Work, Sex and Danger in Ciudad Juarez

September 25, 2007

By now, the murdered women of Ciudad Juárez are such an old story that the locals hardly pay attention anymore. The news remains fresh only to the victims' families, and to out-of-town journalists who still fly into the Texas city of El Paso to cover the carnage just across the international line. Juárez, Mexico's fourth largest city, looks its size and more. A small central district with fading, colonial-style mansions is ringed by miles of dusty shantytowns, and traffic jams in which aging cars and buses jostle each other while ferrying thousands of workers to the city's vast industrial parks. Forty years ago, the industrial parks did not exist and things were much quieter. Back then, Juárez's economy was based on the usual border business: currency speculation, customs brokerage, quickie divorces for gringos. There was also a "vice" sector of bars and prostitution. Originally, it serviced soldiers from El Paso's Fort Bliss military base and Prohibition-era tourists seeking alcohol and sex for hire.

This economy was supplanted beginning in the mid-1960s, when Mexico instituted the Border Industrialization Program (BIP). The BIP created the maquiladoras, or for short, maquilas—foreign-owned plants that use cheap Mexican labor to assemble imported materials, then send the finished product back to countries such as the United States, paying tax only on value added by the cheap labor. Before the maquilas, Juárez's population totaled a few hundred thousand. Today it may be as high as two million. The count is uncertain because of the wave of immigrants constantly pouring in from Mexico's crisis-ridden countryside and interior cities.

Half of Juárez's people are old enough to work, and more than a fifth who do—some 230,000 by 1998 estimates—labor in one of the city's 400 maquilas. In the BIP's early years, almost all maquila workers were young women. They were preferred over men because, plant managers said, women had more agile hands. Women were also thought to better tolerate the tedium of the assembly line. Most important, women had not traditionally been industrial workers, had little experience with labor organizing, and were less likely to demand better working conditions or disrupt production over grievances. By the 1990s, however, the maquila industry had grown so much that women workers were in short supply. So men were recruited, and today the gender split in Juárez factories is about fifty-fifty.

Workers of both sexes are generally very young: 16- and 17-year olds are the norm, and it is not unusual to find 14-year olds working in the plants with falsified birth certificates. Many already help support families. Others work to enjoy their own money and time outside the home in a country in which young women traditionally have been cloistered within families, and where high school remains an unaffordable luxury for most working-class teenagers. The "loaded" minimum wage these young workers earn comes to about $1.36 an hour. "Loaded" includes vouchers for groceries at the supermarket and company-paid contributions to Mexico's national health care system. "Unloaded" means the cash taken home each week after 45 hours of toil. It adds up to about $26—far below what the Mexican government estimates is needed to support a family of four. One reason for the low wages is the scarcity of unions, which exist in only 10 to 15% of Juárez plants. Even when unions are present, maquila management can negotiate entire contracts without worker input, and union representatives often work in tandem with company supervisors and personnel managers. Under such conditions, industry-wide employee turnover is as high as 100% annually. Constant migration from plant to plant discourages organizing for better pay, and fosters the sense that workers are cheap, disposable commodities. This is especially true since the peso devaluation of 1994, when the minimum wage plummeted relative to the dollar and to inflation. The fall has been terrible for poor people, but wonderful for foreign capital in search of cheap labor. It has also been a boon to the ideology of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994.

It was around this time that Juárez's murder rate—until then far lower than in similar-sized U.S. cities—suddenly skyrocketed. By 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available, the city was registering about 54 homicides for every 100,000 people. That is more than double Monterrey's rate, quadruple Guadalajara's, and almost five times Mexico City's.[1] Many victims have been male: youths knifed in neighborhood gang fights, and older men shot, mafia-style, and disposed of in blankets, their eyes bound with duct tape. Juárez's ascendance in the 1990s as a corridor for heroin, cocaine and marijuana trade is undoubtedly responsible for most of this violence. Women, too, have died—some 200 since 1993. Like the male victims, some have succumbed during drug-trafficker settlings of accounts. Others have been shot, stabbed and beaten to death during confrontations with husbands and boyfriends who seem more violent toward their partners than at any previous time in Juárez history.

