A Short Visit to Juárez City

I’m a member of a solidarity group (Sydney Action for Juárez) which formed several years ago when Mexican feminists called for international action about the extreme form of violence against women that had developed in Ciudad Juárez on Mexico’s northern border.  In October 2012, together with a colleague from SAfJ, I had the opportunity to pay a short visit to the city and talk with activists and researchers there.  I was speaking at the annual conference of AMEGH, the Mexican association for men’s studies.
The city reminds me of outback towns at home, but bigger.  We flew over some sandy desert on the way from Mexico City; the immediate area is arid, what Australians would call scrub country, with few trees.  I can imagine it very hot in summer.

There is money in the city.  From the aeroplane you can see some areas with larger houses and backyard swimming pools.  The maquila export factories that have driven the city’s recent growth require capital to set up and keep running, and a middle class of managers and technical experts. A city of over a million people needs services, so there is a university, a school system, hospitals, public sector administrators.

Some of the money flows to the workers; that is, after all, why people migrate in.  Their wages sustain the city’s night life, restaurants, transport and supermarkets.  But it’s far from a workers’ paradise.  The urban sprawl seems to have few amenities, the small houses are closely packed, and you couldn’t grow your own vegetables in this country. The city is newly expanded and some of it feels raw.  Wages in the factories are low - the reason foreign capital is attracted here.

The town was founded centuries ago by the Spanish conquerors when they expanded north.  It became an important border post after the United States in turn grabbed what had been the northern half of independent Mexico in the 1840s.  Juárez City played a significant role in the revolution, Pancho Villa was based in the region.  It became a main site of US/Mexico trade through the 20th century, and there is still tremendous truck traffic.  We felt a touch of the tradition when the conference organizers took us to lunch in a Mexican restaurant, complete with guitar group in costume who came in from the street - and went out again because nobody wanted to listen.

The city grew very fast very recently, with the advent of the maquilas and the inflow of labour from the south.  Swathes of factories are visible from the air, surrounded by trucks.  We were told the industry is in slight decline and the city population with it.  It’s still twice the size of El Paso across the US border.

My colleague and I had two meetings with the peak organization of women’s politics in the city, the Red Mesa de Mujeres (Women’s Round Table, website here).  It’s clear that there has been a major local organizing effort recently.  The Red and the action groups and NGOs represented in it show impressive political and fundraising capability.  We know women’s organizing has been difficult in the past, given the level of intimidation from violent men, and hostility from the authorities.  The publicity about femicide, including a major human rights investigation, has produced some change in the political equation, but most of the credit goes to local activists.

We talked with the Red’s organizers about the forms of international solidarity that could be locally useful, especially helping to develop educational programmes around gender equality.

We also visited the centre named for Esther Chavez, the brave woman who first denounced the femicide in public.  Casa Amiga (website here) is a remarkable support centre in one of the working-class districts, combining medical, legal, counselling and child care services, and more.  We met the director who showed us over the centre, and at the end of the day had a companionable meal with the staff, and a photo-op out the front.  Casa Amiga struck me as a practical group with feet firmly on the ground.  They spoke of episodes of intimidation they had to weather.  They seemed to have strong community connections, providing services that were badly needed – for children and men as well as for adult women.  The have also produced some terrific posters - one is shown in the photo.

The congress was held at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a public-sector research institute concerned with social issues in the frontier region, which has branches in several cities.  The conference theme was “men and the politics of violence”; I gave the keynote address on our second morning in the city.  I'm most grateful to the conference organizers for the opportunity to be there.  There were papers on a good range of issues which can be seen on the conference website here.  We held a workshop on research methods in studies of men and masculinity, which was well attended and very keenly engaged.  The congress ended with a panel discussion about men’s work for gender equality, in Mexico and internationally.  I was sorry my Spanish is so fragmentary, as I think there is a lot to learn from Mexican experience.

The great Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead was coming up – there were fireworks already, and decorative altars were being built.  The congress had its own Day of the Dead altar, with a sign remembering 9500 killings in the region in the last five years.  (The last few years have seen “wars” among the drug cartels, and between them and the Mexican government.)  The only other sign of the violence we saw was a truckload of Policía Federal, in black like a commando detachment, sitting with their sub-machine guns and helmets ready for instant deployment. We were told that most of the federal police had been withdrawn from the city and the rate of killings had gone down this year. We were very carefully looked after by local colleagues during the visit; I confess I was still scared.
We were not making a research visit, but still tried to understand why this city became a site of femicide.  So much social upheaval, and so much violence among men, must be relevant. The presence of armed groups including the police and cartels (which are basically private armies built from unemployed young men) must be part of the explanation.  Guns are easily available (the incredible US gun industry is just across the border), and Mexican national statistics show most murdered women are killed with guns.  There is a vulnerable workforce in the maquilas, with their preference for un-unionized women, uprooted by migration and short of social support or community protection.  There is a raw, tough environment.  Two of the main sources of wealth are both male-dominated and unstable – long-distance transport, and the drug trade.

There is also the border itself, which has become increasingly militarized.  This isn’t just post-9/11; a toxic anti-latino politics already existed in the US south-west and west.  I’ve read some interesting sociological work about the kind of society that has grown up on the Mexican side of the border.  Most people are not trying to infiltrate across to the land of the free.  But the constant presence of the securitized, armed barrier across the land must add some craziness to the local scene.

The femicide, it seems to me, doesn’t grow out of “traditional” machismo here, because this isn’t a traditional community.  It’s a profoundly modern city, transformed by neoliberalism.  (The North American Free Trade Agreement is part of this, but the violence was happening before NAFTA came into force.)  The femicide is certainly a brutal assertion of male dominance, but this looks more like the building of a new patriarchy than the reproduction of an old one.  If that is right, the Juárez City story is even more alarming, because it shows violence against women need not go away even if old patriarchal traditions have gone.  De te Fabula narratur.

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