For over a decade, corrupt authorities on both sides of the U.S./Mexicoborder have covered up an epidemic of brutal murders of hundreds of youngwomen in Juárez, Mexico. Grassroots activists have struggled determinedlyto call attention to the crisis, but the deaths continue unabated.
Only organized global outrage will end these murders. An internationalcampaign by feminists and unionists is needed urgently.
Double jeopardy at the border.In the last 12 years, nearly 400 women have been slain in Ciudad Juárezin the state of Chihuahua. An equal number are believed missing. Juárez,a sprawling city of 1.3 million just across the Rio Grande from El Paso,Texas, is home to more than 380 maquiladora factories. A third of the killedand disappeared are maquiladora workers; others are waitresses, studentsand laborers in the informal economy.
Many victims were sexually assaulted, torturedand mutilated before their bodies were dumped in the desert or discardedin inner-city lots. There is wide speculation about the murderers: arethey serial killers, drug smugglers, sons of powerful elite families, cops,cultists, organ harvesters, snuff pornographers, husbands or boyfriendsof the victims, perhaps sex offenders crossing over from El Paso? Despitepressure from victimsí families, feminist organizations, and humanrights groups, only a few scapegoats have been prosecuted for the continuingwave of kidnappings, rapes and homicides.
As the murder count keeps rising, state and federalauthorities in Mexico are widely condemned for complicity. Activists andjournalists report rampant corruption, planting of evidence, and grossnegligence, in addition to harassment and threats against those pressingfor justice. Many people believe the police are directly involved, citingtheir failure to carry out basic forensic work such as searching for fiberson corpses and establishing times of death. Cops have also hampered effortsto connect the Juárez cases to similar slayings occurring in ChihuahuaCity, 233 miles to the south.
Under escalating pressure to stop the carnage,investigators have focused on arresting “undesirables” likegang members and vagrants, and extracting false confessions after lengthyjailings and torture. Meanwhile, U.S. law enforcement is funding anti-immigrant”homeland security” border patrols instead of prioritizinga binational probe into the murders of the women, many of whom work forU.S. corporations.
That the killings are happening in a city floodedwith maquiladoras owned by U.S. and European companies is no coincidence.
Thanks to NAFTA, goods produced in these dangeroussweatshops pass into the U.S. duty-free. Vast profits are made by harshlyexploiting female laborers as young as 14, who migrate from all over Mexicotrying to escape poverty. Women employed in Juárez maquilas arepaid under $5 a day to work in unsafe conditions, with long shifts, fewprotections, and frequent sexual harassment from the bosses. Many travelon isolated routes to work from outlying colonias populares (shantytowns),leaving them especially vulnerable to predators.
The lack of any value these women are accordedin the workplace directly relates to the wanton violence the female populationis suffering in the streets.
Demanding justice.Responding to public outcry, Mexican President Vicente Fox appointed aspecial prosecutor in January 2004 to examine the crimes. In three reportsissued so far, the attorney—who is merely reviewing the cases,not investigating—found “inconclusive results” in205 cases. But the reports do blast the state criminal justice system forineptitude and recommend legal action against 81 police officers and prosecutorsfor mishandling the cases.
The real heart of the resistance to the violenceis a movement of Mexican women’s groups including Amigos de lasMujeres de Juárez, Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s [Obreras/os],Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Bring Our Daughters Home), Casa Amiga,and Justicia para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for Our Daughters). Despite deaththreats, leaders in these groups have held rallies, insisted on comprehensiveinvestigations, and kept awareness high by painting pink and black crossesfor every victim on street poles.
In November 2003, Justice for Our Daughters initiatedactions internationally, including a “virtual sit-in” viaemail and fax targeting Chihuahua government and court offices, marchesto Mexican consulates in the U.S. and elsewhere, and a conference on genderviolence at the University of California at Los Angeles. A petition createdby Operacion Digna demands that the Mexican government act to stopthe violence and to end repression by authorities against Justice for OurDaughters and other groups; it can be signed at www.petitiononline.com/NiUnaMas/petition.html.
Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s has twiceconvened an International Forum of Working Women United Against Violenceto bring together unionists, sweatshop organizers and Juárez activists.Other organizing includes letter campaigns and legal appeals by AmnestyInternational and a Valentine’s Day 2004 protest headed up by EveEnsler and Lourdes Portillo that drew 7,000 people to march in the streetsof Juárez.
Intensify the pressure.The efforts of Mexican feminists and families of the slain and disappearedare heroic. But to ensure the safety of their sisters and daughters, theyneed the aid of a broad, worldwide mobilization. The Mexican governmentmust be held politically and financially responsible for ending the murders.But so too must the U.S. government, which engineered the piracy of NAFTA,and the multinationals, growing rich by abusing young girls.
Feminists, unionists and anti-corporate activistsin the U.S., Mexico and other countries need to unite in a campaign whosedemands could include:
• Fully funded shelters and counseling forsurvivors of violence and domestic battery.
• Secure transportation to and from work— with door-to-door service for shift workers—paid by factoryowners.
• Optional living quarters for factory workers,subsidized by the corporations, that would guarantee their safety. Theseshould provide quality childcare and meals and be run by the residents,not the employers.
• Unionization of the maquiladoras; prosecutionof any interference with union organizing.
• A publicly financed program to arm thewomen of Juárez and Chihuahua City and provide community and union-ledself-defense training.
• Elected civilian review boards over thepolice, empowered to investigate and fire corrupt and brutal officers,with board members paid and protected by the Mexican government.
• An independent international commissionof feminists and unionists to delve into the killings.
• Repeal of NAFTA and all laws that furtherthe exploitation of women and destruction of the economies of poor andpost-colonial nations.
A campaign around such demands would protectthe women now in danger, improve their conditions, and keep the spotlighton Juárez until the cover-ups are exposed and the perpetrators areidentified and stopped. Venceremos!
Toni Mendicino is the Radical Women BayArea organizer and a union activist at the University of California atBerkeley. She can be reached at rwbayarea @ yahoo.com.