Dozens of women have met another type of death: Jack the Ripper-style sex murder. The corpse of one of the first such victims, Alma Chavira Farel, was found in early 1993. An autopsy revealed she had been strangled and raped "por las dos vias"—a Mexican euphemism for vaginally and anally. During the next several months, eight more young women were similarly murdered. The pattern continued in 1994 and 1995. By summer of that year, bodies were being discovered every few days, buried in or strewn around desert trash dumps near the city. Often, all that remained were bleached bones, but better preserved bodies shared certain features. They were almost always slender, with shoulder-length, dark hair. When still identifiable, the victims turned out to be overwhelmingly from poor families. And many had worked in the maquiladoras.

In 1993 and 1994, discoveries of these women's corpses were announced in brief, throwaway items on the newspaper crime pages. Parents who pressed police to find their daughters' killers were met with indifference. Not until 1995 did Ocho de Marzo, a fledgling local women's rights coalition, begin demanding justice for Juárez's exploding number of sex murder victims. The group disseminated murder reports to the press and to international women's and civil rights groups. Members staged noisy street marches and denounced official indifference at forums such as the UN. At the time, the Juárez city government was in the hands of the National Action Party (PAN), which had seized local power from Mexico's longtime ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI began noisily denouncing the PAN's inability to protect the city's women. As a result, municipal leaders and police were under palpable pressure to catch what law enforcement and the media were calling Mexico's most voracious serial killer in history.

The story so far was horrifying, but as serial-killer tales go, it was a classic. While people who rape and kill repetitively probably have existed for ages, the idea of the serial sex murderer is new to Western culture. It dates to criminological theory of the late-nineteenth century, and is marked by the following features. The culprit is male. He is driven by hatred of women, and a lust to see them suffer sadistic sexual violation. Ritualistic rape and murder bring him intense, even orgasmic, release. The release is followed by a refractory calm, then a resurgence of lust that requires another murder. Because the process is so sexual—and because sex between two people is generally a private act—the killer typically acts alone. And though he may carry out his murders with superb calculation, his motives ultimately are far more impassioned than rational.

In October 1995, the Juárez police thought they had their serial killer. He was Sharif Abdel Latif Sharif, an Egyptian with a long history in the United States, including a rap sheet for violent sexual assault. A chemist, Sharif had served time in a Florida prison for rape, and was later accused of a similar charge in Texas in the early 1990s. He was working in Midland at the time, and his boss helped him evade arrest by moving him to Juárez to do consulting work with maquilas. There, Sharif lived in an upscale neighborhood and drove a late-model car. He was arrested after a teenager told authorities she had just escaped from him. She said Sharif had picked her up in a downtown bar and taken her to his house, then attacked her and assured her she would "end up in the dump" like the other females found there. Promptly the police located witnesses who remembered seeing Sharif in bars with women later found dead. Just as promptly, Sharif denied killing anybody, though he did admit to "knowing all the prostitutes downtown." He was eventually convicted of raping and strangling one victim and is now serving 30 years in prison. Prosecutors believe he murdered at least 16 other women, but did not amass sufficient evidence to win guilty verdicts.

The city's relief over Sharif's arrest did not last long. He was barely behind bars when more female corpses started turning up. As they continued investigating, police discovered that several victims had spent free evenings in the downtown bars, where they went alone or with girlfriends. The dead women's parents were shocked and traumatized when they learned of this behavior. For, though weekend bar-hopping is de rigeur among working women in developed countries, until quite recently it was strictly taboo for Mexican women, and to break the taboo was to invite the label of prostitute. Police findings about victims' connections to bars prompted the mayor of Juárez to issue rhetorical pronouncements such as: "Do you know where your daughter is tonight?" The implication was that sex murder was the fault of moral "looseness." Or, as many Juárez residents put it, of girls leading the "double life" of chaste factory work by day and sinful bar-hopping by night. Oddly, the Spanish for "double life," la doble vida, sounds a good deal like las dos vias, sex per the vagina and the anus.

The similarity in expressions may be a linguistic accident. Even so, a real link does exist between maquila development, which has encouraged "la doble vida," and the sexualized violence against women that appears to be a backlash against their changing economic and social roles on Mexico's northern border.

