A city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. It is on the Mexican-U.S. border directly across the Rio Grande river from El Paso, Texas and New Mexico. It is an important international trade city. Especially, Juarez is involved in maquiladoras and trade between the U.S. and the interior of Mexico. It is also noted as a spot for night life (read: teens and 20 year olds going to night clubs, often accompanied by alcohol). A write-up about Ciudad Juarez wouldn't be complete without discussing drugs. The Juarez drug cartel is a very large and complex organization. It is believed to be responsible for many murders on the border.

Ciudad Juarez: Fear, Death, and Impunity

Even the devil is afraid to live here.

Situated across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, is Ciudad Juarez. It has a large manufacturing/assembly industry and a population of 1.2 to 1.5 million people.

It is also the home to one of the most disturbing statistics in North America. Since 1993, 250 to 270 women have been found murdered (usually strangled, often raped and sometimes mutilated) and dumped on the outskirts of town. Some think the number is higher with many bodies not yet found. An estimated 400 to 450 more women have disappeared in the same time span. Almost all young (mostly between 12 and 21), many going missing on the way home from their jobs at factories and assembly plants.

A few dozen suspects have been questioned or arrested and police claimed each time that the killings were over. Only to have them begin again shortly after. If the work of a serial killer, it would be one of the greatest accomplishments in that career of depravity—even if it were the work of a few or a gang of them. Undoubtedly some of those who disappeared went home or somewhere else rather than returning to the difficult and often demeaning work at the maquiladoras (plants usually owned by foreign companies, mainly the United States). Some may have gone over the border to enter the US.

Some probably died because of gang and/or drug related violence, something that has been a serious problem since before the killings began. It is also highly likely that many are being killed because whoever the persons (it's probably a large number of individuals, many or most working independently) can get away with it. Domestic disputes gone horribly, horribly wrong. Jealous lovers, husbands and boyfriends looking to get rid of someone, covering up adultery. People acting out deep-seated frustration, even hatred, directed at women.

One can only speculate on the many reasons, but the women of Ciudad Juarez are being killed with seeming impunity, with a law enforcement community that is doing too little, too late. Living in a "machismo" culture where women are not often thought of as equals but subservient to men. And the foreign industry not seeming to care enough to make substantive changes to protect the people who let them earn billions a year for a pittance.

A number of factors are conspiring to make a life of dread and fear for thousands of women.

(For a detailed look at the suspects and basic chronology of the killings, please see: Murders in Ciudad Juarez)


One of the key conditions that has allowed this to go on is the maquiladora system. Working with other factors, it creates an environment that has led to the last several years.

In 1964, the US discontinued the Bracero program which had been in place since 1942. The program allowed Mexican farmers come to the US as farm labor. Crop yields in Mexico were poor and they felt it was a way to make money to feed their families. The US saw it as cheap labor that was already partially skilled for the work. (The problems with the system can be treated elsewhere at another time.) Northern cities, such as Ciudad Juarez became centers for the workers. In 1956, there were 80,000 people passing through the nearby El Paso center.

When the program was ended (for technological reasons and concerns over illegal laborers—one need an official contract from the Farm Bureau), this left thousands of men without jobs or means of support (including their families). In order to alleviate this, Mexico made a concentrated effort to industrialize the North. Using things like exemptions for import and export duties, factories were lured to the area. This became a major industrial/assembly center with over 1500 maquiladoras in border cities by 1990 (over 80% of such factories in the whole country). Between Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, and Mexicali, two-thirds of border plants and 60% of maquiladora workers are accounted for.

Between the International Money Fund, the World Bank, and (later) the North American Free Trade Agreement, this area has become particularly attractive to US companies. The promise of work has brought thousands of poor "immigrant" workers to the cities for jobs. The Ciudad Juarez-El Paso area had quadrupled in population since 1950, with manufacturing employment in the border towns growing some 70% between 1970 and 1980 (the rest of Mexico saw only a 40% growth). It is estimated that Ciudad Juarez has what has been called a "floating" population of almost 300,000. About 600 to 1000 people arrive in Ciudad Juarez each day.

