By Christopher Hooks
For years, a specter hung over Ciudad Juárez. In the 1990s, the largest city on the Texas-Mexico border became infamous for its gruesome “femicides” — the murders of hundreds of women.
The murders, held to be predominantly mysterious and sexual in nature, grew in the public’s imagination. Juárez developed an international reputation as a place of horrific violence against women, a reputation that has become an internationally dominant narrative about the city.
The femicides of Juárez have spurred activism and academic study, and become a major part of artistic and cultural depictions of life in Juárez — from the Tori Amos song “Juárez,” to Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, to FX’s recent drama The Bridge.
Some who write about the femicides speculate wildly about the source of the violence, suggesting the killers “belong to street gangs, organized crime syndicates, powerful families, a satanic cult, an underground snuff film industry, the police — or all of the above.”
The killings, they claim, are sexual, brutal, commonplace, and above all, inexplicable.
That’s a narrative that Molly Molloy, a research librarian and professor at New Mexico State University, finds deeply troubling. Molloy has studied Juárez for two decades, and has written for The Nation, Phoenix New Times, Narco News Bulletin and The Texas Observer. She’s also the force behind Frontera List, an invaluable and long-running repository of raw information and discussion about border issues.
In recent years, she’s become increasingly convinced that the commonly accepted story of the Juárez femicides is a myth.
While violence has extracted a horrific toll in the city, Molloy says, the proportion of homicides with female victims in Juárez is less than it is in many American cities. What’s more, she says, the sensationalistic narrative of the sexual murders of young women in Juárez distracts Americans from the real social dysfunction experienced by Mexicans living near the border.
It’s a contention that’s been hotly contested by others who write about the femicides, but Molly says careful study of Juárez paints an unambiguous picture.
The Texas Observer spoke with Molly Molloy by phone and email about life in the city:
Texas Observer: Does Ciudad Juárez experience a disproportionate amount of violence against women?
Molly Molloy: Female murder victims have never comprised more than 18 percent of the overall number of murder victims in Ciudad Juárez, and in the last two decades that figure averages at less than 10 percent. That’s less than in the United States, where about 20 to 25 percent of the people who are murdered in a given year are women.
Ciudad Juárez is experiencing profound social distress, and the elevated violence in the city is a continuing crisis. But this idea that Juárez is a place of disproportionate violence against women is a misperception.
TO: How confident are you in the accuracy of the available statistics?
MM: Mexican statistics are notoriously difficult to get and unreliable. That said, statistics do exist — and they can be very useful, especially when you can track them over time. And there are other sources. From the late 1980s until her death in 2009, Esther Chavez Cano, one of the most eloquent voices on women’s rights and human rights in Juárez, wrote hundreds of columns in Juárez newspapers to draw attention to the lack of social services in the city and especially to the ravages of domestic violence that primarily affected women and children. She became a spokesperson and a resource for families of victims, and she began to keep meticulous records of the crimes against women.
Of the roughly 400 cases documented in Esther Chavez’ files from 1990 to 2005, about three-quarters of the cases were domestic violence, and the cases were essentially resolved. That is, the killer was known as an acquaintance or domestic partner or other relative of the victim.
Only about 100 were completely unsolved cases. These are the cases that have received (and continue to receive) most of the media, artistic and academic attention. The only real statistical study on the topic, done in 2008, found that the proportion of female homicides in Ciudad Juárez was lower than Houston’s.
What’s more, until 2008, when the violence associated with organized crime escalated and the Mexican military was deployed, Juárez was not exceedingly violent — at least not compared to other places around the globe that have similar kinds of social pressures.
Before 2007, as far as I know, there was never a year with more than 300 murders, and that ends up being a murder rate of somewhere between 25 to 30 per 100,000 people. That’s a relatively high rate, but it’s not as high as some of the rates you see in U.S. cities like Detroit and New Orleans, where the murder rate can be upwards of 60 per 100,000.
When you look at the 427 murders — that’s the figure usually quoted for the number of women killed between 1993 and 2007 — those are all of the female murder victims. Those are not categorized by the type of crime.
If a woman is shot in a robbery, it goes into that number and is categorized [by some] as a femicide, even though there would be nothing to indicate in that crime that she was killed because she was a woman. There was a famous case in 2004 that Mexican reporter Sandra Rodríguez wrote about in her book La Fábrica del Crimen of these young boys who murdered their family—mother, father and sister. The mother and sister are counted as femicides, even though that wasn’t a gender-specific crime.
TO: But what’s the problem with focusing on femicides if it heightens awareness of the real problem of violence in Juárez?
MM: I have a problem with this extreme focus on the women victims. I think every single one of the victims matter. The fact that a crime or homicide victim is a woman, or a child, or a man — it makes a different story. But in human terms, no one victim should be more highly valued than another.
If 300 people are killed and 30 of them are women, but the women’s murders are the ones that get all of the attention, I find that to be absolutely mistaken and wrong.
