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  Number 277 | Agosto 2004
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Feminicide in Ciudad Juárez: A Multidimensional Challenge

Nearly 400 women have been killed in 11 years, just because they’re women. Who’s doing such a thing? It’s Mexico’s number one human rights problem, the most tragic expression of the collapse of the rule of law.

Jorge Alonso

The modern state grew out of a sort of pact in which society, to ensure that its members could live together in peace, conferred upon the state the exclusive use of force, defined as “legitimate violence.” That force was to be used primarily to safeguard individuals living under the state’s protection. With neoliberal globalization, the state has been obliged to downsize and abandon a range of its obligations to civil rights, confining itself to the role of guardian of property. The forces of the legal market—and the illegal one—are rendering even the state’s most basic functions redundant. The black markets in drugs, weapons, people and pornography have built a parallel power, corrupting a huge number of people and institutions that had been entrusted with the use of legitimate violence to safeguard people’s lives. The result is that this violence has become illegitimate and has been used against society itself.

In Mexico, the demand that the state fulfill its responsibility to guarantee security has been mounting. At the end of June, Mexico City hosted the largest demonstration in recent history, in which thousands upon thousands of people demanded an end to the climate of public insecurity. At the start, the power of money, the electronic media and various ultra-right organizations tried to manipulate the march, but they were no match for the massive turnout of an economically and culturally pluralist society. This powerful demonstration of consciousness was led by relatives of the hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez, which gave the march enormous symbolism because their cases are the most important reflection of the nation’s lack of safety. The “feminicide” in Ciudad Juárez, state of Chihuahua, also known as the “passage to the north” because it is situated on the border with the United States, has shaken both national and international consciousness.

The city with the largest number of single mothers

Ciudad Juárez is one of the most densely populated cities in Mexico. Over half of its inhabitants are immigrants and an enormous number of people take up temporary residence there, many of them living in miserable conditions, with the expectation of crossing into the United States to work. If the official data for 2001 in that city recorded an alarming number of marginalized people, the figure had doubled by 2003.

For the past 40 years, Ciudad Juárez has been a pole of attraction for the maquiladora work force. In the seventies and eighties, as male unemployment was on the rise, the job offers in these assembly plants for re-export prioritized young women. The bosses argued that women work more and—even more importantly—cheaper. This contributed to the increase in female migration. Single women headed many of the households in Juárez, the city with the highest reported rate of children born to single women. Alcohol consumption increased among the men, as did violence against women. Although many male workers were incorporated into the work force, achieving almost full employment by the end of the 1990s, the US recession at the start of this decade hit hard, triggering a new wave of unemployment. Four out
of every five formal jobs lost in Chihuahua were in Ciudad Juárez alone and the proportion between female and male employment again tipped strongly in favor of women. Young females who failed to get into the United States illegally found themselves stuck in Ciudad Juárez with no identification, money or any way to get in touch with their families. Many of them became easy prey for the prostitution networks.

The first eight victims of thebrutal, repeated, unsolved crimes

The unemployment, inhospitable environment and uprootedness created an ideal setting for the propagation of drug addition, alcoholism and violence. Ciudad Juárez has also been home base for one of the most powerful drug cartels, in which trafficking in drugs, weapons, stolen vehicles and even people, with the complicity of police and civil authorities
at all levels, only added to the violence. Thus, it was there that a macabre phenomenon began to appear in 1993:
the bodies of eight women were found with signs of rape, torture and strangulation. All were young women whose relatives had reported them missing, but the authorities had made little effort to search for them.

These murders were the first links in a long and thus far unending chain of painful mysteries. New bodies are still being found. Most of the victims are young, dark-skinned women, and a considerable number worked in the maquilas after migrating to the city in search of better living conditions. There they were exposed to the insecurity of late-night working hours with no public transport. Not all victims are maquila workers, however; they also include homemakers, students, domestic workers and prostitutes.

Many were kidnapped, held captive for days and subjected to harassment, sexual violence, torture and mutilations. Death came by strangulation or savage beatings. Their bodies were found among rubble, in deserted areas or alongside railroad tracks to make it appear that their bodies had been battered by a train.

Over the course of the past decade, society has been demanding explanations and solutions. Many argue that those responsible for these horrendous crimes can be found among the traffickers in drugs and people, sometimes naming police chiefs, dealers in other dark businesses such as gambling houses, shady bars, houses of prostitution and the like, and figures linked to powerful old families of the past PRI regime. Members of youth gangs and even an aging Egyptian were accused, and in fact accepted their responsibility for some of the murders. There has also been talk that the strangulation was related to sophisticated sexual experiments, while others speculate about narco-satanic rites, “snuff” films, repression against union organizers and even trafficking in organs. Whatever the details, the reality is that these reiterated and unsolved brutal murders demonstrate that being poor and a woman is very dangerous in that city, making them preferred targets.

Evidence of complicity

Some bodies were never claimed, but the relatives of many of the victims did indeed look for them. And in undertaking this task they came up against the sloth and ridicule of local authorities. The first problem is that forced disappearance is not a serious crime meriting full pursuit in Chihuahua. Thus, none of the missing persons reports were investigated in time.

Family members were given insulting responses: “She’ll show up with her cholo [half-breed] and her cholitos.” “She was looking for it.” “This wouldn’t have happened if she’d worn a longer skirt.” One mother of a murdered girl complained bitterly that the killer did not come forward to testify because relatives in Public Security and the judiciary protected him. Those who demanded investigation of the drug dealers were threatened and all those who asked for justice were harassed. All of this has revealed the complicity of municipal, state and federal police. Relatives of the victims complain that they were being mistreated and ignored because they and the victims were not wealthy and thus had no access to justice. They lost whatever trust they might have had in the authorities.

The relatives organize: “No more Deaths!”

The authorities and media tried to make society believe that the murdered women led a double life and thus were to blame for their own death. Their reputation and that of their families was called into question. The complicity, impunity, corruption, inefficiency and ineptitude of the authorities led mothers, sisters and even neighbors of the victims to organize and take up the task of investigating, interviewing witnesses and creating search brigades to look for bodies.
They began their fight together with teachers, lawyers and members of human rights organizations—most of them women as well. They created autonomous entities to make a count of the dead and demand justice. Several different groups appeared: “Women in Black,” “Our Daughters Back Home,” “Justice for Our Daughters” and “No More Deaths.”
They have insisted that just one case should have been enough to get the authorities to conduct a serious and credible investigation, and that the authorities’ failure to respond to multiple cases is inexcusable. These groups offered well-grounded lines of investigation, including names and even phone numbers. While the authorities only scoffed at their data, the injured parties futilely continued to demand respect for the rule of law.

In its search for a solution to this abominable problem, organized civil society detected numerous anomalies in the official investigations: serious errors in the dates of the denunciations and the finding of the cadavers, sexism and racism in writing up the denunciations, important flaws in the dossiers, delays in identifying, locating and even searching for the victims… The groups’ efforts revealed the deterioration of the police corps.

The first reaction of local authorities was to minimize the events, alleging that everything was being exaggerated and the murders were nothing more than isolated events. Later, the government of the state of Chihuahua assured that all the perpetrators were already behind bars. When this was shown to be untrue by the fact that there was no solid clarification of any of the charges, the local government irresponsibly declared itself “overridden.” Civil society kept up the pressure, leading the General Defense Attorney’s Office (PGR), together with its state counterpart in Chihuahua, to form a mixed prosecutorial body, although it was soon revealed to be ineffective and a mere front. Governors of both the National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) at the state and municipal levels have been unable to provide a valid response, thus intensifying the impunity.

The conflict globalizes

Given the negligent response of Mexico’s various governmental authorities, relatives of the murdered women and human rights groups opted to go international. The foreign press has taken up this devastating issue much more frequently than its Mexican counterparts have. Some US media have charged that the Mexican authorities incorrectly identified many of the bodies and that their relatives had been harassed. One journalist rhetorically asked what the Mexican government was hiding or whom it was covering for.

