from the cartel and seek fresh revenue streams from human trafficking. Another possibility, he said, was that separate groups of human traffickers had moved into the region to take advantage of the power vacuum.
Franco recently published a series of interviews with several victims of attempted kidnappings, and he told VICE News the majority of those targeted have been short, slim, and fair-skinned brunettes in their late teens or early 20s. He suspects the kidnappers thought they would be easier to force into cars.
In one case, Ana Karen, a 19-year-old student who narrowly escaped when two men tried to force her into their black Ford Windstar at midday on March 5, told Franco she heard one of her aggressors say "she's like what we're looking for."
Another young woman who evaded abduction in Guadalajara that week was 20-year-old Daniela Martínez. After leaving work at the Jalisco state government's family welfare agency shortly after 3pm on March 11, she dozed off on the bus ride home and woke up a couple of blocks past her usual stop.
Martínez had barely walked half a block along Avenida María Guadalupe when a blue truck pulled up alongside her. The driver, a plump, bearded man whom she judged to be in his 30s, asked for directions.
Startled, Martínez said she couldn't help him and kept walking. Another fat, bald, and bearded man, who looked about 50 years old, jumped out and grabbed her by the arm, telling her, "Get in the car now, bitch."
'They came running across the road shouting, 'Hey assholes, let her go!' and one of them punched the man who had hold of me by both arms'
Martínez began to scream for help, but her cries were drowned out by loudspeakers blaring advertisements for a pawn shop across the road. She struggled and screamed louder, but her aggressor covered her mouth with his hand. Then the workers at the pawn shop noticed what was happening.
"They came running across the road shouting, 'Hey assholes, let her go!' and one of them punched the man who had hold of me by both arms," Martínez said. "He fought back but as soon as he let go of me I punched him in the face and ran across the street."
The two assailants drove off, but Martínez, who was still in shock, didn't get their license plate number. The pawn shop workers declined to formally testify at the attorney general's office, and there were no other witnesses around.
As a state government employee, Martínez said she is well aware of the level of impunity and the difficulties that victims face when reporting such crimes. She called a friend who works at the attorney general's office, but he told her that with so little proof she would not be able to formally report what happened.
Martínez said she felt "great impotence" when she read the mayor's comments dismissing accounts such as hers. She decided that her only real option was to report what happened on Facebook, in a bid to warn friends who commute through the same area.
In February, the state government declared a gender alert in eight municipalities, including the entire Guadalajara metropolitan area, triggering the release of federal funds and the adoption of heightened security protocols. These are supposed to include immediate search operations for missing women and children, and more police patrols in high-risk areas.
'Instead of denying, criminalizing or stigmatizing women, they should at least approach them and listen to what happened to them in order to see what can be done to help'
Authorities declared the alert because of the high level of violence against women, yet within weeks the Jalisco attorney general and Guadalajara mayor downplayed the significance of the attempted abductions of local women.
The situation has led Franco, the local investigative journalist, and others to point to a culture of victim-blaming among police and government officials. On March 16, after three adolescent girls were held at gunpoint by two older men, Guadalajara police repeatedly emphasized that they had "decided to skip school" and go to a party by "their own free will."
Franco said it's hard to imagine the situation improving until authorities change their attitude.
"The first thing they should do is very simple: they should listen to them," he said, "Instead of denying, criminalizing or stigmatizing women, they should at least approach them and listen to what happened to them in order to see what can be done to help."
Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker