A woman's place is in the struggle: Death in Juarez

July 23, 2003

In the Mexican border city of Juarez, women keep dying. In the last 10 years, hundreds, maybe more than 1000, women have been murdered in Juarez and, despite increasing feminist organisation, authorities have yet to even slow the phenomenal death rate.

Juarez, population 1.5 million, is a maquiladora city. More than 500 factories operate in the city, employing mostly women at an average of US$55 for a 45-hour work week. More maquiladora workers live in Juarez than in any other Mexican city.

In 1993, as the sweatshops were cranking up, the murder rate of women in Juarez jumped to three a month, the official level it has remained ever since. Unofficially, the rate is even higher. While some 330 women have been listed as murdered since 1993, another 600 have been reported as missing.

And while the bodies of murdered women keep turning up in dumpsters, the desert and urban lots, police are still refusing to systematically search for more. Some of the murdered women have turned into mere skeletons by the time they are found.

Garnering most of the media attention has been the "serial killer" murders, accounting for around 90 of the confirmed homicides. These women were kidnapped, raped, tortured, killed and dumped.

Many women have been kidnapped while travelling to and from work. The corporations running the maquiladora, however, have refused to take any responsibility. Factories refuse to stop the last-minute shift changes that force women to travel alone.

Claudia Gonzalez was turned away at the factory gate for being four minutes late to work, and attempted to walk home. Her body was found a month later. Her employer, Lear Corporation, told the September Salon magazine that the company did not need to change its practices, because the murder "didn't happen on Lear property".

The North America Free Trade Agreement exempts the sweatshops from any laws requiring them to provide better security — because such laws might interfere with "the ability to make profit". Eighty per cent of the Juarez factories are US-owned, and they generate US$16 billion a year in profits. Yet most of their workers live without telephone access, many without electricity, and the companies pay only token taxes.

The authorities reaction to these murders has not been better. A Spanish-language documentary, Senorita Extravida, features the region's assistant attorney-general arguing that a curfew would solve the problem. "All the good people should stay at home with their families", he said. The attorney-general was worse: "Unfortunately, there are women who are in danger because of their lifestyles. After all, it's very hard to go out on the street when its raining and not get wet."

The police have have refused to change the regulation requiring 72 hours to pass before someone can be reported as missing, despite many of the victims being tortured for days before being killed. One rumour suggests the police are involved in the killings.

Other rumours attribute the murders to one or a group of serial murderers, snuff movie production, drug-related gang wars, a bus-driver homicide network and an organ-stealing racket. But none of these explain the misogyny that appears to have much of the city in its grip.

Most of Juarez's murdered women were not killed by strangers — although their cases receive less media attention. They are being killed by boyfriends, husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, drug dealers and crime gangs with astonishing frequency and brutality.

Women drug dealers have been dissolved in vats of acid, wives set alight and young children raped by relatives and dumped in the desert to die. A teenager tortured his girlfriend (and her sister) for days before killing her — because she kissed another boy.

Esther Chavez founded the first, and only, women's crisis centre in Juarez. She argues that the murders are related to the profound social changes the sweatshops have created.

The maquiladora have turned traditional Mexican gender relations upside down. The sweatshops employ women almost entirely, since — due to centuries of sexist bigotry — they are cheaper than male workers and have less experience of union organisation. As the sweatshops have taken over the town, most of the better paid, male employment has vanished, leaving many families dependent on a low, female wage.

A growth in US visitors to Juarez, combined with rapidly increasing poverty, has increased drug sales and prostitution. One resident told University of Texas sociologist Pablo Vila that the city needed to be cleaned of "evil things", not only the bars, but "the women".

"Men are no longer king of the home", Chavez told author Debbie Nathan in 2001. She described Juarez as "awash with male rage", adding: "This city has become a place to murder and dump women."

Far from easing the problems by creating stable, well-paid work for everyone, better services for women and education programs on sexism and violence, the corporate bosses continue to argue that the situation has nothing to do with them. The police continue to claim that the situation is under control. And the women of Juarez just keep disappearing.

Green Left Weekly first reported on the situation in Juarez in July 2001. Since then, another 100 bodies have been found, and another 300 women have been listed as missing. The murder rate of women in neighbouring Mexican cities is now increasing. Last month, the bodies of three murdered women were found in nearby Chihuahua City.


From Green Left Weekly, July 23, 2003.
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