Spain’s Judge Baltasar Garzón expressed a desire to analyze these hundreds of cases, insisting that it was important to investigate whether they involved a systematic and premeditated form of eliminating people for gender reasons. While acknowledging that the task should belong to the Mexican authorities, he nonetheless considered that these murders had reached the point of a “crime against humanity.” In mid-2003 Spain’s congress unanimously approved a resolution asking the Mexican government to step up the investigations and provide answers to the families of the victims. It also proposed taking the case to the European Parliament.

In October 2003, US legislators toured Ciudad Juárez, interviewing relatives of some victims, who requested the presence of an international police contingent to put a stop to the wave of killings. Several US nongovernmental organizations complained that the Mexican authorities were not doing enough to prevent violence against women, investigate the killings or respond adequately to the victim’s relatives. The situation only worsened as local authorities responded to these pressures by threatening the relatives.

UN and OAS issue revealing reports

The United Nations rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, who examined the case of the dead women of Juárez, concluded that the Mexican government had created a sense of insecurity among the women of Ciudad Juárez by failing to protect the lives of its citizens. She charged that the murders were sexist crimes favored by impunity, and urged the government to adopt measures to protect human rights defenders and put an end to the violence against women.

Organizations of the relatives took their demands for faster action to end the climate of terror and insecurity in Ciudad Juárez, the resolution of each case and the end of impunity to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington. They also condemned the harassment of the families themselves. The report by IACHR’s special rapporteur for women’s human rights emphasized one investigative lead: the murders were rooted in and sometimes directly caused by domestic and family violence.

The executive director of the UN Women’s Fund (UNIFEM) stated that coordination among government levels was needed to deal with the killing of women in Ciudad Juárez and that labor practices in the maquilas had to be changed. In 2003, the UN signed a technical collaboration agreement with the government of Mexico to solve these feminicides.
In April 2004, Le Monde published a confidential UN report denouncing possible police collusion and nexuses with drug trafficking in the disappearances and murders. It called the government policies “late” and “ ineffective,” and urged the Mexican government to sign an assistance protocol with the US government to conduct joint investigations. A particularly relevant piece of information from this report was that convicted sex offenders from all over the United States are taken to El Paso, a city in Texas that borders on Ciudad Juárez, for their pre-release phase. The number of such people in any given year is high: 756 in 2001 and 600 in 2004.

In turn, the assessment of the human rights situation in Mexico prepared by the UN High Commissioner’s office concluded that the crimes in Juárez were “an extreme case of the state’s absence at various levels.”

The world is watchingand demanding justice

Following an on-site investigation earlier this year, a delegation from the Canadian province of Quebec, made up of one woman legislator and several NGO representatives, demanded that the Mexican government speed up the investigation to find those responsible for the murders. They called it “unacceptable” that the deaths could have been so trivialized and that those truly responsible were neither publicly identified nor punished.

Also this year, the women’s commission of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which represents 150 million workers in 152 countries, condemned the crimes that have been occurring in Ciudad Juárez for the past 11 years. The commission sent a letter to President Fox strongly criticizing the serious violence against women in Juárez, and underscoring the responsibility of the Chihuahua state administrators and federal officials in the impunity surrounding most of the crimes. It demanded an exhaustive and impartial investigation, lamenting that the cases had been minimized and the victims, poor working women, held to blame.

Amnesty International: It’s gender violence

One of the most active organizations in this chilling problem has been Amnesty International. In 2003, it issued the report “Intolerable Killings: Ten Years of Abductions and Murders of Women in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua,” which contained the results of its own investigation. It concluded that at least a third of the murdered women had suffered sexual aggression before dying. It also charged that the only response by the authorities for 10 years had been to treat the crimes as common violence in
the private sphere, without recognizing the existence of a pattern of persistent violence against women deeply rooted in gender discrimination.

Referring to the deficiencies in the official investigations and the climate of impunity, it noted that the investigations had been tossed aside early on, when efficient follow-up would have saved lives. It stressed that it was shameful for the authorities that families had been forced to assume an investigative role because those to whom it rightfully belonged had behaved apathetically, indifferently and even with complicity.

The number one human rights problem

One Mexican state institution that has been active on the case of the murdered women in Ciudad Juárez is the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). In November 2003, it presented a 1,500-page report to the executive and legislative branches, pointing out the unwillingness of federal, state or municipal governments to stop the tragedy.

