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Femicides of Juárez: Violence Against Women in Mexico

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Juárez is nicknamed “the capital of murdered women.” The border city of 1.5 million inhabitants draws tens of thousands of young women from small, poor towns with $55-a-week jobs in maquiladoras operated by such wealthy major corporations as General Electric, Alcoa, and DuPont. According to Amnesty International, more than 370 bodies had been found as of February 2005, and over 400 women are still missing. These mass murders of women have been dubbed a “femicide” by the popular media, which is defined as the systematic killing of women due to their gender. Though the disappearance, kidnapping, and murder of women in Juárez has been chronicled by the media and grudgingly acknowledged by the Mexican government authorities have pretty much dropped its investigation of the femicides as of August 2006, remaining all but indifferent to calls for action.

Setting the Stage
Juárez has become a prosperous, industrial city as a result of new economic policies that have encouraged the maquiladoras, factories that import materials for assembly and then re-export the assembled product, to become a fixed aspect of the local and national economy. Lured by the booming economy and job availability, many women and their families have left their homes to live in Ciudad Juárez. In order to make sense of the femicides occurring in Juárez, it is important to understand the underlying economic policies that have encouraged women to migrate to Juárez, despite the danger of the high female murder rate.

NAFTA grew out of governmental initiatives seeking to encourage industries by providing them with international markets. Prior to the 1980s, the Mexican government utilized the Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) economic model, which was characterized by the protection of domestic industries and a captive national market. NAFTA, signed by the Mexican government in 1994, prompted the government to open the country’s market to commercial exchange and foreign investment. It encouraged local industries to integrate themselves into the international market, emphasizing the efficiency of their labor force and the quality of their products. This was a difficult task; most Mexican factories were small or medium-sized, and did not feature cutting edge technologies. While some employers closed their plants, the majority attempted to adopt the new technology.

Mexican-owned as well as joint venture industries have not prospered post-NAFTA, except for maquiladoras, a unique from of production that grew out of these new economic policies. Maquiladoras flourished as a result of the Mexican government being largely responsible for their growth. They used presidential decrees to enact programs to attract foreign investment, such as the Border Industrialization Programme (BIP) in 1965. The peso was devalued at the end of 1980s and 1990s, and programs were created to encourage export industries, as well as trade agreements, such as NAFTA. As a whole, these policies, at least for a time, have made maquiladoras the most dynamic industrial sector in Mexico.

Within the maquiladoras, globalization has caused the deregulation of different workplace dynamics; women are usually preferred as workers because it is assumed that they will more flexible accept new shifts in production, such as job changes and changeable hours. The young women of Juárez are also favored by the maquila bosses for their nimble fingers and obedience. Many of the femicide victims were women employed by maquiladoras. Thus, as a result of the decade-long history of femicides in Juárez, large maquilas began to provide bus service to and from the maquila, but this has not been an effective preventive security measure.

Female Workers of Maquiladoras
According to the Organization of American States’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights:

“The victims of these crimes have preponderantly been the state of young women, between 12 and 22 years of age. Many were students, and most were maquiladora workers. A number were relative newcomers to Ciudad Juárez who had migrated from other areas of Mexico. The victims were generally reported missing by their families, with their bodies found days or months later abandoned in vacant lots, outlying areas or in the desert. In most of these cases there were signs of sexual violence, abuse, torture or in some cases mutilation.”

At least 18 girls have been identified missing in the past 14 months. These women share some similar characteristics: pretty and slender, with dark, shoulder-length hair, at least nine of them vanished while shopping downtown or looking for work. Most of these women also come from impoverished families residing in the outskirts of the city. This is not a new phenomenon; in 2003, Amnesty International issued a report, Intolerable Killings: 10 years of abductions and murders of women in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, which discussed the pattern of killings and abductions of women in Ciudad Juárez and the City of Chihuahua. This report concluded that 370 women had been murdered in Juárez, with about a third having suffering sexual violence before being murder. Approximately half of the cases have remained unresolved; the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice, with most remaining at large, and with the local authorities seemingly remaining indifferent.

Why Have Women Been Targeted as Murder Victims?
Some people see the femicides as a product of a cultural image of women in Latin America. A female worker in a maquiladora is can be looked upon as a form of variable capital; the labor value of a Mexican maquiladora worker declines over time because, according to her managers, her value as a worker is used up after years of endless, exhausting hours of factory work. Men, on the other hand, are seen as trainable and intelligent. They are valued higher than female workers due to their alleged ability to constantly learn and produce value over a protracted period of time. In essence, women are filtered into the lesser skilled jobs at these factories and simultaneously are left vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault.

The intrinsic value of a victim of femicide is usually questioned following her death. Members of the media and the community alike try to categorize these women as either “good girls”, fitting the archetype of a good daughter or worker, or as fallen women, usually described as prostitutes, sluts, or barmaids. By putting emphasis on the identity of the women, onlookers seem to be placing a higher value on the lives of “well-behaved women” as well as providing a twisted justification for overlooking or minimize the crimes at hand. For instance, in 1995, the then-governor of Chihuahua, Francisco Barrio, advised parents to keep an eye on their daughters and not allow them to go out at night. The implication was that good girls did not “go out” at night and since the unfortunate victims typically disappeared during the night, it followed that by objective standards they were found to not be very good girls. Likewise, when speaking to the family members of the murdered women, the police often explained the disappearance of the victims by pointing out “how common it [was] for women to lead double lives.”

Lack of Action
Overall, there seems to have been a connection between the murder of these women and Mexican society’s typical perception of women. Generally disrespected and seen as less valuable because of their gender, women are often the subjects of violence in Mexican society. By terminating investigations of the murders, despite numerous calls by international human rights organizations and local groups to continue the probes, the Mexican government reveals the low esteem it attributes to women. So long as the maquiladoras of Juárez continue to hire young women, more and more of them will move into the city. The maquiladoras have a moral responsibility toward their workers to provide them with as much safety as possible, but the implementation of a bus system is not enough. The government must find and prosecute their murderers, as well as change the inevitable cultural image of women in Mexican society beginning with initiatives for female empowerment.