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Social, Economic and Political Causes of Femicide: A Close Look at the Juarez Murders

 

Imagine a young girl, seventeen years old, mother of two, working in a maquiladora in Juarez, Mexico. Far from her native land in southern Mexico, she hopes her earnings of around five dollars a day will help her family back home. Her job allows her more freedoms than usual for a young woman and carries with it more burdens. The long hours and tedious factory work come with physical ailments and mental dilapidation. She could never hope to own the products she assembles for mass consumption around the world. Her wages scarcely allow her to have the basic necessities and send money to her family. One night while walking through the desolate, dark field to catch the bus home, she is forcibly kidnapped. The men violently beat her, rape her and then strangle her to death. A week later her body surfaces in an empty lot. Even with the evidence left behind, no one will ever know what happened to Lilia Alejandra Garcia Andrade, last seen on February 14th 2001 (Gaspar de Alba and Guzman 120). Now imagine Esmeralda Herrera Monreal, 15 years old, who disappears on her way to a home where she worked as a maid. And then there is Laura Berenice Ramos Monarrez, who was a 17-year-old high school student when she went missing. Both families reported their disappearances to the Mexican authorities and were ignored. Esmeralda’s family was told to search for her on their own and that she probably ran off with her boyfriend. The police delivered Laura’s remains to her family and ended the investigation.  However, scientific testing performed afterwards confirmed they were someone else’s remains (Campo Algodonero v. United Mexican States). Many Mexican women share similar horror stories but no one knows why. How could this happen?

 

Unfortunately, in Juarez between 1993 and 2008 over five hundred women were violently murdered. Most of these women’s bodies were found “strangled, mutilated, dismembered, raped, stabbed, torched, or so badly beaten, disfigured, or decomposed that the remains have never been identified” (Gaspar de Alba and Guzman 3). Moreover, there are reported to be thousands of missing girls. The female victims usual fit the same description “young, slim, petite, dark-haired, and dark-skinned” (Gaspar de Alba and Guzman 3), mostly between the ages of twelve and twenty-three. These murders have not been solved and continue today.  However, officials have made several arrests including “Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif (“The Egyptian”), members of Los Rebeldes gang, Edgar Alvarez Cruz, and a few bus drivers” (Gaspar de Alba and Guzman 121). The Egyptian was pegged as the serial killer behind the murders but the murders continue even after his imprisonment and that of others. Residents and scholars alike investigate these murders on their own because Mexican authorities have done inadequate investigations and downright neglected these cases, often blaming the victim. A few theories about the cause of these murders include lack of security for maquiladora workers, violence from drug trafficking, a high volume of serial killer types residing close by, and unequal judicial rights for women citizens (Staudt and Campbell). While advocates for human rights propagate awareness about these murders, Mexican and United States officials have not formed a bi-national task force to help solve the epidemic of femicides. Instead, there is a task force that includes “immigration officers, Border Patrol agents, FBI agents and police on both sides of the border” all engaged in trying to solve the problem of car theft (Gaspar de Alba and Guzman 8). Why isn’t there urgency in solving these murders? Who stands to gain from these murders? How are we all connected to these horrific events?

 

This paper seeks to investigate the social, economic and political conditions that would condone or promote femicide. At the same time, it will compare the techniques by which writers convey vital information and break the silence of these unspeakable events, which are still inconclusive, by using Desert Blood by Alicia Gaspar De Alba, a lesbian mystery novel, and “Each and Her” by Valerie Martinez, a book of poetry.

 

SOCIETY’S GENDER ROLES

Gender roles are constructed and imposed socially in every society, usually with a political agenda. In order to commit these heinous crimes and for officials to overlook them, rationally, they must provide a dehumanizing justification. Gender studies scholar, Judith Butler explains that gender roles are performed repetitively in social settings, eventually naturalizing unequal identities. Latin America is known for its machismo stereotype in which males display excessive masculinity. Females, on the other hand, are characterized as weak. These constructs affect every aspect of society including the economy. Maquiladora, companies which process unassembled products imported to Mexico and are then exported, usually to the United States, hire a majority of female workers because they are identified as undemanding, non-militant, low-wage employees with no protection from a union. Women are supposed to be content with dead-end jobs. Gender constructs financially justify the treatment of female employees in this manner and in so doing reaffirm this behavior as natural in society at large.