This commission documented serious irregularities and even criminality in the investigations, with pathetic cases of carelessness. Many of the perpetrators had fled to the United States, and the downplaying of the seriousness of the problem had encouraged a climate of impunity. The CNDH also recommended requesting the cooperation of US authorities and suggested that a federal prosecutor do an in-depth investigation, since the crisis in procuring justice was becoming a “spreading cancer.” The killings in Juárez had become a national embarrassment and until the criminals were identified and brought to justice, no words would alleviate the pain of the victims’ relatives.

One senator asked the ombudsman if he didn’t consider the position of the Spanish legislators to be meddling, to which he responded that faced with a state that can’t fulfill its obligations, anyone would feel the right to “pull its ears.” The ombudsman also declared that he agreed with the Amnesty International report and complained that the authorities had not considered the recommendations made by the CNDH or only feigned acceptance of them. By mid-2004, the ombudsman was arguing that the murdered women of Ciudad Juárez had become Mexico’s number one human rights problem.

Feminist heads House commission on feminicide

An examination of the actions of government institutions, above all at the federal level, demonstrated inadequacy, limited technical capacities, serious errors and even attempts to cover up for those possibly implicated. In addition to harassing relatives and human rights defenders, officials reportedly tortured suspects to get confessions. Relatives of the victims refused to accept the convictions that had been made in these trials not only because the investigations, interrogations and the trials themselves were plagued with irregularities, coerced witnesses and a lack ofconvincing evidence, but also because the murders were continuing with the same cruel MO. The relatives felt the authorities only wanted to hush the clamor.
Repeatedly over these years, the civil organizations have accused police corps linked to the drug cartels, accomplices and political chiefs from both the PAN and the PRI. The discovery of a “narco grave” in January of this year revealed that a large number of judicial police officers in Chihuahua were involved and led to the disbanding of high commands.
The continuing work of the relatives’ groups and the international attention have made Mexico’s legislators increasingly aware of this tragedy. The 2002-2003 legislature created a special House commission to delve into and follow up on feminicide not only in Ciudad Juárez but all over the country. This commission is currently chaired by feminist legislator Marcela Lagarde and is working jointly with a similar body in the Senate.

The federal government only acted in response to international pressure

For many years, the federal government stayed out of the investigations, alleging that it was a state issue. When the situation reached critical proportions in 2003 and national and international pressure started bearing down heavily, the PGR took on a few of the cases, confirming the similar characteristics of the victims and the MO of the killers.
The civic organizations suggested various paths of investigation: that it might have been a serial killer, or related to drug trafficking, or domestic violence, or even a US citizen who crossed the border, committed the crimes and returned to his country. The director of the National Women’s Institute leaned toward the hypothesis that while some of the murders were the result of organized crime, the majority were victims of the country’s general atmosphere of violence.

The Women’s Institute of the state of Chihuahua, citing a journalistic audit, tried to minimize the problem by determining that only slightly more than a quarter of the murders were sexual crimes while the rest could be defined as personal crimes, robbery, drug trafficking and other causes. It had to admit that the investigations had been poorly coordinated, however, which called the judicial system’s credibility into question.

The federal government announced a comprehensive public security plan for Ciudad Juárez and created an Inter-sectoral Sub-commission, open to collaboration with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Federal Preventive Police also showed up in Ciudad Juárez. Meanwhile, the Secretary of Government declared that, while he did not agree with everything in the Amnesty International report, he would take up its recommendations. President Fox acknowledged that the problem was worrying and infuriating and admitted that much remained to be done to create a country free of human rights violations. At the end of 2003, the federal government presented a 40-point program and appointed María Guadalupe Morfín Otero, a prestigious human rights fighter, to head a new Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence Against Women in Ciudad Juárez. Following legislative pressure, the PGR also assigned a special prosecuting attorney to these crimes.

A commissioner with no power makes waves

Morfín Otero’s commission has no executive power; it is limited to coordination and liaison functions, including direct dialogue with the victims’ families and with federal authorities. It is more like a Truth Commission than anything else. Among its civil advisers are prominent public figures such as writer Elena Ponatiowska.

