Mariclaire Acosta
“The Women of Ciudad Juárez”

October 13, 2004

Mariclaire Acosta before speaking on October 13.

Waiting 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 into anger, 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 affects Juárez. 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.

“Violence,” Acosta noted, “is the predominant form of social relations.” Whether the result of isolated events of domestic violence or serial murders, a structural climate 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 response 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.

Civil society continues to pressure the governments of both the U.S. and Mexico and to mobilize awareness within and across 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 inept governance. 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 Studies.

Mariclaire Acosta before speaking on October 13.


CLAS Events
by semester

© 2012, The Regents of the University of California, Last Updated - November 10, 2004