 

Despite the fact that these plants are under foreign ownership, mostly US owned, working conditions do not resemble policies required in the US. There are no policies protecting the workers from abuse and everything boils down to the bottom line. Since women have a reproductive power, which can hinder productivity and lead to a prolonged absence, these plants monitor their sexual activity. In most plants, “women must show supervisors their bloody tampons monthly to remain employed” (Gaspar de Alba and Guzman 127). Controlling reproduction justifies the virgin/whore binary, suggesting that Maquiladora workers tend to be whores. This label arises from the view that a woman joining the workforce deviates from the norm and thus is tied to stigmatized labels. With this rationale, in order for women to stay chaste, men must intervene with strict policies. It is clear that if someone is performing one’s gender wrong, it “initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect” (Butler 528). Those who stray from the traditional female role, such as that of a housewife, are vulnerable to discrimination and male violence.

 

Further, female bodies are sexualized in the workplace with regular “employer-sponsored ‘beauty pageants’” (Gaspar de Alba and Guzman 127). These pageants reaffirm male-dominated feminine ideals, and winners are given incentives such as a raise or promotion. It may appear that these plants care about their physical well being by allowing employees to get dressed up, when in truth, these pageants seek to bond the women in traditional feminine roles. Customary events like pageants, based around constructed female characteristics, are important because “gender reality is created through sustained social performances” (Butler 528). Thus, working females are less likely to identify with male workers and in turn request equal rights if separate roles are maintained.   

 

Moreover, unlike the men, the female employees are demanded to give sexual favors for promised advancement. In these instances, women are forced to use their sexual power to gain power in the labor force. Women already employed understand that they are expendable as women and employees. The belief is that females are cheap and there are lines of women outside of the plants hoping to get jobs. When women give sexual favors for job security, they only reinforce the negative stereotypes of women as whores. Yet, if they do not give sexual favors, then they have no power over their situation and are still vulnerable to male violence. In fact, deviating from what is expected, which maintains that a woman should submit to a man, could cause more discrimination and violence. Further, when women from these plants go missing, they are labeled “maqui-loca”. Officials dismiss the victims as merely prostitutes who “asked for it.”  Any woman who socializes outside of work is considered sexually provocative and deserving of male abuse. These young women migrate from poorer parts of Mexico to send money back to their families. If these women do not go out and socialize after work, then ultimately they eat, work and sleep their lives away. However, not all women who have gone missing were in a social setting; many were on their way home from work. The problem is the assumption of the community that places blame on the women.

 

Gender roles play a huge part in perpetrating and justifying violent acts towards women. In particular, Maquiladoras “ultimately created a gendered and racialized political economy and shaped the city’s geography in ways that facilitated absorbed, and, perhaps, promoted femicide” (Gaspar de Alba and Guzman 127). These roles are so ingrained in society that men and women often think missing girls have run away with a boyfriend or were asking for trouble with strange men. Negative stereotypes keep a veil over the truth behind the violence and prevent any progress towards ending these murders. For example, a Chihuahuan state attorney said “it is impossible not to get wet when you go outside in the rain; it is also impossible for a young woman not to get killed when she goes out alone at night” (Gaspar de Alba and Guzman 131). The thought that women are not only vulnerable but are in constant danger is so ingrained and normalized in Mexican society that these murders are expected. The message is: women should not go out at night if they want to stay safe.  However, working in a maquiladora means that women must commute home late at night by themselves. Even though only 20% of the femicide victims were plant workers, all other women in Mexican society cannot escape these female ideals.

