By Laurence Pantin
Friday, December 21, 2001
During the past eight years, the bodies of an estimated 250 young Mexican women, all poor, most under age 19, were dumped near the Texas border. Advocates say the unsolved murder cases illustrate an acceptance of violence against women.
MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)--Women's groups, human rights organizations and unions have launched a national anti-violence campaign in response to the murders of an estimated 250 women over eight years in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Tex. The campaign's leaders condemn what they call inadequate police investigation into the deaths and demand the federal government step in.
The national campaign involving 300 organizations is called "Stop the Impunity: No More Killings!"
Because Mexico is sensitive to international pressure, the campaign is planning an international lobbying effort, with the help of Amnesty International. Advocates also have received the support of Eve Ensler, creator of "The Vagina Monologues," a one-woman play about all aspects of women's sexuality, and of the international V-Day anti-violence campaign. The proceeds from the play's performance in Mexico will go to the rape crisis center Casa Amiga to help defray the costs of caskets for recent murder victims.
"All these deaths do not only affect Juarez people. They affect the whole Mexican citizenship, and women in particular," said Lidia Alpizar, general coordinator of Elige ("Choose") Network of Young People in Favor of Sexual and Reproductive Rights. She addressed a news conference here last Friday at the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.
The campaign arose after the bodies of eight more women were found last month in a farming field in Cuidad Juarez in the state of Chihuahua. The women, all of them very young, were raped and strangled before being dumped in a field, their hands tied behind their backs.
It is not known exactly how many women were murdered in Ciudad Juarez since 1993, when the first bodies were found, given the flawed police investigation, according to local and national women rights' groups. Yet, current estimates, based on statements and press reports, place the number of bodies found at more than 250.
Most of these women were raped and/or beaten before being killed. About 90 of them were found mutilated or tortured, suggesting that some of the crimes could be serial murders.
The victims were young: 65 percent of them between 15 and 24 and most of them under age 19. Most were students or workers in small commercial businesses or in "maquiladoras," foreign-owned assembly plants. Most of them were poor and lived in the marginal sections of the city. Many were not from Ciudad Juarez, but went there from other Mexican states or other countries in search of work.
The motives for the murders are obscure. Theories include drug or organ trafficking or the use of the women in the filming of so-called snuff movies that feature the sexual assault and murder of women.
The campaign is insisting that federal authorities start investigating the unsolved cases, said Ximena Andion, coordinator of the complaints division of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.
President Vicente Fox has announced that the attorney general's office would take part in the investigation, but advocates were skeptical, saying they hoped the government was making a serious commitment, not just responding briefly to public outrage.
The campaign's leadership is also asking that Marta Altoguirre, the rapporteur for women's rights of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, visit Mexico and issue recommendations on the situation of women in Ciudad Juarez. In addition, the campaign's leadership plans to ask the court to review some of the unsolved cases.
The lack of serious investigation into the murders by the local police regarding was documented in a 1998 report from the National Human Rights Commission based on a look at files produced by the police after each murder. The report said the files were missing crucial information and many did not contain pictures of the corpse that could lead to identification. The police had been unable to identify some victims and had misidentified others, the report said.
Perhaps as a direct result of poor police work, only one man was sentenced for murdering a woman in Ciudad Juarez. Women say the other cases remain unsolved; police say only 55 murders are unsolved. Another 12 suspects are currently in jail, awaiting trial on murder charges. Some of them have been imprisoned since 1996. Two were arrested after the recent discovery of the eight bodies. In some cases, the police are said to lack proof of jailed men's guilt but they remain jailed while the investigation continues. In other cases, the suspects recanted after making confessions, claiming that they were tortured and forced to confess, according to Julia Perez, a spokesperson for Milenio Feminista, a network of 250 feminist organizations.
The continued murders and the lack of effective prosecutions have created a climate of impunity, according to Alpizar of the youth organization for sexual and reproductive freedom. As an illustration, she said that these days a common warning from a man to his girlfriend in Ciudad Juarez is that she'd better do what he wishes, otherwise he will "dump her at Lomas del Poleo," one of the sites where corpses were found.
Another consequence of the unsolved cases is that women rights' groups do not have the information necessary to better focus their prevention campaigns on the most vulnerable women, said Victoria Caraveo, spokesperson for the Coordinating Group of Non-Governmental Organizations for Women's Rights.
Still, prevention efforts are underway.
At the same time the national campaign was launched here, organizations in Ciudad Juarez started a 50-hour prevention program called "Light and Justice for Women in our City." Residents lighted candles to show their support of the fight against violence towards women.
But what a prevention campaign cannot do so easily is change the city's economic and socio-cultural context that, according to Alpizar, contributes to the climate of extreme violence against women.
Ciudad Juarez is city of immigrants, a city of very poor people, crowded with people trying to cross into the United States, explained Alpizar in a recent interview. The government's response to the need for economic development has been to assist the growth of maquiladoras. "It's an answer that violates all the individual's social and economic rights," she said.
There are many more victims than those whose bodies were discovered, added Caraveo, of the Coordinating Group of Non-Governmental Organizations for Women's Rights. The murdered women were the first casualties, but their suffering families' are additional victims, she added, saying that the crimes hurt the entire community because they generate fear and anguish among many women and their relatives, to the point of psychosis in some cases.
But the situation in Ciudad Juarez is only the tip of the iceberg of the violence towards women in Mexico, said Alpizar.
"Juarez is simply one of the saddest and most tragic examples of the violence that we women live in Mexico," she said.
More than 100 women were murdered in Mexico City this year, and 36 in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, according to Perez, of Milenio Feminista.
And thousands of women are "desaparecidas," or missing, Perez said in an interview. The state of Chihuahua counts about 400 "desaparecidas," while the state of Chiapas has about 300 and Guerrero, 150.
These numbers--which do not take into account the everyday domestic violence that many women suffer--and the lack of investigation and prosecution demonstrate the misogyny of the Mexican system justice, according to Perez.
"The judge is the first one who thinks: 'Well, she was seeking it,'" she said.
"If from the people who have to give justice, the message is that women are the guilty ones, it's really serious, because it's like giving men carte blanche, saying, 'It doesn't matter if you kill a woman.' "
The laws also fail to protect women, according to Perez. Only 9 out of 32 states have specific laws protecting children and women against domestic violence, and only 11 states have changed their 17th-century civil and penal codes to make domestic violence a crime. In the remaining states, beating wives or children is not considered a crime.
And, in a worrisome trend, legislators in some states are trying to rescind laws that were passed to protect women.
"Beyond the individual culprits of these murders, there is a state responsibility, because of the state's neglect, that fostered violence," said Andion of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. "Tolerating this violence is also, according to international conventions, a form of wielding violence."
Laurence Pantin is a journalist based in Mexico City.
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