In June of this year, Commissioner Morfín Otero presented her first report, which argued that it was not the city that was killing and attacking, but rather concrete individuals and groups whose names society is still waiting to learn. Ciudad Juárez has been harmed, she pointed out, because for over a decade it has borne the stigma of being the stage for cruel murders and disappearances of women.

Those directly responsible, their accomplices and those who turned a blind eye must assume this stigma, together with those who through fear or silent discrimination contributed to the vacuum of information that has been fatal for hundreds of women. Due to impunity, crime has taken over the city. Many mothers doubt whether the bodies released to them really belong to their daughters, since proper identification examinations have not been conducted. The pain is ongoing and insuperable. Much of the evidence that could lead to the guilty parties has already been erased or irrecoverably damaged.

The commissioner also referred to the collapse of law, the role of the reigning economic model in the city’s dire situation and the irresponsibility and corruption of the governors of both parties that ran Chihuahua during the previous decade. She pledged to promote a reform with the local congress that would protect the rights of women and children and improve the social, family and work environment for women. She specified that her work—to listen to those who have been ignored—has barely begun and that she wants to fill her institutional coordinating role so their voices will be heard. She added that she would reopen the cases that the government had already dispensed with.

As to be expected in an environment such as this, the commissioner, too, has had to suffer the hostility of the PRI government in Chihuahua. But at the same time, she is winning over the activists who finally recognize in her words the same language they have been using for years.
The special prosecuting attorney assigned to investigate the cases also presented a report on its progress in mid-2004. She verified that procuring justice in Chihuahua is “a disaster” and reported on the first review of 50 files, which detected sloppily investigated or uninvestigated crimes. The attorney analyzed the probable responsibility of 81 members of the Chihuahua Defense Attorney’s Office, and noted that 51 of them were still in their posts.

Mounting mobilizationto identify the killers

Mexican society has followed this tragedy closely, indignant at such insulting measures as those suggested by Chihuaua’s deputy defense attorney, who recommended that a kind of curfew be applied to the community. Or at the campaigns of some media, which suggested that women dress decently to avoid being raped and murdered.
But just as the killers have not stopped their actions despite commissions, sub-commissions, forums, party speeches and special attorneys, the victims’ relatives and the civil society organizations have not stopped their mobilizations in which they shout from the depth of their souls, ‘Who kidnapped them and killed them? And who is protecting the killers?’ Marches have been held in Ciudad Juárez and in Mexico City with red carnations and photographs of the missing and murdered women. There have also been camp-ins in front of the Secretariat of Government, the PGR and the Vatican’s Apostolic Nunciature. The slogan heard most frequently is “No more deaths!” Denunciations of the continuing feminicide have also grown, not only in Juárez but also in Chihuahua’s capital and many other cities, and people have noted that stealing a cow carries a stiffer sentence than sexual crimes in many states.
The relatives of the women want justice, an end to impunity, punishment for negligent and corrupt government officials and government funds to pay for the funerals of the dead. The civil society organizations, arguing that these crimes are not only a national but a worldwide embarrassment, insist that international treaties be respected and that the three branches of the state fulfill their obligations by not letting these crimes run out the clock on the statute of limitations. Like Commissioner Morfín Otero, they also criticize the economic model based on the maquilas, which view their workers as easily replaceable trash.

The mothers will not be silenced

Women legislators and both Mexican and Hollywood actresses, some of them stars, participated in a march in Ciudad Juárez in February 2004. Commissioner Morfín Otero defended the presence of such foreign activists as Jane Fonda against the charge that this violated national sovereignty. She argued that it is a fundamental right of peoples to receive and express solidarity with people whose human rights are being violated, and reminded critics that the victims’ mothers and the civic organizations had been obliged to turn to the international sphere to get any results. A month later, CNDH announced the creation in Ciudad Juárez of Mexico’s first tribunal of conscience on violations of women’s human rights to charge officials who had not applied the law during a decade of impunity.

