Protestors at Juarez V-Day march

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)–To tour the best-known spots in this city is to walk into a Stephen King horror novel.

Beneath a bland, dusty veneer of box-shaped malls, fast-food logos, foreign factories and tract homes lies a sewer of crime, drugs, people-trafficking and casual violence. New York City has the “Seinfeld tour” of spots that appear in the renowned sitcom; Hollywood guides bring tourists past celebrities’ homes. Juarez’s claim to fame: murder. For each of the more than 300 women who have been snatched over the past 10 years on their way to work or school, many times more men have been murdered in drug-related killings, authorities say.

But it’s been the murders of women that have drawn the world’s attention. Most recently, under a crisp blue sky on a chilly Valentine’s Day, celebrities and a few thousand men and women declared this gritty border city to be at once an international symbol of violence against women and the site of a possible cure for the problem.

Organized by playwright Eve Ensler and Amnesty International, the “V-Day” march drew actresses Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Christine Lahti in the latest, highest-profile visit by international groups calling for an end to the violence that has been taking young, mostly poor women since 1993.

V-Day–violence, vagina and valentine–is a movement founded in 1998 by Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” to stop violence against women. Today, women’s groups worldwide raise money and awareness during February and March by producing the monologues and other events.

“I’ve been in 45 countries in the last five years, and I have seen violence in every single city and every single village and every single town toward women,” Ensler said during an emotional press conference before the march. “If we can have a victory in Juarez–if we can make the streets safe and homes safe and maquiladoras safe for women–it could be a real message to the world that ending violence against women is possible.”

Pressure Increases

From El Paso, Texas, demonstrators walked over the border to join marchers in Juarez, chanting, “Ni una mas!” (“Not one more!”) and “Silencio no! Justicia si!” (“Silence, no! Justice, yes!”). People from Boston to Paris came to support families of the disappeared women, many of whose bodies have been dumped in the desert around Juarez and Chihuahua City with signs of sexual mutilation and torture.

The march’s most immediate effect was to make victims’ families feel supported. “It was very important because of all the artists who came — they’re people who have more possibility to do more to support us,” said Patricia Cervantes, whose 20-year-old daughter Neyra AzucenaCervantes disappeared last May in the city center while on her way home from work. “Our shout is getting very loud.”

Esther Chavez Cano, founder of the rape-crisis center Casa Amiga and one of the first people to notice a sinister pattern of homicides in 1993, said she was encouraged that two new federal officials, María Guadalupe Morfín and María Lopez Urbina, had marched. Guadalupe, a human-rights attorney, is a commissioner overseeing the government’s investigation of the murders. Lopez, a former state attorney general, has been made a special prosecutor.

“The authorities had never before attended a public event protesting the murders,” Chavez said. “It was very significant because they proclaimed that they were with us.”

Coming so soon after last year’s visits by the United Nations, Amnesty International and a U.S. congressional delegation, the demonstration made it clear that if President Vincente Fox doesn’t deliver, the pressure will escalate.

“The march has positioned the murders centrally on the national political agenda,” said Guadalupe in a telephone interview with Women’s eNews. She said she has already met with El Paso police, the FBI and U.S. consulate officials and that the Mexican government has officially requested more assistance from the United States.

Still No New Suspects

So far, international pressure has not produced new suspects or freed the ones who are in jail after allegedly being tortured into confessing. But new leads may be surfacing. In January authorities unearthed at least 11 male bodies buried at a house owned by an alleged drug trafficker. Some state police are suspected and federal officials say the discovery may yield leads into the women’s murders as well.

That house is one stop on a “tour” of Juarez’s more notorious spots. Unlike in New York or Hollywood, this tour passes eight pink crosses in a field where the bodies of many young women were dumped in November 2001 across the street from the association of maquiladoras, or foreign assembly plants, that draw the women to Juarez and other border towns. Next are examples of “narcotectura,” or “narchitecture,” gaudy residences reeking of illicit drug-trafficking wealth.

Residents and small-business owners said they’re fed up with the violence. Although the business community has been silent until now, several shopkeepers stepped outside to watch the march.

“It’s good so that we can end this violence,” said Joss Malacara, 35, owner of Bordados la Princesa de Juarez, a clothing store. “It has not affected me personally, but it has affected a lot of people, and we want this to end already.”

Changing Political Will

Ensler believes the march can change political will. “I believe that when enough women and enough vagina-friendly men rise up and join together, we will absolutely change things,” she told reporters last week.

Field said she was simply there to do what had to be done. “How do you change anything, except stand in one place and scream and scream and scream and then make more people come and stand in that place and scream and scream and scream?” she told Women’s eNews.

Eventually, she and the other high-profile participants said, they will be heard. More important, they said, they would be back.

“We’re going to be really paying attention to see if Guadalupe will be given the money, the resources, the wherewithal, to actually succeed in the job,” said Fonda, adding that the same applies to Lopez. “We’re going to really push to make sure they get what they need.”

Diana Washington, an El Paso Times reporter and the author of an upcoming book about the murders, “Harvest of Women,” said she thinks the march will help.

“It’s the publicity. You have international movie stars. It’s attended by people from all over the world,” she told Women’s eNews. “All of that is cumulative. It can no longer be ignored.”

Theresa Braine is a free-lance journalist based in Mexico City.

For more information:

Women’s eNews–U.S. Reps in Mexico Pressing Murder Investigation:


Amnesty International USA report summary: