Burials on the Border: Conference Investigates Violence Against Women

Anne Marie Mackler, FNS Editor

An Overview

On October 1st and 2nd a mini-conference was held at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “Burials on the Border/Sepultadas en la Frontera: Women and Violence at the Millennium.” The event opened binational and bilingual discussion on the issues surrounding violence against women in the border region, in particular the nearly 200 murders of women that have occurred in Cd. Juárez over the last six years, many involving young maquila workers, and most remaining unsolved or uninvestigated by police authorities.

The conference was unique in that although the small New Mexican city is only 45 miles away from the sprawling border city of Cd. Juárez, and prides itself in being an important part of the border region and culture, local media rarely cover news from the south, and has barely touched on the murders, if at all.

At this event, however, the majority of the speakers were from Cd. Juárez, and the majority of the event was simultaneously translated so that the audience of some 200 people, speakers of both Spanish or English, could understand the presentations and participate in the question/answer sessions that followed five of the six events.

Participants and presenters alike were both grateful and impressed by the two-day event. As noted by Bill Eamon, evaluator for the New Mexican Endowment for the Humanities which funded the project, “even with its moments of tension, this conference was a dazzling success . . . with multiple voices and divergent opinions being given the floor.”

Editor of the Las Cruces Sun News said “the concerns about such violence transcend what is too often considered a barrier: the international border between the United States and México. The fact that the conference was a held a bit away from the actual border in Las Cruces was significant. It showed the participants from both countries that concern for the need to solve the killings and to prevent more such crimes extends beyond Juárez and El Paso . . . more arrests and prosecutions are needed. The conference helped keep the pressure on.”

The sister of a victim, and leader of an advocacy group, Guillermina González Flores, said “I want the people on this side of the border to know that the victims of these crimes are not just statistics of violence but women who have died in a way that is more horrible than anyone can imagine.”

Attorney General González Rascón asked the audience to “understand what is going on in our country. We suffer from a lot of shortfalls.”

Event Highlights
October 1, Opening Night

The conference opened with a multi-media performance which included dance, poetry and video. The artist Mei Ling Po McKay set the stage for the entire conference with her piece “Fist/Hand – Puño/Mano.” The solo dancer, Michelle McKay, danced using a rough wooden bench as her only prop which she appeared to fight and console. At first, music heavily laden with base and quick beat played, then two poems about rape and domestic violence were read. The dancer symbolically dies, lying partially underneath the bench, when behind her on a large screen the audience sees a video of a young girl dancing gracefully in a field of flowers to sweet music. This performance portrayed the pain, insistence, vulnerability and hope for the future that the conference would unravel over the following 24 hours.

Debbie Nathan, internationally acclaimed journalist of the border region, was the first keynote speaker and in her talk “Buried Deaths,” she successfully unpacked the many images, real and surreal, that exist about Cd. Juárez and violence against women. She pointed out that domestic violence has risen dramatically from the onset of NAFTA in 1994 and that the infrastructure of the city has not kept up with its population growth during the same period.

In addition to looking at statistics and analysis, she observed some language usages that were noteworthy. For instance, the term “las dos vias” (both passages) is the Spanish euphemism for a rape that is both vaginal and anal. She pointed out how much that phrase sounds like “las dos vidas” (double lives), the latter being a typical response from the Mexican government against Juárez women (even those that have been murdered); indicating that by day they are maquila workers, and by night they are sex-hungry women populating the city’s nightclubs, endangering their own lives and that of their families. In other words: it’s their own fault.

Because Nathan referred to the prostitution of females, referring generally to the governmental/cultural/social oppression and victimization of women in Cd. Juárez, she inadvertently referred to the women of Juárez as “prostitutes,” and some in the audience took offense. Members of victims’ families rose to proudly defend these family members that were not prostitutes but young innocent girls. Nathan graciously apologized for any offense, and again tried to explain the larger metaphor she was making of how women are “prostituted” not “prostitutes.” There are metaphors, however, that may never cross the barriers of language, or more importantly, the barriers of grief.

Nonetheless, the overview and numbers provided by Nathan, along with her references to mysticism, culture, literature and art, clearly depicted the topic at hand, violence against women on the border as a complicated, extensive, multi-faceted problem that by all means needed further discussion.

October 2, Panel Discussions

Violence Against Women in the Border Region

The following morning the conference continued with a panel discussion “Violence Against Women in the Border Region” presented by four women that work in domestic violence advocacy centers in three border cities. The directors included Amy Amabile from La Casa en Las Cruces, New Mexico; Louise Tracy from El Piñon Sexual Assault Recovery Services in Las Cruces, New Mexico; Ari Medina from El Paso Sexual Trauma and Assault Response Services in Texas; and Silvia Dominguez from Casa Amiga in Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua México. The professionals revealed the particular work each of their facilities accomplishes in sheltering, counseling and representing victims, mostly female, of rape or domestic violence as well as the trials and tribulations that come with such social efforts. A crucial part of the discussion centered around whether domestic violence and rape are poverty triggered crimes.

