Femicide: the killing of women qua women, the murder of women because they are women.
Feminicidio: the hyper-violent murder of poor brown women and girls on the U.S.-Mexico border because they are poor brown females.
Since 1993, hundreds of Mexican women and young girls living in Cd. Juárez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas, have been kidnapped and murdered. Their bodies are found strangled, mutilated, dismembered, raped, stabbed, and torched; some have been so badly beaten, disfigured, or decomposed that the remains are impossible to identify. Only about 98 of those crimes have been classified as serial sex crimes, according to the official definition of “rape” in Mexico, which is limited to penile penetration. (Foreign objects inserted in the vaginas or anuses of the bodies—pipes, sticks, bottles, a piece of garden hose, even a blanket—do not count as rape, and hence these are not considered sex crimes.) The bodies of the victims, in some cases just bones, teeth and hair, were found in shallow graves in deserted areas on the outskirts of the city, in trash dumps, on the riverbank, near the train tracks, in downtown plazas, near the airport, in soccer fields, and off the highway. Bodies found recently have borne the same signature: tied hands, evidence of rape, genital mutilations. In February 2003, the body of a five-year-old girl was found with multiple stab wounds and her eyes removed.
No one knows the exact number of victims. Statistics from Casa Amiga, a grassroots rape crisis shelter in Juárez, indicate 254 women were murdered between 1993 and 2002. The Chihuahua State Attorney General's Office says 252 women were killed between 1993 and 2002. El Paso Times reporter Diana Washington Valdéz says her research based on interviews and newspaper accounts shows 320 victims between 1993 and June 2002. Still other sources estimate as high as 285 or as low as 144. There is some disagreement as well on the number that can be considered “sex crimes”: some say 98, others 85 or 67. None of these estimates includes the hundreds of women who have disappeared without a trace. In 2005, the El Paso–based Coalition Against Violence Toward Women and Families on the Border estimated that at least 400 more women were still missing in Juárez, besides the nearly 500 found bodies.
Why are these women being killed in the particular way they are being killed? Clearly these crimes are more than murder: they are ritual acts of pure hatred toward the impoverished, indigenous Mexican female body. A majority of the victims are poor migrant women from small villages and cities in the interior of Mexico, coming to Juárez not to cross the border but to find a job at a maquiladora. They also shared the same physical profile: most were between the ages of 12 and 23, slim, short, dark-haired and dark-skinned, or to put it colloquially, "inditas" or "muchachas del sur." Who can hate these powerless women so much? What is it about them that they hate? What is so threatening about their presence on the border? And what accounts for the silence that has surrounded the crimes and protected the perpetrators on both sides of the border? These are some of the questions that I explore in Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders, which I wrote as a mystery novel not only because this is a real-life mystery that continues to haunt the living on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, but also because I wanted to inform the broadest possible English-language audience about the crimes via the vehicle of a mystery.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about these crimes is that they continue. The crimes remain unsolved and unstoppable, despite special task forces of the Chihuahua state attorney general; interventions by Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; candlelight vigils and protests by grassroots organizations; a worldwide online petition; massive demonstrations in the zócalo of Mexico City and in front of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C.; and even FBI involvement. Recently Amnesty International denounced the impunity of the Mexican government, as well as the apathy of the transnational corporations that, thanks to NAFTA, have brought hundreds of young women from southern Mexico to look for the American border dream: a job at a maquila, a paycheck, a shack of their own, money to send home. What hundreds of them have found, instead, is a gruesome and early death. Sadly, however, since the narco-killings, which have taken the lives of thousands on that same border, attention to the femicides/feminicidios has been derailed and is all but non-existent. This does not mean, however, that the crimes against poor brown females have stopped on the El Paso/Juárez border.
To read more about the femicides, please read the author's policy brief here. Also, check out this short essay, "The Other Side of the Juárez Femicides" by Kathleen Staudt, one of the top experts on the femicides from the University of Texas at El Paso.
Check out the author's powerpoint on the subject, "Femicides, Free Trade, and La Frontera: The Desert Bleeds in Juárez" (© 2008, Alicia Gaspar de Alba)
Please sign our online petition to end violence against women and girls in Ciudad Juárez.
Amigos de las mujeres de Juárez.
Washington Office on Latin America.
Amnesty International (be sure to read the AI Report on the femicides, "Intolerable Killings")
"Probing the Maquiladora Murders," UCLA Today, 2003
Making a Killing: Femicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera, edited by Alicia Gaspar de Alba with Georgina Guzmán, published by University of Texas Press, 2010
I'm all sold out of Desert Blood, but you can still order it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. If you would like to order an autographed copy of another of Alicia's books, please