Reckoning with feminicide, part 2
By Beth Connors-Manke
Editor’s note: In part 1 of this series, Beth wrote about the exhibit Wall of Memories: The Disappeared Señoritas of Ciudad Juárez by Lexington artist Diane Kahlo. Here, Beth reports more on the feminicide in Ciudad Juárez.
In 1993, young women began disappearing in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, which sits across the border from El Paso, Texas. The young women, often workers at the assembly plants along the border, are found around the city or in the desert, tortured and mutilated. Many believe that the murders are partially the result of neoliberal economic policies, drug trafficking, and governmental corruption. One can only say ‘partially’ because the murders have never been solved and the situation in Juárez is a confusing web of violence, drugs, conspiracies, and fear. While many news reports put the number at 350, scores more women are believed to have been killed under similar circumstances.
The murders in Juárez have haunted me for more than ten years. In the last few months, as I spoke with Diane Kahlo about her exhibit, looked at her portraits of the murdered girls and women, researched the situation in Juárez, the haunting has become more acute. Once one knows that brutality like the feminicide exists in the world, it becomes harder to believe that the civil society we enjoy here in the U.S. sits on an unshakable foundation. What we have here is not indelible; it exists only as long as we demand a just body politic and a safe community. When we relinquish safety and justice, society unravels—and very quickly.
This is the case with Juárez. Charles Bowden, who has reported on the city for years, calls it a “black hole in the body politic.” A black hole destabilizes everything around it.
Bowden’s view on Juárez is bigger than the feminicide: it encompasses the murders related to the drug trafficking—just as torturous as the women’s murders—and the economic shift that is slowly, like a cannibal, eating everything in it’s path. The environment. Governments. The social contract. Men, women, children. As Bowden sees it, what is happening in Juárez (and in other borderlands) is a new beast, a new war:
“[T]his war I speak of cannot be understood with normal political language of right and left or of capitalism and socialism. It is not postcolonial or precolonial or even colonial. It is life against death. For the poor moving north, it is their life against death. For the ground and the sky and the rivers, it is slow death as human hungers outstrip the earth’s ability to feed them.”
These hungers exceed the simple need for a full belly. These hungers are vicious, cruel, careless, and they have created a shadow world with its own rules. “There is a new order in the wind,” Bowden writes in Dreamland: The Way Out of Juárez, “and it looks like chaos but it is not. There is a new order in the wind and it sidesteps government, or, if pressed, steps on government. There is a new order in the wind and it cannot be discussed because any discussion might threaten the old order now rolling in the dirt.”
I sat in a sparsely populated room watching the 2001 documentary Señorita Extraviada by Lourdes Portillo. Señorita Extraviada tells the story of Juárez in a way that is now relatively common: a new economic order has made poor women targets of sinister violence. As much as I already knew about the feminicide, the film was still a blow. Portillo’s documentary presents terrifying and gut-wrenching testimony from the families of disappeared women. We meet mothers who investigate and demand justice. We see a government that will not or—worse yet—cannot intercede.
The documentary’s perspective is in line with much research on the situation. Scholars such as Mercedes Olivera note that poverty, unemployment, migration, and the disintegration of the peasant economy in Mexico became more acute after President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94) accelerated neoliberal policies. With these problems came more violence against women. To put it concretely, factories along the Mexican-U.S. border have drawn poor migrants to cities like Juárez. Women take jobs at these maquiladoras and engage in other low-wage, temporary work. In a culture of conservative gender roles, this ruffles men’s feathers.
After watching the documentary, though, that explanation didn’t seem sufficient. Portillo’s film reveals the sadism involved in the murders of the women—and suggests that the brutality is planned, organized. For instance, one family found that their daughter’s factory work schedule had been changed the day before her disappearance, leaving her unable to travel to and from work with family. At that same factory, the women were regularly photographed on payday. This girl’s photograph showed her beautiful and model-like, and the film speculated that she had been chosen based on her photo.
Another woman, who had been taken but avoided death, told of photo albums kept by the kidnappers of the women and their torture, rape, and murder. Planned, organized, documented.
This isn’t the type of violence one tends to see from men trying to control women. This isn’t on par with the aggression used to put women back in their “rightful” place in the home. This system is altogether different.
Because Juárez defies conventional thinking about the serial murder of women, we have to find a new way to see the situation. That “new order in the wind” that Bowden perceives needs to be seen through a new lens. If we don’t stretch, if we don’t have the courage to really look at what is going on, if we don’t see Juárez on its own terms, we have no way of combating the degradation and brutality that threatens everyone in Juárez and all of us connected to the border—and we are all connected to the border in one way or another.
Unfortunately, since 1993 when the disappearances began, conventional thinking has been the order of the day, a way to create red herrings to shield the real perpetrators. First, the women themselves were blamed for the disappearances (“they are prostitutes”; “they are bad girls”). Then, there was speculation about a single serial killer; an American expert was even brought in to give theories. Then, it was a satanic ritual; then, it was gangs. With as many women as have disappeared at this point, any of these people or groups could have joined the rampage. However, many doubt that the root of the feminicide lies in any of these explanations. This large scale, systematic killing suggests something more.
Scholars and activists conceptualize the widespread murder of women in Juárez, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and elsewhere by using the term feminicide. Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano define feminicide as “the absolute degradation and dehumanization of female bodies,” arguing that it is a crime against “women’s life and liberty.” Other scholars go as far as to say that feminicide is a type of genocide against women.