Debbie Nathan pointed out that there is political intent behind the claim that poverty and domestic violence are not related. However health officials keep promoting the idea that violence is not class dependent which in effect creates a myth that the impoverished really aren’t so bad off. Silvia Dominguez agreed and pointed out that the violence against women in Cd. Juárez has certainly increased and her studies indicate that the relationship between the two is integral.

Performing the Border

The video “Performing the Border” by Dutch film maker Ursula Biemann was shown both Thursday before the conference and during the lunch break on Saturday to large audiences. The film explores life on the border in a documentary style which includes numerous interviews. A large part of the piece focuses on the murders of women looking closely at the thousands of women who have migrated to the border city to find work and improve their lives. The film provides the assumption that the murders are “serial” which is an idea de-bunked by Nathan, other speakers at the conference and criminologists from the FBI who have investigated. However, the overall response to the film was generally positive.

Security, Progress and Analysis

The next event may have proven to be the climax of the conference as it centered around one of the most controversial elements of the murders of women in Cd. Juárez: the response of the security authorities. “Security, Progress and Analysis,” a panel consisting of security experts included the Javier Benavidez, Cd. Juárez chief of police; Jorge Ostos, the director of the Cd. Juárez police academy; Steven Slater, the public security advisor to the state attorney general in Chihuahua; Suly Ponce Prieto, the state appointed special investigator of the murders of women; and Julia Monarez, professor of criminology from the Colegio de la Frontera de la Norte (Northern Border College). The audience for this event was the largest and greatly made up of representatives from non-governmental organizations who arrived prepared with questions and departed angry and dissatisfied with the responses they received.

The municipal officials explained that their police force is a preventative one, not investigative, and that they immediately turn over crimes requiring further inquiry to the state office. Additionally, they talked about the number of task forces they have devloped, and how they have increased the number of officers on the force. Police Commissioner Benavidez and Jorge Ostos both encouraged the audience to remember that the police alone can not stop the violence against the community, there must be efforts made in homes and schools in order for Cd. Juárez to grow safer.

Once the question and answer session began, Benavidez asked the audience why there was so much discussion on the deaths of women, when men are killed at even greater numbers in the city. It was expressed by a member of the audience that the men were not tortured or raped in the way many of the women were, nor were they killed by their spouses or innocent victims v. being involved in drug trafficking or gangs as many of the assassinated men were.

Monarez gave a lengthy presentation on the statistics she has gathered on the crimes and questioned why authorities “don’t count cases as a sexual murder or rape if the woman was assaulted with a foreign object.” She called for stiffer punishments, more education and greater support for centers for women. “The slayings are human rights violations because they are directed at women.” Monarez also refuted statistical claims made by authorities, for instance, she claimed there has been 19 homicides in 1999 and Suly Ponce reported 17. However, no authorities addressed her inquiries.

The state security officials, to a large degree, blamed the past administration (the PAN was in Office from 1992-1998 when the PRI came in) for the missing evidence, misplaced files, and other investigative problems and said they have cleaned up the office, organized it and solved many crimes because of their improved work. In fact, Ponce pointed out, her office has arrest warrants out for several suspects but refused to give details as that might harm the investigation.

Vicky Caraveo, leader of Mujeres Por Juárez (Women For Juárez), a women’s rights advocacy group, questioned Ponce on how it was that the state took credit for “solving” the murders of women that have occured since the new administration has been office when it was actually the victim “Nancy” who named her attacker, El Tolteca, one of many maquila bus drivers now imprisoned. “If she hadn’t survived, and been courageous enough to speak up, you still wouldn’t have anyone in prison.” Nancy’s attacker and five other bus drivers have been charged with murdering six women.

Ponce was quick to respond in agreement, acknowledging that “Yes, if Nancy hadn’t spoke up, we wouldn’t have caught Jesus Guardado (El Tolteca), however, it was with the expertise and efficiency of the State’s prosecutor’s office that we were able to follow up on the lead she provided and ultimately capture him and his accomplices.” Ponce also reminded the audience of the responsibility that the community has to fight violence, it is not just the job of the authorities.

Toward the end of a somewhat emotional discussion, Jorge Ostos suggested that society, the NGOs and the authorities need to work together with a positive attitude. Steve Slater pleaded with the audience to believe the authorities and trust that they are working in the best interest of the citizens, however, by then, the audience was for the most part on their way to the exits.

The final panel discussion was presented by a group of women journalists from Cd. Juárez including Adriana Candia de García, Ramona Ortíz, Patricia Cabrera, Rohry Benítez, Josefina Martínez and Isabel Velázquez who have all covered the stories of women being murdered over the last six years. These journalists have subsequently written a book stemming from the results of their investigative reporting.

The Official Silence Against Women

This group announced that they were at the conference to express the voice of the victims, and each writer shared from her contribution to the collaborated manuscript entitled “The Official Silence Against Women.” The audience heard heart wrenching accounts from families of the victims, and it was mentioned often that authorities had questioned the morality or lifestyle of these victims. Additionally, a list of the errors the police officials have made in their investigations was provided.

