As it became clear last fall that Mexican Sen. Félix Salgado Macedonio would be running for governor of Guerrero state, Basilia Castañeda decided to go public with her accusation of rape.
She told police that back in 1998, when she was a 17-year-old political activist, she found herself alone with him at his Acapulco home.
“Without saying anything he started attacking me,” she explained to Milenio newspaper, adding that when it was over he threw a 100-peso bill — about $10 at the time — in her face.
Four other women have also come forward to accuse Salgado of sexual assault, including one who told police she was drugged and raped by the politician in 2016.
Those allegations didn’t stop Mexico’s ruling political party from officially making Salgado its gubernatorial candidate this month.
In the face of feminist opposition, Salgado’s candidacy has become a major political liability for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has stood by his longtime friend and political ally.
The accusations have bitterly divided Morena — the center-left party López Obrador founded in 2011 — with hundreds of members, including many of its highest-profile women, demanding the party withdraw its support and Salgado be removed from the ballot.
“Side with history, side with the victims, side with women,” a coalition of female party leaders said in a statement last week.
But López Obrador has refused to budge, repeating Salgado’s claim that the accusations are nothing more than partisan political attacks.
“When there are elections … it’s about discrediting the opponent in one way or another,” the president, widely known by his initials, AMLO, said at a recent news conference, describing Salgado as the victim of “media lynching.”
Asked about the rape accusations during another news conference, López Obrador grew angry, shouting, “Enough already!”
His quick dismissal of the women’s sexual assault claims has enraged members of Mexico’s ever-more visible feminist movement.
The president has a habit of rejecting any criticism as an unwarranted attack from his political enemies. But that sort of response falls flat when the critique comes from women complaining of violence, political analyst Denise Dresser recently wrote in Americas Quarterly.
The growing number of women calling for an end to gender-based violence in Mexico represents “the one true thorn in AMLO’s side: a singular political movement that he does not seem to understand, cannot control and will be unable to suppress,” she wrote.
Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at the public research center CIDE in Mexico City, said that the president is under increasing pressure to recognize their grievances and heed their demands.
“Feminists within and outside of Morena are fighting to make the president feel that if he doesn’t back down, he will have to pay a price,” Bravo said.
Many feminists had high hopes for López Obrador. The long embattled leftist, who ran for president two times before winning election in 2018, vowed complete gender parity in his Cabinet — a promise he fulfilled.
But months after taking office, he angered activists by shuttering shelters for domestic violence victims and closing public day-care centers, part of a broader austerity plan.
Then a series of gruesome incidents in Mexico City thrust the issue of violence against women into the national spotlight.
A teenage girl said she had been raped by four police officers. A man apparently killed and skinned his 25-year-old girlfriend. And then the body of a 7-year-old named Fatima who had gone missing was discovered disemboweled in a garbage bag.
López Obrador blamed the crimes on the “neoliberal” governing model of his predecessors.
Failing to acknowledge the national crisis — an average of 11 women are killed each day in Mexico — he also downplayed a surge in calls to a government hotline for female victims of violence, saying 90% of such calls “are false.”
In response, hundreds of thousands of women from across the political spectrum demonstrated in Mexico City in March. The following day, women across the country skipped work in a national strike, with some of Mexico’s largest companies showing their support by giving female employees the day off.
After female protesters seized control of Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission in the fall, ripping paintings of revolutionary heroes off the walls and declaring that building would become a shelter for female victims of violence, López Obrador was incensed.
“Of course I don’t like it,” he said of the protest, highlighting the protesters’ defacement of a particular painting.
The activists said the president’s focus on property destruction rather than on their demands simply proved their point.
Protesters say they have taken increasingly militant actions because they have yet to see real change. While the #MeToo movement in the United States spurred many women here to denounce men in positions of power for alleged assaults, few of those cases resulted in dismissals or other major consequences.
An investigation by the news site Animal Politico found that from 2014 to 2018 just 5% of rape and sexual assault allegations resulted in a criminal sentence.
Salgado has not been charged with any crime. The accusations against him started coming to light at the end of last year, just as he prepared to accept the nomination as Morena’s gubernatorial candidate in Guerrero.
Born in a notoriously lawless region of the state known as the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Lands, Salgado is a flamboyant character, known for driving a Harley-Davidson and for dabbling in music — he famously recorded a cumbia in 2012 for López Obrador.
In a 2017 radio interview, Salgado described himself as a “womanizer, partier, gambler [and] drunk,” saying he was too old to change: “A tree that grows crooked never straightens its trunk.”
During his more than 30-year political career, he served as mayor of Acapulco, a state representative, a congressman and a senator.
Basilia, the woman who said Salgado raped her in 1998, said that she tried to report the assault at the time but that a clerk at the prosecutor’s office advised against it.
“This person is very influential, very powerful,” she said the man told her, according to her interview with Milenio. “Go home, live quietly and forget about this.”
She went on to become a prominent leftist activist in Guerrero, eventually helping López Obrador establish his party as a powerful political force there. Salgado joined the party in 2018 and won a seat in the Senate once again.
In fall last year, once it became clear that Salgado would seek the governorship, Basilia went to police. By then, newspapers had started carrying stories about another rape accusation against Salgado.
A woman who worked for Salgado when he briefly ran a newspaper in Acapulco had gone to police in 2016 to say that he had drugged and raped her. She said Salgado recorded a video of the first attack and used it as blackmail to rape her on at least two more occasions.
The investigation went nowhere. The top prosecutor in the state at the time, Xavier Olea, recently told journalists that his office dropped the case after the governor of the state asked him to not arrest Salgado. The prosecutor’s office has since reopened the case.
Other allegations have also become public in recent months, including a sexual harassment claim filed by a woman who worked for Salgado while he was mayor of Acapulco in 2007.
The well-known Guerrero writer Marxitania Ortega wrote a Facebook post that Salgado assaulted her at a book event several years ago.
“He was drunk, and when he approached me he did it in the worst way, lewd and with an improper hug, to say the least,” she said. She said she saw Salgado do the same thing to a friend on another occasion.
As the accusations against Salgado mounted, anger rose within Morena about Salgado’s nomination.
The party “cannot remain silent in the face of possible cases of rape,” said Citlalli Hernandez, Morena’s secretary general.
The decision even came under criticism from López Obrador’s interior secretary, Olga Sánchez Cordero, who is known for being fiercely loyal.
“Unrestricted respect for the right of women to live without violence is a necessary condition for an elected official,” she said.
Women play a growing role in Mexican politics. Thanks to a 2014 constitutional reform calling for parity in the legislature, just under 50% of elected leaders in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies are now women.
Paola Zavala Saeb, a human rights attorney and feminist activist, said that representation means that for the first time women are being heard.
“Before we couldn’t do it because we didn’t have these microphones,” she said.
Aimee Vega Montiel, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Mexico, said that after decades of activism — spurred in part by the slayings of hundreds of women in the border city of Juarez beginning in the 1990s — Mexico’s feminists have finally shown “that violations of women’s rights are not normal and are not natural.”
For Basilia’s part, she said she hopes that López Obrador will drop support for Salgado. She, too, has been a loyal supporter to López Obrador throughout his political career.
“I hope the president … can understand that this is not a lie,” she said.
Then she made a direct plea: “Mr. President, don’t protect a rapist.”
Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.