As I explained in my last report, The International Caravan for Justice in Juarez and Chihuahua City reached Juarez on October 31, 2004. This group of activists, teachers, students, researchers, and journalists from around the U.S. and Mexico had finally reached its destination, and we now had 5 days of activities and meetings to attend. As I mentioned before, on Saturday, the 31st, after our border crossing march and rally and the press conference at the cotton field where 11 murdered women had been found, we went to our ironically named lodging, the Hotel Colonial. After settling in at this very un-mexican, Holiday Inn-like establishment, we had a short orientation conducted by staff of the Mexico Solidarity Network. The purpose of this was to brief us on the situation in Juarez, for those who were not already familiar with it, and to make sure that everyone was aware of the reasons we were there and how we should deal with the Mexican press and officials. The basic rule or idea was that we were there as observers, to put quiet but noticeable pressure on the authorities, but we were not in charge of the campaign for justice in Juarez and Chihuahua - the family groups and other Mexican organizations were in charge; they know what they want, they are organized, and it's not up to us gringos to come down and lead the charge or show anyone what to do. We were there simply to be present, to learn, and stand in solidarity and witness the events and meetings with the Mexican officials, and then go back to our own communities and organize further solidarity efforts there. This, in my opinion, is a very enlightened attitude, and is the only way to conduct an international solidarity campaign. |
Next, we attended a meeting that night at the hotel between the family groups and 4 deputies from the Mexican Federal Congress, who were on a special congressional committee to investigate the murders. The small conference room filled rapidly with the families, our delegation, and the media, all waiting till the congresspeople finally showed up. The meeting commenced with long speeches by the deputies, but they finally gave the floor to the mothers who were there, who took turns telling their stories and voicing their demands, displaying a variety of different levels of emotion and outrage (from tired disillusionment to fresh anger).
In the end, the deputies made conciliatory remarks, mentioned a new resolution in Congress, but seemed bored during most of the meeting. We were told afterward that this seemed to be the usual runaround. The families had been experiencing this sort of thing for 10 years, with a parade of different politicians pretending to care, appointing special commissions and prosecutors and investigators, saying nice things, but nothing ever really getting done. So the local groups did not have a lot of optimism for this evening's meeting.
On November 1, the next morning, we attended an all-day conference, also at the hotel, organized for our benefit, in which each local organization in Juarez involved in the this fight for justice gave a 90-minute presentation, with english interpreters provided for us dumb spanish-impaired types. firsts were the two main family groups, Para Nuestras Hijas Regresso a Casa (So that Our Daughters May Return Home), and Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for Our Daugters). Several mothers of the murdered women spoke, including the 5 who travelled with the 5 legs of the Caravan through the U.S. Also the lawyer who represents many of the mothers, Lucha Castro, gave a speech. Needless to say, the morning was an intense experience, listening to these women talk about what they had been through, struggling for up to 11 years with the corrupt and inept police and government.
After lunch was Mujeres de Negro, or Women in Black (not the same as the U.S. group Women in Black), who formed specifically to address the murders in Juarez and Chihuahua. At the conference they showed a video about their work, called Ni Una Mas!, which showed many actions and protests they organized. One thing that they do that I feel is very visually and symbolically powerful is when several of them wear one huge black tunic, which looks like a giant tent or drapery with holes in it for the women's heads and arms to stick out. As they march in this tunic the viewer quickly realizes that there are several empty holes - this symbolizes the missing women, and the tunic itself stands for the unity of the women who remain and struggle.
Next was a presentation by CETLAC ( Center for Labor Studies and Workshops), an organization devoted to workers in the maquiladoras, the border factories in Juarez where many of the murdered women worked. These factories and the underlying free trade conditions that brought them to the Mexican border (and especially Juarez) are heavily linked to the murders. In Juarez there are roughly 315 maquilas ("maquila" is short for maquiladora, and the 2 terms are used interchangeably), with over 200,000 total employees, and over 57% are women. The common myth is that more women are hired at the maquilas because they have smaller, more nimble hands for working on delicate tasks, like assembling car stereos and other consumer electronics for Delphi Corporation, Lear, and RCA. However, the real reason is more likely to be that women are more easily exploited, less likely to resist and organize, and attractive to factory supervisors who would like an easy extramarital affair with a pretty young employee. The director of CETLAC, Beatriz Lujan, spoke first, followed by women who work or recently worked in maquiladoras. They told their personal stories that confirmed all the accounts that one reads about the maquilas: the long hours, the low pay, the exposure to toxins, the sexual harrassment... detailing all the statistics and details is beyond the scope of this article, but there is a lot of information out there.
