Murder at the Border: How the U.S. & Mexico Turn a Blind Eye to Femicide

There’s a famous quote by Mexican poet and human rights activist Susana Chávez Castillo that’s frequently referenced in protests against femicide: “Ni una mujer menos, ni una muerte más

Ni Una Menos

Graphic created by ROMINA LERDA & ROMINA MOI for the international #NiUnaMenos campaign, started in Argentina. 2015

There’s a famous quote by Mexican poet and human rights activist Susana Chávez Castillo that’s frequently referenced in protests against femicide: “Ni una mujer menos, ni una muerte más.” It translates to “Not one woman less, not one more death.” Unfortunately, Castillo met a similar fate to many women before her in Ciudad Juarez. Like other female activists working to end femicide in the border city, Castillo was tortured and killed in 2011. But her words live on, as grassroots organizations continue to quote Castillo while they work towards bringing an end to the seemingly infinite murders of women in the United States and Mexico’s border towns. Violence against women is nothing new, and it’s a global issue. But it has attracted quite a bit of media attention in recent years, particularly in the border towns. The term femicide is generally defined to mean the intentional murder of women and young girls solely because they are female. But in different parts of the world, it means different things.

“In the U.S., people do not call the killing of women femicide, and the term has not entered our legal system (nor has gender-based violence entered legal discourse in the U.S.). Rather the U.S. charges those accused of murder with ‘homicide.'” says Dr. Kathleen Staudt, a former professor, academic scholar, and author of Courage, Resistance, and Women in Ciudad Juarez. “Every year in Texas, about 150 women are murdered by their intimate partners, though the rate of prosecution is no doubt higher than in Mexico.”

Media attention and activism in the borderlands around femicide swelled in the early to mid-90s. Ciudad Juárez, located at the western tip of Texas, has repeatedly been identified as one of the world’s most violent cities. As of July 2020, there had been 1,024 homicides in Juárez this year alone. In 2019, there were nearly 1,500 killings in Juárez — an average of four per day.

Reports of hundreds of women either missing or violently killed started to garner international news coverage when bodies began popping up throughout the city and even out in the Chihuahuan desert. But news reports never dug into how femicide is systematic, especially in Border towns, where many immigrant women are often economically disadvantaged and living in vulnerable conditions. These are far from being isolated crimes. There’s a lot that contributes to this pattern, and the U.S. plays a significant role in it.

Femicides in Ciudad Juárez started to garner attention right around the same time as the development of maquiladoras (factories). When border industrialization took off, women from all over Mexico migrated to the border looking for work. According to Index Juarez, the city is home to 326 maquiladoras, which employ around 300,000 people. These women would often make long and dangerous commutes to their jobs and were usually paid low wages. The working conditions were unsafe, and so were the public spaces, resulting from institutional corruption and the pervasive human trafficking in those areas.

“The maquiladoras created violent public spaces. The industrialized zones are designed for factories and not for people. The feminized work, low wages, and hours that require women to leave at dawn and return to their homes late at night; the maquiladoras function in a way that objectifies the lives of the women who work there,” says Janette Terrazas, a visual artist, activist and project coordinator at Ni En More, a social innovation project that merges political activism with fashion and art. In many ways, the economic model, combined with the powerful Narco organizations, contributed to the exploitation. Weak government institutions have also played a part.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) established a free-trade zone in North America and was signed in 1992 by Canada, Mexico, and the United States. It took effect in 1994, immediately lifting tariffs on the many goods produced by all three nations. But with the elimination of all tariffs between the three countries, markets opened without restrictions and barely any protections for local industry or commerce. These conditions inevitably led to the exploitation of workers at the border, already overworked and underpaid. These multinational corporations did not prioritize human rights as their main agenda is profit maximization. These women became disposable in the eyes of both the local economy and the local authorities.

