Combating Impunity and Femicide in Ciudad Juárez

May 1, 2008

Over the past 15 years, some 400 women have been murdered, and hundreds more have disappeared in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city that borders El Paso. The victims, most of them teenagers, have typically been abducted, raped, strangled, and left in empty city lots, often on their way home from work. Although the authorities have arrested and convicted a number of perpetrators—by the end of 2006 at least 160 were serving prison ­sentences—the killings have continued at the same pace.1 To date, law enforcement has not seriously investigated the serial nature of the killings, and the motivation for them remains a ­mystery. These crimes, together with official indifference, have given rise to a new term in Mexico: femicide, the systematic murder of women.

Neither the end of the PAN’s political dominance in the state of Chihuahua in 1998 nor the end of the PRI’s decades of autocratic rule at the federal level in 2000 have had any effect on the official indifference to the killings. The impunity for violence against women that has prevailed for so long in Chihuahua has been maintained by officials of various parties. Even though the state attorney general’s office recently acknowledged that at least 364 women were murdered in the city between 1993 and 2005—and research has shown that this kind of anti-woman violence occurs elsewhere in the country—the problem of femicide has never taken its rightful place as a national electoral issue.

Throughout the 1990s, Juárez was Mexico’s fastest-growing center of industrial production. It expanded explosively over that decade, with no warning and no planning. It generated low-paying and insecure jobs, while its urban services, from road maintenance to primary education, remained nowhere close to adequate for its burgeoning population. Set opposite El Paso on the Texas-Chihuahua border, the city is now home to an estimated 1.5 million people and nearly 300 export-oriented assembly plants, or maquiladoras. More than 225,000 Juárez residents, nearly half the city’s labor force, work in the maquiladoras, most of them women under the age of 30.

The city attracts impoverished campesinos and unemployed workers from throughout north-central Mexico, as well as transnational factory owners, who appreciate the city’s modern industrial parks, low-wage workforce, and proximity to the United States. Transnational drug traffickers come to Juárez for the same reasons; they are also attracted by, and make profitable use of, the city’s social disorganization.

As the killings and disappearances continue in Juárez and throughout the state of Chihuahua, the police and various attorneys general have been the great missing force in the investigation and resolution of the long wave of violence. In 1996, in the midst of the ongoing serial killings, then governor Francisco Barrio remarked that the killings were within the range of what was to be expected in a city like Juárez. Other state and local officials have justified their lack of investigative fervor by stressing that many of the victims have been prostitutes and involved in the drug trade.

Another theory was proposed a few years ago by Diana Washington Valdez, a reporter for the El Paso Times. “The best information we have,” she told NPR in 2003, is that “men are committing crimes simply for the sport of it. The authorities know who the killers are, and nothing’s being done about it.”2

In the face of Mexican authorities’ neglect and their disregard for the many recommendations offered by national and international human rights organizations, mothers of the victims have formed organizations, embarking on two long missions: recovering the bodies of their daughters and seeking just punishment for those responsible for the murders. Two of those organizations, perhaps the most significant in terms of their continuous work and determination to shed light on the murders, are Justice for Our Daughters and Our Daughters Return Home.

Since 1995, they have demanded federal inquiries, succeeding only in the last four years in pressing the state and federal governments to investigate. During the long absence of official interest, they took on the job themselves, beginning their activism by simply documenting the femicides: For the period 1993–2005, Our Daughters Coming Home, by clipping the articles that appeared almost daily in the local press, documented 430 murders and 600 disappearances. Justice for Our Daughters, using local reports as well as the findings of a team of Argentine forensic anthropologists working in Juárez, documented 433 murders. And Casa Amiga, an umbrella group, has identified 265 of the dead.3

In November 2003, the first official investigation into the femicides began, headed by a specially convened federal body known as the Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence Against the Women of Ciudad Juárez. The commission, chaired by the former commissioner for human rights of the state of Jalisco, Guadelupe Morfín, addressed femicide not only in the state of Chihuahua, but throughout the country. Indeed, the commission demonstrated that the problem was nationwide, despite the lack of statistics and reliable information. The mothers’ organizations have largely supported the commission, because it is the only body that gives them a line of communication to the federal government.

But it never had sufficient personnel or resources to carry out its work. The federal government’s lack of interest is so great that since November 2006, when Morfín left her position, the group has yet to name her successor. Thus most of the investigation continues to be undertaken by civil society, reflecting the continuing pattern of official neglect.


