Girls Who Find New Roles In Mexico Also Face Danger

Juarez residents say a cultural shift is behind the murder of more than 80 women

Ramona Morales's daughter Silvia Elena was only 2 when her family moved from their little village to this booming border town in 1979. But by the time she was 17, Silvia was helping the family dream of prosperity come true, completing high school and working part time in a Jurez shoe store.

Then the Morales's hopes for the future became part of a nightmare that continues in this city of more than 1.3 million people across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

"On July 7, 1995, [Silvia] didn't come home from her job. Her father went to the police, but they just laughed and winked and said she was no doubt with a boyfriend we didn't know about," says Mrs. Morales. "They found her body out in the desert on Sept. 2, 1995." Silvia had been sexually assaulted and strangled. "This was our beautiful daughter," she adds, indicating the photos that dominate the family's cement-floored living room, "yet [the police] hardly gave us the time of day."

The Morales tragedy is just one entry in a list of more than 80 young women who have been murdered in Jurez since 1993 - the worst string of mostly unsolved killings in Mexico's history.

Police are holding a man charged with many of the 1995 murders. But the killings continue, and residents believe the blame lies not with a serial killer but with social change in the roles of women.

Some of the murders followed a pattern - leading authorities to assume they were the work of a serial killer. Others occurred at the hands of gangs and even family members or friends.

This year alone, six girls under 16 have been murdered, while in May, two other 15-year-olds were reported missing. Many of the victims, like their assailants, remain unidentified.

Observers find plenty to fault in the city's rapid, chaotic growth, its flourishing drug trade, and in the large number of mostly US-owned assembly plants, called maquiladoras, that attract thousands of women every year from all over Mexico. That Jurez has a temporary "floating" population of perhaps 300,000 people is another factor.

But a search for an explanation usually comes around to the significant change that has occurred in the role of women here.

The jobs the maquilas and other businesses provide young women have caused a quiet revolution, offering them a degree of social and economic freedom unknown to earlier generations. But at the same time, observers say, this new freedom outside the home exposes them to greater dangers.

More freedom, greater risks

"The girls who work in these factories ... are accustomed to the control of their fathers or brothers or even a husband. Here they feel free," says Esther Chvez, a Jurez accountant and founder of the 8 de Marzo women's group that is pushing for more public action against the continuing murders. "But they have no preparation for the world they confront here, and it makes them easy prey."

The maquilas, which employ nearly 200,000 workers in Jurez - 135,000 of them women - provide few benefits and little social cohesion. Compared to the rest of Mexico, getting a job in Jurez is easy, as the "women workers wanted" signs on almost every maquila suggest. Factory turnover is high, sometimes 100 percent a year, a reality that discourages development of a sense of community or concern about fellow workers.

Most of these young women earn less than $4 a day, but for many, it's the first disposable income they have ever known. That helps explain why many of them go to work dressed like Selena, the late queen of tejano music: tight black jeans, crop tops, high heels, and lots of makeup. The money equals new freedoms, as does dressing in a way that their father would not have approved of.

As part of this new freedom, many of the maquila workers go out dancing in the city's myriad discos and bars - places increasingly associated with Jurez's drug trade and high crime rate.

This has led some city officials to see the backdrop for the murders as a Mexican version of "Saturday Night Fever" meets "Looking for Mr. Goodbar."

The state assistant attorney general caused an uproar in 1995 when he blamed the killings on the "double life" many young women lead, working by day but going to discos and, in a few cases, even taking up prostitution at night.

A veiled tendency to blame the women for the dangers they encounter only deepens the devastation of the few families who have pressed authorities to solve the crimes and prevent new ones.

Blaming the victim - and her parents

"She did like to dance, but there's so much more danger and drugs now that I didn't let her out much," says Berta Alicia Mrquez, whose 15-year-old daughter Adriana, a factory worker, disappeared in 1995 like Silvia and was later found murdered. "The police never treated me seriously. They made it clear that they considered me a bad single mother who no doubt let her kids run around."

The mothers say they would still be ignored by authorities if a few middle- and upper-middle-class women hadn't made the murders a cause.

Besides Ms. Chavez's group, Astrid Gonzlez, a Jurez psychologist has founded a committee against violence. Both women say they are appalled at the way authorities have treated the cases.

"There's a real insensitivity on the part of the government," says Ms. Gonzlez. "The priority is to protect image and economic interests, not the people who are feeling the brunt of this violence."

But that insensitivity can be found in the general population as well, the women say: Because almost all the victims have been poor, for many in Jurez, they simply don't exist.

Police officials counter that they are putting a substantial part of their limited resources to solving the murders.

"We know many people believe we're not even investigating, but the fact is we have 14 officers assigned to these cases alone, and we've cleared up a number of them and are progressing on others," says Julian Calderon Gutirrez, first commander of Jurez's state investigating police.

Search for solutions

Chavez's group has organized marches and called for the state police official overseeing the investigations to resign, while Gonzlez is focusing on prevention programs with families and young women, and on getting criminal sentences increased. Gonzlez believes the real solution to the violence will be long-term. Her group has an educational program they hope to take soon to the maquilas, called Jurez Mine.

The idea is to offer a look at Jurez's history and the values that make a city livable and cohesive, says Gonzlez. "A love for this city and what is happening in it will grow," she says, "as people feel a part of it."

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