Feminicidio/Ciudad Juárez/Las desaparecidas

To the extent, then, that the failure of maquiladora development began to be written in terms of men’s absence from the maquilas, women workers were cast as a problem rather than another exploited group within Mexico’s struggling development plans, and all women became a target for male resentment.

Alicia Gaspar de Alba & Georgina Guzmán

Birthdate of Benito Juárez

book cover killingBenito Juárez served five terms as President of Mexico and his administrations marked great positive changes for the nation. He was born 21 March 1806 and the nation celebrates his birth with a national holiday on the Monday closest to the anniversary of his birth.

Juárez had become President of the Supreme Court, and assumed the presidency of the nation in 1858 after Ignacio Comonfort resigned. Angry over unpaid Mexican debt, Spain, Great Britain and France in 1861 sent a joint force to Veracruz and seized the customs house. Spain and Britain withdrew when they realized that Napoleon III intended to overthrow the Juárez government and establish a Second Mexican Empire with support from conservative Mexican factions. Juárez was elected to the presidency in his own right and he served four terms beginning in 1861. That same year, he and his cabinet fled Mexico City after the French took control; he went north to El Paso del Norte (now Ciudad Juárez) and then to Chihuahua City. During his presidency Juárez:

  • Was a leader in the resistance of the French occupation of Mexico
  • Helped overthrow the Second Mexican Empire
  • Restored the Republic
  • Used liberal efforts to modernize the country, including the:
    • Expropriation of church lands
    • Subordination of army to civilian control
    • Liquidation of peasant communal land holdings
    • Separation of church and state in public affairs
    • Almost-complete disenfranchisement of bishops, priests, nuns and lay brothers

La Ciudad Juárez

Located across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas the city was originally a settlement named El Paso del Norte.  It was renamed Ciudad Juárez in 1888 in honor of the former Mexican president.

Today Ciudad Juárez is a fast-growing manufacturing center of over 1.5 million people. According to the Federal Reserve Board of Dallas, the annual growth of Ciudad Juárez during the ten year period 1990–2000 was 5.3 per cent.  More than 300 maquiladoras (assembly plants, mostly foreign (United States)-owned) are located in and around the city.

During the 2000s drug cartels and the federal government came into open armed conflict and two rival cartels (the Juárez and Sinaloa) fought for control of the city as it is an important gateway for drug conveyance into the United States.

This has not been good news for all girls and women. Ciudad Juárez became infamous for a wave of attacks beginning in the 1990s that left hundreds of females dead and thousands missing over the course of two decades. Some of the dead and missing were as young as five years old.

Las desaparecidas

In 1976, at the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, Diana Russell used femicide to refer to the killing of females by males simply because they are female. Since then, while U.S. feminists make infrequent use of the word, Latinas in Mexico, Central and South America have adopted the use of femicide (or feminicide) to describe events such as have occurred in Ciudad Juárez for at least 20 years.

International Women’s Day has come and gone and the buzz about violence against women is now in the subconscious. Not in Juarez.

Since 1993 almost 400 (or is it 600? or 900?) women have been murdered in Juárez. The true number is likely many, many more as a woman may have disappeared, yet her remains have not been found. Thousands have gone missing.

Books were written, movies made, protests mounted, celebrities lent their name to activities. Then international attention moved on, but the killings continue, with a second wave even larger than the first. News of the deaths of las desaparecidas were eclipsed and dwarfed by a death toll that spiked rapidly as a result of (1) the wars between drug cartels and (2) the government’s war against the cartels.

juarez graves

Copyright 2013, Desinformémonos Periodismo de Abajo

With the cartel wars now somewhat in remission, the deaths of women are once again noticeable as the number of women missing and/or dead continues to accrue, reaching a high of 304 dead in 2010. Chihuahua state officials say more women were killed in 2012 than in any femicide-era year (1993-2002). About the time that the cartel wars made news, a shift occurred in the type of woman who fell prey to kidnapping and violence:  during the 1990s the overwhelming majority of women who disappeared were young, they worked in maquiladoras and were sometimes living on their own far from their families who lived in other parts of Mexico; now, young middle-class women are disappearing from stable homes.

