The femicides of Juarez
- Published: 10 July 2010
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Hundreds of women are being kidnapped, tortured and killed in the border country between Mexico and the US, writes Raewyn Connell.
In 2001, Lilia Alejandra García Andrade was abducted and tortured. Five days later she was strangled and her body was dumped in a Juarez City vacant lot. She was 17 years old. She is one of hundreds of women brutally murdered in Juarez – the arid border country between Mexico and the US.
All this country was once part of Mexico, but an international border sliced through it after a successful war by the US in the mid-19th century.
Just south of the border, in the late 20th century, a new industrial complex mushroomed. It combined low-wage factories called maquiladoras, and a booming illicit drug trade, the 'narco-traffic' that ships cocaine, marijuana and other drugs into the world's biggest and richest market, just to the north.
This is the city of Juarez, population a million and a half, mostly immigrants from other parts of Mexico. And it is here that one of the most frightening waves of murder against women in recent history is taking place.
It is part of a wider scene of violence in the Mexico-US borderlands. The majority of those killed in the region are men (as is usual in homicide statistics) - often as a result of armed struggles between narco-trafficking factions.
But the killings of women are so many, so brutal - often the bodies are found with signs of rape and torture - so sustained, that they have been given a new name: femicide (in Spanish, feminicidio).
The women seem to be targeted just because they are women. They are kidnapped, and their bodies are later discarded, sometimes dumped out in the desert. Official figures suggest 400 to 500 such killings since the early 1990s; activists think there are many more.
Lilia Andrade’s mother has set up a group called Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa - May Our Daughters Come Home - to protest about the femicide and promote respect for women's human rights.
Lilia was a maquiladora worker, as most of the murdered women seem to have been. These factories are part of a world-wide industry where developing countries provide cheap labour for international capital and local entrepreneurs to develop export industries. (China, Sri Lanka, Malaysia have done the same.)
Even low wages are attractive to young people from depressed rural areas. They can become independent, or send money to support their families at home. Young women are specifically in demand in these industries.
So, many young women came to the Mexican borderlands, alone, looking for work. Their situation was, and is, precarious: poor housing, poor public transport, little family support, and employers who take no interest in the welfare of their workforce.
Nor did the government or the police take much interest in their welfare. Normally, murder is the crime with the highest clear-up rate by police and courts. Few of the Juarez femicides have been followed by arrest and conviction of the killer.
Therefore critics such as the late Esther Chavez, the retired accountant in Juarez who galvanised a public debate about the issue, have spoken of a situation of 'impunity'. Men have been able to kill without fear of punishment.
Why are women being killed?
The deeper reasons for the violence are debated. They include a national government hell-bent on economic development and indifferent to the welfare of the poor.
They include a ruthless and very violent drug-export industry, driven by the crazy combination of mass demand and prohibitionist policy in the US.
They include a multinational capitalism that seeks out vulnerable and cheap labour forces and does not invest in infrastructure for workers' welfare.
And they include patterns of masculinity that are open towards violence.
Across Latin America, as in other parts of the world, gender arrangements have been changing. Women have become wage-earners, and sometimes have gained a share of political power. But that disturbs the assumptions on which many men's lives have been built. This disturbance may turn toxic the contempt for women that is part of patriarchal cultures everywhere.
A willingness to reassert masculine power or toughness through gender-based violence is one possible response. That response has been seen in other places: for instance in the HIV/AIDS crisis in central and southern Africa; and in Australia, in marriage break-ups where ex-wives are murdered by an angry husband. The conditions in the city of Juarez perhaps make such responses possible on a larger scale.
Are things changing?
Public concern with the issue has waxed and waned. In 2009 a new attempt to focus attention on the issue was launched by a group of artists in Mexico. An international network has organized supporting events in Canada, Argentina, Europe, the USA, and Australia. This was the origin of the group Sydney Action for Juarez, which is continuing with fundraising and lobbying this year.
We are told officially that in 2010 the Mexican government has sent an extra 2000 federal police to Juarez "to try to restore law and order", while state and local authorities "try to train a police force capable of responding effectively to the deteriorating law and order situation". This does not say anything about femicide. It is mainly to do with the struggle between the Mexican state and the drug cartels.
Why should outsiders be concerned with this problem? I think there are two main reasons. One is simply human solidarity. We feel horror at the lives cut short in fear and pain, at the social catastrophe this concentration of killings represents.
The other is the fact that Juarez is not alone. The conditions in this city may be particularly bad. But the men of Juarez are not a race of monsters, and every condition that is found in Juarez is found elsewhere as well.
Gender-based violence is a global problem. If we confront it in this dire case, we are better able to confront it everywhere.
Images from top: Relatives of murdered women in Juarez protest, courtesy of Wikipedia (Wikicommons); Detail of altar created by Abigail Lutzen (image by Rosarela Meza).