The Disappearing Women of Juarez

Revolutionary Worker #1166, September 15, 2002, posted at

It is called the Labyrinth of Silence, this piece of brittle desert. Here, their screams scrape against the crisp air, then shatter into a thousand shards of silence. Their cries are captured by dust devils that dance across the desert floor, then are plucked in mid-step by thorny scrub bushes and ripped to shreds. They wail in pain and terror, but no one hears them. These are the voices without echoes, voices of women of Juarez-- over 450, murdered in the last 10 years.


Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, stares across the Rio Grande at El Paso, Texas, only 200 yards away. It has been said that Juarez is a laboratory of modernization and globalization, a "City of the Future." Whose future?

This is the backdrop for the horror that is happening to the women of Juarez.

More than 400 maquiladoras stab the border here like a barbed wire fence. These are foreign-owned assembly factories--mainly U.S. corporations like Ford, Alcoa, RCA, General Motors, General Electric, DuPont, 3M, Amway--lured by the promise of no taxes or tariffs, no environmental or safety laws, and a seemingly endless supply of cheap labor. In this City of the Future, these models of globalization generate revenues of $16 billion per year--in the year 2000, they paid only $1.5 million in taxes.

Every day, buses filled with migrants arrive in Juarez from all over Mexico. The city's population has grown to over two million, making it Mexico's fourth-largest city. U.S. domination of the country's economy, heightened since NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was implemented in 1994, has brought deepening misery to the people here. Literally millions of impoverished indigenas and campesinos have been forced from lands and villages where their families have lived for generations. Tens of thousands have been beckoned by the grim promise of $3- to $4-a-day jobs in the maquiladoras in this City of the Future.

Young women from rural villages, most between the ages of 16 and 24 and some as young as 11, make up 70% of the maquiladora work force. In the time it takes to ride a bus from the countryside to the city, these women are wrenched across hundreds of years of history. They leave behind a world of feudal forms of patriarchy where fathers, brothers and husbands are lords and masters, where women live in forced docility and obedience to men--and they are thrown into the world of modern capitalism where sexual harassment and spousal rape are legally ignored and socially sanctioned, where employers interrogate them about their sexual practices, require them to show bloody tampons for three consecutive months to prove they're not pregnant, allow only five minutes for bathroom breaks, ten minutes for breakfast, and a half- hour for lunch.

In this so-called City of the Future, where threads of the social fabric are being forcibly unraveled, thousands of women have tumbled out of oppressive feudal social relations into the oppressive social relations of imperialism.

The new immigrants coming into Juarez fall into communities that seem to spring overnight from the scraps of the assembly industry. Across the river in El Paso, neat bungalows nestle on tidy streets, and electric lights make windows glow like bright eyes in the night. But in the City of the Future, houses are constructed from wooden pallets and cardboard boxes discarded by the maquiladoras. Roofs are covered in tarpaper or scraps of tin and held down by rocks, bricks and old tires. There is no plumbing, and human waste runs untreated in the Rio Grande. Chemical dumping from factories poisons the water, and birth defects exceed national averages. Streets are dusty paths that die in the desert. Across the river in El Paso, there is enough water to quench the thirst of countless manicured lawns. But in the shantytowns on this side of the river, there is no clean water to drink, and children die of dysentery.


No one can say for sure when the murders began, but more than 450 women are missing.

Over the past decade, more than 350 women's bodies have been found in or near Ciudad Juarez. Many of the victims have been girls and young women, from 10 to 22 years old, who worked in the maquiladoras. Almost all were slender, had dark skin, and long dark hair. All of them were poor.

The brutality of the murders is stunning. The women have been raped, slashed, strangled, crushed, maimed, dismembered and mutilated. Often, a breast has been severed, or the nipple bitten off. Sometimes the bodies have been covered with bite marks. Sometimes the skull and face have been destroyed. Some women have been stabbed 23, 24 times. Some of the bodies have been burned. Some show evidence of ritual sacrifice. Some women's hair has been cut off. These crimes are more murderous than murder, if such a thing is possible--they are crimes of such intense hatred that they seek to destroy the personhood of the women, negating their humanity and erasing their existence.

