The Women of Juárez 

Making a Killing:

Femicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera

Edited by Alicia Gaspar de Alba, with Georgina Guzmán

Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010, 315 pp., $24.95, paperback

Reviewed by Margaret Randall

Over the past decade, the phrase “the women of Juárez” has become shorthand for the horrendous unsolved murders of young women and girls in that Mexican border city, much as “the Holocaust” or “the lost boys of Sudan” are synecdoches of sorts for other genocides and forced migrations. We hear the phrase, and an image comes to mind. So, we think we know something of the tragedy to which the image refers. More often than not, we don’t. The femicide in Ciudad Juárez may be in the news these days but, as Gaspar de Alba and Guzmán tell us, “Nowadays, we know too much, and yet we continue to know nothing.”

Making a Killing is the first comprehensive work that examines this ongoing femicide through an interdisciplinary lens. Gaspar de Alba and Guzmán have put together an intelligent yet passionate collection of essays, covering gender violence, the connection between the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the hatred of women, how the border violence has engendered its own culture, and more. Contributors include academics, artists, and two mothers of the murdered—women who have turned their grief and rage into activism.

In their brilliant introduction, Gaspar de Alba and Guzmán begin by explaining,

Since May, 1993, over five hundred women and girls have been found brutally murdered on the El Paso / Juárez border, and thousands more have been reported missing and remain unaccounted for, making this the longest epidemic of femicidal violence in modern history.

Some news reports have begun speaking of 1,000 or 1,500. In fact, there is evidence that these are conservative estimates. Women disappear from the streets and their jobs: many of them worked for maquiladoras, exploitative sweat shops, many of which are owned by US companies, which have moved their operations to this place to take advantage of tax breaks, cheap labor, and working conditions that are loosely regulated, if at all. Often, several women go missing in a single week. As recorded in the contributions to this anthology, many of the murdered women have also been sexually assaulted and/or mutilated.

In time—weeks or months or even years later—their bodies may be found. Or not. The vast majority remain missing, without a body that would at least provide some answers for grieving family and friends. It is clear, from this collection of texts and from all the reporting I have read for the past a decade and a half, that Mexican law enforcement agencies do not consider solving the Juárez murders a priority. The very language they use to describe the victims says it all: they are rarely referred to simply as women, and almost never by their first and last names. Instead, the murdered and disappeared are called inditas del sur (little Indian girls from the southern part of the country), sweatshop workers, and even prostitutes—as if such qualifiers somehow justify the crimes.

This anthology situates the murders within the context of a border terrain rife with unchecked violence and a history of crimes against women that are routinely tolerated, as patriarchal attitudes render society immune to such acts. And, as this book ably details, the only reason we know anything at all about the dead women of Juárez is because they are dead. Alive, they were the women no one noticed, not even to vilify or ignore.

Not only has Mexico failed to find and bring to justice the murderers; until recently it preferred to pretend they didn’t exist.  For example, several years ago I was in Chihuahua City’s main square. Across from the main entrance to City Hall, someone had erected a beautiful altar to the memory of the murdered women of Juárez. It featured a brief text about the murders as well as photographs of some of the victims. A small group of US tourists had gathered and, since the text was in Spanish and several of the tourists wondered out loud what it said, I started translating. Almost immediately, the group’s guide appeared and challenged the altar’s veracity. “There are different sides to this story,” he said. “Don’t believe everything you read.” I countered that when hundreds if not thousands of young women are murdered and those responsible are not sought, I didn’t know what other side of the story he might be referring to.

To be fair to Mexico, it’s important to note US complicity in these crimes. The companies who hire these women at USD $5.50 a day have shown no concern for their murdered workers. The women are expendable and easily replaced in an economy in which jobs are scarce. Northern Mexico has become, in recent years, a giant war zone, in which drug cartels rule, frequent street battles take tens of thousands of lives, the few elected officials and police officers interested in seeing justice done are themselves murdered for their efforts, and journalists who dare to write the truth of what is going on are also victimized. The US media ascribes these crimes to the so-called failed state to the South. But there is increasing evidence that the demand for drugs originates on the US side of the border, as do the weapons used to commit the crimes. Current political and economic policies, pushed by such institutions as the World Bank and the International Montetary Fund, have brought nothing but exploitation and suffering to the most vulnerable in both countries.

