Arresting Mexico's borderland femicide


El Paso and Juarez, Flickr image by dherrera_96Ciudad Juarez, on the Northern border of Mexico, is one of the world's fastest growing cities. It also has the highest murder rate in the world, which can be attributed to the ongoing 'narco-war' — the clash between conflicting drug cartels — that dominates the city's culture and economy.

But alongside the narco-violence, another distressing trend has emerged: an increase in gender-motivated violence against young working women. Almost all these cases have been met with impunity for the perpetrators.

Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994, Juarez has attracted over 3000 foreign-owned assembly plants which in turn have drawn an onslaught of migrants seeking work. But there has been no improvement of infrastructure to coincide with this population growth.

The NAFTA, like many unequal trade relationships, relies on the inability of the Mexican government to protect its people due to deep and systemic corruption; government corruption and a culture of poverty are bedfellows. By virtue of ineffectual government, the Mexican working class are made available for unfairly cheap labour.

While the official body count of women since the introduction of the NAFTA is 400, local activist groups estimate more than 5000 have been killed, most of them factory workers aged 12–22. If their bodies are found, they typically show signs of torture and sexual brutality. International award-winning journalist Lydia Cacho blames the lack of safe transportation for factory workers; working women are made desperate by their need for transport.

Because of the impunity, Mexican media outlets and academics are beginning to lose interest in the femicides. Although Walkley-winning journalist Colm McNaughton's radio-doco La Frontera mentions the femicides, it downplays their significance. In his effort to cover every angle of internal and external abuse that concerns the borderlands, McNaughton tactfully avoids analysing the sexual homicides.

In his blog, McNaughton accuses the media of sensationalising this issue without attempting to explain it. 'With a few notable exceptions, media reports from the region focus on a single issue: such as the macabre killing of women in Juarez or the increased military presence on the border.' This is probably true. But the 'single issue' of femicide is emblematic of the extent to which the vulnerability of human life has been devalued in Juarez.

Where the most vulnerable members of society are not protected by their state, community or culture, or in fact are targeted for their vulnerability, these abuses show us how vast the borderland crisis is. By focusing on these women, we are able to understand the extent to which the value of human life and kinship-ties have eroded in 16 years under the conflicting pressures of free trade, narco-trade, parliamentary and military corruption and deep misogyny.

We should strive to understand the contexts that permit such a vast disregard for life. But to request explanation verges on the inhumane.

McNaughton mentions a 'change in gender relations' in Juarez due to the number of women working in the maquiladoras as one destabilising factor. This is indisputable. In line with the most unabashed patriarchal viewpoint, a woman working outside of the home is comparable to a prostitute — a stance that, from a very traditional moralist perspective, permits her sacrifice.

But we must be careful to not identify women in these circumstances as essential victims. Their victimhood lies in their abuse, and not as a quality they possess for being female and working-class. If we assume the disempowerment of the victims, we rationalise their deaths. Feminist Adriana Martinez writes that in rationalising the Juarez femicides, we succumb to the idea that 'The women are being sacrificed to redeem their men for their inability to provide for their families, their social emasculation, if you will, at the hands of the American corporations'; that femicide can be excused as 'morality based' and globalisation-related.

If we are to analyse the Juarez and borderland femicides with any compassion, we need to focus on the human experiences that make up the narrative of the borderlands, and argue for corporate responsibility within the geo-location of their labour profits, which trickles down to us as consumers. The free movement of trade without a free movement of profit, people and privilege isn't beneficial to any social organisation.

Ellie SavageEllena Savage edits the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago. 

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Juarez, femicide, mexico, North American Free Trade Agreement, colm mcnaughton, la frontera



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Existing comments

I cannot understand what Ms Savage is saying in the final paragraph.

Is she saying that these heinous murders of vulnerable women are somehow the responsibility of the multinational corporations? If she is saying this, what happened to personal responsibility?

We humans are free agents. We are not helpless victims of market forces or multinational conglomerates in geo-spaces, whatever!

No matter how corrupt or unfair the situation may be in Ciudad Juarez, nothing can absolve these murderers of their ultimate responsibility for their crimes.

Timothy Scully | 26 May 2010  

Read Kem Nunn's work about this. One of the World's best writers.

Annie Otness | 26 May 2010  

I thought Ms Savage made her point very well, earlier in the piece, when she drew a link between the low value placed on workers' lives by companies and governments. Her focus on structural factors that leave women (and men) so vulnerable to exploitation and devoid of protection in no way absolves the perpetrators of responsibility for their crimes.

To generalise about humans as free agents is to ignore the terrible reality of countless numbers of poor people struggling to survive in places like Ciudad Juarez.

Myrna Tonkinson | 26 May 2010  

When i was in mexico doing research for 'la frontera' numerous feminists & labour organizers took me aside and made the point that it is not enough to focus on the femicides in Juarez...instead what is needed is to make the connections between colonial history / free trade / migration / narcos / growing militarism et al...and then armed with these insights real change is possible...i listened...what scares me is that women are being killed in Juarez at a ratio of 1:10 (a fact you conveniently omitted from your piece) and yet you feel able to decide who are the deserving and undeservinag dead....if your feminism acts as a blinker and tries to cement a hierarchy of oppression then i believe the foundations of your politics are questionable at the very least...

Colm McNaughton | 27 May 2010  

1993-2007, women victims were 8%-16%,
averaged 12% over the 14 years. For USA 2006-08 % women victims were at 21%. So, in that sense, women were safer in Juarez than in USA. How does one explain that??? No. of homicides in Juarez exploded in 2008. Women killed exploded also, but as a % of total, it decreased to between 5-8%. How does one explain that??? From Jan 2008-May 10, 2010, total number of female homicides were 324.
accounts for 6.1% of the total of 5,285 murders in that period
[source: partly based on honours thesis by Erin Frey, Yale University, Femicide in Juárez, Mexico: The hidden transcript that no one wants to read. Completed in April
2008 at Yale University, Branford College, Department of History; Also FBI Uniform Crime Reports]

Mosese Waqa | 27 May 2010  

I didn't intend to ‘cement a hierarchy of oppression’ based on 'my feminism'. You've rightly pointed out that femicides are a fraction of the distressing overall murder rates in Juarez.

The reason I chose to focus on this was to point out that gender-motivated violence is distinct from cartel-related violence; that 'explaining' the conditions for these crimes with 'globalisation-related' rationalisations for the murders justifies sexual violence as a reasonable response to the humiliation of exploitation. It's not.

I drew on your problem with ‘single issue’ media interest to explain that analyzing the femicides can be a vital, humane, point from which to analyse the greater borderland crisis, in focusing on the most vulnerable members of society - teenage girls and young women. I didn’t consider that it would be interpreted as diminishing the significance of the great loss of life in the Mexican borderlands.

Ellena | 28 May 2010  

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