The final presentation was by Esther Chavez Cano, the director of Casa Amiga, the only battered women's clinic in all of Juarez, a city of almost 3 million people. This was a truly moving talk, and here is where I will repeat some of the numbers: every 7.42 days, a woman disappears in Juarez; every 12.8 days, a woman is assinated; every 40.34 days, a woman is raped, tortured, and assasinated. Doctor Cano confirmed a horrific story that I had heard before: in recent years, the shelter is hearing more and more from women that their husbands, while abusing them, mention the femicides as a threat, saying things like "If you tell anyone I'll dump your body in the desert like those others and I'll get away with it." And yet in response to this situation the Attorney General of Mexico once said, "To be a woman in Juarez is like wanting to go out in the rain and not get wet." Since opening its doors in 1999, Casa Amiga has served a total of over 134 thousand women. Their website has more statistics and information.
The next day, November 2, we were released from our captivity in the hotel. (the hotel, I learned later, would soon be host to a very different group, some of the attendees of Maquila Expo 2004, foreign businessmen being persuaded to move their companies' manufacturing to Juarez!) It was election day, but to us it was Dia de Los Muertos. We had all voted before leaving home, and now our attention was here, on the border. We started the morning with a visit to Casa Peregrino, a shelter for women and their children. One of the staff there talked about the kinds of women that they served and then we met one of the mothers staying there with her 5 children. Many of the women at Casa Peregrino are either on their way to crossing the border, or are one their way back, having failed to get across. Many are also victims of domestic violence.
Our next appointment was at noon at a Day of the Dead Mass at the border, in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Juarez called Rancho Anapra. Anapra is a shantytown, basically, a chaotic jumble of shacks made from pallets, cardboard, and other scraps, scattered over the desert between dirt streets, built by people who moved to Juarez and couldn't afford anything better. In the midst of this sqalid environment that literally squatted at the edge of the "Third World," the mass we attended was truly inspiring. I'm not a religious person, at least not in the sense of organized religion, but this catholic ceremony was extremely moving to me, because of its unique circumstances: first of all, it was here where "Los Muertos" included hundreds of people whose deaths may never be explained or met with any closure.
Second, it was right on the border, which is moving enough: I had never been to the U.S. Mexico border prior to 3 days ago. crossing a bridge is one thing - bridges are a symbol of free communication and movement, but here we were at the opposite symbol - The Fence. Here is what I had seen many photos of and heard a lot about, but what nothing prepared me for actually seeing in person: The Fence, the fine-meshed chainlink metal barrier, about 15 feet high, stretching in a straight line in both directions for as far as the eye could see. Here I was, on the Mexican side, looking through a steel screen into my country, and thinking about the fact that even if I decided to climb over and jump to the other side, I could be arrested and prosecuted; trying to imagine what it was like for those who could not legally cross, even at the bridges a few miles away, who had family on the other side who they were now talking to and touching fingers with through this fence.
The third amazing thing about the Mass was that it was an incredible example of, literally, international cooperation. The ceremony happened on both sides of The Fence, with Texan and New Mexican priests and activiststs on one side, Chihuahuan ones on the other. The level of organization and cooperation was incredible: the priests and other speakers took turns, back and forth, speaking in Spanish and English, and musicians on both sides took turns providing music for the hymns, which were sung by all in unison. There were probably a couple of hundred people on each side, and the event truly made the fence seem to be what it represented - an imaginary and unjust line in the sand. As if to underscore this point, after the ceremony, as people began to pack up and leave, several young boys on our side scrambled over and dropped to the U.S. side. We franctically looked around for any sign of Border Patrol, but no immediate consequences of this transgression appeared, and the kids melted into the crowd.
