The Disappeared

In Juárez’s maquiladoras, murders of women continue

Kari Lydersen

Pink crosses remember the deaths of women in Juárez.
—On top of a hillside where a rutted dirt road curves beside a fence made of old mattress springs, the dusty brown and gray landscape is broken by a line of bright-pink wooden crosses adorned with plastic roses.

There is a saying in the area that, if you want to find Juárez, located just across the border from El Paso, Texas, just follow the crosses. And there are a lot of them.

More than 350 women have been murdered in Juárez since 1993, and hundreds more women have disappeared. Most of them fit a similar profile—young women who came from other parts of the country to work in the maquiladoras, the factories on the border that take advantage of Mexico’s cheap labor to produce goods for U.S. and international companies. Many of the women disappeared on their way to or from work, perhaps while waiting for the buses that take them between the maquiladoras and the shantytowns on the outskirts of town in the late-night or predawn hours.

Government records list many of the women as victims of unknown assailants, and many of the victims themselves are unidentified. They list 93 as victims of a serial killer. A chilling number of the murders—178—are listed as incidents of domestic violence. The women were killed by jealous husbands or boyfriends.

For years, the mothers of these women felt like they were alone in the world. When they would report women as disappeared, the police would suggest the women were out with boyfriends—until they turned up in shallow graves, often raped and mutilated.

In the past two years, increasing international attention has been focused on the femicide occurring in Juárez. This spring, the FBI agreed to investigate the killings, and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has a file open on the murders. On International Women’s Day, March 8, 1,000 people marched in Juárez and El Paso protesting domestic violence and demanding an end to the killings. A documentary about the murders called Señorita Extraviada has been shown on PBS and in cities around the United States.

Yet it is not enough. The disappearances continue, with four more bodies found in February. As chronicled in Señorita Extraviada, many think the police themselves are to blame for some of the murders. “It’s the police doing it; that’s why they won’t investigate,” said a 25-year-old male cafeteria worker after a shift in early March. “That’s what everyone thinks.”

And the culture of sexism and misogyny in the maquiladora sector continues—a culture in which the women who make up over 60 percent of the maquiladora work force are subjected to sexual harassment and abuse on a daily basis. “All the corporations have the same code of conduct—sexual harassment, mandatory pregnancy tests, humiliation,” says Veronica Leiba, a former maquiladora worker who now works for the labor union CETLAC.

Advocates for the maquiladora workers note wages are so low—not even enough to afford a basic basket of necessities for 45 hours of work per week—that some women are forced to turn to prostitution to survive, a lifestyle that makes them especially vulnerable to predators. Meanwhile, a story that has gone largely untold in recent coverage of the murders is that—alleged police connections and serial killers aside—many women are being killed by their domestic partners, not by mysterious, unaccounted-for assailants.

In the most recent attempt to explain the rest of the deaths, the Mexican government announced in early May that it was investigating whether the women had been murdered by organ traffickers. At press time, federal and state authorities continued to fight over who had jurisdiction over the case.

Esther Chavez Cano, founder of Casa Amiga, Juárez’s only domestic violence resource center, sees the murders as part of a larger picture of machismo and oppression of women in Juárez. Jobs are being lost at the maquiladoras as companies look for ever cheaper labor in Asia, she says. “So domestic violence increases, alcoholism increases. The men don’t have work, and they feel like they are supposed to be the supporters of the family, so they are frustrated, and they abuse.”

A number of U.S. and Mexican feminists and activists have remarked on the seeming absence of men from the frontlines of the fight to end the disappearances in Juárez, including the women’s own fathers, boyfriends or other male family members. But it also underscores the fact that beyond the gruesome murders lies a border culture rife with the attitude that women are expendable—a culture that allows this femicide to keep happening.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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