Malu Garcia Andrade, an activist whose daughter was kidnapped, tortured and her body mutilated, told Al Jazeera that:

The difference between femicide and the rest of the drug war is the way in which the girl is killed. Women are kidnapped, tortured, raped, then murdered. The drug violence is extortion, robberies and murder.

Officials sometimes blame the victim as when one-time Chihuahua attorney general Arturo González Rascon claimed that women dressed provocatively and thus encouraged men to abuse them, thereby absolving the murderers of responsibility for their actions. As many women were abducted on their way to or from work in the factories, it’s  unlikely they were dressed “provocatively.” (According to Nidya Sarria,

large maquilas began to provide bus service to and from the maquila, but this has not been an effective preventive security measure.

In fact, some bus drivers have been prosecuted for attacking women.) Some officials pointed to victims perhaps having been prostitutes who led a double life (una vida doble); yet, as Teresa Rodriguez points out,

these women were devoted mothers, daughters, or sisters who contributed their share to the family income while often also being active in their communities.

More recently Reyes Baeza, the governor of Chihuahua, accused activists of tarnishing the public image of Ciudad Juárez in their efforts to get answers to questions about their missing relatives and friends.

The Way Things Work

juarez marchers

Copyright 2012, Fuentes Fidedignas

In the case of Caso González y otras v. México (December 2009), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Mexico had violated the 1978 American Convention of Human Rights and the 1994 Inter-American Convention on The Prevention, Punishment And Eradication of Violence Against Women. The court initiated sanctions against Mexico for

The impunity … gender-based violence, which in turn feeds women’s sense of insecurity and their abiding mistrust of the administration of [the] justice system.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism published Women of Juárez: Angering the Wrong Crowd (Yvette Cabrera, Minerva Canto, and Rose Palmisano) about a journalist who landed in prison for investigating her friend’s disappearance.

Underlying Cause

With more than 50 suspects apprehended by police it is difficult to state why women continue to die in Juárez. Yet they do. While some suspects have been apprehended and released due to prosecutorial incompetence and others have claimed that they were framed and/or tortured into confessing just so the police could assuage public demands for justice, I see both of these systemic issues as part of the machismo/marianismo culture where women are devalued, their lives of no consequence. The abandonment of marianismo (where the female has a subordinate and domestic gender role, fulfilling roles as wife and mother) could be particularly threatening to a machismo culture if the woman is not expected to seek paid labor outside of the home, yet obtains it and becomes the dominant wage earner while the male remains under- or unemployed and becomes dependent on the woman.

Some are convinced that there has been more police involvement in committing the crimes than just the single case of María de Jesús Talamantes (who was raped by male and female police officers while in custody for having reported an assault on her husband by neighbors). They point to the alleged torture of suspects, lack or denial of support to criminologists from both within and external to Mexico, and pointing outside investigators to misleading information.

On both sides of the border, public officials especially the police, corporate and maquiladora owners, and the drug cartels are intertwined with resulting negative impact for residents of Ciudad Juárez.

This is a situation where multiple factors come into play. Whatever the underlying psychological or sociological reasons for the misogynistic behavior, it will take strong leadership to begin the process of change in Ciudad Juárez and the public officials of Juárez were not been known for strong leadership even before the women began to disappear.

To learn more

A more extensive list of resources can be found at the end of Marietta Messmer’s Transfrontera Crimes: Representations of the Juárez Femicides in Recent Fictional and Non-Fictional Accounts published by the American Studies Journal.

Website (en español)

Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, A.C.


2666 (2004, Roberto Bolaño)

Desert Blood (2005, Alicia Gaspar de Alba)


Making a Killing:  Femicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera (2010, Alicia Gaspar de Alba & Georgina Guzmán)

The Daughters of Juárez (2007, Teresa Rodriguez)

The Harvest of Women (2006, Diana Washington Valdez)


Bordertown (2006, starring Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas)

Backyard: El Traspatio (2009)

Señorita Extraviada (2001)

The Virgin of Juarez (2006)

Lagrima del toro


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