Death in Juárez

Around twenty years ago the bodies of women began turning up in vacant lots and in the desert.  Juárez City, with a million and a half people, became a world hotspot of femicide - the term Mexican activists use for women being murdered essentially because they are women.

Many of the victims are abducted on their way to or from work, then raped, tortured, and their bodies dumped.  Unofficial estimates of the number of such killings in the city range from 400 to 1000. The picture shows a poster about some of the missing women.

A horrible climax came just before Christmas 2010.  In 2008 a teenager, Rubi Escobedo, was murdered.  The probable killer was known, and for once was arrested.  But he was later set free by a local court before coming to trial.  Rubi’s mother, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, protested, and continued to protest outside the state governor’s office. Surveillance video shows what happened next.  On the evening of 16 December a white vehicle drove up.  A man with a gun got out, chased Marisela through the traffic, and shot her dead.  Then the killer drove off, leaving her body on the pavement.

Why do these killings happen?  Juárez City is in arid country just south of the US/ Mexico border.  The city grew fast when hundreds of factories exploiting cheap labour for export trade, maquiladoras, were set up. Poor workers came in from other parts of Mexico. They lived with improvised housing, appalling transport, few social services, inadequate policing, weak or non-existent unions, and ineffective government.  The fact that many women were earning their own wages for the first time created extra tension.  Some men saw this as taking away their jobs, or giving too much independence to women.

On top of this came narcotrafico. The last generation has seen increasingly violent ‘cartels’ that recruit thousands of poor young men into their private armies.  The result is a masculine culture of violence in which brutality is admired.  Large numbers of men, too, are killed in the violence that surrounds the drug trade, though the pattern of these deaths is different from the pattern of femicide.

Why doesn’t the government stop it?  Partly, because the government is involved in it.  Some police and soldiers are among the killers. Foreign capitalists and drug traders have money to spend, and want cosy relationships with local officials.  Government is, often, corrupt; and has little interest in protecting the poor.

The killings of women in Juárez City are rarely investigated with care. Hardly any cases, out of many hundreds over twenty years, have resulted in conviction of the murderers.  ‘Impunity’ is a key to the problem.

Those are the local reasons for femicide.  It is a ‘perfect storm’ that has produced a terrible concentration of violence.  Components of this storm are found beyond this city, beyond Mexico, and beyond Latin America.  Most of these components can be found in Australia.

More than fifteen years ago, a retired accountant called Esther Chavez called attention to the killings.  In 2001 the mother of one of the murdered girls set up a group called Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, ‘May Our Daughters Come Home’. Continuing intimidation makes this hard to sustain.  The picture above shows crosses erected by family and friends of the murdered women.

Gradually the message has been heard.  Human rights organizations and news media have begun reporting on the situation.  A well-known Mexican playwright has written a powerful theatre piece called ‘Women of Sand’.  In 2009-10 a group of artists in Mexico City launched an international solidarity campaign.

An Australian solidarity group, Sydney Action for Juárez, started in late 2009.  SAFJ has held marches (shown in picture), a fund-raising concert, a reading and radio production of ‘Women of Sand’, and other actions. Some Australians do think femicide in Juárez City matters a lot, right here.

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