“NAFTA made the movement of goods and capital easier, but not labor. Making labor immobile hurt workers’ ability to earn higher wages for their effort. Also, the signing of NAFTA in 1994 was accompanied by a drop in the peso, lowering wages even more,” says Dr. Nancy Planeky-Videla, Associate Professor of Sociology and coordinator of Latino/a and Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. “As labor becomes cheaper for the transnational companies taking advantage of NAFTA, it makes workers more disposable and easily replaced.”

Planeky-Videla points out that even though NAFTA has been revised, it still very much exacerbates femicides with its lack of concern for worker and public safety. “In 2019, the Mexican government registered 1,006 victims of gender-based homicide across the country, with 31 of those in Chihuahua state. That is a 137% increase over five years, according to Mexico’s attorney general.” Adding insult to injury is the fact that women who have disappeared are not included in this count. 

“NAFTA was re-negotiated and approved in all three countries by 2020. It is now called the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). In the global economy, corporations set up export-assembly factories (in Mexico, known as maquiladoras or maquilas) for low-cost labor. Our borderlands facilitate truck traffic carrying products across the border to many U.S. states in what is called ‘supply-chain manufacturing.’ In northern Mexico, the maquiladoras employ over a million workers, once a female-majority labor force in the 1970s/80s, but subsequently a gender-balanced labor force,” says Dr. Staudt. “At its peak in Ciudad Juárez, before the pandemic, the industry employed around 325,000 workers who, until 2019, earned the legal minimum wage in Mexico of the equivalent U.S. $4-5 per day. After Mexico’s new president took office in late 2018, he met his campaign promise to double the legal minimum wage to U.S. nine dollars per day. As is no doubt clear, there is structured violence that impoverishes women (and men).”

Drug trafficking has also largely contributed to the U.S.- Mexico border being dangerous for Latinas and migrant women. When one of Mexico’s former president’s Felipe Calderon and his administration announced a “war on drugs” in 2006, statistics show that the murder rates went up. Even though Mexican authorities had arrested several high-level cartel leaders, new leaders always emerge, and new cartels have continued to form. More than 28,000 deaths linked to cartels occurred in 2018. According to The Soufan Center, “the authorities attribute the murders to the conflict caused by shifting dynamics between the cartels as they battle for control over trafficking routes both domestically and across the border into the U.S.” 

U.S. immigration laws and enforcement have also made things incredibly difficult for women in recent years. These laws no longer allow for asylum seekers and migrants to enter the U.S. “If undocumented people are caught in the dragnets from border agents like ICE, they are jailed, and in recent years women have been separated from their children as part of U.S. deterrence strategies,” Dr. Staudt adds. “So many migrants stay in northern Mexico border cities under what the U.S. calls the Migrant Protection Protocol or, more informally, Remain in Mexico. An estimated 10,000 -15,000 migrants reside temporarily in Ciudad Juárez, without much money, rarely an authorization to work, and staying in state-approved shelters (most of them faith-based) providing only 2,000 safe spaces for them to sleep.”

Low wages contribute to women’s vulnerability but other significant factors besides economic inequality, like the drug trade and misogyny, ultimately enable and allow for violence against women. They reinforce the very structures that make women susceptible to violence and abuse. 

Neoliberalism also plays a significant role in this. It’s the political approach that favors free-market capitalism, deregulation, and reduction in government spending. Women of a lower socioeconomic status see little to no benefits from free trade. “Where neoliberal projects have been installed, you see a direct impact on women. In the Congo war and during the Pinochet dictatorship, there was disappearances, rape, and murder of women,” says Terrazas. 

In the U.S., we’ve seen how the abuse Latina migrants suffer due to the systems set in place. Trump’s policies have been especially harmful and have led to the separation of families and the loss of children in the U.S. system. “Those same policies have also forced asylum seekers to wait on the Mexican side in refugee camps,” says Rosalva Resendiz, an Associate Professor at The University of Texas whose research focuses on the intersection of Chicana feminism/social justice and criminology. “Many migrant women coming into the U.S. have faced sexual abuse from DHS detention officers. The migrant women deported to the Mexican border towns also face victimization, including human trafficking. Trump’s policies have removed support for many programs related to violence against women. Not only have many programs been defunded, but the Trump administration has also cut ties with many international groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO).”

