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Note: This article is based on the writer's March 2003 trip to Juarez and El Paso. Most quotes are translated from Spanish, either by the writer or other translators.
The desert sand ripples around the bases of the eight pink wooden crosses, adorned with plastic roses, on the hill above the colonia of Anapra in Ciudad Juarez.
They stand like sentinels, across from a fence made of mattress springs, looking out over the sprawling collection of shacks constructed from tar paper, old wooden pallets and plastic crates discarded from the maquilas (factories) where most of the Anapra residents work.
The main traffic on the pitted, dusty dirt road curving by the crosses are the rattling, colorful buses--discarded school buses from the U.S. --that come each day around 5 a.m. and again around 2 p.m. to take residents to first and second maquila shifts. There's a joke circulating in the area that if you want to find Ciudad Juarez, you just follow the crosses. And there are a lot of them. These eight pink crosses commemorate the women whose bodies were found over the past few years in shallow graves in the dusty hilltop soil. Their bodies were found raped, mutilated and mangled. And they are far from the only ones.
Since 1993, over 350 women, most of them young maquila workers, have disappeared in Ciudad Juarez. The government lists at least 271 as official murders, though residents say the true number is likely much higher. Of these, 178 are listed as cases of domestic violence, with a jealous husband or lover to blame, while 93 are considered the work of a "serial killer" or killers of disputed and unknown identity. They are all part of the same phenomenon, however--a decade-long wave of hatred and brutality toward women in Juarez, characterized by its gut-wrenching perversity and the failure of the state, local and federal governments to take any meaningful steps to stop the killings or bring justice to the killers.
The bodies have been found individually as well as in groups of three, four, or eight. Most recently, on February 17 the bodies of three young women were found together and then a six-year-old girl's body was found a few days later. There are nipples, eyes and hearts cut out--signs of brutal rape and other forms of torture. Some were burned to a crisp, others left unburied to be decimated by the harsh desert elements. Some of the victims were buried wearing the clothing of other victims. They range in age from a three-year-old to an 80-year-old, but the bulk of them were young women between age 14 and 27. Many of them were described as having similar characteristics--tall, thin, lighter-skinned, attractive and fun-loving.
A high number of them disappeared in the course of their work at the maquilas, the over 400 companies--80 percent of them U.S.-owned--that have made this desert city a hub of international commerce. They disappear while waiting for or leaving the buses that take them to and from work, or after visiting the bars that are popular with maquila workers on Friday nights. Rumors abound as to who is responsible for the scores of unsolved killings. In 1995, the government arrested an Egyptian chemist named Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, who had been deported from the U.S. after serving time in jail for sex crimes. The murders continued after Sharif's incarceration, however. He was held for years without a conviction until recently being sentenced to 20 years for one of the handful of murders he had been charged with. Then the government blamed members of a street gang called Los Rebeldes (The Rebels). They claimed Sharif was paying the gang to keep killing women, maybe in an attempt to prove he wasn't to blame for the earlier killings. Others blame narcotraffickers, sex offenders who live in El Paso, or the government and police themselves for the killings.
A government roster of the victims lists many of the culprits as unknown. Likewise many of the women whose bodies were found were never identified, even though in some cases a specific person was charged with their murder. They are listed as "femenino desconocido" or "femenino no identificado"--unknown or unidentified woman. This is the way many of them were thought of in life as well as in death. The young women who work in the maquilas are like cogs in the machine of global commerce. They are expendable and interchangeable, putting in 45 hours or more per week at low-skill assembly line jobs for average pay of $24 to $35 per week, depending on the fluctuation of the peso. These are women who have streamed into Juarez from destitute towns and rural areas in central and southern Mexico.
The wages are low --not even enough to buy a basic weekly allotment of beans, tortillas, eggs, shampoo, aspirin and diapers, according to a study by the group Women on the Border. But they are jobs, more economic opportunity than the women had in their hometowns.
This influx of migrants to a virtually waterless town without the infrastructure to handle such population increase, has resulted in the growth of the sprawling shantytowns, called colonias, like Anapra on the outskirts of the city. Fifty percent of the roads in the colonias are unpaved, 30 percent of the residents don't have running water and at least 100,000 have no electricity, according to the labor group Centro de Educativos y Taller Laboral A.C. (CETLAC).
