May 24, 2002

Commentary

Deaths of Mexican Women Raise Need for Better Working Conditions and Security

Yolanda Chávez Leyva

Since 1993, 270 women have been murdered and another 450 have disappeared in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a city located across the border from El Paso, Texas. Many have been raped and mutilated. Their bodies have been found in the desert on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez or in the central part of town. Poor women are especially vulnerable to being targeted.

Ciudad Juarez is like many Mexican border towns. Since the mid-1960s, hundred of foreign-owned plants, called maquiladoras, have moved to the city, drawn by tax incentives and low wages. About 80 percent of the factories are U.S.-owned. The maquiladoras employ approximately 200,000 workers in the city of more than 1 million. About 70 percent of the maquiladora workers are women, some of whom earn as little as $4 a day.

Each year, thousands of women move to Juarez in search of jobs. What they find instead is low wages -- and the feeling of terror and vulnerability. Many of the women who have returned up dead worked in these U.S.-owned companies.

In the past several months, the murders have gained international attention. The U.S. State Department’s Human Rights office, the United Nations and Amnesty International have all made statements protesting the lack of police action in solving the murders.

Last December, a network of more than 300 organizations initiated a national campaign, “Stop the Impunity: No More Killings.” The campaign’s leadership denounced what they characterized as inadequate police work in the murders and disappearances. In a recent press conference, they asked for the creation of a bilateral commission to investigate the murders.

On Feb. 11, Chihuahua Governor Patricio Martinez Garcia said that he would seek assistance from the United Nations as well as from international police agents to solve these murders.

Mexican women’s-rights activists and the families of the murdered women have called attention to the murders of Mexican women for years. Their pleas have too often remained unheard by government officials and law-enforcement agencies. In fact, law-enforcement officials have often blamed the victims, saying the women were wearing provocative clothing or suggesting that the young women ran away with boyfriends. In reality, many of the women were killed on the way home from late-night shifts at the maquiladoras.

A feminist organization, Grupo Ocho de Marzo de Ciudad Juarez, keeps a list of the dead women. The stories are shocking.

Some, like Amparo Guzman, a teen-aged woman found strangled to death on April 2, 2002, moved to Juarez in search of a better life. Guzman came from Veracruz, Mexico, three months earlier and worked in a maquiladora.

Other victims remain nameless, like the 17-year-old woman found in a plastic bag in October 1994.

The Coalition on Violence Against Women and Families on the Border recently joined in the demands for justice for the dead women. The coalition, which consists of women’s organizations from both sides of the border, labor union activists, university professors and students and religious leaders, expressed outrage that the murders have continued unabated for almost a decade.

Yol-Itzma Aguirre, a history student at the University of Texas at El Paso, expressed the coalition’s views this way. “Let me remind you that our hearts have no border and our blood crosses no river... We could chose the cowardly way out, which is to close our eyes and continue ignoring the situation, or we could be strong, have courage and fight.”

It is time that we took a stand in defense of the women of Ciudad Juarez.

Yolanda Chávez Leyva is a historian at the University of Texas at El Paso, where she specializes in border and Mexican-American history. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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