May 16, 2003

Mother Movement — Juarez Women Seek Justice for Disappeared Daughters

By David Bacon

GOMEZ PALACIOS, Mexico — Mexico’s federal government has finally agreed to begin investigating the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of young women in Ciudad Juarez, the largest city on the U.S.-Mexican border. From 1996 to the fall of 2002, 284 women are known to have been murdered, and 450 more have simply disappeared, according to a group organized by their mothers, Our Children Must Return Home.

At least 90 bodies have turned up in the desert outskirts of town, buried in shallow graves. Many of the women were raped before their murders. Their average age was 16; the youngest was only 10.

A wave of murders this size would normally provoke a huge manhunt, but the Chihuahua authorities have been strangely reluctant to mount one. And until last week, the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox was silent as well, refusing to intervene and saying that murder is a state crime under Mexican law, not a federal one. The mothers were enraged by this inaction.

Rosario Acosta, a mother of one of the disappeared women, accused the Chihuahua prosecutors of trying to silence the mothers when they demanded action. “The state won’t even recognize this as a serious social problem, while at the same time it tries to undermine public support for us,” she says. She accused state authorities of covering up inaction by stirring up hostility toward the thousands of migrants who have come to Juarez looking for work from states in the south. “They claim that immigrants to Juarez are responsible for the increasing insecurity in our city,” Acosta says.

When the state wouldn’t act, the mothers turned to the Federal government.Last fall, a group marched from the border to Mexico City itself, a journey of hundreds of miles. The march and the media coverage it generated helped pressure the Fox administration to take action. Through the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras and other cross-border networks, the mothers’ organization also got human rights and women¹s rights groups to send letters to the U.S. Congress, asking it to pressure Mexico for answers.

Finally, in early May, Jose Luis Vasconcelos, the federal prosecutor in charge of organized crime, announced he would investigate rumors that some of the women were murdered in order to sell their internal organs. This bizarre claim, supposedly made by a street vendor, is doubted by many observers. But whether true or not, the allegation of some kind of organized gang activity provided the legal pretext Fox needed to intervene.

The mothers, however, don’t think that a small conspiracy could account for such a large number of deaths and disappearances, especially since an organized group would likely be discovered. Instead, they say larger social forces are responsible for creating a climate of extreme violence against women. Juarez has become a huge metropolis built on the labor of tens of thousands of young women in the maquiladoras. Overwhelmingly, they are migrants who have traveled north from cities, small villages, and rural areas in central and southern Mexico.

“While the city and its industry depend on them totally, they are important only as productive workers, not as human beings,” Acosta explains. “If they disappear, they can and will be easily replaced.”

Government inaction, the mothers say, comes from a desire not to discourage foreign investment in the maquiladoras. They say residents of the border are being treated as throwaway people, whether they’re factory laborers in the plants or barrio residents living along dirt roads in cardboard houses with no sewers, running water or electricity.

“We’ve opened the big door, our border to the U.S., in order to allow big multinationals — more than 400 of them — to settle in our city,” Acosta says. “We give them a permit to do absolutely anything. They don’t have to guarantee the most elementary aspects of life, from wages women can live on, to basic service in our communities, or even just security measures so their female workers can commute back and forth safely from their homes.”

Acosta says that many of the women are so poor they must concentrate primarily on their own basic survival. “These women have been vulnerable to assassinations and disappearances precisely because they are blind to their rights, due to their economic situation,” she says.

It’s not enough, the mothers charge, to simply find the culprits responsible for the murders and disappearances. There must be a change in the economic and political status of the women of the maquiladoras, so that they can protect themselves and stop the violence.

Bacon ( writes widely on labor and immigration issues.

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