One mistake, pointed out by Ramona Ortiz, involved her discovery of a list generated by the police that listed two of the female victims as males.

The Closing Keynote Addresses

Although this final event was predicted to invoke even greater audience response because of the speakers presenting, it was in fact somewhat subdued. Esther Chávez Cano, leading human rights activist in Cd. Juárez and the director of Casa Amiga, the first shelter for abused women on the border, would be the first keynote, followed by Arturo González Rascón, attorney general for the State of Chihuahua and lead prosecutor in violent crimes. These two speakers have opposing views on many crucial issues, however, audience response was minimal. Possibly it grew too late and many in the audience from Cd. Juárez needed to begin their travel south, or maybe it was because many of the NGOs staged a silent protest when the attorney general rose to speak, and they left because, as one woman stated, “We’ve heard all these lies before.”

The evening began with an audience of 70-80 and a poetry reading by two Juárez poets. José Manuel García, a professor at NMSU and border poet, read “To Whom It May Concern” (A Quien Corresponda), a poem that consisted of a series of four letters expressing the pain and tragedy of the murders. Then, Micaela Solis, a journalist for El Diario en Ciudad Juárez read from a performance piece typically staged with dancers. “Elegia en el Desierto” was a dramatic reading detailing the anguish of both the victims and the city caused by the murders of women.

This emotional reading was followed by the address of Chávez who spoke powerfully, however in a very gentle manner, about the universality of the violence against women. She pointed out that not only the murders in Cd. Juárez, but the world problem of women being oppressed, was the issue at hand. “Violence is born in our homes,” she explained, when male relatives commit incest against children.

Chávez also pointed out the “border nature” of the murders in Juárez, and like Nathan had done the night before, Chávez talked about the increase in violence, and the oppressive labor system of the maquilas. She suggested that all of us, by using products manufactured in Cd. Juárez, are responsible for the lack of labor rights the workers have. She referred specifically to forced pregnancy testing of both employees and job candidates, insufficient transportation, and the irony of the “whistle campaign” initiated by the Association of Maquiladoras (AMAC) which gave whistles to workers free of charge. “The whistles are a guarantee that the coyotes will be alerted if women are attacked in the middle of the night while crossing the desert alone on their way home from work.”

During the question answer session that followed, Susan Smith, a local advocate of civil rights, asked “What can we do?” Chávez recited a lengthy list of ways that citizens from both sides of the border could help improve the status and safety of women which included donating money, time or expertise to Casa Amiga or any of the advocacy groups. She went so far as to give the bank account number where deposits could be made for Casa Amiga. She also encouraged open discussions, such as those that had occurred at the conference, because knowledge is advancement, and the more people who are aware of the problems, the more help will be available. She also suggested that “The authorities from all three border cities need to be sensitized to violence against women.”

The attorney general followed Chávez, and had agreed to speak at the conference only if he could be the final speaker. He had originally been invited to participate on the security panel on Saturday afternoon, but requested a keynote spot in which he would have the final word, promising that it would be a positive one. “He thinks this conference should end on a positive note, no propaganda, talking about the important advances his office has made in investigating these crimes,” his public security advisor Steven Slater had said.

The attorney general gave a power point presentation with numerous charts portraying how crime in Cd. Juárez has been reduced since he was appointed by Governor Patricio Martínez in October of 98. He expressed his belief that the initiation of the Zero Tolerance Plan, which forced both earlier closings at bars and liquor shops, was the major reason for the improved situation in the city.

Rascón claimed there has been no “sexual murders” since he was appointed, however, the term was never definitively explained. The crimes are a symptom of a “very painful and difficult” situation in Cd. Juárez, the prosecutor explained, noting the vast and recent industrial growth which has brought many immigrants into the area putting stress on both the human and urban infrastructure. Like others at the conference, he agrees that the string holding the murders together is that they occur to impoverished women.

Finally, like other officials, the attorney general asked for the citizens’ assistance. “The problems that exist in our society are not just police problems,” Gonzales said.

Conclusion

Overall, the response to the conference was generous and grateful. Those in attendance believed that the event was necessary for the improved safety of women and for the continual development of the border region. The event invoked media coverage from the border region, and it was covered in The Dallas Morning News and the Albuquerque Journal. It will also be covered in the Hispanic Outlook on Higher Education Journal. Most importantly, the conference brought to the foreground issues that are too often pushed to background. Women, by far and large, are the victims of violent crime and reduced rights motivated by discrimination, and approaching the millennium, we as a society need to be prepared to improve the quality of life for half the population.

Final Note

There was a woman at the conference who fled when she saw TV cameras panning the audience, certain that if her husband saw her in the film as an attendant at the conference, he would kill her. Coordinators of the event had the footage removed from the video tape, however, when they located the woman, all of their assurances could not help her feel safe enough to again join a forum she so desperately needed.

The conference was supported by the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities, the New Mexico State University Center for Latin American Studies and Women’s Studies Program.


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