Evidence of the connection is indirect but shows up everywhere, from the data of social science to the fiction of authors such as Carlos Fuentes. Telling background is provided by sociologist Leslie Salzinger, who in the early 1990s spent time observing relations between men and women in Juárez maquiladoras.[2] Salzinger herself worked on the assembly line alongside maquiladora operatives. There, she noted that even though factories have abandoned earlier policies of hiring only women, managers still maintain labor discipline by fomenting strict gender distinctions among workers—distinctions based on traditional ideas of manhood and womanhood. Here is Salzinger's description of hiring practices at a large, television-assembly maquiladora that she gave the pseudonym Panoptimex:

The personnel department puts a great deal of daily planning and energy into hiring the "right" genders for the jobs available. Irene Pérez, the head of personnel in the plant, details criteria for most line jobs, beginning with being female and young and continuing with slimness, thin hands and short nails.[3]

Indeed, the emphasis on attractive, conventionally feminine appearance is so marked that a female supervisor at another plant told Salzinger, "In Panoptimex they don't look for workers, they look for models—short skirts, heels, beauties."[4]

Salzinger names the plant after the panopticon because control of the production process there is relentlessly visual. Managers, ensconced in offices high above the assembly lines, peer down at the workers from windows. On the shop floor, meanwhile, supervisors—all men—constantly walk the lines. One of them, Carlos, descends from his office...

all masculine and proprietary expansiveness, and "jokes" with women workers.... As he walks, he stops and talks to the "young and pretty ones".... These conversations are flirtatious and titillating, full of teasing on both sides, mild, blushing self-revelations on the part of workers, and pseudo-paternal supportiveness on his part. He does not stop at speaking either. It is well known in the plant that he has a mistress on the lines, as does the chief of production. Thus, every conversation is tinged by ambiguity and the flavor of forbidden sexuality.[5]

Amid these interactions, supervisors such as Carlos also examine charts by each worker's head, marked with gold, green and red dots representing good and erroneous work. Coupled with the flirting, this behavior marks " 'good worker' and 'desirable woman' in a single gesture."[6] The emphasis on female beauty is reinforced in extracurricular events such as a citywide "Señorita Maquila" contest, in which women workers from dozens of plants compete against each other in swimsuit and evening gown competitions.

Because of the industry-wide shortage of women workers, Panoptimex and other maquilas also employ young men as assemblers. But they often are deliberately segregated from their female counterparts: by job classification (women do "light" work, such as soldering circuit boards, while men put together bigger and heavier television cabinets); by the color of their work smocks (at one factory, men's are dark blue and women's light blue); and by physical placement in separate sections of the plant. Thus, men are marked as different from women. Yet they are also derisively equated with women. For one, they earn the same wage as women: one that has always been recognized as a pittance, but which has for long been justified for females since—as managers say—it's women's husbands, working outside the maquila, who are supposed to be the real breadwinners in families. Male maquila workers also feel devalued by management disregard for their masculinity. During her tenure in Panoptimex and at another Juárez maquila, Salzinger noticed constant reinforcement of "femininity"—i.e., docility and passivity—which the industry still considers good for production. "Manliness" in male workers, however, is ignored or even deprecated. At best, male operatives are invisible. At worst, those who misbehave or do bad work are disciplined by being moved to the female-only assembly sections. The ultimate humiliation for Juárez's young male workers is thus to be symbolically turned into women.

Not surprisingly, these practices seem to encourage aggressiveness towards female employees by their male co-workers. Salzinger observed a good deal of cat calling by men towards women, and cotorreo—insistent cajoling for dates and sex—even as the same behavior is deemed taboo for young women to initiate toward men. Women workers, however, react to these male attentions with exhilarated, bawdy joking. As a result, the shop floor is highly sexualized and full of what employees called "ambiente," or ambiance. It is so stimulating that many arrive at work more than a half hour before the start of their shifts to share gossip and intrigue with co-workers. This intrigue takes the place of decent wages, or hopes for promotion, even as it distracts young workers from the deadening boredom of the assembly line.

Maquila sexuality spills out of the plants during time off. Downtown Juárez is clotted with bars whose clientele are mostly assembly-line workers. The weekend cover charge and beers are cheap at establishments such as Alive, Noa Noa, and La Tuna Country. U.S. rock, disco and Mexican music throb from giant speakers by their dance floors, and intermission is punctuated with "Most Daring Bra" and "Wet String Bikini" contests for the women customers, as well as performances by handsome young male striptease dancers.

