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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004) 59-76

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Murder in Juárez

Gender, Sexual Violence, and the Global Assembly Line

On July 7, 1995, seventeen-year-old Silvia Morales left for school and disappeared. Her body was found two months later. In February 1999 thirteen-year-old Irma Angelica Rosales was sent home from her factory job for having left her station. Later that day her body was found in a drainage canal. In September2001 nineteen-year-old Luna Guadalupe, a student in business administration, disappeared on the way to a friend's house on a Saturday afternoon. The next month twenty-year-old Claudia González arrived to work four minutes late, and the doors of the maquiladora, or foreign-owned assembly plant, were locked. She never returned home. Both Luna and Claudia were found in November in a shallow grave with six other women—all eight women had been raped and strangled.1

Since 1993 murdered bodies of young women and girls have haunted Ciudad Juárez, the border town that lies across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. By mid-2002 an estimated three hundred women had been murdered, and more women are missing. Rosa Linda Fregoso states:

Mexican women have been brutally and systematically killed in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.... Many [of the victims] have been tortured and sexually violated: raped, strangled or gagged. Mutilated, with nipples and breasts cut off, buttocks lacerated like cattle, or penetrated with objects.2

After being dumped in desert gullies or vacant lots, their decomposed bodies are often unidentifiable. Almost a third of the cases seem to follow a pattern suggesting they are the work of one or more serial killers. Most of these victims are young, slender women with long dark hair; they are also poor. These murders are the most extreme form of a general violence against women in the border city. In the first nine months of 1998 alone, women in Juárez reported eight hundred cases of rape and over nine thousand cases of violence, including rape, kidnapping, and domestic violence.3 [End Page 59]

Why have there been so many cases of mysogynic violence in the last decade in Juárez? Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues in Women Workers and Capitalist Scripts: Ideologies of Domination, Common Interests, and the Politics of Solidarity that because globalization has complicated class relations nationally and internationally, "issues of spatial economy... gain fundamental importance for feminist analysis." She defines these issues of spatial economy as "the manner by which capital utilizes particular space for differential production and the accumulation of capital and, in the process, transforms these spaces and peoples."4 While ethnicity certainly plays a significant factor in selecting Juárez as a production site, once the factories are operating, gender plays a significant role in both obscuring and maintaining class relations in the new international division of labor.

Within the context of globalization, it is necessary to investigate not just the possible male perpetrators but also the export-processing zone and the city of Juárez itself. After recounting the story of the murdered women in Juárez as it is being reported by U.S. and British Commonwealth journalists, I will place these murders in their socioeconomic and ideological context in order to analyze the gendering of production, the gendering of violence, and the relationship between the two. The murders of the young women result from a displacement of economic frustration onto the bodies of the women who work in the maquiladoras. The construction of working women as "cheap labor" and disposable within the system makes it possible, and perhaps acceptable, to kill them with impunity.

Big-City Dreams: Migrating from the Country to the City

Most of the newspaper articles about the murders of women in Juárez refer to the victims as maquiladora workers. Molly Moore reports that factories have "lured hundreds of thousands of women and girls from their confining homes and remote villages across Mexico, giving them greater financial and social independence than...