Female immigrants who migrate to seek refuge from the violence in their home countries endure abuse out of fear of being deported or separated from their children. In January 2017, Trump issued Executive Order 13767 titled “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements. This was just the beginning of many anti-asylum and anti-immigrant policies that the administration implemented, including the increased and prolonged jailing of asylum seekers. In 2019, ICE data revealed that approximately 9,000 immigrants found to have “credible or reasonable fear of persecution or torture” and sought asylum were instead jailed. In undermining asylum protection for these women, domestic violence has only continued for migrant women living in border towns. 

Because Juárez has been a destination city for migrant women from Mexico and Central America to seek wages and because it’s such a mobile area, the disappearance and killings of women are often ignored by the U.S. government.

“Many women migrate from their places of origin in southern Mexico and Central America to Ciudad Juárez searching for job opportunities. But these women were already in a precarious situation before they migrated, and they migrate precisely because of the marginalization they face,” says human rights activist and Project Coordinator at Ellas Tienen Nombre, Ivonne R. Carlos-Ramirez. “They come carrying all these problems, and when they arrive in the city, they are faced with a triple marginalization: being women, migrants (sometimes with no papers), and impoverished. Couple that with the fact that Ciudad Juárez is not a planned city and is increasingly volatile due to fraud, corruption, impunity, and irresponsibility of its government figureheads, and many migrant women and men do not find possibilities to have a life with dignity. In this scenario, women do what is necessary to survive, and for their children to eat.” 

“In regards to migrant women, the Trump administration implemented the stay in Mexico policy where asylum seekers have to wait on the Mexican side of the border to await their asylum,” Dr. Videla says. “Consequently, this has resulted in tent cities along the border where women and their children wait out in the cold for months waiting their turn in line to present themselves as asylum seekers to a federal immigration agent on the U.S. side.”

These killings have continued because for the American federal government to get involved, they would have to examine their role in contributing and enabling the femicides at the border. National economics, profit, and capitalism have always been more important for the powers that be in the U.S. government. 

The COVID19 pandemic has led to even more challenges for migrant women in border towns and Latin American countries. Lockdowns have resulted in these women spending significantly more time at home with their abusers with minimal outlets and increased domestic violence. Social movements have even been affected, and non-profit and grassroots organizations have received less funding, in many cases having to lay off workers.

“COVID-19 has affected transborder activities and social movements. Also, just as in the U.S., domestic violence has increased, putting more women in danger,” adds Dr. Videla. 

“This year, the pandemic came to quarantine a population that was already facing many obstacles. Without any economic stimulus, people had to lock themselves in their homes with all the defiance that this implies,” Carlos-Ramirez says. “Much of the economy in Ciudad Juarez is informal commerce, so this affected many merchants who barely made money to live a day.”

Numerous grassroots organizations and feminist movements, including Ni En More, Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas, Red Mesas de Mujeres, Hijas de su Maquilera Madre, and Municipal Institute of Women have worked to fight femicide. Still, this work does not come without risks. In 2010, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz was shot in the middle of protesting after the murder of her 16-year-old daughter Rubi Marisol Frayre Escobedo. In 2011, Mexican poet and human rights activist Susana Chávez Castillo was tortured and killed in Ciudad Juárez. The murder of 14-year-old Chiara Perez in 2015 spawned the #NiUnaMenos movement. And in January of this year, feminist artist and activist Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre, a member of Hijas de su Maquilera Madre, was shot to death in downtown Juárez protesting. Terrazas, who knew Cabanillas, creates textile maps that show women killed in Juárez to increase awareness of the femicides that continue to happen.

