David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
Pacific News Service

GOMEZ PALACIOS, MEXICO (5/12/03) -- Last week Mexico's federal government finally agreed to begin investigating the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of young women in Ciudad Juarez, the largest city on the border. From 1996 to the fall of 2002, 284 women are known to have been murdered, and 450 more have simply disappeared, according to a group organized by their mothers, Our Children Must Return Home.

At least 90 of their bodies have turned up in the desert outskirts of town, buried in shallow graves. Many were raped before their murders. Their average age was 16, and the youngest was only 10 years old.

A wave murders of this size would normally provoke a huge manhunt, but the Chihuahua authorities have been strangely reluctant to mount one. And until last week, the Fox administration in Mexico City was silent as well, refusing to intervene, and saying that murder is a state crime under Mexican law, not a Federal one. The mothers were horrified by the fate of their daughters, but they were enraged by this inaction, accompanied by claims that no authority really was responsible for protecting the women of Juarez.

Rosario Acosta, mother of one of the disappeared women, accused the Chihuahua prosecutors of trying to silence the mothers when they demanded action. " The state won’t even recognize this as a serious social problem, while at the same time it tries to undermine public support for us," she asserted. She accused state authorities of covering up inaction by stirring up hostility toward the thousands of migrants who have come to Juarez from states in the south, looking for work. “They claim that immigrants to Juarez are responsible for the increasing insecurity in our city," Acosta said.

When the state wouldn't act, the mothers turned to the Federal government. Last fall a group marched from the border to Mexico City itself, a journey of hundreds of miles. The march scandalized the public in the capital, and finally began building pressure on the Fox administration to take action. Through the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras and other cross-border networks, the mothers’ organization also got human rights and womens rights groups to send letters to the US Congress, asking it to pressure Mexico for answers.

Finally, last week Jose Luis Vasconcelos, the federal prosecutor in charge of organized crime, announced that he would investigate rumors that some of the women were murdered in order to sell their internal organs. This bizarre claim, supposedly made by a street vendor, is doubted by many observers. But whether true or not, the allegation of some kind of organized gang activity served to provide the legal pretext Fox needed to intervene.

The mothers, however, don’t think that a small conspiracy could account for such a large number of deaths and disappearances, especially without being discovered. Instead, they believe that larger social forces are responsible for creating a climate of extreme violence against women. Juarez has become a huge metropolis built on the labor of tens of thousands of young women in the maquiladoras. Overwhelmingly, they are migrants, who have traveled north from cities, small villages, and rural areas in central and southern Mexico.

“While the city and its industry depend on them totally, they are important only as productive workers, not as human beings,” Acosta explains. “If they disappear, they can and will be easily replaced. This low value on the life of women is reflected by the lack of response to this cry for justice, the inability to stop the crimes. It’s a way of saying in other words, in attitudes: 'We don’t care that women keep disappearing and being murdered.' And by placing a low value on women’s lives, it has demeaned the basic right to live for everybody."

Government inaction, the mothers say, comes from a desire not to discourage foreign investment in the maquiladoras. Residents of the border are being treated as throwaway people, whether they’re factory laborers in the plants, or barrio residents living along dirt roads, in cardboard houses, with no sewers, running water or electricity.

"We’ve opened the big door, our border to the U.S., in order to allow big multinationals (more than 400 of them) to settle in our city," Acosta says. "We give them a permit to do absolutely anything. They don't have to guarantee the most elementary aspects of life, from wages women can live on, to basic service in our communities, or even just security measures to their female workers to commute back and forth from their homes. When people are so poor they don’t have access to material things beyond their basic needs, they don’t have the ability or knowledge of how to fight for themselves," she concludes. "These women have been vulnerable to assassinations and disappearances precisely because they are blind to their rights, due to their economic situation."

It’s not enough, the mothers charge, to find just the culprits responsible for the murders and disappearances. There must be a change in the economic and political status of the women of the maquiladoras, so that they can protect themselves and bring a stop to the wave of violence against them.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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