The scene is feverishly captured in Carlos Fuentes' recent novel, The Crystal Frontier. In this extended meditation about transnational Mexican-U.S. culture in the age of NAFTA, one chapter has a group of young women workers making a nocturnal visit to the Malibu, a fictional Juárez bar. As the women allow themselves to be hypnotized by the rock music's beat:

What wild ideas they had, arms here, feet there, knees bent, hair flying, breasts bouncing, asses shaking freely, and most of all the faces, the expressions—ecstasy, mockery, seduction, shock, threat, jealousy, tenderness, passion, abandon.... All of it was allowed on the Malibu dance floor.[7]

Minutes later, the all-female audience takes riotous pleasure in "the Chippendales," "gringo" male dancers "brought over from Texas":

Bare-chested, they wore bow ties, ankle-high boots, and jocks whose straps slipped between their buttocks and whose pouches barely supported the weight of their sexes while revealing the forms and challenging the girls: Arouse me with your eyes.... The girls elbow one another. In my bed, just imagine. In yours. If he'd only take me, I'm ready. If he'd only kidnap me, I'm kidnappable.[8]

Kidnappable. In Fuentes' fiction, it is maquiladora women who entertain pleasurable fantasies of abduction. In the real world of the contemporary border, however, kidnapping is part of the chilling repertoire of sexual violence against this same group. To be forcibly carried away, raped "por las dos vias," fatally strangled, and dumped in the desert is a horribly punishing fate. But what dreadful things are women doing to engender such revenge? Is men's emasculation in the maquiladoras enough to make them attack and murder the opposite sex? Or is something more profound motivating the rage?

The work of sociologist Pablo Vila suggests that indeed, the violence may be provoked by disturbances in the deeply entrenched ways fronterizos—those who live on the border—view themselves as men, women, border dwellers and Mexicans. Over the course of the 1990s, as part of an extensive study of how people on the U.S.-Mexico border construct their identities, Vila and his students interviewed hundreds of Mexicans living in the Juárez-El Paso area.[9] Many were recent immigrants from their country's interior. Others were natives to Juárez, or had spent many years there. In speaking with the researchers, these interviewees often linked certain people and institutions—particularly cabarets, maquilas and women who frequent or work in them—with an illicit sexuality so perverse that it is seen as a threat to Mexico's very sovereignty. In the remarks below, interviewees still associate Juárez and Juárez women with the "city of vice" image dating back to the city's development as an entertainment center for U.S. soldiers and Prohibition-era tourists:

Dolores: In many parts of Mexico, Juárez is still seen as a cabaret, it is still a brothel.

Consuelo (a middle-aged, recent immigrant from Mexico City): Almost all of [the Juárez women] that I know or see are holding cigarettes, or smoking, or drinking.

The tint of perversion is so strong that it even colors perceptions about local men. Estaban, a Juarense, says that when he visits interior cities in Mexico, friends always ask him, "What's going on in Juárez? There are only fags there!"[10]

Cabarets, or cantinas, were once the sole backdrop for "city of vice" anxieties. But as the quotes below demonstrate, an even more demonized locale has lately been added: the maquiladora.

Grisel: A lot of the girls went out from cabarets, from prostitution and went out to work in maquilas.

Margarita: The maquilas are purely pinche puteadero [fucking prostitution], purely pinche corruption. I think that a chingada [fucking] cantina is cleaner than maquilas.

Mexicans' association of maquiladoras and their female employees with moral filth might come as a surprise to the industry, especially to its foreigner officials. During the planning stages and early years of the Border Industrialization Program, promoters often claimed that the new factories would rescue border women from prostitution, presumably the only livelihood previously available to them. In making these remedial claims, the maquiladora promoters were, perhaps unwittingly, echoing profound, even mythological Mexican anxieties about the country's border with the United States.

