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Best of 2010: Arresting Mexico's borderland femicide

  • 13 January 2011

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