Making a Killing is unique in bringing together scholarship and testimony, research and art. All the texts are well-documented, and the book as a whole is filled with useful citations of other resources about the femicide, violence against women internationally, and the rich and contested history of the Mexico/US border. Gaspar de Alba and Guzmán do an excellent job of organizing the texts, so the reader progresses from a general understanding of the “perfect storm” that made this outrage possible to considerations of particular aspects of the story: trade, popular culture, antiviolence organizing, the personal testimonies of those most affected, and the legends that have grown up around the events. Throughout, valuable archival and contemporary photographs (most notably those by Guadalupe Pérez and Rigo Maldonado) and Alma López’s wonderful artwork enrich the book.

All the texts add to the complex weave and help to provide an in-depth understanding of the femicide. My personal favorites are Gaspar de Alba’s “Poor Brown Female: The Miller’s Compensation for ‘Free’ Trade”; Steven S. Volk and Marian E. Schlotterbeck’s “Gender, Order, and Femicide: Reading the Popular Culture of Murder in Ciudad Juárez”; and Paula Flores’s “The Government Has Tried to Divide Us.” The mothers’ testimony is extraordinarily moving. María Socorro Tabuenca Córdoba’s “Ghost Dance in Ciudad Juárez at the End/Beginning of the Millennium” raises the question of why the violence is taking place there, and why now:

[M]ost  scholars and researchers are still unable to understand why these serial crimes are committed only in Ciudad Juárez. In the past, we considered it a phenomenon similar to drug trafficking and auto theft: the city simply lacked the proper infrastructure—in every sense—to keep up with its dynamic growth.

After discussing the nature of the border crossing, the number of people who use it, and the fact that Juárez and El Paso are in many ways a single urban area straddling a problematic border, Socorro Tabuenca Córdoba posits another possible reason for the violence:

[T]here is a very powerful group behind the crimes . . . [E]ven though violence against women is not exclusive to Juárez, the serial sex crimes here bring such violence to international attention because of the violence done to the victims’ bodies, the legal impunity granted the criminal(s), and the silence and negligence of the state.”

The editors also provide a binational timeline of the crimes, enabling readers to place them sociopolitically and historically.

Jane Caputi contributes an afterword, “Goddess Murder and Gynocide in Ciudad Juárez,” which in my opinion is the weakest part of the anthology, especially because it is not presented as one point of view among others but rather as summation. After the solid explorations of the political, economic, gendered, racial, social, and spiritual dimensions of the crime throughout the rest of the book, Caputi’s claims seem forced and arbitrary. She is heavily influenced by the radical theologian Mary Daly’s ideas about gynocide and thus sees the murders “as a form of ritual blood sacrifice, a modern enactment of the core patriarchal myth of Goddess murder”; she cites Daly’s comment that “patriarchy is itself the prevailing religion of the entire planet, and its essential message is necrophilia.” Caputi writes, “The aim of gynocide is not to destroy all women, but to destroy women as a spiritual, political, and cultural force and to obliterate women’s group identity, with a shared history, responsibility, consciousness, and sense of values and purpose.” Certainly as a gender, women share a great deal. But we have learned by now that we do not all share the same history, responsibility, consciousness, or sense of values and purpose. Class, race, culture, and other variables are only some of the differences among us, to which Caputi pays lip service, although the notion of difference is at odds with other parts of her text, which reads almost as a religious tract.

Caputi works with the Nahua femicidal archetypes of Coatlicue and her daughter Coyolxauhqui. Although their stories may be present in the Mexican subconscious, most Mexicans have never consciously heard of them. Instead, it is another story of Mexican womanhood, that of Malinche or Malentzín, that seems most relevant here. Malinche was an indigenous girl whose family gave her to the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortéz, who in turn gave her to one of his lieutenants. The young woman spoke several languages and became an important interpreter for the Spanish invaders. She bore the lieutenant a child, and because she slept with the enemy, was known from that time on as a betrayer of the race. The word malinche, in popular Mexican discourse, is synonymous with betrayal. Rather than a victim of extreme gender injustice, Malinche is the hated Other. Late twentieth century feminists have retrieved her image and restored its historic meaning, but the equation Malinche = betrayal is still very much a part of the Mexican psyche. Ever-present (unlike Coatlique and Coyolxauhqui), Malinche represents a persistent cultural disregard for and fear of women—attitudes that make the abuse and even murder of women pervasive.

Despite my disagreement with the emphasis in this particular text, Making a Killing is a powerful and important resource, one that should be read by everyone interested in exploring the many ways in which women are expendable in our societies and the undeclared war against women that rages—with US complicity—along our southern border.

Margaret Randall’s new books include First Laugh (essays, 2011), My Town (poems 2010) and As If The Empty Chair / Como Si La Silla Vacia (poems, 2011), and To Change The World: My Years In Cuba (memoir, 2009).

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