WORDS | Ben Nour
They are found in desert gullies, vacant lots or unmarked shallow graves; they number in the hundreds, and their bodies are often too mutilated to be successfully identified. They are victims of a failed justice system as much as they are victims of their killers. They are the murdered women of Ciudad Juárez, whose voices still go unheard.
The two North American cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico are not unlike each other, either in size or history. Both form part of a metropolitan area that is home to over one million people. They were founded on the banks of the Rio Grande, a 3000km river that flows from South Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico forming part of the Mexican-United States border.
While El Paso, Texas, has for the last twenty years been consistently ranked as one of the safest cities in the USA, Ciudad Juárez (usually referred to as simply Juárez) has been consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous in the world. Poverty, government corruption and drug cartel activity has plagued Juárez for years, but perhaps most shockingly the city has a staggering number of women that have been violently murdered.
Since 1993 there have been over 300 murders of women and a further 400 women reported missing. This does not include the women who have been forgotten or go unreported. To put this in perspective, for every 100,000 citizens in Juárez there are thirty-seven homicides; for El Paso, there are three. These cities are geographically very close but have such varying differences in murder rates. Simply put, why is Juárez such a dangerous city for women?
Despite multiple investigations by various media organisations, government departments and NGOs over the past two decades, it is still unclear exactly how many women have been murdered in the Juárez region. In 2003, Amnesty International released a report that stated that since 1993, 370 young women and girls have been murdered, while the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported in 2002 that at least 268 women had been killed since 1993. Many of the victims have been reported as showing signs of sexual abuse.
While the exact number of murdered women is uncertain, it is clear that the victims have similar characteristics. The majority of women targeted are young (aged between 15 and25), slender with dark hair and almost all come from impoverished backgrounds. While some victims were students, the majority were factory workers.
The motives and identities of the victim’s killers remain unclear, which has partly been attributed to the failure of the Mexican justice system in investigating and documenting the murders.. In their 2003 report on the high female murder rates in Juárez, Amnesty International noted that the Mexican government, “have been unwilling to recognize the extent of the pattern of violence against women and to implement effective policies for dealing with it”. At the time, the government was reluctant to provide information on the murders, and the information that was provided was inconsistent. Amnesty International explains that, “A common practice has been to equate the number of victims with the number of case files when, in fact, a file sometimes contains more than one victim.”
NGOs, scholars and activist groups have identified key contributing factors to the murders including the rise of the maquiladora industry, the corruption of the Mexican justice system and widespread national discrimination and abuse against women.
Maquiladoras are factories where materials are imported for assembly and then re-exported tax-free, and are often owned by multinational companies drawn by the prospect of cheap labour and economic benefits. The economic blood of Juárez is largely made up of more than 300 maquiladoras located in and around the city. A high percentage of these workers are female migrants from rural parts of Mexico.
By all accounts, the conditions are exploitive and abusive, with female workers reportedly subject to sexual harassment and invasive procedures. These include; frequent pregnancy tests and in some extreme cases, supervisors have been known to inspect the menstrual pads of workers. Furthermore, despite the economic success of these factories, workers are forced to live in poorly developed areas often on the outskirts of the city without water or reliable electricity.
More significantly, women in this industry are considered temporary workers, thus justifying cheap pay and a huge turnover rate. The maquiladora industry and the transnational corporations behind it are invested in this gender-based division of work, directly profiting from the construction of women as cheap labour..
Traditionally, a Mexican woman should be at home with her family and engaged in domestic duties. It has been suggested that part of the victimisation of these women is due to harsh economic conditions where male unemployment is high. Being the primary source of income for a family is considered a component of manhood, and the maquiladoras factories’ employment of women directly undermines and challenges men as workers. The implications of the industry’s devaluing of female work cannot be overstated. As one academic put it, “The construction of working women as ‘cheap labour’ and disposable within the system makes it possible, and perhaps acceptable, to kill them with impunity.”
Ultimately, it has been theorised that the killing of these women is representative of a much bigger problem in Mexican society – the widespread discrimination, abuse and violence towards women. Studies have found that approximately one-third to one-half of Mexican women living as part of a couple suffer abuse at the hands of their partner. For example, in a 2012 report, the United Nations published data that showed up to 46% of Mexican women had suffered from intimate partner violence.
The maquiladora industry’s reliance on ‘disposable’ female labour helps fuel this discrimination. Adding to this is the inadequacy and corruption of the criminal justice system in documenting and investigating these crimes. The Mexican government refuses to address the ingrained prejudice and abuse towards women which perpetuates the violence.
If there is any hope for justice for the more than 370 women murdered over the last twenty years, serious institutional and societal change is desperately needed – not just for those already killed, but for all the women of Mexico.