Femicide in Mexico: The Cotton Field case and its sequels
Mexico has a shockingly high incidence of femicide, i.e., the murder of women on account of their gender. Although the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in a landmark case has ruled that Mexico is in violation of human rights laws for failing to adequately investigate and prosecute such murders, the killings continue unabated.
'WE are here today because the search for our daughters is unstoppable, femicide and disappearances force us to continue fighting without respite to demand justice, to raise awareness and to show solidarity, to join forces and denounce together.'
These were the words of the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Disappeared Daughters in Ciudad Juarez, dozens of women who came together to give a press conference on 11 March 2013.
This year it will be two decades since this phenomenon began, they said - '20 years of impunity, of pain for the mothers and families of Ciudad Juarez'.
In 1993 young women from Juarez started disappearing and turning up in fields and rubbish dumps, mutilated, sexually abused and murdered. Many of the victims were factory workers who disappeared while travelling to or from work. Others were teenage students, migrants and other vulnerable young women. According to data from El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 47% of victims (1993-2004) were aged between 10-19 years and 27.8% between 20-29 years.
Such murders of women in Mexico have continued to escalate in recent years, in the complete absence of effective investigations and justice. Women's organisations use the term femicide or feminicide to describe the brutal killings of women by men, often preceded by intense sexual violence and torture.
Femicide occurs not only in Ciudad Juarez, but countrywide: at least 34,000 women were murdered in Mexico between 1985 and 2009, according to figures produced by the UN and local rights groups. In 2010 alone, Amnesty reported that 2,418 women were killed nationwide, 320 of them in Ciudad Juarez. Between June 2011 and June 2012 almost 4,000 women and girls were reported as disappeared.
Ciudad Juarez is a border town in Chihuahua with an estimated population of 1.4 million. It is a free-trade zone for exports to the US, established following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and hosts about 300 assembly plants (called maquilas). Young women from all over Mexico and Central America come to Ciudad Juarez to find work in these factories. They are especially vulnerable to exploitation by their employers and to acts of violence because they lack the social networks that exist in their home communities.
In the past five years a number of laws have been approved and institutions established to protect women from discrimination and violence. One of the most important is the General Law of Access for Women to a Life Free from Violence (GLAWLFV), which recognises femicide as a crime and lays responsibility both on the perpetrator and on the state for failing in its duty to safeguard women's lives. However, a lack of political will and dedicated resources means that many of these measures are useless in practice. Not only has the state continued to neglect its duty to protect women and tackle the causes of extreme violence against women (VAW), but femicide rates have increased in the past few years with little being done to prevent these crimes or bring the perpetrators to justice.
The Cotton Field ruling
The negligence of the Mexican state in protecting and safeguarding women's rights came to prominence with the Cotton Field ruling in 2009. This case, involving the brutal murder of three young women, has come to typify the kind of violence, including imprisonment, physical and psychological torture, mutilation and sexual aggression, that hundreds of women suffer before being murdered, patterns of brutality expressly designed to degrade women.
On 21 September 2001, 17-year-old Laura Berenice Ramos Monarrez did not return home after her waitressing shift. On 10 October 2001, 20-year-old Claudia Ivette Gonzalez was turned away from her place of work - maquila LEAR 173 - as she was two minutes late; she was not seen alive again. Fifteen-year-old Esmeralda Herrera Monreal worked as a maid in a family home and on 29 October 2001 she disappeared on her way home. Their disappearances were reported to the local authorities by their relatives; however they were dismissed and told that the young women were probably with their boyfriends. On 6 and 7 November 2001, eight bodies were found with injuries caused by extreme sexual violence, in a cotton field in Ciudad Juarez area. A complaint against the state of Mexico was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the judicial branch of the Organisation of American States (OAS).
In a seminal ruling published on 10 December 2009, the IACHR ruled that the state of Mexico was responsible for the unsolved murders and disappearances of women in Ciudad Juarez. The court found Mexico to be in violation of human rights laws by failing to adequately investigate and prosecute these murders. Although the Cotton Field case examined only three out of more than 300 Juarez femicides documented since 1993, not to mention the equal number of women who have 'disappeared' over the same period, the court's application of the Convention of Belem do Para (on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women) defined human rights for the first time in relation to women's rights.
