Femicide in Ciudad Juárez

Femicide refers to the systematic killing of women. It is important to preserve this label rather than place it under the umbrella of homicide as it encompasses a very specific type of violence, often of a sexual nature. According to the National Citizens Femicide Observatory, at least six women are targeted and killed every day in Mexico.

Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city which borders El Paso, was placed at the centre of discussion surrounding femicide after the term was used to describe the explosion in disappearances and sexual murders which occurred in the town in the 1990s. The rate at which femicide has continued to rise in Ciudad Juárez renders it the “longest epidemic of femicidal violence in modern history.” Over the past 15 years, 400 women have been murdered and hundreds have disappeared from Juárez. In 2010 it was estimated that a woman waFemicides being killed in the city every 20 hours. As a prosperous, industrial city, Ciudad Juárez has attracted thousands of migrants from other Latin American countries to work in its foreign-owned factories, known as “maquilladoras”. Indeed, many of its victims are young, factory workers who have disappeared en route to and from public transport. The murders reveal “a gross disregard for the basic humanity of these women”, who have been found strangled, mutilated, raped and badly disfigured.

“Impunity is the main motor of the gender crime” – the majority of cases are not investigated and yet even for those that reach trial, misogyny, corruption and institutional prejudices pervade the legal system, meaning very few sentences are brought. Moreover, crime scenes and investigations are often manipulated. Of the 3,892 femicides committed in 2012 and 2013, only 1.6% led to sentencing.

The term “femicide” entered into Mexican federal law in 2012 – to be defined as a femicide, the victim must display evidence of sexual assault or mutilation or have experienced abuse, discrimination or assault by her suspected attacker. Despite appearing as progress, a number of organisations argue that these laws are still failing to achieve justice. The National Citizens Femicide Observatory claim that “legal stumbling blocks” exist which renders it “difficult or impossible” to categorise these types of crimes, particularly due to enduring discriminatory prejudices against women. “Justice becomes elusive” in the absence of a protocol in handling these cases, together with judicial and police failings in recognising femicide.

In 2004, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women found that the government had exhibited an indifference and a tolerance for the hundreds of disappearances and murders that had occurred in the city. In a male-dominated political sphere, the high rates of gender violence are often ignored in the broader web of drug violence and corruption.

The widespread impunity is further fuelled by those who seek to blame victims for their own deaths, with investigators referring to the victims as “hookers” or “heroin-users”, thereby devaluing the lives of these women entirely. Judicial decisions are often permeated by gender bias, highlighting a lack of credibility of the victim or focusing on the victim’s sexual conduct to mitigate sentences. Suárez Padilla was forced to confront police officers who implied that his daughter was responsible for her own death as nude photos taken by her killer were found on her mobile phone.

In 2010 Mariana Lima was killed by her husband, Julio César Hernández Ballinas. Their relationship was characterised by threats and violence. On the day of her death, her husband rang Mariana’s mother telling her she had committed suicide. Her mother claims that the judicial system served to increase her pain due to impunity and corruption. Mariana’s husband employed his status as a public servant to conceal evidence and provided false statements to the police. In March 2015 the Supreme Court reached a landmark decision in favour of the plaintiff and Julio César Hernández Ballinas was arrested, thereby setting a precedent for femicide investigations.

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Figure 2: notenoughgood.com

In 2015 five members of a Mexican street gang were sentenced to 697 years imprisonment each for the systematic abduction, enslavement and murders of 11 women in Juárez. The women were forced into prostitution and to sell drugs and were allegedly killed once they found out too much about the ring’s operation. The case lasted three months and more than 200 witnesses were called to testify. The motives behind the killings are unclear – some have theorized that the women were at the heart of satanic rituals, or organ trafficking or simply the victims of an anger at women being favoured over men to work in the maquilladoras. The trial exposed the gangs’ dealings with corrupt police officers who often participated in the sexual exploitation of the victims. Whilst the verdict was deemed “an important first step,” activist lawyer Imelda Marrufo, believes that it is impossible for the murders to have occurred without complicity and highlights the critical need to pursue the corrupt officials and the leaders of the gang.

Recognition of the brutal violence against women has become “a series of struggles without victory” for families of the victims. “Born of desperation and outrage”, protests and marches led by mothers, grandmothers and families of the victims have been extremely influential in thrusting the issue into the public sphere, consequently placing pressure upon the Mexican government to respond to the horrific violence suffered by these women.

In July 2017 the city released an app entitled “No Estoy Sola” (“I am not alone”) which enables women to trigger a distress call in the event of an attack. The app immediately sends a text message to five pre-loaded contact numbers with the user’s location. Such developments will improve the safety of women, but it is imperative that research is undertaken to increase prevention of femicide; research is needed with a focus on perpetrators, potential perpetrators and on cases of near-fatal intimate partner violence. Furthermore, the entrenched image of women as “second-class citizens” whose lives possess little value and who are often responsible for their deaths needs to be eradicated. A cultural change is vital to ensure that women are viewed as equals, combined with domestic and international pressure on the Mexican government to ensure disappearances and murders are investigated correctly and perpetrators are brought to justice.

Written by: Francesca Esposito

Contax Law supports Francesca Esposito in her journalism so that she can express her voice on a subject she highly values. Francesca graduated from the University of Warwick in 2015 with a 2:1 in the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and spent her third year studying abroad in the Netherlands at Universiteit Utrecht. She was awarded a Distinction in the Master of Laws (LLM) at University College London, specialising in Criminal Justice and Social Welfare. As an avid writer, Francesca has had several articles published and has also had positions on editorial boards for legal publications both in the UK and overseas.

Francesca is extremely passionate and captivated by the field of Human Rights, driven by her study of Gender and the Law during her LLB, which motivated Francesca’s desire to scrutinise the human rights violations faced by individuals around the globe.

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