by Corie Osborn
Off Our Backs March/April 2004
For the past decade, a sexual genocide has raged virtually unnoticed in Juarez, the largest city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Approximately 370 women have been found murdered in the State of Chihuahua over the past decade, according to an Amnesty International report published last August. At least 137 women were sexually assaulted prior to their death.
The majority of these murders occurred in and around Ciudad Jurez; however, in the past three years incidences of murder and disappearances have risen in the nearby state capital Ciudad Chihuahua.
Many of the violent murders that have taken place in Juarez follow a similar pattern. Authorities believe that 93 of the victims fit the same rape-murder pattern, which indicates that they are all the work of a serial killer or killers.
Why has a killer who has murdered more than twice the number of people as the Boston Strangler, Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy combined, been able to continue terrorizing Ciudad Juarez for ten years with only vague interest from the international community or even from the Mexican federal government? And who is responsible for the killings of the other hundreds of women found dead in Juarez over the past decade?
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are veiled by the power of a dominant machismo culture and what appears to be a police conspiracy preventing a thorough investigation of the murders.
Since the passage of NAFTA in 1994, which allows for an economic open door policy between the U.S. and Mexico, Juarez has been filled with factories owned by various multinational corporations. Currently over 400 maquiladoras operate in Juarez and produce tens of billions of dollars in goods for export into the U.S. annually. Maquiladoras employ mostly young women, a group they believe to be docile and unlikely of unionizing or striking for more pay.
Young women from around Mexico flock to the overpopulated border town just south of El Paso with the hopes of finding economic security in Juarez’s many maquiladoras-U.S. owned assembly plants producing goods for export.
Thousands of young women in Juarez commute to maquila jobs everyday before dawn to work twelve-hour shifts where they will be lucky to make anywhere from $4.50 to $6 a day. For these women, a lack of outdoor lighting in the shantytowns and maquilas increases danger for those who face a long, unlit walk to the nearest bus stop. Women who arrive even three minutes late for their shifts are turned away into the dark night; as in the case of 20-year-old Claudia Ivette who was later found in a ditch alongside the bodies of eight other women. The meager Juarez police force of 1,200 does little to protect women against the rampant violence and crime in Juarez.
The killers have targeted young women-the average age of the victims is 16-who are poor and have little social standing. Many of the victims were part of the young cheap labor force that makes Juarez such an attractive place for multinationals; others were waitresses, students, or women who worked in the informal economy. In other words, the victims were young women who were seen as unimportant to society, and whose deaths have prompted little interest from authorities.
The exact number of women in Juarez who have disappeared is difficult to determine; Amnesty International puts the number at 70, while other Juarez-based victim advocacy groups say the number could be as high as 450.
In a brief email interview with Elia Orrantia, an employee of Casa Amiga, Juarez’s only rape crisis center, told off our backs that these discrepancies are “due to a well orchestrated campaign on the part of the state government of Chihuahua to confuse and misinform NGOs and the general public. Regardless, the totals mentioned in all reports are alarming and reflect the kind of impunity, and misogyny, with which the authorities confront these crimes against women.” The response by authorities to disappearances in Juarez is truly shameful, especially since it has been found that many of the murder victims were abducted and held by their killers for several days, in which time they suffered torture, mutilation and sexual assault before they were killed.
In the case of Lilia Alejandra Garcia Andrade [see interview with her mother on page 23], the time between when her disappearance was reported and when she was killed could have been used to save her life. Garcia Andrade was last seen after her shift at a maquila in February of 2001, walking toward the unlit area of waste ground that she had to cross every night to reach the bus stop. When she did not come home that night her mother knew something had happened to her and reported her missing the next morning. Four days later some people living near a waste ground in Juarez dialed 060, the municipal police emergency number, to report that they could see a naked young woman being raped and beaten by two men in a nearby parked car. No police car was dispatched. Following a second call, a patrol car was sent but did not arrive for over an hour, by which time the parked car was gone. Police made no investigation into the attack, the identity of the victim, or the inadequate response time. Garcia Andrade’s body was found in the waste ground where the attack occurred only two days later, showing grotesque evidence of physical and sexual assault. The forensic report concluded that Garcia Andrade had been held captive for at least five days before she was strangled to death a day and a half prior to the discovery of her body. The police have taken no responsibility for their ineffective emergency response system and maintain that the attack that was never investigated was in no way connected to the murder (which was never investigated either). Thus, the murder of Garcia Andrade, like so many others in Juarez, remains unsolved.