Initially, this might sound good for those men who were out of jobs, but it turns out to be a false assumption. Instead of the men, the majority of those being hired are women, leaving a large population of unemployed males (at least 200,000 people are employed at the maquiladoras and about 135,000 or more are women). This is because the women—young, mostly unskilled, with low levels of education—are cost effective: they can be paid less (saving about 60¢ an hour over hiring men). And that's good for the companies.

Also, because of the same things, as well as a culture where women are expected to be more passive and submissive, they are less likely to agitate or demand rights (it is doubtful even the men could have much success trying to organize). And because so many are already poor and sometimes desperate for money, they flock by the thousands. So, if there's any trouble, employment can be terminated because there's always a line of fresh recruits. Also good for the companies.

Other "assets" for the companies are the weak labor laws, lack of worker organization, lack of safety concerns, needing to give little or no benefits to workers, and loose if not practically nonexistent environmental controls. Conditions in the factories are likened to "sweatshops," with quotas set so high that many of the workers are risking their health and safety to keep their jobs. Jobs that can be taken away at any time (stories of being fired for being as little as three minutes late are common). Long workdays (up to 15 hours) ensure that they often show up before sunrise and leave well after sunset.

Sexual harassment is far from rare. Women (and girls, sometimes underage but told to lie) are lectured against getting pregnant and have reportedly been forced to show employers their dirty sanitary napkins in order to prove they were not. If they are, the employer would have to pay out some maternity benefits. This would be bad for the company.

In short,

These women are the cheapest forms of unskilled or semiskilled labor—the most vulnerable within society because they lack the experience to know and demand their rights. The inexperienced women are less likely than men are to demand higher wages, better working conditions, and more flexible schedules.

And without the skills, training, and education to do other work, it's the only available employment for them.

They aren't foreign born, educated, or wealthy. They don't come from the higher classes. These are the women being preyed upon in Ciudad Juarez.

Men and culture
This leads to the men. All of a sudden, these men are being supported by their daughters, girlfriends, wives, mothers, while they cannot get jobs. This breeds frustration and resentment, feelings of a loss of control over their lives and their families. It throws off the family dynamics and social structures that they had grown up with and is largely inherent in the culture at large. That this may be a factor (among others) in some or many of the murders is very probable. It may relate to some of the brutality and degradation seen in some of the victims. And the rape component.

Suddenly these young women, many from rural areas, living under more "traditional" family and social structures, are in a large city making money and given a certain amount of independence. Again, this fuels the loss of control over their lives (the men who are related to them in some way and used to being "in charge") and the frustration of an inability to get that same, at least, financial independence. There is also the sense that the men already living there are losing chances for employment to people flooding the town from elsewhere. At large, there is a general feeling of losing control of the previous male dominance in the society, gender roles are equalizing in many respects (relatively speaking).

This has led to what activist and founder of the Casa Amiga rape crisis center (the first and only one in the city and one of only six in the whole country) Esther Chavez Cano describes as "a patriarchal backlash [that] has accompanied these murders" (New York Times, 18 April 1998).

It is not just a matter of the men who live in Ciudad Juarez, but things ingrained in the culture, itself. Things that create stigmas for women who have been raped or abused. Chavez explains "our culture says that rape should be kept in the house" and "it is not good to go public. The clothing is washed at home. That is a problem, no?" She continues,

Marital rape is considered the right of the man, and when some women decide to go to police, she receives another rape because the police and doctors think she's guilty, that she goes to some places and dresses a certain way.
(Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 18 March 1999)

This idea that the women are to blame runs not only throughout the society but is seen in laws that give the worst sexual assaults no more than fifteen years in prison (as opposed to life in nearby El Paso). In fall of 2001, the Chihuahua legislature (Ciudad Juarez's state) passed a law that would cut rapist's sentences from four to one year if they could show they were "provoked." Despite mass protests by Chavez and other women's groups, it took the Mexican Congress's threat to step in if the law was not repealed to get it overturned.

