Mexican evolution for women's rights

Private sector now leads one border-region drive. Are national, state

Guadalupe Aguirre had recently moved to Ciudad Jurez, a US-Mexico border city known for a NAFTA-fed manufacturing boom - and dozens of murders of poor working women - and she was frightened and frustrated.

The blond mother of three didn't know if her daughter was safe just taking a walk on the street. And she thought that public authorities were doing too little to solve the more than 180 murders of women that have traumatized Jurez, or even to prevent more crimes against women.

But earlier this year, Ms. Aguirre saw an ad in a newspaper seeking volunteers for Jurez's first women's crisis center. After a month of training, Aguirre has felt her fear and frustration supplanted by purpose and determination. "Before I had this feeling that nothing was being done," says Aguirre. "But now I'm focused on how I can help."

Aguirre's experience offers one picture in a gallery of evidence of how the Jurez murders have changed the way women's issues are viewed and treated here and throughout Mexico.

Just as Chiapas in the south symbolizes the Mexican Indians' fight for equal rights and justice, so now does Jurez stand for the struggles of Mexico's women. Since 1993 Ciudad Jurez has counted more than 180 grisly murders of women - and some young girls - many of them migrants from poorer southern states working in the city's burgeoning assembly plants. Few of the murders have been solved.

After a high mark of killings in 1998 and 11 more in the first few months of this year, the killings have recently stopped, leading authorities to claim the nightmare is over - though critics say the optimism is unwarranted. Still, the impact of the Jurez murders can be seen widely here: in the March opening of the city's first women's crisis center, or in the swift action Jurez's new mayor took in a recent case of City Hall sexual harrassment - a problem still generally grinned at in Mexico.

The impact is reflected in the belated measures taken by some of the city's manufacturing plants to prevent violence against female workers. And it is present in the newly required training Jurez police officers receive in sexual-abuse prevention, much of it coming with the help of the El Paso Police Department in Texas.

Effects are also seen more broadly, analysts say, in a heightened political consciousness of Jurez women and their determination to see political action reap benefits. "In the 1980s, Jurez women were instrumental in the pluralization of local and state politics, but it was still women helping male politicians who didn't emphasize issues of specific importance to women," says Zulma Mndez, a sociologist at Jurez Autonomous University.

But nongovernmental organizations have "begun projecting the murders as a reflection of the social problems working women face," Ms. Mndez says, from lack of services for working mothers to sexual abuse and other problems of a macho society.

Awareness spreads

The impact has not stopped at Jurez's borders. Last year, at the height of the killings, a group of federal congresswomen marched on the Interior Ministry to press for a special investigation. The National Human Rights Commission has taken up the murders and issued a list of recommendations it is now reviewing with officials.

"Women in every state of Mexico are aware of Jurez, and they are demanding more of authorities in their area," says Alma Vukovich, a congresswoman.

Still, many women say the response to the killings, especially among public authorities, hasn't been enough. "The fact is that the problems facing poor working women in Mexico remain a marginalized theme," says Patricia Olamendi, a member of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution's national executive committee.

For Ms. Olamendi, the Jurez killings exemplify two central currents of Mexican public life: the growing presence and activity of a civil society, and the inability or "lack of interest" among public officials to address citizen needs, especially in the administration of justice. "There have been important advances in the aftermath of the killings," she says, "but they are largely the work of women's and antiviolence groups," not "government and officials' dedication."

Such generalizations are unfair, says Jurez Mayor Gustavo Elizondo Aguilar, who says that crimes, and especially homicides, have fallen by 30 percent since he took office in October. "Our priority is public safety, both because it is a public demand and because we see it as a public right," he says. "And we are going to continue with this emphasis." Mr. Elizondo has increased the city's public safety budget - even though local funds are not easy to come by in Mexico's highly centralized system. He even came up with the cash to pay the rent of the new women's crisis center.

Some signs of progress

"I have to commend the mayor's efforts, he's already done more than previous officials," says Esther Chvez Cano, the crisis center's founder and director. But she is also one of the harshest critics of Chihuahua state officials, saying that both the governor and state attorney general have either ignored or dismissed her group's concerns.

Other critics are just as strong. "The history of these killings reveals that the people investigating these crimes are in place ... for political reasons and cronyism," says Oscar Maynez, a criminologist and former teacher at the state police academy. Mr. Maynez, who quit that job out of frustration over the state's approach to the killings, says Jurez's rapid growth means the city's elite feels no connection to the women - often recent arrivals - who have been killed.

But others, including Ms. Chvez, say the killings' impact on the city's image is starting to cause action. After one of this year's victims turned out to be a 13-year-old worker, press coverage led officials and assembly-plant managers to insist more would be done to screen underage job applicants. Some plants have put guards on the buses that take workers home. One assembly-plant association gave the women's crisis center its first computer. Says Chvez, "It's slow, but we're seeing progress."

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