The next day we got up early to get on a bus to Chihuahua City, capitol of the state of Chihuahua, where we had meetings planned with various government officials. Six hours later we found ourselves at the Palace of the Governor, Jos? Reyes Baeza Terrezas, who had just recently taken office. Amongst us were several mothers of murdered women from Juarez and Chihuahua City, as well as Lucha Castro and Alma Gomez of Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas.
We filed into an ornate meeting room, along with the usual host of media people, and waited around for quite a while till the governor and 2 minions arrived, wearing the finely tailored wardrobes I had come to expect from Mexican officials but which seem so fancy compared to U.S. counterparts. The mothers gave their testimonies one by one and the 3 functionaries sat there and occasionally took notes - each of them had one tiny piece of paper, about the size of a post-it note, on which they were, incredibly, writing names and details of the 6 or 7 cases that were being discussed. Most of the time the advisor to the governor's left was tapping his fingers and twiddling his thumbs, while the female assistant to his right was totally impassive, like some sort of Stepford wife.
This set the tone for 2 of the 3 other meetings we had the following day. First we saw the Mayor of Chihuahua City, who came out and greeted everyone in the room with a handshake and a smile, speaking in impeccable English to those of us who were obviously from north of the border. But when the meeting began he gave no sign that anything was really going to change. Like the governor, he kept saying things like "We're on the same team" and "I'm on your side." We left this teammate and moved on to our next meeting at the state congress, where 5 representatives of different congressional committees sat behind a raised table and invited the mothers to tell their stories again. Again, boredom and indifference were the dominant vibe, though some deputies were better than others at acting concerned and emotional. I was beginning to get discouraged. I wanted to stand up and ask each of them how much money they accepted per year from the drug cartels. Of course, for most of these mothers, this was something they'd been through for close to 10 years and a rotating parade of different politicians.
At our third meeting it seemed at first as if we would receive similiar treatment. We went to the Supreme Court of the State of Chihuahua and met with its president, Jos? Ch?vez Arag?n, who had been newly appointed by the new governor. Out of all the officials we had seen, he seemed the most nonchalant and openly disrespectful, often interrupting the women and repeatedly shrugging, as if to say "this is not my problem." Indeed, that's what his main point was, that the investigations and cases that had been mishandled before were the jurisdictions of other judges - and yet the fact remained that those judges were now his subordinates.
However, as the mothers and other activists continued to pressure him and give him more details, he gradually warmed to them. They focused on 2 cases where innocent people had been tortured into confessing to 2 of the murders: David Meza, accused of killing his cousin, and Cynthia Kiecker and her husband Ulises Perz?bal, also the subject of a very weak prosecution for another killing. Eventually Arag?n said that he could review these cases in his office with the family members. "Vamanos," he announced several times. He left with Lucha, Alma, and relatives, and the rest of us went to lunch. In a little while they caught up with us at the restaurant with good news: the judge had talked with them about the details of the cases and had admitted that if tortured confessions were the only evidence, the cases should be thrown out. He made 3 calls, apparently to judges under him who had tried these cases. We must hope that he will follow through and make sure righting these wrongs continues, but this was very possibly a very positive development. The women who had talked to the Arag?n were excited, and Macrina, from the Mexico Solidarity Network, told us "You are lucky to be here at a historic moment." Score one for the Judicial Branch, zero for the Executive and Legislative!
And so concluded the Caravan, on this positive note. At this point, it is still not known what the long-term effects of the pressure we placed on Mexican officials will be. In the United States Congress, house and senate resolutions on the femicides are still working their way toward a vote. Meanwhile, we know that the murders continue; in fact, there was another femicide on November 3, the day we travelled from Juarez to Chihuahua City. Dealing with this problem is a huge task that will require international cooperation and major changes in policy on both sides of the border, but with increasing awareness and pressure on the part of people in the U.S., Mexico, and elsewhere, one can be optimistc that justice will one day be achieved.
[As a videographer I taped the Caravan extensively, and now that I'm back in Portland I'm starting the laborious process of going through the 12 hours of footage I shot and creating a documentary. While still travelling I have already produced a brief 5-minute piece that summarizes the Caravan and the situation, which will appear in the December edition of the Indymedia Newsreal, which airs on Freespeech TV and is screened by indymedia centers around the U.S.]