Best of 2010: Arresting Mexico's borderland femicide


El Paso and Juarez, Flickr image by dherrera_96

First published in Eureka Street on 26 May 2010.

Ciudad 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

What can we do in the face of such an outrage? Thank you Ellena Savage for having the courage too expose these violations. We``are`so removed from such horror. The more people are aware of these situations , I hope, through compassion, the more solutions may be forthcoming.

Bernie Introna | 13 January 2011  

so its not the men who kill women its corporate responsibility. I always thought who did it did it.

robyn | 14 January 2011  


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