 

Gaspar De Alba and Martinez convey the consequences of gender roles for women in Mexico differently. Gaspar De Alba uses dialogue between characters in her mystery to point out applicable situations for using gender roles. For instance, when Ivon’s sister goes missing, she wants to use the most recent photo taken of her for a missing person’s flier. Father Francis warns, “too much red lipstick…sends the wrong message” (Gaspar de Alba 179). Ivon is baffled and outraged by this comment that would likely be said in Juarez after a young girl is taken. Even though Ivon insists on using the picture, she must acquiesce to her surroundings. Father Francis makes that clear by stating, “I just know how people react…They’ll think she’s a bad girl and she got what she deserved” (179). In this context, the novel reveals how detailed gender roles are identified to the point that dark-red lipstick is an indicator of prostitution.

Martinez uses a different tactic to tackle the issues of gender roles. In response to the Chihuahuan state attorney, Martinez’s poetry reinterprets his statement to reflect underlying prejudices. Poem 39 states “You, Parents,/ for raising up daughters/ whose conduct does not conform/ to the moral order” (Martinez 39). This statement does not have to be direct inasmuch as the reader can interpret that parents are being blamed for their children’s murders. This fragmented language lacks emotion just as the state attorney lacked empathy, while at the same time it brings awareness and evokes contempt.

 

ECONOMIC FACTOR OF GENDER

Money is the biggest incentive for treating human lives like commodities. The North American Free Trade Agreement which opened up free trading between the US, Mexico and Canada, has contributed to the poor treatment of employees due to cheap labor and no tariffs on goods so that companies can produce cheap products. This free market exploits Mexican workers who must work harder for insufficient pay. Farmers unable to keep up with demand and competition are forced out of work. High unemployment rates cause the Mexican poor, mostly females, to migrate from southern Mexico for survival. Thus, foreign-run plants opened with the promise of helping unemployed migrants. In the hope of attaining a Mexican version of the American dream, maquiladoras were opened, ready to serve US consumerism. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, NAFTA has promoted a 30% increase in economic growth since 1993. In addition, wages are 37% higher in export-related industries than in the rest of the economy, plus employment is higher and migration lower. However, these statistics can be misleading because most of the population suffers from poverty. According to the CIA World Factbook, 18.2% of the population is below the “food-based definition of poverty” and 47% of the population is below the “asset based poverty” definition. While some may be able to feed themselves, almost half of the population does not have sufficient household assets, including health, education, clothing and housing needs. The wealth is unequally distributed; therefore, NAFTA has only helped some populations in Mexico but continues to hurt others with underemployment.

 

When discussing the large number of murders in Juarez, it is essential to review the drug wars. The drug industry is the second largest source of income for Mexico, the first being oil. The US spends billions of dollars a year on narcotics, which in turn boosts the privatized prison industry. US prisons rely on drug use and trafficking to maintain the world’s largest prison industry. In fact, the prison industry would “collapse without the intake of drug convicts, and, in recent years, of illegal Mexican migrants” (Bowden). If drugs were legal, the prisons would lose money on every inmate who is released. Keeping drugs illegal has perpetuated violence and drug wars due to competing cartels that are unable to be managed by governments. Often Mexican authorities are bribed to overlook or even help drug traffickers, further exacerbating the problem. NAFTA was promoted as a solution to ending illegal activities because it would help stabilize the economy, but the statistics refute that possibility. The only success the war on drugs has had besides a booming prison industry and mass murders is that “Drugs are cheaper than ever, and they are of much higher quality” (Bowden). Charles Bowden proposes legalizing drugs and creating safe industries for controlling and distributing drugs; accordingly putting drug cartels out of business and ending the violence.

 

Sex trafficking can also be attributed as the cause of the murders and disappearances of many Mexican girls. Libertad Latina reported a story in 2009 about the aftermath of a sex trafficking raid in San Diego County. The FBI, INS and San Diego Sheriff executed a raid ten years after first learning about local sex trafficking. Hundreds of Mexican girls were kidnapped and raped over the ten years in home-based brothels. Many of the traffickers and men who frequented the brothels escaped and those who were captured were later released because the child victims refused to accuse their enslavers. Most of the victims were deported back to Mexico without being provided any victim services. Many Mexican teens have been found murdered in San Diego in possible relation to the sex trade. In 2003, one of the ringleaders of sex trafficking “was convicted of a charge that would bring him 18 months in jail” (Libertad Latina). This sends a message to sex traffickers that the US does not care about these young women. In order to end this victimization, perpetrators must be pursued and charged with at least the same severity as drug dealers and car thieves. It seems that authorities in Mexico and the US have no sense of urgency to help end the cycle of femicide.