There are so many other victims and people are killed for many different reasons. Not every woman victim is killed for some sexual reason, or simply because she’s a woman.
Sometimes people say to me, well, the women are innocent, the men that are killed are narcos and criminals. That’s such an oversimplification, and it is a statement made with absolutely no evidence. It is a criminalization of the great majority of all of the homicide victims. This is what has happened especially since the number of murders exploded in Juárez in 2008. And it is false.
It’s almost like we’re fetishizing these dead women. To always be looking back at these women as if their bodies are this kind of sacrificial host — I find that to be troubling, in terms of our culture and our focus on life and death and what it means.
In other words, if you’re constantly focusing on women as if they’re this symbol for suffering, you never move beyond that particular death to look at the social conditions that gave that kind of life, and that kind of death, for so, so many people.
TO: Could you say more about why you think the portrayal of the murdered women is problematic?
I’ve read things by some feminist scholars talking about the “harvest” of young, nubile women. I mean, the terminology becomes kind of sensual, or sexual. Some of the writing about these cases I find to be pushing over into the extreme and eroticizing the victims in a way that makes them appear a lot more helpless and powerless than women in Juárez are.
Some of the writing makes the women appear as if they’re just parading on the street to be picked off by predatory men. I just don’t think that’s a realistic depiction of life in a place like Juárez.
Many of the women, who do the work and are the only breadwinner, are quite powerful. Many of them are mothers, and workers, and take care of other people. They’re not the powerless people that some of the literature portrays them as. And I find that, as a feminist, to be counterproductive in the extreme.
TO: Why do you think the narrative about the Juárez femicides has been so enduring? Why do you think it appeals to people?
If you look at the problem of violence in Juárez as essentially being a problem of young women being murdered, and that if you can solve those murders, then everything will be ok, it feels safer. It feels like you can accomplish something, because then you don’t actually have to look at the real problems of the city.
The economic system and the social conditions in Juárez are not any better now than it was in 1993. If anything, conditions in the city have gotten worse.
More people are being killed now, men and women, than were killed in any year before 2007. So obviously, whatever has gone wrong in Juárez continues to go wrong. We went through a period of hyper-violence where Juárez was one of the most dangerous places on the planet. It’s still a very dangerous city, for men and women and children. And almost nothing has been done to correct the social issues that underlie this kind of violence.
Nothing has been done to address the economic suffering that came from [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. Nothing has been done to address the issues of drug trafficking, and why it’s so appealing for people in Juárez to become a part of these criminal enterprises. No one has really created a public school system in Juárez that serves all of the children that need to be going to school rather than working in factories or joining gangs.
TO: What are the social conditions you see driving violence in Juárez? What are the factors you think don’t receive enough attention from Americans?
MM: Trade policies are the most important thing. One of the major things that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did was make it very difficult for Mexican farmers to compete economically with the giant industrial agriculture in the United States. When a lot of these small and inefficient farms went under, many people were left without any way to make a living. That feeds into the other aspect of the free trade agreement, which encouraged the development of manufacturing facilities, or maquiladoras, along the border.
The people who work at these factories earn a tiny fraction of what workers in the United States would earn. Most of the salaries in Juárez range from $50 to $70 a week. But the cost of living in Juárez is not commensurately lower; it’s 80 to 90 percent of what it is in El Paso. And El Paso is one of the cheaper places in the United States.
You have a core part of the city, and then you have miles and miles that stretch south and east into the desert. Most of the housing in those areas is absolutely substandard. The most heavy aspects of the violence, when it got really bad, occurred in these neighborhoods.
In 2008, many of the people who had moved to Juarez for jobs decided to leave to try to get away from the violence. So what you see when you drive around the city are abandoned neighborhoods with acres of empty houses that have been stripped of everything. Other areas had never had proper houses and people lived in shacks they had built with thrown-away goods from the factories where they worked.
These are very dangerous areas. There’s no lighting, no police protection. It’s true that a lot of young women were abducted. That’s absolutely true. The only thing I’m pointing out is that these conditions were not terribly unusual or specific to Juárez. These conditions existed in a lot of places. Women were at risk there in the same way they were at risk in some neighborhoods in Chicago or New Orleans, or in other cities in Mexico.
TO: When you look at Juárez’s future, what most worries you?
MM: As anyone who’s taken a sociology class in the last 50 years knows, children who grow up in a violent home can grow up to be perpetrators of violence. If you look at Juárez now, with 11,000 murder victims in the space of six years, you have thousands of families who have lost one of the breadwinners of the family.
Most of those victims are young men; some of them are young women. Now you have thousands of orphaned children who’ve lost at least one parent — some have lost two. What kind of social services are available for those children?
This is a recipe for this violence to recur. And when you think of the things these young children have witnessed — in the street, in their homes, in public places of all kinds, it doesn’t bode well for the near future of Juárez.
This story originally appeared on The Texas Observer.