The Dead Women of Juárez
Posted by caitlinate on January 28, 2009
At the end of 1993 the United States, Canada and Mexico created a trilateral trade agreement called NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). As a result of this a lot of multinationals from the United States moved their factories and production lines over the border from the U.S. in Mexico. In particular to a city called Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. Currently over 400 maquiladoras (factories that import materials and equipment on a duty-free and tariff-free basis for assembly or manufacturing and then re-exports the assembled product, usually back to the originating country) operate in Juárez and produce tens of billions of dollars in goods for export [into the U.S.] annually. Maquiladoras often employ young women – who flock to the town with the hope of finding work and economic security. Many of these women experience long commutes to their jobs and work long shifts for low pay. They work in areas that are a long walk from transport, are badly lit and not particularly populated.
The result? Over the last 15 years Ciudad Juárez has seen over 400 women fall victim to sexual homicides.
According to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights:
“The victims of these crimes have preponderantly been the state of young women, between 12 and 22 years of age. Many were students, and most were maquiladora workers. A number were relative newcomers to Ciudad Juárez who had migrated from other areas of Mexico. The victims were generally reported missing by their families, with their bodies found days or months later abandoned in vacant lots or outlying areas. In most of these cases there were signs of sexual violence, abuse, torture or in some cases mutilation.”
In 2005 Amnesty estimated that more than 370 women’s bodies have been found and that more than 400 women were still missing. That was three years ago. To date the number of women has risen to approximately 600.
In the last few years, the Mexican government has placed the case under federal oversight to address concerns that police in Ciudad Juárez were not doing enough to investigate the killings. The Federal Special Prosecutor’s Office has put out several reports on the situation, and 2005 saw the creation of the Special Commission for the Prevention and Eradication of Violence against Women in Ciudad Juárez. Yet somehow, despite the pressure to catch the killers and crack down on the violence, women continue to disappear on their way home from work, the local government continues to downplay the crisis, and the murderers continue to go unpunished.
Perhaps not surprising in a country where violently forcing a spouse to engage in sexual relations is not defined as rape but as the “undue exercise of a right” and where there is continuing and pervasive impunity for rape and other forms of sexual violence. Further, in 2006 Human Rights Watch released a report claiming that Mexican officials actively prevent rape victims from gaining access to legal and safe abortion, and they fail to punish rape and sexual violence inside and outside the family. A number of states still do not criminalize domestic violence specifically, or only do so in cases of repeated violence.
In 2007 the body count (overall) for Ciudad Juárez stood at 1,075 slayings. To give a comparison: in the same year New York City saw approximately 500 homicide related deaths. NYC has a population of 19.7 million people. Ciudad Juárez has just 1.5 million people. Following the ‘success’ of a crackdown on a drug cartel in the area (which supply most of the stuff that goes up Kate Moss’ nose) a series of violent turf wars have erupted resulting in a terrifying escalation to the violence. In 2008 5,400 people were murdered in Ciudad Juárez.
The problem is just getting worse.
Yet one has to reflect on the fact that so much international focus is placed on Juárez. An average of 1,000 women a year were murdered in Mexico, a country of 103 million, between 1995 and 2005 (according to official figures). Ciudad Juárez does not even appear on the list of the places where the largest number of killings occurred. Across the border in Guatemala, which has a population of 13 million, 600 women were killed in 2006 alone. From 2001 to 2006, 1,320 women were killed in El Salvador – a country of 7 million people.
A report published by the UN declared that
“Femicide occurs everywhere, but the scale of some cases of femicide within community contexts — for example, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and Guatemala — has drawn attention to this aspect of violence against women… impunity for these crimes is seen as a key factor in these occurrences.”
Despite the high numbers and despite the fact these crimes also go (mostly) unpunished, these places have not enjoyed the same notoriety as in Ciudad Juárez. Juárez seems to have almost become representative of femicide in South America. As though if we in the ‘western world’ focus all our energies there we can make ourselves feel better about the tragedy occuring elsewhere. In Australia indigenous women might not be physically being slaughtered but they and their children face a disproportionate level of sexual assault (compared to white Australians) and are having their autonomy and communties eroded or displaced by policy decided by a white government. What are you doing about it? What have you read and learnt and found out about it? It is happening here and are you doing anything is solidarity?
Some one asked me the other day if I thought the prevalence of violence in the Muslim world was due to religion. I suppose the same question could be asked of Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador – though perhaps replacing religion with the word culture. I don’t think so. I think white people and white men and white law manifest their hatred of women differently and in different ways. I’m not from South America and I haven’t been there, nor have I been to many Muslim countries. But one thing that reading the stories of women from these places tells me is that whilst those women may be more physically oppressed than us, more likely to be violently beaten and raped and enslaved – they aren’t taught to hate themselves the way we are, they aren’t tricked into believing they are free and they still celebrate the fact that they are women.
I know that women in Ciudad Juárez and Indigenous women in Australia seem worlds apart. I know that both of them are very complicated and nuanced issues that I have certainly not done justice to here. I think part of all this is to encourage you to try and do justice to them. Go out and research and learn. Please.
But on the topic of Ciudad Juárez here is some practical advice. Ciudad Juárez has only 1,600 police officers and better training is need for the police and justice sectors. Write to the President of Mexico, the Governor of Chihuahua State (where Juárez is located) asking for these things. Write to the Chihuahua State Public Prosecutor asking for justice. Visit the Casa Amiga site to find out more about the women Ciudad Juárez and how you can help. Visit Libertad Latina a site dedicated to ending the sexual oppression of Latina, Indigenous and African women and children in the Americas with some AMAZING resources and articles for your reading pleasure. Hell, even sign the petition.
But most of all. Go out and do something.