Maquilas started popping up in Juarez in the mid-1960s, originally started as a way to use the labor of male Mexican workers returning from the U.S. after the end of the "bracero" guest-worker program. U.S. and international companies, encouraged by the local and federal Mexican government, realized there was money to be made by harnessing low wage labor across the border to assemble goods for cheap transport back to the U.S. and around the world. Among the many maquilas currently operating in Juarez are Lear, Johnson and Johnson, Honeywell, Avon Automotive and Emerson. The maquilas make everything from electronics to pharmaceuticals to auto parts and household goods.
While the maquilas were originally intended to employ men, managers soon realized that it was in fact young women who made the perfect employees. They are considered more docile and obedient, and their young nimble fingers are better suited to the repetitive work. By the 1980s, about 90 percent of maquila workers were women. More men have become employed in the past decade, with the institution of maquilas making auto parts and other things requiring heavier lifting. But women still make up a sizable 58 percent of the approximately 230,000-person maquila workforce in Juarez.
At first glance, the maquilas look like decent places to work. They are gorgeously landscaped, clean and well lit. But in reality, the working conditions are far from satisfactory. Workers are forced to put in mandatory overtime on top of nine-hour days (that stretch to twelve hours when an average one-and-a-half-hour bus ride on each side is factored in). They are regularly exposed to toxic chemicals and dangerous machinery without adequate safety equipment. Sexual harassment and abuse in the maquilas is rampant. Women have virtually no choice but to submit to ongoing sexual harassment as well as actual abuse and rape to hold onto and advance in their jobs. Since the government mandates 60 days of paid leave for pregnant women, maquilas force women to take pregnancy tests and don't hire anyone who is pregnant. Former workers say that in some cases, these "pregnancy tests" consist of showing their used sanitary napkins to managers.
"All the corporations have the same code of conduct--sexual harassment, mandatory pregnancy tests, poor working conditions, humiliation," said Veronica Leiba, a former maquila worker and labor organizer.
Many women are also forced to resort to prostitution because of the impossibility of supporting a family on maquila wages.
This climate makes the rapes, sexual mutilations and murders more understandable. In everyday life, women are regularly treated as objects of manual labor and sexual gratification for men. That they would meet their deaths that way, and that no one in a position of power would even seem to care, is just the next step.
Return Our Daughters Home
Up until several years ago, Rosario Acosta was not an activist. But then her 12-year-old niece was murdered. While her young niece was not a maquila worker, the murder led Acosta to become obsessed with the mass murders of maquila workers and other young women. Today, she dedicates herself full time to the struggle to stop the murders and end the impunity enjoyed by many of the killers. She heads the group Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (May Our Daughters Return Home) out of a small office in Juarez.
Acosta has testified in front of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C. and met countless times with local, state and federal government officials demanding action. Since hearing the testimony of Acosta and others, last year the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, an arm of the OAS, launched an investigation into the killings and requested accountability from the Mexican government. While this was a welcome step, family members of the victims aren't holding their breath.
"It's promising, but at the same time it's all caught up in bureaucracy," said Acosta. "Meanwhile women continue to disappear. The government wants to hide the problem. The attorney general and the prosecutors are just reducing these lives to numbers. They don't really recognize what's going on, the pain and suffering of the families, the impact it has on every family in this crisis."
The Mexican government has appointed a string of special prosecutors to investigate the killings, but like Acosta, most victims' families, other maquila workers, and many in the general public feel the government is not taking even the most basic steps to adequately investigate and prevent the killings.
"Over 300 women have been murdered in Juarez, and no serious investigation is being done," said Texas state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh at a rally in El Paso, just across the border from Juarez, on International Women's Day, March 8, 2003.
In a documentary produced by Lourdes Portillo called "Senorita Extraviada" (Missing Woman) exploring the killings, mothers of the murdered women describe how police refused to investigate their daughters' disappearances at all, often saying they must have run off with a boyfriend. "When women report their daughter has disappeared, the police respond by challenging the families to convince them of the importance of doing a search," said Acosta. "The police ask personal questions--did she have a boyfriend, was she planning to go out. They say the girls weren't careful enough."
