Many people look at the murders in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua and they see a mystery. 370 femicides (murders of women) in ten years and up to 400 more disappeared; a rate that has increased from three a year to an average of three a month since 1994. Many of the bodies are found in the desert as unrecognizable corpses: bloated, burned, disfigured and all but decomposed. An undisclosed but probable majority have been raped and brutally tortured for days; often dragged, beaten, strangled and then hastily concealed in the desert sand. They are young women and girls, most between the ages of 14 and 25. High-school students last seen on their way home after school. Sweat-shop workers who have to walk miles alone through the desert at night after a 12 or 15 hour work-day. People ask: Who could be committing these horrendous crimes? How is it still possible after ten long years?
I think that calling the bordertown murders a “mystery” takes the potential power out of looking at the hideous truth. It assumes a riddle with a simple answer, something ugly but outside of our reality and our lives. The question of who committed the crimes is of course central if there is ever to be justice or safely for any woman living or dying in this bordertown region. It should be the driving force for anyone who believes in human rights, locally and internationally, especially those directly involved in investigating these crimes and attempting to protect more women from the same fate.
The question of who is central, yet considering the cover-ups, the scant and unreliable evidence, the question can easily be reduced to guess-work and speculation, which in turn often has the danger of being self-serving or a placating device. We want something to make us feel better, someone locked up, so that the illusion of safety and resolution will allow us to avert our attention from the horror and pain.
This is what many believe has happened in the case of the only convicted criminal for any of these crimes since they began in 1994, that of the Egyptian “outsider” Abdel Latif Sharif, who police tried to frame for a whole series of murders, many of which were actually committed while he was in custody (“executed from the inside”). Many believe Sharif has been used as an obvious scapegoat, a non-native with “evil eyes” meant to defer the problem and keep people from looking closer to home. Other suspects linked to the crimes by more compelling evidence have had to be released due to falsified evidence and/or signs of torture (cuts, bruises and burns) that may have lead to a forced confession.
Femicide is happening all over the planet and women are the casualties of every war against the body, spirit and mind. Yet on the U.S./Mexico bordertowns of Juárez and Chinuahua the epidemic has become extreme, condensed and in that sense site-specific. Though the situation is centered around the sweat-shop culture in this particular part of the world, it is in reality indicative and exemplary of global capitalism, of the consequences of free-trade and the extent to which the profit-driven world that we live in will go in its unaccountability and disregard for life. For these reasons, the question that involves and in some way implicates every human being is not only who are the perpetrators of these brutal crimes but, what made them, to what purpose and why ?
Almost exactly ten years ago NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) turned Juárez into a “free zone” for corporations (80% U.S. owned) looking for cheap labor and next to no environmental restrictions. Some of the over 300 maquilas (sweatshops) in Juárez, which together gross an average of $16 billion a year, are General Motors, General Electric, Ford, Dupont, Philips and Alcoa. As soon as the sweatshops began popping up, thousands of people began migrating from all over Mexico. Young women looking for jobs are preferred for factory work because they are “nimble,” along with being typically inexperienced with labor organizing and willing to work for less pay. As a result, 60% of the people employed in maquilas on the border are women making 4 to 5 dollars a day. Rapid and uncontrollable globalization has turned Juárez, and the entire U.S./Mexican border, into a kind of “free zone” for all sorts of crime, such as the drug and sex trades, along with total corporate exploitation. It is a model for the socio-economic structure that Eduardo Galleano writes, “scorns life and idolizes things.”
What is normal, what is acceptable? If you are a man or a woman living in a system that values your life and your labor as close to nothing, one unfortunate consequence is that you might start to believe what they tell you about yourself. The same tactics of social control that are used by the “powerful” to subjugate are internalized and self-perpetuated within oppressed communities. It follows that if you come to consider your own lives to be worthless, you will extend that assessment to the people around you.
Take, for example, the public blame placed on the women for their own murders. After stating the blatant and unfounded generalization that the murdered women dressed provocatively and went out to bars at night, Arturo Gonzales Rascón, attorney general of the state of Chihuahua under the jurisdiction of which both Juárez and Chihuahua fall, argued that “After all, it’s very hard to go out on the street when it’s raining and not get wet.” This kind of statement pretty much sets up the perpetrator for a murder without guilt, not to mention social or moral consequence. It states that killing is okay, as natural and as normal as rain. Women are forced to live under the socially accepted concept of their bodies as prey, their flesh as meat and accept that, in the eyes of their perpetrators, they are dressed for the kill.
This is exactly where the situation of epidemic femicide in Juárez, and recently Chihuahua City (the murders have only been happening in Chihuahua for the last three years) hits closest to home. In the United States and perhaps the majority of communities throughout the world, typically a woman is much more likely to be raped or killed by someone she knows. Yet, in these bordertowns, a very high percentage (at least one hundred cases to date) of the rapes and murders were committed by total strangers to the victims. Misogyny and male-domination exist everywhere; violent, angry and psychotic men are the result of that mentality.
