The Juarez Murders: Outrage, Activism and Creativity
by Ellen Slack, NOW member and CLUW executive board member
Some 400 women murdered and many others missing in a Mexican border city, a sizeable percentage of them young women who were sexually assaulted in conjunction with their brutal murders, their bodies then dumped in isolated areas. Many of them worked in factories owned by U.S. corporations and were abducted after leaving work at night. These were the murder victims of Juarez. Years pass, the numbers rise, and there are no real answers.
The first response of the authorities was to call the victims (incorrectly) “hookers,” as if that excused murder. Then add more appalling official misogyny, misconduct and ineptitude, family members attacked and threatened, reports that wealthy and powerful men were involved. All of this takes place against a backdrop of general lawlessness that is heavily fueled by narcotrafficking—and the economic displacement caused by NAFTA. International outrage has been developing since at least the late 1990s and it continues to grow, including political action and, rather unexpectedly, a great variety of artistic expressions.
NOW has been involved with this issue. Last year, attendees at the Women of Color and Allies (WOCA) Summit saw an award-winning documentary about the murders of women in Juarez. NOW’s national board of directors voted to hold their December 2005 meeting just across the border from Juarez in El Paso, Texas, where their activities included a press conference and rally intended to raise awareness of the Juarez killings.
Higher education has begun to look at the murders, with a number of academic symposia and conferences on various campuses. An innovative sociology course taught by Janja Lalich at Chico State in California requires that students not only learn about the Juarez murders, but then participate in activist projects to let others know. In different semesters the students have built a display, conducted a letter-writing campaign, organized a film screening for the public and pressured U.S. owners of Juarez factories to improve safety for women employees as they travel to and from work.
At the beginning of May 2006, the U.S. House and Senate both finally passed a resolution that condemns the murders and urges the Mexican federal government to take real action to solve them. Unfortunately, in August the Mexican government returned a group of cases to the state of Chihuahua, where Juarez is located--in other words, seeming to drop the ball. At the same time, the Women’s Media Center reported that murders of women had increased in Juarez. There had been disturbing related news earlier: on May 4, the Houston Chronicle ran a story about similar murders in six other Mexican cities, all places which are plagued by organized crime, transient populations and areas of high poverty.
However, also this year Patricia Gonzalez, state attorney general for Chihuahua, has fired 30 state officials for bungling the murder cases, even bringing criminal charges against six. Further, Gonzalez hired an expert team of forensic anthropologists to examine unidentified bodies, and established a training program in proper investigative procedures for local officials. This is an important positive step because the murder investigations have been plagued by mishandling of evidence and other forms of negligence in investigations.
This past August brought news of several arrests in connection with some of the most gruesome of the Juarez murders--but then doubts began to emerge as to whether the arrested men could possibly have committed any of these murders. With the history of botched investigations and especially of people being arrested in the past as scapegoats, relatives of the murdered women did not feel too optimistic.
In the midst of this demoralizing picture, art has grown like the Tree of Life, an archetypical Mexican symbol. In the words of New York Times writer Pat H. Broeske (May 21, 2006), “Juarez has become the heart of an impassioned grass-roots artists’ movement.” Broeske suggests that the “catalyst” for some of this work was the documentary film Senorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) made in 2001 by Chihuahua-born Lourdes Portillo. (This was the film that the NOW Women of Color and Allies conference screened.)
A few years after Portillo’s film was completed, and now it would be a project to catalog all of the documentaries and other kinds of film projects about the women of Juarez. More are on the way, and they are only one aspect of this “movement.” There have been songs, books, at least one play and many visual art works. Patricia C. Johnson described a current Houston gallery exhibition titled “Frontera 450+” in the Houston Chronicle (Nov. 15, 2006). All of the works sound powerful, but one description of a sculpture by Sharon Kopriva stands out:
Titled Who Are You, it consists of a small figure huddled in fetal position on a mound of sand, covered by produce sacks in green, yellow, white and red — in simulacrum of the Mexican flag. The artist states, ‘The girl wears only a produce sack. She is a Product of Mexico but her blood is on the hands of Mexico, the USA and the world.’
Another piece, by Angela Dillon, is a Tree of Life formed from hundreds of “small, blood-red . . . crosses.” With so much violence against women in this world, why have the deaths of these poor, young factory workers inspired such an outpouring of anger and creativity? Perhaps because Juarez is at the doorstep of this rich and powerful and supposedly egalitarian country called the U.S.A.
Places like Juarez exist as a kind of underbelly, a dark side to the consumerist, economic-free-for-all American dream. It is a place where the reality of globalization knocks on our door, and then the next day its victims are found dead, mutilated in the surrounding desert. It is very importantly The Border, a place of collision and death, passage and change, cross-fertilization and birth.
Something is happening there—and in this age of global communication Juarez can be everywhere. Can it be the place where energy gathers to stand down everything that would use women as objects and products, to debase and throw away?
“Our wise people say that the mouth of the earth
has swallowed her fruit, but the eagle and snake
will stand for the truth, when the mother
of corn has spoken.”
--Mexican/American singer-songwriter Lila Downs