According to Vila, it is no accident that images of border economy and culture are fused with images of sexual degeneracy. Vila points out that cross-culturally, the human body often stands symbolically for a social system, with the body's margins representing the system's margins. But a margin always converges with another margin. As well, margins by definition can be penetrated. Thus, when seen defensively, margins connote disorderly coupling and rape. Or, as Vila puts it, "pollution and endangerment." For Mexicans, he says, the northern border is a particularly evocative symbolic margin. After all, this is where their country meets "the country that for many years was considered the historical enemy, the country that, according to Mexican narrative, stole half of the national territories."[11] Thus, many people resignify Mexican border cities as vulnerable bodies—male and female.

The symbolizing becomes even more inflamed when the subject of prostitution enters the mix. Female sex workers in cities such as Juárez service Mexican as well as foreign men. But it is the latter clientele who preoccupy Mexico's imagination. Prostitutes are seen mainly as females who open their bodies to the sexual requirements of U.S. soldiers and tourists. Symbolically, these women's bodies signify the openness of the border to the needs of the "other." That openness, Vila writes, is characterized not just by "the continuing pouring of American males in Juárez's cantinas," but also by "the border maquiladora program and its overwhelming use of young Mexican females in its labor force." It is thus no coincidence that many border dwellers equate maquiladoras with prostitution.

The equation is not a new or casual worry. Vila notes Mexico's historical obsession about "the role of 'open female bodies' " exemplified in the country's preoccupation with conquistador Hernan Cortes' Indian mistress and interpreter, Malintzin. As Mexican-American feminist Norma Alarcon notes, the Virgin of Guadalupe functions in Mexican nationalist myth as the country's "good" mother. Malintzin, on the other hand, is the Virgin's "monstrous double." She is evil mother of Mexico's fall from grace. Quite tellingly, Malintzin goes by additional names: Doña Marina, La Malinche—and La Chingada. The latter term refers to a woman who is both fucked over, i.e. taken advantage of, and one who is literally "fucked," or entered sexually. Like La Malinche, both types of "chingadas" earn their keep through their exploitation, even as these mothers of the country betray their "patria"—their fatherland.

Such meditations on symbolic culture might seem overly abstract until we return to the far less-analytic utterances of Mexicans discussing border women. Consider Carlos Fuentes' fictional maquila workers out for their night on the town. One woman—whom Fuentes has named Marina—ties her young son to a bedpost by a cord when she goes to the cabarets. She and her co-workers have just finished watching the "gringo" Chippendale boys dancing, then cheered a nude Mexican woman imitating a bride at a wedding, when they receive word that the son has died of strangulation. The image of the Mexican male child, the country's patrimony, destroyed by the maternal cord of the female assembly worker, is reinforced by the title Fuentes chose for this chapter: "Malintzin of the Maquilas."

A far more prosaic insult is lobbed at women factory employees by prostitutes in Tijuana. They were interviewed by sociologists studying sex work in that border city, which, like Juárez, maintains hundreds of the global assembly plants. As part of their constructions of personal morality, the interviewees discuss la doble vida, in which they strive to conceal their livelihood from family and friends. With an almost patriotic fervor, they also describe refusing to perform sex por las dos vias with clients, because anal sex is considered "foreign" and therefore anti-Mexican. Commenting on the danger of catching sexually transmitted diseases, one interviewee describes the care prostitutes take to avoid infection. She blames contagion not on sex workers but on men's pleasure-seeking carelessness. She then equates the behavior of these libertine, diseased males "who run around loose" with that of "the women of the maquilas."[12] In her moral economy, prostitutes—heretofore the most morally condemned women in Mexico—are now superior to female assembly-plant workers.

Given this new hierarchy, it is chilling to hear from Luz, a Juárez woman interviewed by sociologist Pablo Vila. Cleaning up her city, Luz says, would require getting rid not only of the bars, but also of "the women."[13] Her remark evokes images of Juárez females as vermin, or at best as useless dregs that ought to be disposed of.

Could this demonized yet casual throw-away view of border women underlie the extreme violence perpetrated against them in Juárez since NAFTA's rise? The possibility is suggested by the difficulty police have had in solving the sex murders. In 1996, when it became clear that Sharif Abdel Latif Sharif could not have killed the woman who died while he was in jail, authorities arrested some men they called "The Rebels," a "gang" of several young men who worked in downtown bars as dancers, bouncers, petty drug dealers and pimps. Police said the imprisoned Sharif had hired the gang and paid them a few hundred dollars per body to kill women so he would look innocent. With the "gang's" arrests, the classic, lone-serial-killer story was retired—even though FBI sex-murder specialists consulted by Juárez authorities say they have never heard of so many people committing sex killings together.