The authorities have shown little concern for the female victims, and little effort has been made to identify or even find the bodies. Officials have downplayed the crimes, often slandering the dead women as prostitutes. The governor of the state of Chihuahua blamed the victims for their own deaths, saying the women "dressed provocatively" or "were out on the streets at night alone." The state attorney general said that if the women had stayed at home with their families, they wouldn't be murdered.

As more and more women disappeared in broad daylight and nothing was done to track down their killers, outrage and protest grew from the victims' families, a growing women's movement, community organizations, and international human rights groups. Under intense pressure, authorities looked for a scapegoat to take the blame.

In October 1995, police arrested a wealthy Egyptian who worked as a chemist in one of the maquiladoras. He had lived in the United States for 20 years and had a history of sexual assaults on women. Police said they could tie him to at least four of the slayings, and that he was possibly responsible for all of them. Within weeks of his arrest and while he was still in jail, the body of a 15-year-old girl turned up in the desert. Then another, and another.

In April 1996, police proclaimed another breakthrough in the case. Eleven alleged members of a gang called Los Rebeldes (the Rebels) were jailed and charged with the deaths of seven women. But still the killings did not stop.

In March of 1999, a prosecutor assigned to the murders announced that five bus drivers had confessed to participating in the deaths of 12 women and girls. Most likely, the prosecutor said, they were responsible for many more. Shortly after their arrest, four of the drivers held a press conference from behind bars. Some of the men were crying and some had bruises on their faces. They said they had been tortured and coerced into signing false confessions. A local newspaper printed photographs of wounds and burn marks on their legs and stomachs.

In February 2002, state police shot to death an attorney representing one of the bus drivers. Police said they mistook the lawyer for a wanted fugitive. But the victim's father said his son had been receiving telephone calls threatening to kill him unless he quit the case. After this assassination, the attorney who represents another accused driver said that he too has received telephone death threats.

Dozens of men have been arrested over the years in connection with the murders, but the killings have continued. Who is murdering the women of Juarez?


Are the police somehow involved in these murders? Many of the victims' families think so.

And more than a few investigators, even the U.S. State Department in its most recent human rights report on Mexico, conclude that the killings could not have gone on for so long without the connivance and perhaps the complicity of the police.

One mother described her daughter's body after it was found in February 2001: "Her nose was broken. Her eyes were purple...she was completely marked." The police never investigated the case. In her own investigation, the mother discovered that her daughter's wrists were bruised in a way that showed she had been handcuffed.

Police told another mother that they were closing her daughter's case because they had no leads. The mother asked to see the case file. When they gave it to her, all the statements from all the people the police had interviewed had been removed. So the mother began her own investigation. When she tried to interview people who'd known her daughter, they told her they were afraid to talk to her. One woman told her she'd been threatened. Undaunted, the mother persevered. At one point, she discovered a woman who befriended young women and invited them to go dancing. When the young women met her, she'd take them to a rendezvous where the judicial [state] police would be waiting, and she'd hand the young women over to them. Some of these women are now among the missing and dead.

One victim, leaving a maquiladora, "disappeared" in the middle of the morning right across the street from the police station.

Could the drug lords be involved in these murders? Juarez is a major transit point for illegal narcotics. Mexico's most powerful drug cartels use it as a beachhead for their crack and cocaine pipelines into America, the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs. Drug trafficking is a lucrative and brutal enterprise here, generating $1 billion in profits per year. Bribery and corruption of officials, politicians and law enforcement is one of its well-known cottage industries, and the murder of rival entrepreneurs--and innocent bystanders who get caught in the crossfire--is just part of the price of doing business. Among the captains of this industry are wealthy and powerful forces on both sides of the border. It is not hard to imagine people like these dealing in the traffic and murder of women for pleasure.

Or are the murderers connected in some way to the maquiladora industry? Many coincidences seem to point in that direction. Most obviously there is the fact that many of the missing and murdered women were maquiladora workers, snatched on their way to or from work. Many of these women disappeared the very next day after they were hired. One woman worked in the same factory with her sister and father. One day, for no given reason, someone at the maquiladora changed her schedule so that she had to leave work without the protection of her family. She disappeared that same afternoon, her body was discovered 24 days later. Another woman showed up four minutes late to work. The doors to the maquiladora were locked and the manager wouldn't let her in. She never made it home.


In Senorita Extraviada, a recent documentary about the Juarez murders, filmmaker Lourdes Portillo interviews Maria Talamantes, whose story points the finger at the police.

