The police officers at the entrance allowed her inside, breaking security protocols, and later failed to check her car when Cáceres left the facility in it. Despite at least 20 officers and cadets hearing Bernal's cries for help while Cáceres was strangling her, no one intervened. An investigation began, but it was plagued by a series of systemic failures and acts of negligence. Cáceres was questioned by the police but the prosecutor allowed him to leave, despite official requests to detain him, and he fled the country.
The subsequent search efforts for Bernal were marred by delays and misplaced priorities. Instead of promptly launching a comprehensive search, it was Bernal's mother and a network of supporters who took up the task of locating her, highlighting the profound inadequacies within the police response. It was not until four days after her disappearance that the police reluctantly initiated their search, further eroding public trust in their ability to act swiftly and effectively. Ultimately, Bernal's lifeless body was discovered six days later in a ravine near the police academy. The lack of transparency and accountability throughout the investigation intensified concerns regarding the integrity of the case. The gravity of the situation prompted Bernal's mother to appeal for the assistance of international authorities, recognising the urgent need for impartial oversight and intervention in the pursuit of justice.
María Belén’s murder ignited a social uprising, triggering widespread criticism that reverberated across traditional and social media platforms. In an attempt to quell the public outcry, the government initiated a deliberate campaign, a key part of which was the strategic instrumentalisation of women. The instrumental use of women (see Ewig, 2006; Blofield & Ewig, 2017; Colella, 2021) refers to the ways in which women are used as a means to an end, rather than being valued for their own intrinsic worth and capabilities. This concept illuminates how women are objectified, exploited, and devalued in various contexts including in politics, the media, and interpersonal relationships. After the murder of María Belén Bernal, the government started to include women in formal events, police demonstrations, and rallies. In this case, women - in their role of activist, officials, and experts - were to some extent used as visual props to achieve the goal of demonstrating the state’s dedication to addressing gender-based violence (GBV) without actually taking any concrete steps to address the structural causes perpetuating the issue.
A key aspect of this strategy was the placement of women alongside the president and other leaders during the communication of policies addressing GBV. For example, President Lasso held a press conference announcing his intention to meet with a diverse group of women to discuss potential policy changes. During the press conference, he was flanked by two dozen women ranging from indigenous leaders to policy makers. He repeated this tactic several times during the weeks after Bernal’s murder. Additionally, the government responded by implementing leadership changes that replaced male officials with women in key positions. Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso fired Colonel Francisco Zumárraga as the director of the National Police Academy and announced that he would be replaced by the first female official to hold this position, Colonel Irany Ramirez. Minister of the Interior Patricillo Carillo described this as a move to place the “strategic directorate of the National Police Academy under the governance of women” and that everything will be directed “in terms of gender equality”, without specifying what this would look like. Yet the state still lacked a comprehensive action plan and gave no indications that they would take further steps to make systemic reforms in areas such as policies, procedures, and training.
Another example of the instrumental use of women by the Ecuadorian state was President Lasso’s announcement that the state would demolish the police academy building where Bernal was murdered - which still stands today Once again surrounded by women, centering their gendered bodies, he declared that a new police academy would be constructed, with a fresh concept of "respect for women in a secure environment." Symbolic gestures, including the strategic placement of women in public positions, may convey an impression of progressiveness, but they fall short of effecting substantial changes or addressing systemic issues. Without an accompanying comprehensive action plan, these efforts are purely symbolic and lack the necessary depth to address underlying issues and power dynamics effectively. These actions center gendered bodies by using the presence of women to create a visual narrative of empathy, concern, and commitment while simultaneously overshadowing the need for broader structural changes and sustained efforts to address GBV.
The instrumentalisation of women was also evident during the events surrounding the discovery of Bernal’s body. As hundreds of protestors marched towards the National Police Headquarters, state officials recognised the potential for significant social unrest and deployed police officers in riot gear. However, there was a striking departure from the usual scene witnessed by protestors; the line of officers confronting the demonstrators was predominantly women. The deliberate deployment of female officers can be seen yet again as an instrumental use of women to manipulate public perception. By presenting a visual spectacle of women in positions of authority and power, the government sought to convey an image of progress and commitment to addressing GBV. This strategic move aimed to deflect criticism and placate public outrage. However, while this is visually impactful, it does not inherently address the root causes of GBV. Rather, it serves as a symbolic gesture that requires no comprehensive or substantive action that challenges the underlying systemic issues perpetuating GBV.
These measures could perhaps be seen as an important step towards challenging the status quo by promoting gender equality and increasing women's representation in traditionally male-dominated spaces such as the National Police Academy. However, in reality they are a form of tokenism, where women are used symbolically, to give the appearance of change without actually challenging the underlying power structures that perpetuate GBV. While symbolic measures can raise awareness and increase visibility of the issue, they may not lead to concrete policy changes that address the root causes of GBV.
Furthermore, it is crucial to consider if these efforts are used for political gain and how they might obscure violence against marginalised people. Again, symbolic gestures can be used to deflect criticism and placate public outcry, without addressing the underlying issues at play. Additionally, the focus on symbolic measures may divert attention from the violence and discrimination experienced by other marginalised groups.
In conclusion, the murder of María Belén Bernal in Ecuador sparked outrage and protests and prompted the government to take symbolic measures to address GBV. While these measures may increase the visibility of the issue, they have not led to concrete policy changes that address the root causes of GBV. Only by addressing the structural causes perpetuating the issue can we truly make progress towards ending gender-based violence.