Since "The Rebels'" were imprisoned in 1996, Juárez has been awash in more stories of woman murder as money-making male enterprise, or perhaps even more ominously, as sport with the camaraderie of, say, a soccer team. High rates of female homicide continued into 1997, and 1998 saw more murders—including sex murders—than in any year since 1993. In May 1998, police announced the arrest of yet another so-called gang. This one was comprised mainly of boys aged 14 to 16 who were said to hold raffles to determine who among them would get to kill women. The boys then mysteriously disappeared from police scrutiny, to be replaced in spring 1999 by a new gang. This time, the accused were bus drivers who worked for the chaotic array of private companies that subcontract with maquilas to move employees to and from work in rickety, second-hand U.S. schoolbuses.[14] The bus driver story resurrects the older theme of Latif Sharif's uncanny ability to cut murderous deals with men—again, from his prison cell—to deflect blame from himself. Once again, the killings have subsided since the bus drivers were detained. But their arrests and those of earlier groups reportedly have been tainted by dubious police work, including torture of the suspects to induce confessions.

So who are the real culprits? We could focus solely on the sex murders and ask if border women, who assemble the niceties of global consumerism for a pittance, are themselves being literally disassembled by a few men for the men's own pittance of cash or conscience. Or we could suggest that this free-market scenario, with its story of hirelings and wages for murder and female "turnover," is nothing but preposterous urban myth in a city so "maquilized" that nothing done assembly-line style seems improbable anymore, not even death "por las dos vias." But neither interpretation includes the fact that Juárez also registers the highest levels of reported domestic violence in Mexico: beatings, stabbings and rapes of women, with the perpetrators almost invariably boyfriends, husbands and other male kin. These aggressions are far more common than the sex murders, and they, too, have skyrocketed since 1993. And yet they are considered humdrum, eliciting no special media interest, locally or internationally.

Meanwhile, the people of Juárez seem exhausted by the violence. Victims' rights groups paint telephone poles with pink squares and black crosses, in a desperate attempt to keep the city's attention focused on the crisis. Women's organizations such as Ocho de Marzo work with state and local officials to develop woman-sensitive sex assault offices at police and prosecutors' headquarters. Ocho de Marzo activists have also opened a shelter for victims of battering and sexual assault, and they are helping the maquila industry provide self-defense classes to women workers.

Though certainly laudable, these interventions may be band-aids if transnational factories continue using gender difference to exploit labor. The practice spreads far beyond Mexico. When introduced into traditionally patriarchal cultures, it can shake up relations between the sexes without encouraging equality. Instead, the old masculinity may be socially and economically marginalized, even as the old femininity is flaunted and reimbursed. These new arrangements may be fomenting a double life—a "doble vida"—between old and new roles, replete with volcanic male anger that maquila promoters never anticipated. But why would they? Global assembly lines operate not out of cultural sensitivity, but for efficiency and profit. In the end, it may be these "dos vias" that underlie the suffering—and deaths—of the women of Ciudad Juárez.

Debbie Nathan is a staff writer for the San Antonio Current and contributing writer to the Texas Observer. She is author of Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the U.S.-Mexico Border (Cinco Puntos Press, 1991) and founder of the El Paso/Juárez-based League for Immigration and Border Rights Education (LIBRE), precursor to the current Border Rights Coalition.

1. Dana Washington Valdez, "Juárez has Mexico's highest homicide rate," El Paso (Tex.) Times, August 1, 1999, p. 4B.
2. Leslie Salzinger, Gender Under Production: Constituting Subjects in Mexico's Global Factories (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1998, and in press, Berkeley: University of California Press).
3. Salzinger, Gender Under Production, p. 65.
4. Salzinger, Gender Under Production, p. 66.
5. Salzinger, Gender Under Production, p. 76.
6. Salzinger, Gender Under Production, p. 77.
7. Carlos Fuentes, The Crystal Frontier (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1997), p. 1

Tags: US-Mexico border, Ciudad Juarez, maquilas, femicide, women

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