The Citizen Observatory on Femicide, formed in August, is the latest civic organization to addresses the crisis. Composed of various groups—Catholics for the Right to Decide, the Mexican Commission to Defend and Promote Human Rights, the Morelos Academy of the Woman, and eight other activist and academic organizations—it monitors femicide on a national level, producing statistics and policy proposals, while formulating national standards to enforce the 2007 General Law of Access of Women to a Life Free of Violence.

International organizations, mainly women’s groups and human rights defenders, have been watching the situation closely, frequently criticizing various branches and levels of the Mexican government for its neglect. Even European lawmakers have discussed the question: In October, the European Parliament issued a report in which it concluded that the government of Mexico (along with those of Central America) had not taken sufficient steps “to attack the roots of the femicides.” The report emphasized that fighting violence against women requires good law enforcement as well as preventive measures, such as the creation of a legitimate social order as well as education on human rights and gender equality.4

Recognizing the prevailing climate of impunity surrounding these cases, the report also recommended a larger budget for investigative organizations, better witness-protection programs, and more support for judicial organisms and general investigators to pursue these cases.

International support has also come in the form of an expert team of forensic anthropologists from Argentina that arrived in Ciudad Juárez in 2004, to help identify human remains. Until then, the Chihuahua attorney general’s office had been delivering the corpses of murdered women to the wrong families, or buried them in common graves, as it still does.

According to Mercedes Doretti, one of the forensic anthropologists, the team has identified 27 remains, which have been delivered to the proper families.5 Nevertheless, this leaves a large number yet to be identified. Doretti confirms the Mexican government’s lack of interest, noting that official files on the victims typically include no information on where the recovered bodies, frequently unidentified, are buried. The team began its search in the cemeteries, whose registers proved unreliable because the majority of the women were buried in the area reserved for unidentified indigents.

“We depended to a great extent on the memory of the grave diggers,” Doretti says. She adds that although according to official documentation, bodies were sent to common graves until 1997, her team is still finding remains buried as recently as 2005 in the common graves, requiring continued exhumations. In December, after the Chihuahua attorney general’s office recommended that the common graves filled between 1993 and 2005 be exhumed, the NGOs of Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua asked the governor, José Reyes Baeza, to extend the forensic team’s contract to conduct the research. Doretti, suggesting that her team had already done all that was humanly possible to find and exhume the remains of missing women, warns that while much work remains to be done at the level of identification, “there is little hope of finding more women’s remains.”6


"Femicide is a crime of the state,” says Marcela Lagarde, a feminist federal legislator who presided over a special commission of the Chamber of Deputies established to look into the Juárez killings. A report produced by the commission defines femicide as the combination of “violent misogynist acts against women” and the institutional violence against women exerted by the authorities who block their access to justice. Femicide, Lagarde continues, furthermore constitutes “the rupture of the state of law, since the state is incapable of guaranteeing the life of women, of acting with legality and enforcing respect, of achieving justice and preventing and eradicating the violence to which it gives rise.”7

There have been some advances in recent years against gender-based violence in Chihuahua at the legislative ­level—an increase in penalties for sexual abuse, including sexual harassment, and the classification of rape within marriage as a crime. It also eliminates a requirement that plaintiffs in rape cases were “chaste and honest” when the crime took place.

Nonetheless, official indifference still rules the day in Ciudad Juárez and the state of Chihuahua. After 400 unexplained, apparently senseless murders in 15 years, this indifference itself is femicide.

1. Guadalupe Morfín Otero, Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence Against the Women of Ciudad Juárez, “Third and Final Report,” Mexico City, November 23, 2006.

2.Diana Washington Valdez, cited in John Burnett, “Explosive Theory on Killings of Juarez Women,” NPR,

3. Deputy Marcela Lagarde, Federal Chamber of Deputies, Report of the LIX Legislature, “Femicide Violence in Chihuahua, Mexico,” Mexico City, April 2006.

4. Interview with Humberto Guerrero Rosales, director of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, CIMACNoticias, October 11, 2007.

5. Author’s interview with Mercedes Doretti, January 29, 2008.

6. Ibid.

7. Deputy Marcela Lagarde, Federal Chamber of Deputies, Report of the LIX Legislature, “Femicide Violence in Chihuahua, Mexico,” Mexico City, April 2006.

Lourdes Godínez Leal is a reporter for the press agency CIMAC (Communication and Information About Women), where she has worked since 2002. CIMAC is a news agency formed to promote and enhance the daily coverage of women’s human rights in the Mexican news media.

Tags: Mexico, Oaxaca, interview, community, struggle

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