February 14, Juarez, Mexico—“Ni Una Mas“—”not one more”—was the impassioned rallying cry this Valentine’s Day as activist groups from the U.S. and Mexico converged on this gritty border city to protest the brutal killings of more than 370 women in Juarez and the nearby state capital, Chihuahua City, since 1993. Early Saturday, a rapt crowd of 500-plus men, women, and children, sharing seats and crammed against the walls, spontaneously chanted “not one more” and “you’re not alone” at the local university as Mexican professor Marcela Lagarde addressed the “feminicido” that has plagued Chihuahua State for the past decade.
Between 5,000 and 7,000 anti-violence protestors then gathered at the Lerdo Bridge separating Texas and Mexico and marched down Juarez’s central Lerdo Avenue, lined with wedding-dress stores and small restaurants. Screaming “justicia,” protestors carried black balloons, blurry black-and-white photocopies of missing and murdered women, and decorated dresses hanging on tall pink crosses. Even a group of fraternity brothers from University of Texas-El Paso—decked out in T-shirts reading “men of character”—marched with an enormous canvas of handprints and the declaration “These hands don’t hurt.”
At the front was Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler, whose international non-profit V-Day co-sponsored the march with Amnesty International, which last year issued a detailed report damning the quality of the criminal investigations in Juarez and Chihuahua City. Accompanying Ensler was press-magnet Jane Fonda and other so-called “Very Important Vaginas”: actors Sally Field and Christine Lahti, PBS president Pat Mitchell, Lifetime CEO and president Carole Black, and Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky (Illinois) and Hilda Solis (California). Solis wants to pass House Resolution 466, which supports the multilateral creation of a DNA database in Chihuahua state.
In the U.S., the right wing hopes to smear John Kerry for being within five feet of Fonda in 1970; for most in Juarez, the simple fact that Fonda, whoever she is, is a famous person agitating to draw attention to the murdered women is a hopeful sign. “I am rich, I am famous, I am white, and I have a daughter and a granddaughter,” Fonda declared to a group of storming reporters. “If they were murdered or disappeared, I know the authorities would work very hard to find out who kidnapped them.” Fonda concluded her comments by admonishing the press: “Why did it take international movie stars to turn up for you to be here?”
A little over ten years ago, according to an Amnesty Now article, the number of women murdered in Juarez—a city of roughly 1.3 million—averaged three a year. In 1993, the number skyrocketed to three a month. Many of these murders are classified by the police as “situational,” as in domestic violence and drug- or gang-related violence, even though the similarities between the murders clearly point to a larger trend. The mutilated bodies of young, poor women are dumped in and at the outskirts of the city. The average age of the victims is 16. At least one-third of them work in the city’s maquiladoras, or foreign assembly plants. More than one-third of the women are raped before they are killed, and most of their bodies show signs of captivity and torture. Once seen as a problem in the rough, crime-ridden Juarez alone, the murders have now spread to Chihuahua City.
Rumors about the killings identify its perpetrators variously as the state police, an international organ-trafficking ring, Satanists, organized-crime factions, serial killers from the U.S., a group of local serial killers, and the Mexican government.
So who is killing the women? At an emotional press conference in the crammed lobby of the Juarez’s modest Monte Carlo hotel on Friday, one mother of a murdered girl answered, “We don’t know. Why do they leave them like this [mutilated]? What are they trying to erase? . . . I am sure the state police of Chihuahua know what happened to these girls. I want to know. That’s a mother’s right.” Amnesty’s report declares that “the failure of the competent authorities to take action to investigate these crimes, whether through indifference, lack of will, or inability, has been blatant.” Alma Guillermoprieto, who wrote about the killings for The New Yorker this past fall, sees “active collusion” by the Chihuahua police as a logical possibility, and “active indifference” as the least-incriminating explanation. The police deny all involvement.
The murder of women in Chihuahua state is certainly a socio-economic political issue. After NAFTA, workers from poor villages poured into Juarez, and the rise in violence in 1993 coincides with the boom of the maquiladora economy. On Saturday, the group La Mujer Obrera distributed leaflets avowing that the murders “are the consequences of a global economy that continues to promote the deterioration of the social fabric on the border.” Multinational corporations take advantage of loose environmental regulations and cheap Mexican labor—maquiladora workers are paid less than $5 a day. U.S.-run factories in Juarez—including Thomson/RCA, General Electric, Ford, and Dupont—have done little to ensure the safety of their female workers: girls have disappeared in the waste-grounds adjacent to factories, which are often unlit. Private companies have rejected the idea that they should pay for security for their workers. Claudia Ivette González disappeared after her assembly plant turned her away for arriving four minutes late; she was found in 2001 in a ditch with seven other young women. Her employer, the Lear Corporation, stated that the company did not need to
provide its workers with extra security because her murder didn’t happen on Lear property.
Saturday’s protest ended with a free performance of the Vagina Monologues in Spanish and English, featuring the Mexican actors Lilia Aragon, Marinitia Escobedo, and Laura Flores—and Fonda, Field, and Lahti—at a packed local dance hall. Ensler made the important gesture of including monologues (in addition to standards like “Bob,” about a vagina-friendly man) that spoke directly to international violence against women. There was a long, moving performance in Spanish about the rape and assassination of women in Kosovo. And Field, occasionally crying, did a piece that focused on spousal acid burning in Islamabad and female disfigurement from bombing in Iraq before she ended with the situation in Juarez. American folk singer Holly Near—leading a chant for “ni una mas“—performed a song for Juarez that also targeted violence in Chile and Guatemala.
Global in focus, V-Day and Amnesty assert that the Juarez crimes are a human-rights scandal. And so while groups like
Women in White, a government-sponsored activist party—and even a selection of victim’s mothers—were said to oppose the protest in part on the grounds that the vocal agitating lacked dignity, Ensler made savvy choices: pointing to the worldwide problem of gender violence, she didn’t single out Juarez for blame.
The Vagina Monologues clearly inspired and often amused its audience. Fonda played a woman who regards her vagina distantly as a “red leather couch” or a “mink-lined muffler,” and another piece ran the gamut of orgasm types: “mariachi,” “diva,” “triple,” etc. But the divide between the monologues’ occasionally playful content and the issue of unsolved murder at times felt awkward. While the crowd for the most part whooped and roared enthusiastically throughout the
show, a group of three mothers whom I recognized from the previous day’s press conference—sitting in the front row, placards of their daughters’ faces hanging over their chests—silently stood up and walked out mid-way through.
The mothers remain optimistic, but not overly so. In October, Vincente Fox appointed a special federal commissioner, Maria Guadalupe Morfín, to monitor the state’s work, and last month, he appointed a special federal prosecutor, Maria Lopez Urbina, to run her own investigations. But for these appointments to be effective, they have to be well funded, and there’s no promise yet that Fox won’t be as effectively neglectful of the situation in Juarez as he has been since his election. Asked at the press conference if she had hope in Lopez, one mother replied, simply, “We hope to have hope in her.” Ensler, for her part, declared Saturday V-day for “victory”: the march was the largest in 10 years of anti-violence activism in the city. As one lawyer for several mothers stated, “This is the only thing that has pressured the government.” Ensler vowed, “We will keep coming back to Juarez until women are free and safe.”