Criminal Neglect

Death stalks the maquiladoras

Laurence Pantin

—More than 280 women have been found dead in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez over the past decade, almost half in brutal murders that remain unsolved.

As the number of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez continues to rise, an international human rights commission has held its second hearing on the issue.

On October 18, representatives of the Mexican government appeared before the the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the Organization of American States, to explain their failure to find and prosecute the perpetrators and prevent more women from dying. Just two days after the hearing, what seemed to be the remains of another woman were found half-buried on a secondary road near Juárez, in the state of Chihuahua, adding to four others discovered in the past month.

“The government is saying they’re doing something about it, but in the meantime, women keep dying,” says Ximena Andión, lawyer for the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.

Although police have yet to confirm the age or identity of the latest body, the circumstances of its discovery and the women’s clothes detected on the scene seem to indicate the woman may be one more victim of the homicides that have plagued Ciudad Juárez since 1993.

Because of a lack of statistical information from Mexican police, it is difficult to say exactly how many women have been murdered here. Yet Rosario Acosta, founder of May Our Daughters Return Home, a Juárez-based association gathering relatives of the missing and assassinated women, estimates that 284 bodies have been discovered and that many more women are missing.

Most of these women were beaten or raped before being killed, and about 110 of the victims were found tortured or mutilated. Their deaths are considered serial murders by the state attorney general’s office. Motives for the deaths are unclear—since most of the killings remain unsolved—but hypotheses range from drug or organ trafficking to prostitution or snuff movies.

Activists say a pattern of neglect has characterized state and local investigations into the murders. Only one man has been convicted for the murder of a woman in Juárez; his sentence was later suspended because of irregularities during the trial. A dozen more suspects have been arrested, some of whom have been awaiting trial since 1996. But most of those suspects claim they were tortured and forced to confess.

In addition, a 1998 report by the Mexican National Human Rights Commission, based on analysis of police files, denounced the lack of serious investigation into the crimes by local authorities. According to the government agency’s report, some files were missing crucial information, such as pictures of the corpse that could lead to later identification. In other cases, the police’s determination of the cause of the death did not correspond to forensic reports. “Irregularities keep happening in the investigations,” Andión says. One of the latest bodies to be discovered was initially identified as a woman already found dead last November.

Most of the victims were very young, and 80 percent worked in maquiladoras, Acosta adds. “They were poor and vulnerable women,” from risky parts of the city without safe public transportation or paved and lighted streets. “It seems justice in our state is designed to be inaccessible to poor people,” she says.

Last November, Andión’s group, along with 300 civil organizations, asked the Inter-American Commission to review the unsolved murders in Ciudad Juárez. The commission held a first hearing on the case last March. As a result, the Mexican government promised to implement a number of proposals to solve the cases. But the measures seem disproportionately weak in comparison to the problem. “The government … wants to install working groups to dialogue,” says Acosta, “when it’s been 10 years of this tragedy.”

“There’s no real political will to do something that really puts an end to the killings and solve the cases,” concludes Lidia Alpizar, coordinator of the “Stop the Impunity: No More Killings!” campaign. “And in the meantime, bodies keep appearing.”

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