President Fox has declared several times this year that all possible causes for these crimes are being looked into: external social causes, procedural errors, negligence, complicity or any other action outside the law in the investigations. He has pledged that those responsible for illegal conduct in the investigations will be tried and punished and that those responsible for the crimes will be brought to justice. The civil organizations responded by demanding tangible results and stressed structural factors such as unemployment, violence and the limited capability of the political class, which have provoked public disillusionment with governors, legislators and political parties in general. They also requested public recognition of the dignity of the victims and survivors and compensation for their families. The mothers of the murdered women insist that they will not be silent until their daughters’ killers have been found.

Bringing the issue to the public eye

Several theater groups have put different versions of these painful events on stage and a Chicana filmmaker made a magnificent documentary titled Señorita extraviada (“Missing Woman”). In July 2004, a TV series titled Tan infinito como el desierto (“As Infinite as the Desert”) dealt with five lines of investigation: drug trafficking, human sacrifices, perverse videos, psychopaths and copycats. It was broadcast at prime time on one of the channels with the most powerful signal. The director of the magazine Metapolítica dedicated an entire special issue to discussing the horror of the deaths in Juárez.

All such dissemination of these outrageous crimes has sparked strong reactions against those who want the scandal swept under the rug. But that has not cowed those committing or defending such activities; in fact, Metapolítica’s director received death threats following the publication of the special issue.

Data on the terror

Human rights defenders have demanded that public resources be earmarked for seeking the missing women and that a DNA databank be created to identify the bodies. Meanwhile, existing statistics are shaky due to all the sloppy—or perhaps sometimes intentionally destructive—investigations combined with the fact that some bodies were not found for years. According to several independent investigations, the ages of the murder victims range between 11 and 28, with a quarter of them under 18. There is information on 370 women, but some are convinced that the figure could reach 400. There are indications of sexual violence in 137 of the cases.

There are also discrepancies and ambiguities in the data. For example, the commissioner’s report in June mentioned 4,587 women reported missing in Ciudad Juárez since attention began to focus on the murders, with 133 of the cases still unresolved, while the figure the special prosecutor announced in July was 4,454 with all but 35 accounted for. The latter did, however, confirm that factors such as drug trafficking, prostitution, organized crime, traffic in undocumented people and domestic violence were involved in a number of the cases.

Utter scorn toward women’s integrity

Commissioner Morfín Otero emphatically insists that this is an issue of feminicide, by which she means murders motivated by gender, crimes triggered by hatred of women, and explains that they have been perpetrated by family members and acquaintances as much as by strangers. She underscores that the extreme cruelty employed shows utter scorn toward women’s integrity. She also distinguishes two official discourses: one that accepts the magnitude of the problem and another that still wants to minimize its importance.

It has become difficult to govern Ciudad Juárez, since the police department abdicated its role in the fight against organized crime years ago. The city’s inhabitants have lost their right to live a life free of violence. One of the most powerful drug cartels in the country has flourished in Ciudad Juárez for a couple of decades. The commissioner stresses that the ease with which the cartel operates depends on the complicity of the very public servants responsible for eradicating it, thus giving birth to an extralegal power that moved into federal and local entities and is inseparable from the violence against women.

The treatment of women has been one of the explanations behind the disappearances, but the commissioner also points to the lack of controls on questionable businesses and labor practices as additional factors. Many of the murdered women had no other options but to work in the maquiladoras or seedy bars. In addition, women who work in the houses of prostitution fear crimes within their walls, since members of the police protect these illegal businesses. The lack of any migration policy between Mexico and the United States has encouraged an additional arena of illegality that facilitates trafficking in arms, narcotics and people, above all children and women.

Collapse of the rule of law

According to the commissioner, the Mexican state has failed in one of its fundamental obligations: to protect lives. It has also failed to comply with the four components of the law of justice: investigate and sanction those responsible; compensate for the damage; adopt measures that ensure that the phenomenon will not be repeated; and guarantee the right to know the truth. The conclusion is categorical: the rule of law has collapsed in Ciudad Juárez.

