Women of Juarez

What cause has rallied activists like Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek? Feminists, social justice advocates and human rights activists internationally have joined forces to fight femicide – the systematic killing of women. Ciudad Juárez has recently gained international attention for the femicide of over 400 women found raped and murdered during the last decade. As a result of the murders, Juárez has become a center for protest against sexual violence throughout Mexico. Last year, Jennifer Lopez starred in Bordertown, a movie about the massacre of women along the border. These tragedies have been the focus on several movies, documentaries, articles and books. Sadly, the tragedy of young women found mutilated, tortured and raped has not come to an end.

The Mexican town of Ciudad Juárez is a community that stands on the Rio Grande across the border from El Paso, Texas. It is the largest Mexican border city with a population of nearly two million and about 300 assembly factories known as maquiladoras.

In her book, The Killing Fields, author Diana Washington Valdez chronicles the decade of deaths of women in Juárez. According to her book, “hundreds of women are brutally killed or missing in Juárez, Mexico, and no one does anything about it…Serial killers, drug dealers, gangs and powerful men are getting way with murder.”

These killings remain unsolved and several theories exist on the true culprits. Some blame the corrupt police, other cases are attributed to family violence and others blame the Juniors, sons of the wealthy class. Gang members, drug cartels, organ traffickers, powerful business owners, bus drivers and sick sex-offenders are all suspected of being behind the vicious killings. Many believe powerful corrupt men in government, business and the police have covered up these atrocities. The city has gained a reputation for is encouraging sex offenders who flock from both sides of the border to this lawless location to rape and murder of women. Only few have been punished. Bus drivers, “Los Rebeldes” gang members and the Egyptian chemist Abdel Sharif have been thrown in jail. Yet, the rapes and murders have not stopped. The families of some of the victims believe the murderers will never be brought to justice.

The history of female mass murders in Juárez began in 1993. In response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States and Mexico, American-owned assembly plants were constructed in Ciudad Juárez. The recently established plantations attracted a vast number of migrants from all over Mexico. The migrants were mainly poor, indigenous and campesino (farmworker) families in hope of finding a job at the maquiladora plantations. It was primarily women who were employed at the factories. They worked full time at the maquiladoras and at the same time went to school. Some girls in their early teens falsified documents to be able to work and support their families. Another portion of them were not obligated to support their family, but worked to buy a nice clothes because their parents could not afford such luxuries. The women never imagined the horrors that would await them. Working at the plantations transformed the lives of hundreds of women who were raised in a patriarchal culture to become domestic housewives. The factories offered them the opportunity to become more independent and liberal.

A great number of daughters, mothers and sisters began disappearing. Then, corpses began to appear thrown in the outer dessert areas of Juárez. Many of the victims worked in the factories and were attacked while they were traveling to and from work late at night. Most of the victims in the beginning shared a common pattern. Many of the young women had similar physical characteristics such as long dark hair, full lips, cinnamon color skin and petite body size. Most of them were abducted on or from their way to work or school. They were beaten, raped and strangled to death. The first group of victims shared the same mutilation marks; they had their right breast severed and their left breast bitten off.

When worried family members went to the police department, they were treated rudely, coldly and were derogatorily told that their daughter “probably ran off with a boy.” Their reports were delayed for 72 hours, and sometimes it took days of waiting until one was finally made. The majority of girls were found dead. In the beginning, the authorities did not pay attention to this issue. Many officers were not trained properly on how to deal with these type of crimes or to properly handle the clues that would lead to a suspect.

Several people have been arrested for this crime, but the killings continue. One of the most recent individuals who was captured as a sexual predator was Gustavo Haro. He is a U.S. resident and was arrested November 12, 2007 for the rape of 12 women in the cities of Juárez, Mexico and El Paso. He repeatedly crossed the border to rape a total of 10 women in Juarez and two in El Paso.

Sadly, the mindset among many community members related to the murders was that the woman “asked for it” with their liberal attitudes and they way they dressed. The police have told false claims to the public that the women killed had a double life “working at the cantinas (bars), or local strip clubs.”

“Mexico’s machista culture [is] stepped in its requirements to prove one’s manhood at any cost,” wrote Washingon Valdez. “In extreme cases, machismo manifests itself in domestic violence and in the attitude of police who belittle reports of sexual assaults or family violence.”

Several families did not insist on a further investigation because they were poor and did not have the means to get a lawyer. Many families were hesitant to pursue legal action because they did not want their daughters’ memories stained with false accusations. When families insisted on further investigation, the police often pointed and accused innocent family members as suspects.

The police of Mexico have a reputation for their corruption. Because they earn low wages, some police officers have turned to corruption including illegal drug trafficking for extra money. Another reason for their lack of performance is the level of education and the insufficient funds provided to supply their department with the appropriate equipment for investigation. It is known that some police created false evidence to point to their suspect of choice. It is suspected that some men were thrown in jail without fault. In their initial investigations, the police did not take advantage of the blood or sperm samples that were stained in the girls’ clothes. In fact, a controversial incident was reported when the police burned the possible clothes, hair and other clues found at the crime scenes. When identifying the corpses many mixed the corpse with the wrong name and other bodies are yet to be identified today.

The police investigation is often criticized by activist because suspects are charged under insufficient evidence undergo extreme methods of torture during their confession. “Police are not supportive enough, professional, are technology deficient and local, state, and federal entities do not assume responsibility,” said activist Dr. Coronado, a member of the Coalition on Violence Against Women.

“The best information we have is that these men are committing crimes simply for the sport of it,” wrote Washington Valdez. “The authorities know who the killers are, and nothing’s being done about it.”

With the continuing deaths and little action being taken by government to stop them, women began forming activist organizations. The pressure of activist groups like Amigos De Mujeres, The Coalition on Violence Against Women, Hijas de Regreso a Casa, Women for Juárez and others have gradually brought awareness to the issues and forced the authorities to take action.

Dr. Irasema Coronado, an Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso, is a member of the Coalition on Violence Against Women And Families who has been working on the lack of respect towards women since the nineties. The Coalition has “visited the city council, attended Texas and Congressional Legislations to try to bring awareness and bring about a resolution to the murders of Juarez,” said Coronado. “The Coalition also marched on V-day, a huge event that brought over 7,000 people from all over the globe.” The V-Day march in 2004 was transmitted by the media to all over the world.

Dr. Coronado believes that education is the key to bringing violence on women to an end. She advocates for the education of these women of Juárez who many times don’t have the opportunity to graduate from high school. Poor women of Juárez have been more vulnerable to being harassed, disrespected and raped.

Arte Sana was founded on the international day of women on March 8, 2001 to help victims of violence heal their wounds through art. Laura Zarate, a co-founder of the program in Austin, Texas, explains that members of this group “give presentations and try to educate the community to prevent violence against women.” “This program has brought awareness to the murders of Juarez by creating an altar that displayed hundreds of pink crosses to remember the victims of Juárez,” she added.

Despite their efforts, the battle against rape and murder continues. All the dead women of Juarez and their families deserve justice. Violence against women is an issue that affects us all. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, being a woman makes us ten times more susceptible to sexual assault. “Women and girls have a lot of power to make a difference in another person’s life,” shared Zarate.

Activists like Coronado, Zarate and Washington Valdez have dedicated to continuing to advocate for this cause until the violence ends. Together, women and human rights advocates have rallied to the motto of “ni una mas (not one more).” Women and girls can help by volunteering, making donations or participating in activities to bring awareness to the rapes and killing of women in Juárez. For more information and to get involved to end the violence, visit these websites:


by Rosie Frausto & Nancy Moya

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