Women of Ciudad Juárez”
Acosta before speaking on October 13.
for Justice: The Women of Ciudad Juárez
By Jason Cato
On October 13, 2004, bus driver Víctor García
Uribe was sentenced by a Mexican judge to 50 years in prison
for the murders of eight women from Ciudad Juárez. Their
mutilated bodies were discovered in 2001 in a vacant lot in the
gritty, sprawling, desert city next to El Paso on the U.S.–Mexican
border. The prosecution of García Uribe, who insists he
was tortured into confessing, followed an increasingly vocal
international campaign against the Mexican authorities’ failure
to prevent or solve the city’s decade-long wave of brutal
murders of women. Has justice prevailed? Has the violence terrorizing
Juárez since 1993 finally met the rule of law?
Mariclaire Acosta, Mexico’s former Undersecretary for
Human Rights and Democracy, argues that the violence plaguing
Juárez is still far from being substantively addressed
by the Mexican authorities. Since 1993, more than 340 women have
been murdered, and hundreds more have disappeared. Many of the
recovered bodies bear marks of torture, rape and mutilation.
Questions as to whether these acts are isolated events of domestic
violence or systematic serial killings remain unanswered. Given
the brutality and scale of the murders over the past 11 years,
the Mexican government’s belated response has been nothing
short of a scandalous embarrassment in what has become an internationally
recognized human rights crisis.
Yet amid the apathy and botched investigations
that initially marked the official response, fear has transformed
and anger into hope, as thousands of women and men in Mexico,
the U.S. and the international community mobilize to stop the
murders. Many have been asking for some time now: Why Ciudad
Juárez? Who is doing this? How, and under what conditions,
does this happen? Why are poor, young women, many of whom work
in the maquiladoras, targeted?
The violence against women in Juárez cannot be understood
apart from the extreme social and economic inequalities of the
intimidating, industrial city.
Ciudad Juárez boasts 1.3 million inhabitants and has
long been important to Mexico’s economic development. But
Juárez has often been cynically referred to as the “laboratory
of our future.” A whistle-stop tour of the city reveals
extreme social fragmentation, economic hardship and institutional
failure. The Border Industrialization Program (BIP) initiated
in 1965 and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of
1994 promised Mexico the opportunity to develop into a first
world nation by embarking upon economic programs of free trade
and export-led industrialization. Instead, the BIP has turned
Mexico’s northern border into an export-oriented enclave
of high tech plants and low-wage labor. And the economic restructuring
in the wake of Mexico’s 1982 debt crisis and NAFTA have
ravaged Mexico’s agrarian sector, forcing hundreds of thousands
of peasants into the cities or towards the United States in order
to survive. Those who are unable to cross successfully fill the
cities of Mexico’s industrial north, creating additional
stress on an already neglected and over-burdened infrastructure.
The unprecedented population explosion acutely
The city has been a key destination for migrants throughout Mexico
seeking opportunities either in the maquiladoras or in the U.S.
As much as one-third of the city’s population is made up
of migrant women from rural Mexico and Central America. Such
rapid demographic shifts and industrial development reveals a
landscape of great wealth — showcased in the gated industrial
parks — juxtaposed with extreme poverty.
Makeshift neighborhoods constructed largely out
of refuse from the maquiladoras pock the hills and sprawl outward
into the desert.
Many lack running water, waste treatment facilities and electricity.
Acosta noted that approximately 50 percent of the city’s
streets remain unpaved, and there is an 80 percent deficit in
parks and other recreation areas. 200,000 families live in areas
defined as high-risk zones. Chinese industrial competition and
economic recession in the U.S. have severely affected employment.
Between 2001 and 2003, unemployment levels went from 85,000 to
200,000. The majority of the maquiladora workers are young women,
a situation that has transformed the traditional roles of women
in the family. The breakdown of traditional gender roles factors
strongly into the spread of domestic violence, Acosta said.
Ciudad Juárez has also been the seat of
one of the most powerful Mexican drug cartels for many years.
In addition to
massive drug consumption and addiction, many forms of organized
crime such as gun-running, migrant-trafficking and child prostitution
abound, feeding social disintegration. These intersecting forces
have deeply affected state institutions as corruption penetrates
almost every level of society and ensures that impunity triumphs
over the rule of law.
noted, “is the predominant form
of social relations.” Whether the result of isolated
events of domestic violence or serial murders, a structural
of extreme inequality, poverty and marginalization has enabled
femicide to occur and continue with impunity.
According to Acosta, the response of the local
authorities has been denial and trivialization, and at the
federal level there
has prevailed a general aversion to a situation often discounted
as a “local problem.” Local authorities initially
dismissed the outbreak of murders in 1993. Only after enormous
public pressure did they investigate. However, the investigations
were poorly executed as prosecutors indiscriminately lumped together
many different types of cases. Only 12 alleged killers have been
convicted for 22 cases, said Acosta. Sketchy evidence and reports
documenting the coercion and torture of suspects throw serious
doubt on the validity of those convictions. Documented cases
also show that the local government persecuted civil society
groups to subvert organizing efforts.
The mothers of the victims and numerous civil
society groups have countered the lack of any serious institutional
by the Mexican authorities. Years of mobilization have succeeded
in bringing international attention to Ciudad Juárez,
including special rapporteurs from the Human Rights Commission
of the United Nations, members of the U.S. Congress, the Inter-American
Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and the AFL-CIO.
After this international pressure, the national government appointed
a federal prosecutor to investigate the murders and a special
commissioner to prevent further killings. Both have resulted
in an April 2004 report calling for the investigation of numerous
officials, said Acosta.
society continues to pressure the governments of both the U.S.
and Mexico and to mobilize awareness within
national borders. Local NGOs carry on organizing services aimed
at alleviating cycles of poverty and marginalization. Artists
and activists have produced an enormous body of work protesting
the gender violence in Ciudad Juárez. Notable among
them is Senorita Extraviada, Lourdes Portillo’s
gripping documentary of the murders, which has been viewed
across the United States
and Mexico. The play The Women of Juárez is
currently showing in Los Angeles’ Frida Kahlo Theatre
and the film The Virgin of Juárez, starring Minnie Driver,
nears completion. In El Paso reporter Diane Valdez will be
releasing her book Harvest
of Women in the next year.
These collective works are testimony to the hope
and the power of civil society to address the gaps left by
They urge us not to forget, however painful it is to remember,
and to bear witness to a tragedy that awaits truth and justice.
But the onus is on the Mexican state and federal governments
to act. Until they take seriously the murders of the women of
Juárez, the violence is unlikely to abate.
Mariclaire Acosta Urquidi is the former Undersecretary for Human
Rights and Democracy in the Secretariat of Foreign Relations
Office in Mexico. She is currently a visiting professor at the
Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley. She spoke at
Moses Hall on October 13, 2004.
Jason Cato is a graduate student in the Department of Ethnic
Acosta before speaking on October 13.