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Mexico Guru

Murder by Another Name

by Lucina Kathmann

Since the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 an issue has been newly identified, feminicide (or femicide), gender-related murder. Bride-burnings and honor killings are feminicides, and so are the Women of Juárez.

The First Period of Feminicides in Ciudad Juárez

Starting in 1993, bodies of murdered young women began to be found around Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city across the Rio Grande (or Río Bravo) from El Paso, Texas.

At first this was thought to be the work of a single deranged person. Early reports identified the women as prostitutes. Neither claim is correct. The women were very largely workers in the maquilas, the 3000 mostly-US-owned assembly plants in the Free Trade Zone near the US/Mexico border. The 1994 trade pact NAFTA encouraged the rapid development of these operations, attracting a large workforce of women to the US/Mexico border. Many came to the border without their families. The victims of these feminicides were poor, young working women.

More and more body dumps in the desert were found, then in the city as well. There were hundreds of bodies. Finally everyone agreed that no one person could have killed them all. Nobody knew why they were murdered. There seemed to be no motive. Yet the gender-related element was clear. All the remains in these body dumps were of young women.

Many people were concerned, but no answers were found. The problem was supplanted with another, even graver problem.

The Generalized Violence

In December 2006, President Felipe Calderón of Mexico announced a war on drugs and sent the army to the border with the United States. This started a wave of generalized violence that grew to an undeclared war. The epicenter was Ciudad Juárez. Tens of thousands were killed in the city between 2007 and 2012, mostly men. Some were killed by organized drug forces and others by governmental policing forces. Some were targeted, some were collateral casualties. At the same time, there were waves of kidnappings and extortion of businesses. The crimes were not investigated, and nobody was punished. Everyone lived in fear. Residents fled en masse. Ciudad Juárez went from a thriving city of 2 million down to 800,000. Only the very poor were left.

The situation began to change in 2012. Nobody was brought to justice, but one criminal organization won the turf war for the drug route through Ciudad Juárez. The major fighting moved eastward to Laredo, Reynosa and other cities along the frontier. There are still many murders in Ciudad Juárez, but the majority of the generalized violence now occurs elsewhere.

The Second Period of Feminicides

Ciudad Juárez remains the epicenter of murdered and disappeared women. However, for a long time no large dumps of women's remains like the previous ones have been found. Instead, women simply go missing. Many families in Ciudad Juárez have lost a woman. This happens on in the rest of the country as well. A poster I saw in the San Miguel de Allende post office said “Is there a woman missing in your family?” It gave a number of a governmental office to call.

The women now going missing in Ciudad Juárez are more likely to be students, not maquila workers. Many maquilas were closed during the generalized violence. Today's disappeared women are still young and poor. They come from the same section of the city as the ones who were murdered earlier, the dusty, mountainous west side, where sudden acclivities and declivities turn the streets into dead ends. Neighborhoods are full of boarded up houses and businesses which collapsed during the generalized violence. There are only two schools on the west side; all the other high schools and colleges are in the flatter and more hospitable east. The maquilas too are in the east.

During both phases of the violence against women, whether en route to the maquila or to school, most victims were unprotected and traveling on public transportation many hours a day. They typically changed buses in the center of town, where within a six square block area a large percentage of the women were last seen, both then and now. Signs or leaflets offering paying work may have directed the women to some address in this area. There is no information because no women have come back alive.

Where have they gone? Are there body dumps which have not yet been found? Are they trafficked or harvested for organs for someplace else? They have not turned up anywhere so nobody knows. An even more grisly aspect to this phase of the feminicide is that without a body, there is no way to prove they have died, so their children get no benefits of insurance or other arrangement their mother may have made. (This problem applies to all women who have disappeared, reporters as well. If the body is not found, authorities can say “Oh she probably just ran off with her boyfriend,” and there is no defense.)

Serious investigation might reveal more, but little investigation has been done. There is a gendered element to why not. These are 1) poor 2) young 3) non-white 4) women. They are at the intersection of four factors typically and chronically under-serviced, in life and in death. Their problems do not have priority.

Boxes of Bones

There has been some shoddy work done, too. Mexican authorities have claimed to identify remains, packed them in a box and delivered them to the alleged families. Some mothers have looked in the boxes and said they do not recognize the shreds of clothing as belonging to their daughters. Others, having received a box from an investigation of one burial site, have later had another box of their alleged daughter's remains delivered to them from the investigation of another burial site. Needless to say, soon there was no confidence whatever in the quality of the Mexican government's forensic investigation.

The Cotton Fields Case

In 2001 eight bodies of young women were found dumped in a former cotton field which was across the street from an administrative building of a maquila, in the eastern part of Ciudad Juárez. All had been victims of sexual abuse, torture and murder. Three of the bodies were misidentified at first. No effective investigation was performed, and when the families involved began to take legal action they were harassed and threatened by the authorities. Eventually three mothers who became the legal plaintiffs forced a team of Argentine forensic scientists to be called in. That team identified seven of the eight bodies. One of the bodies has still only been identified by Mexican forensic workers.

The courageous mothers took the case all the way to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica, and obtained a judgment against Mexico. The conditions mandated by that judgment were numerous. They involved improving the protocols for investigation of feminicides, initiating investigations, starting educational campaigns and websites about feminicide, making a public apology and creating a permanent memorial to the victims which was acceptable to the plaintiffs.

The Mexican government is behind in the complicated schedule of reparations imposed by the court, but it has complied with some, in particular the memorial park. The cotton field where the bodies were found will be a permanent park dedicated to the memory of the victims of feminicide. This park was opened in March 2012, and its crowning artwork, a beautiful sculpture by the Chilean woman artist Verónica Leiton, was installed in August of 2012. This park is located at the intersection of Paseo de la Victoria and Ejército Nacional, next to the Hotel Conquistador Inn, near the US Consulate. It is always open and has a 24 hour watchman.