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The Crosses of Juárez

About the author
Carlos Reyes-Manzo is a journalist and social documentary photographer whose worked has been published in prominent newspapers.

On my way to the hotel Colonial in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the taxi driver offers me a visa to cross into the US.

"I have friends in the US Embassy who can arrange for the relevant documents within a week, and if you want to cross the border in another way I have trusted friends."

"Thanks, but I'm a tourist."

"You don't look like a tourist, and tourists don't visit Juárez. The gringos come in the evenings to drink and visit the brothels." After a long silence he warns me, "Be careful, journalists come to a bad end in Juárez."

I tell him that I'm here to cover the demonstration march organised by V-Day for the families of the murdered women. He nods his head, "This has given us a very bad name, but the killers are not from Juárez."

The V-Day march mentioned in this article took place on 14 February, 2004.

Click here for more information on V-Day

Since 1993 over 400 women from Ciudad Juárez, a large city on the US-Mexico border, have been murdered and over 70 are still missing, according to Amnesty International's 2003 report " Intolerable Killings ". The victims are young women, generally under 29 years old. They are mostly poor, often workers in the maquiladoras (assembly factories), and live in the marginalized areas of the city. The Mexican authorites, under much pressure from human rights groups and NGOs, have so far failed to carry out proper investigations into the killings, and those responsible for the crimes remain unpunished.

Why is this happening? People cite many reasons; lack of women's rights, the devastating culture of impunity, and poverty. Following the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico began an industrialization programme on its northern border. Hundreds of maquiladoras were set up in Ciudad Juárez and the promise of new work attracted thousands of unemployed people, including many women, from all over Mexico and other countries in Latin America.

However, the "NAFTA boom" never quite materialised; workers were paid only $4 a day and official Mexcian poverty levels rose by almost 5% six years after NAFTA was implemented. Now, facing increasing competition from China, where workers are paid even less at $1.91 a day, some of the maquiladoras are closing down. In 2003, over 130,000 jobs were lost in the maquiladoras. Those who still have their jobs face poor working conditions, and rampant labour rights violations.

Ciudad Juárez's geographic location as a border city makes it an important point for the trafficking of immigrants and drugs. In addition, judicial and government institutions are often corrupt and infiltrated by interests representing the drug trade. These factors add up to a city with one of the highest levels of criminality in Mexico, with little sense of local identity or community.

* * *

I travel by bus to Colonia del Carmen to visit Esther Luna, mother of Brenda Alfaro Luna, 15, who was kidnapped in a rich area of Ciudad Juárez one September morning in 1997. Esther lives with three of her children and her mother. Sitting in the living room which is also the bedroom of two of her children, surrounded by pictures of Brenda, Esther tells me the traumatic story of her family. Six years ago her husband was working in the US with a green card, but he became a drug addict, and was detained, sentenced to six months in prison and then deported back to Mexico.

When her husband was arrested, Esther began working but her income wasn't enough to support the family, and Brenda who had just finished her second year of secondary school, offered to help. She went to work on her first day and never came back. Three weeks later a body with its organs missing appeared which Esther recognized as her daughter from the clothes and the scar of a dog's bite. Before Esther could claim the body, the authorities insisted on making tests in Mexico City to ensure it really was Brenda. Despite visiting the authorities every day, it was a year before she was told the results were negative. The samples were sent to Houston for further tests, but the results were lost. Esther continued to press the authorities, and with the help of the charity Casa Amiga, it was five years until Brenda's body was recovered and finally buried.

The city of Juárez is covered in pink crosses. You can still see the crosses on electricity posts that Paula Flores and five other mothers painted six years ago to raise awareness in the community that it was time to stop the murders. Paula Flores whose daughter, Sagrario Gonzales Flores, was killed in 1998 is a devout Catholic but is disappointed by the lack of support from the Catholic Church. According to her, once a preist starts to help or get involved, he is moved by the Archbishop.

More Mexican photo-stories on openDemocracy:

Robin Hammond, "The other side of the street" (November 2005)

Alex Webb, "Crossings: photographs from the US-Mexican border" (February 2006)

On Saturday I join the hundreds of people waiting under the concrete parapet which protects the immigration barriers of the bridge to El Paso, Texas. A wooden cross covered in hundreds of nails representing the numbers of murdered women reads, "Ni una mas" (Not one more). Overhead is the bridge that joins Ciudad Juárez to El Paso. As I cross the bridge I see more crosses and posters demanding that "the criminals in Juárez must be punished." These were mostly painted by the families of the young women murdered on the concrete edges of the Rio Bravo, where countless others have drowned attempting to cross illegally into the US.

Along a dusty road full of potholes it takes us nearly two hours to reach Cerro del Cristo Negro, where the bodies of three women were found. It is difficult to imagine a more desolate spot. Women go past this place to get to work. The three women were kidnapped in the city centre on separate dates and were found by chance by their families when after a violent storm they spotted some hair on the side of the hill. They also found symbols carved on the sandstone of the hill, a star in a circle, diabolical figures, an excavated cave which seem to indicate that the perpetrators are part of a satanic cult. Some suggest that these are false clues to cover the tracks of the real criminals. A group of young drug addicts were accused of the crimes but soon after they were freed from lack of evidence. We still don't know who committed the crimes.

In the evening when the sun sets on the horizon, the red lights of the maquiladoras flicker in the twilight between the silhouettes of the crosses of the women who were found in the cotton fields in November 2001. As we take photographs, two federal policemen ask us for identification. But where were they when the women were killed and later thrown here? A new federal prosecutor, Maria Lopez Urbina, was appointed in February 2004 to investigate the killings, but few believe that she will be able to bring the perpetrators to justice.

* * *

Celebrities including the playwright Eve Ensler and actresses Sally Field and Jane Fonda are in town for the V-Day march, and to raise international awareness of the crisis that has engulfed this city. The march begins on El Reforma Bridge, leading to Avenida Leredo. Mothers, grandmothers and entire families are marching with placards showing photographs of the murdered women and those who are still missing shouting, "Ni Una Muerta Mas! " (Not one more dead woman!). I am reminded of the mothers and grandmothers of Chile who, thirty years on, are still looking for their loved ones who disappeared during Augosto Pinochet's dictatorship.

During the ecumenical service Jane Fonda expresses her solidarity with the women and families of Ciudad Juárez, "I feel the suffering of the mothers of the disappeared like a dagger in my heart. I am here to show my support. I am a woman and I want my voice to be heard in solidarity with other women to demand our rights to live in peace and to be respected in every sense."

February, 2004

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The Crosses of Juárez, Carlos Reyes-Manzo

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