Photo: Janette Terrazas. Textile map of femicides in Ciudad Juarez

ICE has not only contributed to violence against migrant working; it has also participated in violence against women. In September, Dawn Wooten, a nurse working at an ICE detention center in Georgia, accused the facility of sending patients to a doctor who allegedly was performing hysterectomies on migrant women, sterilizing them without explanation or consent. The whistleblower complaint was sent by Project South to the Department of Homeland Security and has highlighted not just the history of forced sterilization of WOC in the U.S. but also how the U.S. government has participated in violence against women.

Cultural roots of gender-based violence also have contributed to the normalization of violence against women. Still, the U.S. has become notorious for putting all the blame on machismo culture in Mexico when toxic hypermasculinity is something that very much exists in both Mexico and the United States.

“You have to be careful in blaming the culture of machismo as a sole reason for violence against women,” says Resendiz. “It is the paradigm of patriarchy which creates a system of subjugation and domination of women across cultures and is quite evident in the narrative expressed by President Trump.”

Videla adds that it’s also important to acknowledge the radicalization of Mexican men as “machos.” “This is not to say that it does not play a role, but to acknowledge that the concept is racialized rather than examining cultural deficiencies, it is essential to examine the social structure that has sustained gender-based violence.” 

Sonia Hernandez, a scholar and history professor at Texas A+M University, explains how neoliberalism and policies like NAFTA changed the political-economic landscape and essentially fueled femicide. “Trade policies like NAFTA expanded the zones where maquilas were allowed to operate, and more of these assembly plants recruited women because you can justify paying them less and perceived as docile labor,” Hernandez says. “Maquilas were introduced as a solution for male unemployment produced by closing the bracero program back in the 1960s. However, these assembly plants recruited largely female workers and left the problem of male unemployment unresolved. Young men were recruited by drug cartels successfully because they were a source of employment. This imbalance in the labor force tied to the rise of women as heads of households impacted the gender dynamics in the home.”

The gender imbalance led to a growing resentment towards women, which ultimately resulted in violence. Feminist activist movements have become so dynamic that they have posed a threat to governments in Mexico and throughout Latin America. Things haven’t progressed further because violence against women is heavily rooted in patriarchy. Neither Mexico nor the U.S. has given enough priority to solving the murders. Dr. Lucia Melgar believes that there will not be enough action from the states until Mexico acts within its border.

“It does not have policies to prevent it. It doesn’t punish more crimes in Mexico —much less femicide. Early in 2020, there was an official attempt to erase femicide from the penal code with the argument that it was difficult to distinguish,” Dr. Melgar says. “This means that the penal system in Mexico does not understand the concept of gender-based violence against women. The current administration in Mexico has shown its contempt for women’s demands and issues. It has reduced the budget destined to women’s needs (shelters, violence prevention programs, full-time schools, daycare centers for children of working women). If the Mexican government does not act within its borders, it cannot demand action by the U.S. and probably has not even thought of a binational task force that might attempt to solve and prevent cases in both sides of the border.”

The killing of 20-year-old Vanessa Guillén, a Mexican American Army specialist who disappeared from Fort Hood, Texas on April 22, had sparked more conversations around femicide on the U.S. side of the border. Guillén’s remains were found more than two months after she disappeared on June 30. According to the World Health Organization, there are various types of femicide. Because some countries don’t collect information that categorizes them, it’s been challenging to collect data on femicide killings. The U.S. has not adopted a standardized definition for the term femicide. In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was passed, finally recognizing domestic violence as a national crime. Data from the Violence Policy Center shows that the number of women killed in the U.S. has continued to rise since 2014. Women of color, including transwomen, are disproportionately murdered — many of them being under 29. And according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black and indigenous women experienced much higher rates of homicide between 2003 and 2014

What needs to happen for things to change? “I believe that the answer is not within the formal and official institutions,” Carlos-Ramirez says. “The answers lie in the communities themselves out there. Communities need to communicate with each other, imagine and create strategies to solve their problems, and if these strategies are successful, replicate them in neighboring communities. That would result in security strategies more oriented to the needs of each circle. I have my hope deposited in a more horizontal work, grassroots community work, where work is done for the collective well-being.” 

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