Despite the actions undertaken by Fox’s government since late 2003, order has not been reestablished. It’s not enough for the state to recognize the problem; it has to remedy it right down to its roots. The commissioner says that even if not all the criminals’ names are yet known, those of the authorities who should have acted and did not do so with the necessary diligence are known. Her declarations have been courageous, denouncing the climate of harassment of families and defenders as a condemnable outrage against citizens’ rights, and stressing the unjust culture prevailing in Mexico that particularly devalues women. Social and sexual discrimination are both evident at the root of the crimes. And we already know that disparagement and domination spark violence. While national and international solidarity have helped make this tragedy visible, Mexico is being held up as a truly paradigmatic case as the affronts against women continue.

Urgent tasks for an integral solution

So far the results have been woefully insufficient. The commissioner argues that the problem has to be dealt with from a comprehensive, multidisciplinary perspective and the civil society organizations agree that Ciudad Juárez urgently needs exceptional public and programmatic treatment. In addition to presenting a detailed assessment for rehabilitating the social environment, the commissioner has proposed an ambitious but realizable plan of action, many of whose tasks cannot be put off: decided and extraordinary federal intervention; effective bilateral collaboration and respect for international law, in particular the conventions against violence and discrimination against women.

Another priority must be to review the economic model that has relied on hiring a predominately low-paid female labor force in the maquilasand analyze possible solutions. The base of illegality prevailing in Ciudad Juárez must be dismantled. Other actions should be aimed at the public: providing training opportunities to women, educating people on prevention of domestic violence, offering support and advice to migrant women, educating and building awareness among public servants on human rights and a gender perspective. A special support program must be created in the areas of health, housing and education for the children of the murdered and disappeared women. Public policies must also be promoted to eradicate all media messages that feed or justify discrimination and violence against women. It is indispensable to create cultural spaces that foster social identity in young people, and the fight against addictions is a similar priority. The police need to be cleaned out, since they have turned into mafias due to the impunity they enjoy. Protection must be provided to those women who have denounced the involvement of a former state defense attorney official in a sexual exploitation network. And effective access to comprehensive justice has to be given to the victims, while also granting them the dignity they deserve.

In short, one set of actions has to do with full reparations for the damage, directly geared to the victims’ family, based on an analysis of each file, while another package of solutions revolves around establishing public policies that are based on a gender perspective. The commissioner has proposed that the Mexican state make a special pact with women, guaranteeing them their rights, and all three branches of the state must fulfill their obligations in all these spheres.

Disentangle the complicities and modify the economic model

One of the most arduous tasks is to clean out the knotted mass of complicities. Many of those entrusted with the mission of protecting people are some of the principal aggressors within the enemy band.

This evil has not been exorcised by electoral changes in government. Parties come and go in office yet the nexuses of authorities, police and organized crime remain intact. The only genuine solution will require prompt, efficient and intelligent disentangling of the knots in the police corps and the justice system with a very fine-toothed comb, right down to their roots. And it won’t be enough to throw the bad elements out onto the street, since they will simply relocate into the criminal side of the equation, taking a lot of information and connections with them. There will have to be precise knowledge and enough controls to guarantee that the state can fulfill its principal obligation, that of security.

While the economic model has to be modified, this, too, is a big problem. In innumerable forums, President Fox has reiterated his conviction that the current model is right for Mexico. But neoliberalism devalues knowledge and work, intensifies inequalities and becomes an unstoppable producer of poverty. If this model persists, the economic and social proposals put forward to halt the violence in Ciudad Juárez won’t be a guide for action, but simply one more catalogue of good intentions. Juárez’s killings have revealed the capacity for terror contained within the neoliberal model. The comprehensive plan is realizable, but it presupposes a thoroughgoing change in the social relations fed by neoliberalism.

The problem is mammoth and dealing with it requires a widespread and convergent effort. The struggle against the patriarchal society’s culture and practices is an enterprise that concerns not only women. It needs the decided participation of men as well. Equally indispensable is a national policy that includes men and women and goes to the roots of what has generated the feminicide.

Many theoreticians have argued that the women’s movement in the 21st century will profoundly change the planet. Men and women have been given and must accept the challenge to transform the existing relations of power, stamping out violence against women in both the domestic sphere and the public arenas. The women of Ciudad Juárez, of all of Mexico, of the whole world, have no obligation to continue living in fear. They have a right to life.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher at CIESAS West and envío's correspondent in Mexico.

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