Local authorities have botched the investigations into the murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez time and time again. There is evidence of cover-ups, planting of evidence, falsified forensic reports and brutality. The first time the authorities claimed they had solved the serial murders was in 1995 when they arrested Abdel Latif Sharif, an Egyptian-born engineer who had been working in one of the local maquiladoras. Sharif was charged with the rape and murder of one young woman; however, the police claimed they could prove that he was responsible for dozens of other murders. Sharif maintained his innocence and assumed he would be vindicated when the killings resumed, but instead the police charged that Sharif was orchestrating the killings from jail. In 1996 police arrested a local gang known as the Rebels and charged them with taking money from Sharif in exchange for continuing the murders. Both Sharif and the Rebels denied the allegations and the case was dropped due to a lack of evidence. In 1999 the police announced they had arrested four maquiladora shuttle-bus drivers who had confessed to murdering twenty women on orders from Sharif. The bus drivers contend that they were beaten and tortured into confessing; none of them were convicted.
In November of 2001, Javier Garcia Uribe and Gustavo Gonzalez Meza, two local bus drivers, were picked up by police and said to have confessed to the murders of eight women. The two men insist they were tortured and only confessed to save their lives. The men’s defense lawyers later presented the press with photographs of their clients taken after they confessed showing cigarette burns and welts all over their bodies. Additionally, a month after the coerced confession, the Juarez prison director released a medical report that suggested the two suspects had been tortured with electric prods; he resigned two days later. The police have since been able to produce no physical evidence to show that the bus drivers had anything to do with the murders.
In February of 1999, Esther Chavez Cano, a dedicated feminist in her late sixties, opened a rape and assault crisis center in Ciudad Juarez known as Casa Amiga. Casa Amiga is the only center of its kind in northern Mexico and is currently handling about 7,000 cases a year, with close to 25,000 people attending their educational and prevention workshops. Cano founded the center in response to the dramatic increases of violence against women. The center’s main goals are to offer psychological, medical and legal support to women and children who have survived all types of violence. The center also holds workshops to educate women, men and children about the effects of abuse and teach them skills of nonviolent conflict resolution. However, with the center’s increasing number of clients and the very little funding they receive from the local government, it has become difficult for the center to remain open; most of its funding now comes from donations.
Cano and Casa Amiga have been at the forefront of the fight for justice for the victims of Juarez. Cano had been organizing rallies at local police stations and writing about the lives of the victims in her column in the city’s newspaper long before the murders began attracting media attention. She successfully lobbied for the creation of a special congressional commission on the murders and for the appointment of a special state prosecutor.
Over the past few years many more victim advocacy groups have formed in both the U.S. and Mexico. Many activists are the mothers and family members of the victims, who have covered the city of Juarez with hundreds of black crosses that they paint for every murdered woman. Other family members have organized their own investigations into the murders and disappearances of their daughters. A member of the Coalition on Violence Against Women and Families on the Border who attended the search was outraged to find that “the authorities would leave behind so many items at the site, like women’s underwear, shoes and clumps of human hair.”
Many of these family members and advocates have been threatened by local authorities who do not want their work questioned. In the past two years other actions taken on behalf of the victims of Juarez have included a five-day march from Ciudad Chihuahua to Ciudad Juarez by 50 darkly clad women; an action of solidarity uniting advocates from both sides of the border across the international bridge connecting Juarez to El Paso; the occupation of the Chihuahua State capitol by 21 mothers of murdered women; and vigils at Mexican embassies across the world.
What Can You Do?
Send a donation of any amount to Casa Amiga (www.casa-amiga.org) to help save lives and end the violence in Juarez.
Send your check or money order to:
Centra Casa Amiga AC
El Paso, TX 79915
Or appeal to the Mexican government:
* President of Mexico:
Lic. Vicente Fox Quesada, Presidente de los Estados Unidos de Mexico
Residencia Oficial de Los Pinos, Col. San Miguel Chapultepec, Mexico D.F., C.P. 11850, Mexico
Fax:+ 52 5 2 77 23 76
Salutation: Dear President
* Governor of Chihuahua State:
Lic. Patricio Martinez
Gobernador del Estado de Chihuahua
Aldama 901, Colonia Centro
Estado de Chihuahua, Mexico
Fax:+ 52 614 429 3464
Salutation: Dear Governor
* Chihuahua State Public Prosecutor:
Lic. Jesus Jose Solis
Procurador General de Justicia del Estado de Chihuahua.
Calle Vicente Guerrero 616
Estado de Chihuahua, Mexico.
Fax:+ 52 614 415 0314
Salutation: Dear Sir