 

Gaspar De Alba brings awareness of the economic influences behind the Juarez murders. She explicates several theories behind the murders as the main character investigates the disappearance of her sister. A reporter discussing the murders with Ivon says “we have lots of theories. It’s pornography, it’s the black market for human organs, it’s a serial killer crossing over from El Paso, it’s the police, it’s a Satanic cult.” (242). In the investigative spirit of the mystery, several theories are discussed with possible links between each other. This is true of actual events since there seems to be more than one cause of the murders but no clear indicators of its source. There is a convoluted web that could all boil down to gender roles and money. The priest explains in a religious context, “the women are being sacrificed to redeem the men for their inability to provide for their families, their social emasculation, if you will, at the hands of the American corporations” (252). Corporate greed even destabilized gender roles as they hired women to gain profit and, in so doing, unleashed hatred towards women for clashing with gender roles.

 

Using poetry, Martinez acknowledges the multi-dimensional causes which give rise to these murders. She uses poetry to allow for many interpretations of the text in order not to make definitive statements. The murders are still inconclusive and it would not be productive to provide false information to communities. Unfortunately, audiences like complete stories and citizens want to pinpoint a person to pay for the murders. Yet, several individuals caused the Juarez murders and even more individuals carried out these violent acts. There is no one simple answer to the causes of femicide. Martinez asks her readers to be critical of the economic factor of such violence in poem 10 saying, “the assembly line/ call it revolution/ in commodity forms” (10). This causes readers to question the links between the murders and commodities. This may motivate researching the maquiladoras and NAFTA. This could even help a reader rethink his or her involvement as a consumer of products that could likely come from these plants without explicitly accusing anyone.

 

POLITICS OF GENDER

The application of Mexican law does not protect women citizens. It is difficult to find laws about sexual assault in Mexico and even harder to see the process at work. Every state in Mexico has its own laws. Some include up to 20 years in prison for rape, although it is rare that rape cases are investigated. For instance, a “review of criminal laws in all 31 states showed that many required that if, for example, a 12-year-old girl accused an adult of statutory rape, she had first to prove she was ‘chaste and pure’ (Jordon). Further, if the accused are ever arrested, they can often pay their way out of the situation. In this case, the government is more concerned with gender roles than human rights. Rape borders on being a crime and a courting ritual, which is expected from the males in society.

 

It is clear that the Mexican government does not provide protection to women citizens. There is no security for the female workers who must be out at night. There are no policies protecting workers. When a woman is raped or murdered, most of the time no one is held accountable. The Mexican authorities do not look for the missing women and those who report missing girls are met with hostility or indifference. Nor do they search areas where many bodies have already been found. By failing to provide adequate police investigation and protection, the Mexican authorities only make it more likely for the femicide to continue. Several human rights organizations together filed a lawsuit against Mexico in 2009 for failing to protect the women in Juarez. The case will appear in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The lawsuit explains that “the failure to convict and curb the murders has been to a large part the result of extremely poor, indifferent and negligent investigations by the authorities of the State of Chihuahua, who have jurisdiction over these cases” (Campo Algodonero v. United Mexican States 5). It is unclear whether authorities are involved in the murders or simply indifferent to them based in part by the gender roles of Mexico. However, human rights advocates believe it is the duty of the government to protect its citizens from gender-based violence. In order to end the violence “a holistic response to gender-based violence that includes both criminal justice and economic, social, and cultural dimensions is necessary” (Campo Algodonero v. United Mexican States 5). Perhaps this is progress towards ending these vicious crimes or at least bringing awareness of femicide to the rest of the world.