Many blame the government's failure to stop the killings on ineptness and a lack of effort on the part of the local police. There is a binational effort to get the FBI involved in the investigations, a plan which the U.S. has been amenable to but which, besides a few joint trainings, the Mexican government has failed to embrace.
Others have a darker view of the police's failure to adequately investigate the murders. In the maquilas and colonias of Juarez, many believe police and government officials themselves are responsible for many of the killings.
"It's the police doing it, that's why they won't investigate," said a 25-year-old male cafeteria worker at the Lear maquila after a shift in early March. "That's what everyone thinks. They say people get paid to bring them women, 500 pesos (about $50 U.S.) for each woman."
In Portillo's documentary, a woman describes being raped and abused while in police custody. She says the police showed her photos of mutilated bodies in the desert, and threatened that she would be next if she reported her rape.
Blaming the Victims
The explanation for the killings, often given by the police and government, including the governor of the state of Chihuahua, is that the women were involved in prostitution or drug trafficking, and that they shouldn't have been out by themselves at night. But this excuse doesn't stand up to the most basic logic, since some of the women, including the bodies found February 17, were abducted in broad daylight. Others are forced to be out alone in the dark because their maquila shifts end at 12:30 a.m. or they have to catch 5 a.m. buses in the morning.
"The maquila owners say the reason they're getting killed is they're wearing those short skirts and going dancing," said Victor Munoz, a Chihuahua native and member of an El Paso-based coalition against the killings. "It's the attitude of blaming the victim."
Advocates say efforts to get the maquilas to provide more security for women on their way to and from work have gone nowhere.
"We've raised the issue of safety with the maquilas, but they keep telling us they're doing everything they can and there's nothing more they can do," said Beatriz Lujan, a leader of CETLAC.
Even if the victims were working as prostitutes, or had willingly gone on dates with their eventual killers, this doesn't justify the murders or decrease the government's responsibility to investigate them. The same applies to the known domestic violence victims, many of whose killers have gotten off scot-free or with relatively light sentences.
On a larger level, many see the murders as part of an overall culture that wants to keep women subservient and dependent on men. This includes both the maquila owners who want their female employees to be docile and obedient, and husbands who want their wives to be the same way.
Women say there is also general resentment from men at the fact women are earning money and taking jobs in a tight economy. Overwhelming and increasing poverty just exacerbates these feelings.
"There are a lot of problems for poor people in Juarez," said Esther Chavez Cano, founder of Casa Amiga, the only domestic violence crisis center in the city. "Jobs are being lost at the maquilas and the maquilas are paying less. Domestic violence increases, alcoholism has increased tremendously. In our culture, men feel they are supposed to be the supporters of the family, and they are frustrated that the women are earning the money, so they abuse more."
The recession in the U.S., and the growing interest in even cheaper labor in Asia, has had a significant effect on the maquila industry in the past few years. Over 30 maquilas have recently closed, at a loss of about 100,000 jobs. Yet economic conditions in the rest of Mexico continue to worsen as well, so the stream of workers up to Juarez continues. This squeeze threatens to make the violence against women even worse. With more competition for jobs, maquilas will have even less incentive to provide decent working conditions, wages and security measures for women. And the increased economic pressure on men will cause many to take out their frustrations on their domestic partners, not to mention increasing men's anger at competing with women for fewer maquila jobs.
"The maquilas are not trying to create better conditions, and worker frustration is increasing," said Leiba. "This is a time bomb waiting to go off."
La Lucha Continua
The situation is not without hope, however. A variety of women's groups and organizations of the victims' mothers have formed in Juarez to fight for accountability, justice and the prevention of more killings. Coalitions have also been formed with U.S. groups near the border and major U.S. foundations have funneled financial resources to the struggle.
The event on International Women's Day drew about 500 people marching through El Paso and Juarez, demanding an end to the murders and violence against women in general. The issue is urgent, entailing not only the search for justice for past victims and the safety of potential victims but symbolizing the well being and hope of Mexican women as a whole. At a March 5 reading by Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, author of a new book, Huesos Secos (Dry Bones), about the killings, distraught audience members from El Paso and Juarez said as much.
"These young women represent the future of Mexico," said one young woman. "And they are being killed. That is a metaphor for the future of Mexico."
Kari Lydersen is a journalist based in Chicago and an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program. She writes for In These Times, Punk Planet, Clamor and LiP magazine, among others.
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