Experts in Mexico say that pregnant women are being murdered so that their unborn babies can be stolen and sold on the black market, or raised as the killer's own.
Maria Salguero, a geophysicist at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City, created a map of femicides – the murders of women based on their gender. She says there have been at least 12 cases over the past eight years involving the murder of young, vulnerable pregnant women in order to sell their unborn fetuses or keep the babies to raise.
In one case, according to Animal Politico, 20-year-old college student Nathaly Cartas Leon posted on Facebook that she was looking for work to support her unborn child in Reynosa, 2014.
She was contacted by 17-year-old Damaris Rocio Jimenez – who had lied and told her boyfriend that she was pregnant – posing as a potential employer. Jimenez invited Leon to her rented house, then murdered the pregnant student and removed the fetus to raise as her own child. She was later convicted of homicide.
Salguero, who published her femicide map last year, says she began seeing a pattern after three new cases that occurred in March and April. The geophysicist says the practise primarily involves women under the age of 25 with low economic status and little social support.
"These cases where women murder young women with few resources, offering them clothes and economic help for their babies, or offering to get them access to social programs. With that trick they take the (pregnant women) and kill them," says Salguero.
Jimena Soria, an analyst at the Information of Chosen Reproduction Group, says the state has a responsibility not only to protect young mothers physically, but also to provide work and healthcare services.
In one case, an unborn fetus was cut from its mother in order to be sold on the black market for just over US$27,500. In every other case, the murderer stole the unborn child in order to raise it as her own.
Soria says the most viable explanation is the pressure placed on young women to become mothers: "In the machista context that we live in, the mandate of motherhood is synonymous with being a woman. It's something that yes or yes, you have to do.
"This stereotype persists and is harmful. Here we see the extreme harm. This isn't just about making women responsible, it's about being critical of (machismo) and seeing how to change it."
Convictions have been secured in all of the 12 murders identified by Salguero. Four of the babies died, but eight have been returned to their biological families.
Because figures from the National Register of Kidnapped and Disappeared don't account for whether the victim was pregnant, the true scale of the issue is unknown and state officials are reluctant to investigate.
What the register does indicate is that up until February of this year, 100 babies under the age of one year have disappeared, while 137 aged between one and two years also vanished.
Activists are calling for a database in order to track such cases because they suspect the killings are the work of an organized crime syndicate.
"These have been minimized and taken as isolated cases," said Soria. "We could be seeing a phenomenon, but we don't know what's behind this.
"Investigators aren't seeing if these murderers are acting alone or within a network of contact. The state isn't committed to analyzing this phenomenon in its entirety or looking at these in great depth."