Looking at the rate of these crimes in Juárez and Chihuahua City has brought me to ask what the difference is, what stops more men from randomly killing women with more frequency here, or in other places? Esther Chávez, founder of Casa Amiga, the only rape crisis center in Juárez, has come to the conclusion that many of the rapes and murders are copy-cats — individual or groups of men who enact violent fantasies against women simply because they have discovered that they can do so with impunity.
So, when a man tells me on the street that he would like to “bash my head in” or “shove his fist up my ass” I seriously consider the possibility that the only reason that he doesn’t act on these violent, sexual, murderous fantasies is that he does not have the confidence that he will get away with it. The purpose of this comparison is not to say that women have it so much easier here, it is to say that all of these factors, the sick mental cycle of blame, projection and rationalization of violence, are the same. It’s just that in certain social and economic situations of dire poverty, heightened gender tension (women in Juárez are resented by men because they have jobs that the men can’t get) and rampantly corrupt police and judicial systems, these crimes and this general reaction to women becomes permissible, legitimate and unpunished and thereby encouraged by the general social climate.
Social acceptance of rape and murder, the belief that on some level women elicit and deserve it, socially programs men to be murderers and rapists. Institutionalized acceptance encourages imitation and copy-cat crimes. In Ciudad Juárez, a mother was called in to identify the skeletal frame of a young woman dressed in the clothes that her daughter was wearing when she was last seen, which (due to physical characteristics such as a disproportionately small head with no dental work) could not possibly be her daughter’s body. Why would investigators dress one woman’s body in another woman’s clothes? If it was not the police that did this, who was it?
Typically, the police refuse to file complaints for days after someone is abducted (saying “she’s probably with her boyfriend”), therefore the kidnapping cannot be treated as a criminal case during that critical period. The media prints a front-page story saying that a disappeared woman has been seen with her boyfriend. The story is fabricated. The photo is not of her but the caption claims it is her. Evidence that local police have been involved, not only in covering-up, but in actually perpetrating these crimes, go ignored. One report says that police officials burned a thousand pounds of clothing and evidence collected over the years, which, if it is true, could only mean that there is a large, ongoing and insidious conspiracy in Juárez between the police, the murderers (which may, in many cases, be one and the same) and other undisclosed parties about which we can only speculate, except to say, as many have, that they must have some sort of connections to power and resources that, in a place like Juárez as in most places in the world, only come from very high up.
Due the very nature of corruption on a structural level, it is extremely hard to expose and investigate. One thing is for sure though — the Mexican government and police force in Juárez and Chihuahua, in their actions and their lack of action, are doing nothing to protect the lives of women. Their involvement and participation is grossly apparent and their negligence can only be said to encourage a social acceptance of these crimes, along with revealing a larger disdain and hatred towards the women themselves.
If Juárez is a place where the most violent and horrible potential in the (male) psyche is allowed to manifest, then the same can and does happen anywhere. Sexual homicide is motivated by tremendous rage against women and rape is an expression of that same hatred and willful intent to subjugate, silence and subdue. In Juárez, extreme poverty and racism factor in to the vulnerability of the victims and their families, as well as misogyny, corporate impunity and governmental corruption. Many believe that the women and girls are specifically selected because they have darker complexions and are poor (which in Mexico and much of the world amounts to the same thing). The threat of murder, along with 12 hr work days, cardboard houses and a toxic environment, becomes normal and tolerable for a woman. It becomes a part of what she expects to have to suffer in order to survive.
This is how violence against women and globalization work hand-in-hand to create a culture of powerlessness and fear. The fight in Juárez and Chihuahua, and all over the world, is a fight against the power of violence, along with the force of poverty, to silence, weaken and demoralize. The fight to find a voice, to lend your voice and to listen to the voices that have been suppressed. The deadly power of a silenced voice amounts to economic power in a corporate-owned world, a world without scruples. We all have threats held over our heads which keep us complacent and scared to act, the question is how and by what means to remove them.
In the words of Rosario Acosta, one of the amazing activists and organizers in Juárez, “We human beings can survive the worst tragedies, but we need them to be recognized and validated by others. When people upon whom we depend for our own survival discredit our sufferings by treating them as something trivial, or as something that is deserved, a resulting new layer of pain is added to the pain of the loss, which generates feelings of shame, blame, humiliation and absolute impotence. Under the circumstances, the only thing that can save us is our just indignation and the solidarity of our peers.”
Listening and responding to the voices of the women of Juárez and Chihuahua, looking at how they have been forced to live and die, is a way to learn about ourselves and to examine our own experiences. It is a part of the revolution that begins within and manifests in the ways that we treat each other and how we live our lives.