'The Cotton Field ruling was a very important moment from a legal point of view because the Mexican government acknowledged the ruling of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. However, femicides have increased in many regions of the country to such an extent that within the whole state of Mexico, these crimes have tripled within the last two years,' says Mexican sociologist Amanda Hernandez Perez.
The IACHR ordered reparations and this appeared to be a turning point for both victims of femicide and, indeed, all women in Mexico. However, the Mexican government has been slow to carry out the court order and subsequent investigations by international organisations have found that clearly defined deadlines are not being met and no measurable progress updates being provided. According to the Mexican civil society group Feminicidio del Campo Algodonero, the state has only succeeded in meeting one of the court's requirements while implementation of the rest is lagging sorely behind. Despite this, the IACHR does not appear to have imposed any sanctions.
In an exclusive interview, Amanda Hernandez Perez told the Central America Women's Network (CAWN): 'The state should guarantee the protection of women in general, and that of women from the maquilas in particular, as citizens with rights before the law. Also, corporations have a contractual responsibility towards their workers, above all in their labour rights: payment for accidents, deaths, indemnity etc. However, neither state nor companies are sufficiently fulfilling their responsibilities. We have various problems: absence of rule of law, absence of labour rights, and on the other side, absence of political will to implement measures, programmes and policies pertaining to VAW. Today, one of the major challenges throughout Latin America is VAW. However, the problem spreads further than that, it has to do with gender roles, the authoritarian exercise of power, impunity, the deterioration of the country and the region in every aspect - poverty, unemployment, generalised violence and lack of legislation.'
Defending the defenders
A disturbing development in the violence against women in Juarez is the harassment, attacks and murders of the families of the victims and their supporters and attacks on individuals and human rights defenders who are calling for justice in these cases.
In spite of these threats, numerous organisations and activists continue to raise their voices and demand justice. Amigos de las Mujeres de Juarez (Friends of the Women of Juarez) has been helping families since 2001, providing emotional and financial support through fundraising efforts, donations, and outreach work, as well as organising local and international events.
Susana Chavez was a prominent activist and poet who supported groups working with the families of the victims, and who coined the slogan 'Ni Una Mas' (not one more murder) which is used at rallies against the Ciudad Juarez killings and the failure of the police to solve them. Susana was herself murdered in January 2011. Another notable case is that of Norma Esther Andrade, who founded the organisation Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Our Daughters Returning Home) in response to her own daughter's murder and has been tireless in her demands for the police to properly investigate this case. In December 2011 Andrade was shot by a masked man in Juarez and was taken to hospital but had to be discharged early as a result of multiple threats against her and hospital staff. She moved to Mexico City for her own safety but in February of this year she was stabbed in the face in yet another attack thought to be related to her campaigning work.
These women are tireless activists in their fight for the return of their daughters. On International Women's Day the mothers and families of the disappeared girls in Ciudad Juarez travelled to Mexico City to take part in a protest march, demanding justice for their daughters. Groups of mothers undertook a 20-hour bus journey to reach the capital to join with hundreds of other women in a march organised by Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa. Chanting 'Vivas se las llevaron, vivas las queremos!' (They took them alive, we want them back alive!), the mothers and their supporters marched on International Women's Day.
Ciudad Juarez continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman or girl. However, incidences of femicide are easily lost amidst reports of the wave of violent crime sweeping the country. Whilst state judicial systems and regional institutions prevaricate over shouldering their responsibilities towards the women of Mexico, grassroots protests, campaigns and awareness-raising events led by passionate activists locally and internationally are a vital tool to bring the plight of the women of Juarez and the rest of Mexico to the consciousness of a wider audience and ensure that justice is gained for all. - Central America Women's Network/Latin America Bureau
*Third World Resurgence No. 271/272, Mar/Apr 2013, pp 41-42