This is a place where, in 1995, the state attorney general blamed killings on the "doble vida" ("double life") that the women allegedly live: working by day, frequenting bars, discos, and engaging in illicit activity—including prostitution. As Chavez said in the Houston Chronicle (10 May 1998), "the moralists would have you believe women are bad if they dance." As if to demonstrate the accuracy of those words, the quote follows this statement from a prosecutor for the state attorney's office: "the parents will tell you the relations between them and their daughter were perfect.... But sometimes we find out that the girls are not the saints the parents would have us believe."

They dress provocatively, go out dancing, and hang out at the "wrong" places at night. They should know better. Frighteningly close to "they brought this on themselves." And on the slippery slope to "they deserved it."

Domestic abuse is rarely reported and rape probably less, making the figures for 1995—about 17 reported rapes per month—low. As noted, many do not consider marital rape a crime (this probably goes the same for acquaintance or date rape, as well). The actual numbers could be much, much higher. And it's doubtful that any of the killings that clearly involved rape (bodies are often found after partial decomposition making it difficult to determine) as included in that number.

In 1998, the governor of the state claimed that there was no evidence that the murder rate for women was higher than anywhere else in Mexico. True or false, the implications are disturbing. He also had recently said that crime wasn't his responsibility.

It is no surprise that the killers feel they may operate with impunity.

Suspects and suspects and suspects...

Numerous suspects have arrested over the years. In 1995, an Egyptian chemist, Sharif Abdel Latif Sharif, who had moved there from the US after several incidents involving accusations of rape and assault (including being convicted) was arrested and charged with first, for rape, and then later charged with the rape-murder of another women. He is suspected of possibly murdering other victims when he lived in the US. The killings continued. A gang of men were arrested, who claimed that Sharif paid them to continue the killings. Which continued.

In 1999, a couple was arrested in New Mexico and charged with kidnapping, rape, and torture of two women. They are also suspected of having killed others. Authorities find they have traveled at some point to Ciudad Juarez (it seems there has never been anything to show they were involved in the killings). The same year, a bus driver confesses and implicates four others (one a US citizen) for rape and murder. They all drove buses that took home the girls from the factories. Again, it is claimed they were paid by Sharif (whose conviction was overturned in 2000, though he remains in custody pending appeals) to continue the murders. It also appears the confessions were obtained through torture (a charge made by the gang members). Also in 1999, the notorious "Railway Killer," who some suspected of crossing the border to kill in Ciudad Juarez, surrendered to US border authorities (it seems he has yet to be linked to any of the Mexico killings). The murders continued.

Another arrest came in February 2001. Captured in Dallas, he is suspected of having raped and killed up to 20 women. In November 2001, eight more bodies were found in various states of decomposition. Two more bus drivers were arrested and charged with eleven murders over the previous 15 months. Again accusations of police coercion (torture) to obtain confessions arise.

A week later, another body was found. She had been dead for less than a day. Another was found a week later.

In February 2002, the lawyer for one of the drivers was shot and killed by police who claimed they thought he was a fugitive. He had planned to file complaints concerning the torture allegations.

In March, at least three women escaped sexual attacks (not necessarily related). Later in the month, a man who had once lived in Ciudad Juarez was arrested in his new location (the state of Durango) for the murder of a woman. Chihuahua police went to investigate (that was the latest report seen). A man was charged for stabbing his wife to death outside Casa Amiga (she was a receptionist) in December.

In May, another body was found. A thirteen year old girl who had been strangled. There was no evidence of rape. As of that report, the police where looking to question her boyfriend, suspected of fleeing to El Paso.

As yet, nothing has really been solved and little accomplished. Chavez and other activists and advocates and relatives and friends of the slain continue to lobby and protest and search for clues missed or ignored by others.

But there is no immediate end in sight for the women of Ciudad Juarez.

Mother Jones, June 2002
The majority of the newspaper articles were taken from a site that had collected them. Shortly after printing them out for research, the site moved or was discontinued. I include papers and dates whenever possible (this will pertain more to the second part of the this story). Several of the articles are still available at www.escapinghades.com/juarex-articles.html
News after 2001 was found at www.nmsu.edu/~frontera

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