It wasn’t until recently that sexual atrocities were even recognized as part of genocide. During the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, it came to light that Serbian forces had implemented a system of mass rapes and killing of women as part of the “ethnic cleansing.” To see some justice done, Natalie Nenadic, now a UK professor of philosophy, and Asja Armanda, a philosopher and Croatian-Jewish women’s rights advocate, intervened. They brought international attention to the issue through a lawsuit against Radovan Karadzic, the head of the Bosnian Serbs and an architect of the genocide. The lawsuit accused Karadzic of genocidal sexual atrocities, making this the first time sexual atrocities became legally recognized. Before this landmark lawsuit, it was simply accepted that war meant rape, and that everyone did it. Nenadic and Armanda essentially said, “No, that is not what we see here.”
Russian nesting dolls
In some ways, genocidal programs work like Russian nesting dolls: they are wars inside wars. For the twentieth century, we rely on World War II as fullest example of this process. “With regard to the Holocaust,” Nenadic says, “initially people didn’t see it as a distinct crime within all the atrocities that were happening during World War II. They saw the mass destruction of war. But this was a particular type of ‘war’ within a war. It wasn’t something being carried out by all sides to the conflict; it was a concerted policy committed by one side only, a policy to destroy a particular ethnic group. That needed to be made visible.”
In Yugoslavia, this war within a war included the killing of women in ways as vicious as the Juárez murders. While the sadism exhibited in the Serbian camps and in the Juárez borderland echo each other, another aspect of the violence seems strikingly different: Juárez isn’t in the midst of “ethnic cleansing.” Some of the targeted women are peasants from other regions of the country and some are indigenous, but this doesn’t seem to be a state-sponsored campaign against them. (According to Marcela Lagarde y de los Ríos, who was on a Mexican special commission about the feminicides, if the state is sponsoring the one-by-one massacre in Juárez, it is through the impunity it has granted the perpetrators.)
If genocide is partly about the systematic extinction of a group, then Juárez doesn’t seem to be genocidal. In fact, this feminicide wants the opposite: it wants a continual supply of women so that it can use their deaths to support other ends. Even if we can’t call Juárez a genocide, we can say that there is a war going on—and that the feminicide is “nesting” inside another larger war.
While neoliberal economic policies are blamed for the violence in Mexico, there’s another element that plays a part: the legacy of Latin American repressive military regimes. State terrorism, abductions, and torture—of both women and men—has not been uncommon during Latin America’s civil wars and repressive military reigns. When women activist-citizens were taken off the streets, their torture was sexualized and especially misogynistic. This type of political culture reinforced a social system that made violence against women normal. Additionally, amnesty laws in countries like Guatemala later let the perpetrators off the hook, creating a culture of impunity. In Mexico, a similar situation occurred when police officers in Mexico’s Dirty War of the 1970s went on to become high-ranking officials in Chihuahua, the state where Ciudad Juárez is located.
Add to this a drug cartel war over distribution zones and control of drug markets flowing into the U.S. According to Olivera, “Narco-corruption is so great that official security structures have had to be continually replaced as gang members penetrate or bribe the police.” There’s a war over power, and the Mexican government is losing—if it hasn’t lost already.
Still, though, how do the hundreds of disappeared women of Juárez fit into the picture? The cartel wars have plenty of casualties—men and women involved with the drug trafficking—but that doesn’t seem to explain the feminicide, whose victims are not necessarily connected to cartels. The motivation for killing a double-crossing drug mule is different from snatching Silvia Arce, who disappeared in 1998 while collecting money for jewelry she’d sold to dancers.
As her mother Eva Arce tells the story, Silvia was waiting for her husband to pick her up when a white Cavalier took her away. People around the area knew that Silvia was a “good girl,” but none would help Eva find her daughter. When she went to police and the DA’s office, it seemed eerily as if officers and officials knew what was happening to Silvia. One said: “Ma’am when your daughter comes back, you will have to take her to a place for her to recover.” Another told her: “We’re just waiting for the order to go get her.” They seemed to know something but refused to aid Eva.
The second state
When Bowden writes that “[t]here is a new order in the wind and it sidesteps government, or, if pressed, steps on government,” he suggests that power belongs to organized networks that function largely outside the law. They act furtively yet boldly; they take people off the street in daylight; they photograph young women and then choose among them; they torture woman after woman, girl after girl with impunity.
Anthropologist Rita Laura Segato believes that Juárez has a “second state,” an underworld that is “acting and shaping society from beneath the law.” The act that creates and sustains loyalty to this mafia-like brotherhood is the mutilation and murder of women. In other words, these young women are sacrificed in order to maintain the underworld of the second state. When these men (sometimes with female accomplices) abduct, rape, and leave the women dead in the desert or in empty lots, they are proving that they belong to the world that haunts and now controls civil society in Juárez.
This seems to be the root of the sadism. This is why the feminicide isn’t a genocide intent on eradicating poor, racialized women from the borderlands; rather, it needs a continual supply to bind men to this other world of power, cruelty, barbarism.
To return to the metaphor of wars structured like Russian nesting dolls: the disappeared women of Juárez are that tiniest doll around which all the other dolls form their contours. The dirty war of earlier decades, the cartel wars, the war against equitable economic structures all “nest” around the violation of these women. The biggest war, though, is between this second state and civil society. Segato writes, “I understand these to be crimes perpetrated against us, addressed to us and for us, the law-abiding citizens.”
As Bowden points out, this is the war we have difficultly perceiving. Because if we recognize it, then we must admit that our old order—a society that guaranteed safety and a measure of political, personal, and economic freedom—is “now rolling in the dirt.” In the new order, there’s no firm distinction between the U.S. and Mexico. There’s simply a continuum from south to north, along which there is a struggle of life against death.
So when political candidates propose a higher, bigger, better wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, you know that they don’t recognize the new reality—or that they don’t want you to see it.