After an altercation with some neighbors, Maria and her husband called the cops. When they went to the police station to lodge a complaint, the police arrested the couple and kept them in jail for 24 hours. During their detention, the police raped Maria. They took her to a cell that was littered with pile upon pile of women's clothing. When Maria asked what all these clothes were doing there, the police told her, "They belong to the women we've taken." With a shiver, Maria remembered that many of the murdered women's bodies had been found wearing the clothes of other disappeared women. (Later, some time after Maria's ordeal, when it was announced that the government was assigning a Special Prosecutor to investigate the Juarez murders, the police inexplicably burned one thousand pounds of evidence-- women's clothes.) Then they took Maria's picture, telling her, "If you report us, we will find you...and kill you and your family."

Maria says the police showed her a photo album, filled with pictures of girls with long hair. Pictures of these girls being dragged by their hair through the bushes. And more. According to Maria, the photos showed each girl laying in the middle of a circle of men who raped her, one by one. Then they beat her. Then they turned her over and raped her anally. The photos showed the men laughing. There are photos of the women's faces. Maria said, "They had expressions of pain and suffering. You could see them cry and scream. Her face--it showed the pain she was feeling. They looked very sad." There are photos of the men pouring gasoline on the women before they set them on fire.

After her release, Maria filed a report and identified the police who were involved in her rape. They were all arrested, but none of them were ever punished. Some time later, Maria got a job in one of the maquiladoras. On her first day at work, she sensed that someone was looking at her. She turned to see the factory security guard staring right at her. It was one of the men who'd shown her the photo album in jail.


Who is killing the women of Juarez? The killer has not yet been found. But it is not a mystery how the forces of imperialist exploitation and oppression have created the conditions in which these murders are taking place. Juarez is indeed a city of one possible future, and a mirror that reflects what is today an intolerable reality for millions of people around the world. It is one of many places on our planet right now where the consequences of free market modernization and imperialist globalization have hit the masses with crushing force, including with the reinforcement of centuries-old traditions while developing new and painful twists in the oppression of women--in places like Afghanistan, where most women not wearing the body-covering burkha still cannot walk the streets without fear of being beaten, harassed, and persecuted; like parts of the Middle East and Africa, where little girls are sexually maimed by genital mutilation; like China, where tens of thousands of women are being kidnapped and sold into slavery; like the Philippines, where city-size encampments of child-prostitutes spread like a rash outside U.S. military installations; like the U.S., where one in every three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

In their deaths, as in their lives, the women of Juarez are just another commodity to be exploited, part of the global trade in women that urgently poses the question, "Is this the world we want to live in?" This demands an answer.


Guillermina Gonzales is painting the lampposts of Juarez bright pink and marking them with a black cross. "My [sister] was one of the victims of Juarez. When it is said the women killed are prostitutes or from other places, we are here to show this is not true. The victims cannot tell you their lives or how they died, but I can tell you that this is totally unjust. They have a history. They have family.... I believe that a grave danger for women exists in each point in the city. I believe that the simple fact of being a woman here is a grave danger."

The families continue to fight for justice. They build shrines to their loved ones in police stations as reminders of the missing. They say justice is deaf to their plea, but they will not be silent. To be silent is to acquiesce, and the desert, they say, must no longer be allowed to swallow the dead.

Sources used for this article include:

1. Tori Amos' website:

2. Señorita Extraviada ("Missing Young Woman"), a documentary film by Lourdes Portillo.

3. Nightmare in a City of Dreams , 2-part series in The Washington Post , by Molly E. Moore, July 2000. Can be found at:

3. KRWG 90.7 FM website:, including a series by Lillian Kelly, first aired on May 9 and 10, 2002, called Sin Resolución , The Mass Murder of Women in Juarez, Mexico .

4. "To Work and Die in Juarez," by Evelyn Nieves, Mother Jones magazine, May/June 2002, available at:

5. "A Call for Justice in Troubling Murders," by Molly Ivins, Boston Globe , May 15, 2002.

6. "Activists blame police for lawyer's death in Juarez," by Mark Stevenson, Associated Press , February 8, 2002. Available at the Global Exchange website:

7. "Murder case solved but killings go on," by Jo Tuckman, The Guardian , March 11, 2000. Available at: www/

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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