 

Gaspar de Alba points to the corruption of the Mexican authorities as the main character Ivon is constantly hindered by them while looking for her sister. Since the kidnapping happened on the border of El Paso and Juarez, Juarez police were concerned it was a case for the American authorities. American police wanted to help but could not take the case until a ransom note or body was found. Later Ivon is taken unlawfully by Mexican authorities, simply because she was showing missing person’s fliers in the wrong neighborhood. She bribed the authorities to let her go as she knew they could either take “their guns out and [shoot her] right then and there or let [her] go” (217). This is similar to real live accounts of corrupt officials. Ivon is unrelenting and continues to investigate on her own to find her sister. This would not likely happen in real life.  As the mystery shows, Ivon was nearly killed several times trying to find her sister, and most people would not have the ability and resources to help find their missing family members. However, the mystery shows what obstacles someone may have to face in order to help a victim of a violent crime.

 

Martinez compares the women murdered in Juarez to roses. Poem 12 states, “’It Really Is Amazing How Many Different Enemies/ Are Out There to Get Your Roses!’” (12). She implies there is a multifaceted structure that allows for the discrimination and violation of women. The empty spaces used in every poem point to the incompleteness of the facts or the deletion of the truth. This poem in particular may be implicating authorities that people would not normally assume are out to get women or merely the multitude of people out to hurt women. It could also stand for all people who contribute indirectly to these murders without knowledge of them. This poetry book prompts its readers to investigate this story and fill in the blanks.

 

In conclusion, there are several factors contributing to the femicide in Juarez, including social, economic and political inequality. When these murders first started happening in 1993, there was little press about the missing and dead women. There were no stories on the news on television or radio in the United States or in Mexico. Still today, there is little media attention to the murders. However, there has been much progress in bringing awareness to communities. There are several scholarly articles discussing the causes of the murders as well as books and other literature. Martinez’s poetry book and Gaspar de Alba’s mystery gather information to help pinpoint the cause behind the femicide. Martinez forces the audience to take a closer look at the connections between foreign corporations, the drug trade, serial killers and corrupt officials. Gaspar de Alba implicates everyone in the murders from the unconcerned citizens to corrupt officials and US consumerism. The readers must stop and ask themselves how they have contributed to these murders. Literature on this subject allows us to have documentation of these crimes in order to prevent reoccurrences and spread awareness around the world in order to reach out for help. Fortunately, several international human rights organizations are reaching out to help put an end to femicide by holding the Mexican government accountable. This certainly would not have happened if Mexican authorities had been able to keep the missing and murdered girls hidden. Today no one knows exactly how many women have been victims of femicide because of lack of investigation; but that is changing as more people take notice. Therefore, it is imperative that scholars continue to unveil truths about injustices around the world, break the silence and find a solution to end the violence. This essay was prompted by information conveyed in Gaspar De Alba and Martinez’s literature and seeks to inspire others to inquire about femicide in order to acknowledge one’s own involvement and help end the complacency which allows these murders to continue.

 

 

Works Cited

Ed. Gaspar De Alba, Alicia and Guzman, Georgina. Making a Killing: Femicide, Free Trade and La Frontera. University of Texas Press, 2010.

 

Gaspar De Alba, Alicia. Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders. Arte Publico Press. Texas, 2004.

 

Bowden, Charles. Charles Bowden on The War Next Door: Adam Smith's invisible hand meets magical realism on the border. High Country News, 2010.


Butler, Judith. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, (Dec., 1988), pp. 519-531.

 

Staudt, Kathleen and Campbell, Howard. The Other Side of the Ciudad Juarez Femicide Story. Harvard Review of Latin America. 2008.

 

Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mx.html

 

Office of the United States Trade Representative: Executive office of the President.

NAFTA: A Decade of Success. http://www.ustr.gov/about-us/press-office/fact-sheets/archives/2004/july/nafta-decade-success

 

Jordon, Mary. In Mexican villages, rape can be called a courting ritual. Mexico Legislacion Federal de Mexico, 2002.


Libertad Latina. Indigenous and Latina Women & Children's Human Rights News from the America. Child Mass Sexual Slavery Scandal. http://www.libertadlatina.org/latam_us_san_diego_crisis_index.htm

 

Campo Algodonero v. United Mexican States. CASE NOS. 12.496, 12.497, & 12.498. Before the INTER-AMERICAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS.

 

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.