Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2 No. 10 (Fall 2003): Violence Against Women: Articles: Impunity and Women's Rights in Ciudad Juárez

Nov 5, 2003

Read "From Ciudad Juárez to the World," a response to this article by Charlotte Bunch.

Since 1993, about 370 women have been brutally killed, and several hundreds more have disappeared, in the U.S.–Mexico border city of Ciudad Juárez, in the state of Chihuahua. To date, only one person—charged with only one of the crimes—has been sentenced. The victims are young women, generally under 29 years old. They are mostly poor, often workers in the maquiladoras (assembly factories), and live in the marginalized areas of the city.

Most of the victims suffer torture, mutilation, and sexual violence before being killed. Others are killed as a result of domestic violence or disputes with their partners. Drug trafficking and organized crime have also been related to the killings. Although different initiatives have been carried out by local, state, national, and international women’s movements and families of the killed women, the murders and disappearances continue.

The women’s killings in Ciudad Juárez began in the late 1980s and increased significantly in 1993. Since then, the total number of murders has been increasing monthly. Despite the systematic nature of these killings, authorities did not begin investigating until 1995, when they captured a man whom they continue to call the “serial killer” of the women. But the killings have continued, even spreading to nearby cities: in 1999 disappearances were reported in the state capital, Chihuahua City, four hours away from Juárez. By 2003, several women had been killed in that city, in much the same way as they had been in Juárez.

Violence against women is legitimized in Mexican society because, like other patriarchal societies, it devalues women, and the loss in particular of marginalized women often carries no political cost. The killings in Juárez are the product of a complex set of dynamics, and a number of characteristics of the city explain why Juárez presents the perfect environment for gender-based violence. The impact of free trade policies and the ensuing population growth have weakened the city’s social fabric. Jobs in the maquiladoras are characterized by poor working conditions, low salaries, and rampant labor rights violations. Juárez’s geographic location as a border city makes it an important point for the trafficking of immigrants and drugs. In addition, judicial and government institutions are often corrupt and infiltrated by interests representing the drug trade. These factors add up to a city with one of the highest levels of criminality in Mexico, with little sense of local identity or community.

Also, for many years the maquiladoras employed mostly women, which meant that women occupied the traditional “masculine role” as breadwinners. The changes in gender roles prompted by women’s entry into the labor market as maquiladora workers had an impact on gender relations and thus on increasing gender violence. Furthermore, authorities do not demand and ensure that foreign investors respect basic labor rights—as has been documented in several cases brought to the International Labor Organization and the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation—thus allowing violations that discriminate against workers, particularly women. In most cases, abuses in the maquiladoras are not punished, adding another dimension to the existing culture of impunity.

Women’s organizations and victims’ families mobilized almost immediately following the escalation of violence in the 1990s. The organization for which I formerly worked, Elige Youth Network for Reproductive and Sexual Rights, became involved in 2000 because we were outraged by the record of impunity and also by the fact that the victims were so young. Involved organizations, together with the victims’ relatives, began pressuring state-level authorities to take concrete measures to stop the killings. Yet the response of local authorities was to blame the victims’ “questionable moral behavior” or dismiss them as “prostitutes.”

In 2001, as the killings escalated, women’s rights organizations joined with mainstream human rights organizations and unions to launch the campaign “Stop Impunity: No More Murders of Women.” We wanted to unveil the existing discrimination in traditional human rights work and emphasize women’s empowerment. In Mexico, where the transition to democracy is an ongoing process and the human rights debate has focused on civil and political rights, women’s rights remain marginal on the national agenda, in spite of such extreme cases as the systematic murders in Juárez.

The campaign had one particular target in mind: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the regional human rights body. In the area of women’s rights, the IACHR provides follow-up and advocates for the enforcement of some very progressive instruments, particularly the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (also known as the Convención de Belem do Pará); its track record of regional governments’ fulfillment of its recommendations has been quite good. In addition, we thought that the presentation of the killings as a paradigmatic case of gender violence could help pave the way for future cases of women’s rights violations within this regional Commission. Campaign strategists believed that the involvement of the Commission would pressure the Mexican government to act effectively to stop the murders and bring justice to the pending cases, as well as hold it accountable at the regional and international levels

The Stop Impunity campaign’s adoption of a human rights framework has been very useful for pressuring government authorities, raising awareness, and mobilizing support. Human rights have been central in our efforts to highlight the responsibility of the Mexican state as a whole, and to show that the state’s inaction is a demonstration of sexism and discrimination. Beyond the complexity of these cases and the context itself, it is clear these people are being killed because they are women. The victims are underprivileged, they are not politically important for the authorities, and their bodies are targets not only for physical violence but for sexual violence too.

Using a human rights framework and incorporating a gender perspective within our approach provides an understanding of the complexities of a social problem such as gender violence. Applying the principle of the interdependence of human rights allows the claim that not only civil rights but also the rights to work, health, development, and a life free of violence are being violated. Overall, the reality of these violations in the everyday lives of women contributes to an environment where gender violence is perpetuated and impunity becomes the rule.

One of the challenges that women’s rights organizations face, however, is a lack of technical expertise in working with international human rights bodies. In Latin America, very few women’s rights cases have been presented to the IACHR. As a result, only a handful of women’s organizations in the region have the expertise to present a claim before the Commission effectively. Thus, working in coordination and building alliances with organizations grounded in a more traditional interpretation of human rights is necessary because they are experienced in areas in which the women’s movement is a newcomer. If the IACHR would take more cases related to women’s human rights, it would increase the legitimacy and recognition of these rights within the larger mainstream human rights community and society as a whole. Likewise, if mainstream human rights organizations give greater priority to women’s rights within their own agendas in collaboration with the women’s movement, it will also increase the legitimacy of women’s rights as human rights.

So far, we believe that, together with the actions carried out by other organizations, we have been successful in putting this issue on the agenda of both government and civil society. Public outcries over the murders have been fierce—letter-writing campaigns, marches, rallies, and the production of plays, documentaries, and books—yet neither the federal nor state government has made serious efforts to address the violence. A new “integrated security plan” for Juárez marks a new attitude on the part of the Mexican government. However, this plan has no assigned budget, and even though civil society would like to view this as a positive step, we are waiting to see its impact on violence against women in Chihuahua.

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