What’s Happening To The Women Of Juarez?

The border city of Juarez, Mexico — found just across the river from El Paso — has a woman problem. Women disappear, are sexually abused, and they often — way too often — wind up dead.  The women are young and hopeful — some of Juarez’s victims are as young as 13. And their discarded bodies are often found dumped in dried up river gullies and empty lots, hastily buried in mass desert graves and abandoned buildings.

According to The New York Times, 60 women and girls have been killed since the start of the year. And an additional 100 have been reported missing in the last two years. In total some 800 women have been killed since 1993, and an additional 3,000 have gone missing. Most recently, 18 women’s bodies were discovered in a mass grave near Juarez in April. It took police months to identify some of the bodies, their forms had been hacked up beyond recognition. No motive for the murders have been discovered, and police have no leads on who did it, though they do have surveillance video of several of the victim talking to an unknown middle-man just before they disappeared. In response to the spate of recent killings, the Juarez police department (finally) launched a new unit on gender crimes. But they’ve had little success in solving the murders.

Some women’s rights groups consider the women of Juarez to be victims of femicide — that is, the systematic killing of women because of their gender. Others classify it as feminicide, “the misogynous murder of women by men.” In 2008, a data analysis was conducted at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, which found that 30 percent of the women murdered in Juarez over the previous 15 years had been murdered by someone they knew. An additional 3o percent were victims of what’s termed sexual feminicide, “in which there were systematic and concerted patterns on the part of the murderers that included kidnapping, sexual violence, torture, and the murder of children and women, whereupon their bodies were abandoned in desert areas, empty lots, sewage ditches, or garbage dumps, to mention but a few scenes of these sexual transgressions.” Most of the women who have been murdered or disappear share a striking strain of similarities: they are young, thin, poor and often workers at one of the city’s large maquiladoras, which manufacture cheap products for export abroad. Why kill these poor women? Says the Council on Hemispheric Affairs:

Some people see the femicides as a product of a cultural image of women in Latin America. A female worker in a maquiladora is can be looked upon as a form of variable capital; the labor value of a Mexican maquiladora worker declines over time because, according to her managers, her value as a worker is used up after years of endless, exhausting hours of factory work.

The social status of victims only helps to generate a culture of blame. Explains Nidya Sarria:

The intrinsic value of a victim of femicide is usually questioned following her death. Members of the media and the community alike try to categorize these women as either “good girls”, fitting the archetype of a good daughter or worker, or as fallen women, usually described as prostitutes, sluts, or barmaids.

And because the victims come from the lowest rungs of society, it’s easier for the authorities to do nothing when they disappear.

Of course, Juarez’s woman problem is not its only problem. There are also the drug cartels, which have steadily ramped up violence in the last several years. Mexican President Felipe Calderon “declared war” on the cartels in 2006, and they have fought back mightily. Between 2006 and 2010, more than 28,000 people died in cartel-related violence. And Juarez is at the epicenter of the battle: In 2009 alone, they had 2,600 murders. And in February 2011, they experienced 53 murders in two days. The cartels are so violent and vicious that reporters have stopped reporting on the murders, for fear that they will be targeted.  So yes, crime is bad. Why fight over a middling city of 1.3 million? Juarez is a border city, a stop to Texas, and often a last stop for the billions of dollars in illegal drugs that slip through to the American side annually.

In Juarez, women are expected to die early and unseemly deaths. Death is all around. Victims’ families say it’s difficult to get the police to do much of anything about the murders and missing girls. There is less fanfare about the murders than the first time around. Because it’s now become ingrained in the psychic fabric of Juarez, this is just what happens to women when they’re alone. 

“The authorities, they don’t want to see the truth,” one of the victims’ mothers told the Times. “Life here just has so little value.”