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Letter from Juárez


Originally published in:
The Nation
03/18/2004

by Mariana Katzarova

Esther Chavez holds the weeping girl in her arms and chants the words, as if to convince herself that they are true: "It's really wonderful, my dear girl. You are alive. You could've been one of them." Esther looks over the girl's shoulder toward the row of pink crosses placed on the edge of a ditch, where eight raped and mutilated bodies of young girls, the same age as Rosaisela, the girl in Esther's arms, were dumped by their killers in 2001.

Rosaisela Lascano is only 16. She was attacked and raped on December 30 by a man who left her for dead in the desert. But she survived. Now she is pregnant with the baby from the rape. There, in the middle of a rubbish dump, once a cotton field, where the last windowless boxes of the maquiladoras meet open desert, Rosaisela whispers her story. Like thousands of others, she came from the poverty of the south to look for a better life in Ciudad Juarez with its 380 maquilas (US- and European-owned plants, using Mexico's cheap labor and paying young women less than $5 a day) built along the US border. Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.3 million, lies just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

The man dragged Rosaisela by her hair, while hitting her all over her body. Then he raped her and left her for dead among the old tires and broken bottles. She crawled home many hours later, fearful for her life, avoiding people and houses. Her parents took her to the police the next day. The police were barely interested. The only one who offered to help Rosaisela was Esther Chavez--a beautiful, ever energetic and always elegant 70-year-old woman who established Casa Amiga about ten years ago as the first and only crisis center in Juarez to provide help to the victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

According to the authorities, some 370 young women have been found murdered since 1993, and a further seventy are still missing, although Mexican women's groups say the figure is over 400. Many victims were sexually assaulted, their bodies mutilated, strangled and dumped in the desert near Juarez. And not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice for these murders.

Three federal police agents wearing dark sunglasses and looking uncomfortable are standing near the eight crosses. They say their bosses ordered them to guard the ditch because they're afraid the same killers may come back and dump another body there.

It is Valentine's Day and a big protest march, organized by Eve Ensler and the V-Day movement and supported by Amnesty International, has brought between 5,000 and 7,000 people from Ciudad Juarez and El Paso to march through the streets of Juarez. They are demanding an end to the murders of women and girls. We all meet on the Lerdo Bridge, which connects the two cities, chanting "Ni Una Mas" (not one more), "No Estan Solas" (you are not alone) and screaming "Justicia" (justice), while carrying black balloons and makeshift placards. For the past several years Ensler has called Valentine's Day "V-Day" and used her award-winning play The Vagina Monologues to organize actions, raise funds and create awareness of antiviolence causes around the world. Ensler believes that one person with a vision and the conviction to stop violence in her community is enough. "We need to realize that the Earth is one body," she says, "and if we don't start seeing it as one body, we are all going to die. Because we are dependent on each part of this body to live. So when a woman in the south is beaten, I can't walk--my feet are being crushed. And when a woman in the north is raped, I can't think--my brain is being attacked."

So who is killing the poor young women and girls of Juarez? And why, after more than ten years, do the killings continue? Some of the murders are believed to be the work of serial killers or drug gangs, linked to the powerful Juarez drug cartel. Others link the murders to an organ-trafficking network. Still others say that the perpetrators come from among some 700 sex offenders who live in El Paso and often visit Juarez. Another theory is that a number of the mutilated bodies found in the desert bear the signs of snuff films, the type of violent porn films in which someone is really killed at the end. The inability of the local authorities to stop the murders has convinced many of possible police complicity in the crimes.

Oscar Maynez, a former chief of forensics for the Chihuahua state police, told me he quit two years ago when he found police planting evidence in one of the cases. In recent years, under increased public pressure, the authorities have been eager to show that the murders in Juarez have been solved. A series of arrests were made, but the murders continue. All the suspects detained by the police claim they were tortured to confess to the murders. "We all know that the state police work for the traffickers," said Maynez. "None of the people detained for the murders are responsible, in my opinion. The real murderers are people with no limits. I think they are a highly organized group with political connections and some connection to the police."

Juarez looks to me like the war zones I know--like Chechnya, Kosovo, Bosnia. There is the same casualization of violence, the same sense of despair, the same blurred line between right and wrong, the same wild packs of hungry street dogs roaming the city, the same sense of doom.

The maquilas are now moving out of Juarez, looking forward to even cheaper labor in China. In the meantime, under increased international pressure, President Vicente Fox has appointed two women to deal with the investigations and prosecutions in Juarez but has not yet given them funds, resources or trained staff. Mexican feminist Marcela Lagarde has invented a word for the situation in Juarez: femicide.

Somebody with resources, power and impunity continues to kill young poor girls in Juarez. "But now they know--the world is watching them," says Ensler, "and we will keep coming back."

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