In April 1998, Sam Dillon, at the time a correspondent for the New York Times, wrote about a series of murders perpetrated against women in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez. Dillon noted how, as early as 1993, Oscar Máynez, a government criminologist, had pointed out that almost all the victims were slender young women with a cinnamon complexion and long hair. Máynez had suggested a serial killer was at work, but the authorities
did not want to know.
Countless other reports and studies have appeared all over the world since then, a documentary has been made (Bajo Juárez), and in 2008 the novel “2666,” based on detailed research on the killings, was a surprise hit in the United States. The city of Juárez has become a “paradigm case for violence against women”: that, at least, was the verdict of a committee delegated by the Mexican
Parliament’s chamber of deputies.
The authorities of the city and the province reacted to the murders with an aggressive form of indifference. They did barely anything to solve them, but plenty to impede investigations. That has led many people to believe that the authorities are protecting the perpetrators. The police – not interested, but feeling the public pressure – kept offering up “perpetrators.” Some of these had been treated so badly in police custody that they had signed “confessions.” Family members have been ignored or laughed at; representatives of civil rights organizations branded as unpatriotic; the lawyers of suspects subjected to intimidation, harassment, and persecution. Above all, though, the murders carried on after each arrest.
There is no shortage of possible explanations. The deeply rooted traditional “machismo” of Mexican society is reacting to a city of extremes. Juárez is a rapidly growing conurbation on the border of rich and poor, crowded with hopeful or stranded migrants. The city hosts any number of low-wage, export-oriented companies that mainly employ women, and the authorities seem helpless in the face of the growth of the city and the associated climate of violence. Criminal structures have grown up, especially in the areas of people-trafficking, drug-dealing, and nightclubs. In an environment like this, machismo is expressed freely: women who go out alone, the argument runs, only have themselves to blame. Feminists point out that young women find employment in the factories of the low-wage maquiladora industry that feeds the global market, and by doing so gain a degree of independence. Many of the murdered women were abducted on their way to or from their work in factories like these.
The murders in Ciudad Juárez have a range of different backgrounds. By no means all of them are part of a single grisly series; some have been solved. But it is also certain that some of the women were held captive for several days and subjected to sexual torture before they were killed. Feminists have coined the term “feminicide” for such murders perpetrated solely on the grounds of the victim’s gender. The feminicides, as a serial crime, are most obvious in Juárez, but they also occur in other countries, especially those of Central America. As the extreme end of a long continuum of violence against women, the events provoke interest beyond the region, and the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s European Union office has made feminicide one of the focal points of its global dialogue program.
That process was opened up by a Green initiative in the European Parliament, championed by the Catalan deputy Raül Romeva i Rueda. Soon after the hearing on feminicides in the European Parliament in April 2006, the summit of heads of state and government from Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean was held in Vienna. There, Andrea Medina Rosas, the advisers’ coordinator in the Mexican special commission set up to continue the investigations and prosecute the murders of women, gave her report at the summit’s civil society forum and talked to the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ursula Plassnik. Heinz Fischer, the president of the host country, even raised the matter during lunch with Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox.
The question of what Europe can do to stop the murders of women in Mexico and Central America was the subject of a lunchtime debate organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation on June 13, 2007, in Brussels. The debate was part of the preparations for a European Parliament resolution on the feminicides, which was passed on October 11 by a huge majority. The lengthy document contains very detailed recommendations for the states of Central America and Mexico, and indeed Europe, on how to end the virtual impunity and prevent future murders from occurring.
Almost fifteen years after Oscar Máynes’s alarming analysis, most of the murders of women have remained unpunished, like the great majority of capital offences in Mexico as a whole. That contributes to the continuing occurrence of feminicide. The special rapporteur of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Marta Altolaguirre, noted after her 2002 visit that a failure to secure convictions encourages violence against women. And the 2005 report on the CEDAW Committee’s inquiry (on the basis of Article 8 of the Optional Protocol) explicitly points out that violence against women in Ciudad Juárez has taken root and has a specific form that bears witness to hatred and misogyny.
Stung by such fierce criticism within Mexico and abroad, the Mexican government and the authorities have reluctantly made some concessions, including a “general law on women’s access to a life free of violence,” passed in February 2007. The Mexican Parliament has even held out the prospect of budget funding for the campaign against feminicide. “But the necessary financial resources have still not actually been made available,”
notes Carolina Velásquez of the women’s news agency CIMAC. She calls on the government to take seriously the recommendations made by Mexican and international organizations.
“We will continue our efforts to make that happen,” says Patricia Jiménez of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s regional office in Brussels. She is already planning ahead to the Spanish Presidency of the EU in 2010 and the next European-Latin American summit. For the future, her objective is to establish feminicide as a distinct criminal offence.
Read more about:
- Mexico: “Soft” feminism via the mass media
- Mexico: Human rights without machismo
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- Brazil: Doubly disadvantaged: Black women
- El Salvador: Gender democracy: an example that is setting a precedent
This Article is published in Gender Politics Makes a Difference - Experiences of the Heinrich Böll Foundation across the world.