Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Dead Women of Juarez: A New Mexican's Retrospective Upon the Appointment of Arturo Chavez Chavez

The Mexican Senate yesterday confirmed the appointment of Arturo Chavez Chavez, former attorney general of Chihuahua, to be Attorney General of Mexico. It was a controversial appointment, opposed by some human rights groups who claimed Mr. Chavez had been negligent in his duties in connection with the investigations of the femicides of Cd. Juarez when he was attorney general of Chihuahua in the late 1990s. I was familiar with the controversies surrounding Mr. Chavez, and I thought my recollections and perspective might be interesting to readers following the issue.

At the time Chavez was attorney general in Chihuahua, 1996-1998, Francisco Barrio was Governor, elected to a six-year term in 1992. Barrio, the first member of the PAN to be elected governor in Chihuahua, was an almost legendary figure in Mexico because of his brave struggle to open up electoral processes in Chihuahua in the face of powerful tactics against him from the PRI, Mexico's dominant political party until the year 2000. But once he became governor, he disappointed many with his autocratic governing style and, some say, his willingness to tolerate corrupt practices in state government. During his tenure in office the Juarez cartel headed by Amado Carrillo Fuentes became the most important cartel in Mexico. Barrio's attorney general from 1992 to 1996 was Francisco Molina, who was later on the shortest of lists to become Attorney General of Mexico in 2000 when Vicente Fox became president. But he was not in fact appointed, almost certainly because of rumors of his associations with the cartel while in Chihuahua. Arturo Chavez Chavez succeeded Molina as attorney general of Chihuahua in 1996.

Chavez's tenure was marked by controversy among other reasons because of pressure feminist groups placed on the attorney general's office to resolve a wave of killings of women in Cd. Juarez that began in the early 1990s. Some of the women were found mutilated, stabbed, or brutally beaten then dumped in random locations. Groups of women, often the mothers of disappeared or murdered women, banded together, moving from office to office between Juarez and Chihuahua City, seeking information about their loved ones, only to be greeted by a bureaucratic cold shoulder. In time the cold shoulder itself became as powerful an issue as the failure of authorities to fully investigate the disappearances and murders. Vickie Caraveo, a well-to-do housewife, began providing support and strategic advice, eventually forming a group called Mujeres Por Juarez. Esther Chavez Cano, a boutique store owner, would close her store every time a new dead body appeared, as a public reminder that the killings were still going on without resolution. In 1999 she opened up the first rape crisis center in Juarez, and remains to this day outspoken about the need for the state to take the killings seriously.

After he was named attorney General Chavez Chavez became virtually a poster child for the insensitivity, incompetence, and indifference of public authorities in dealing with the murders. Instead of sympathizing with the victims and their relatives, he seemed to blame them. For example, Chavez is credited with saying, "if they were raped and killed it wasn't because they were on their way to mass," and on another occasion, "sometimes they (the women) are a fault for dressing provocatively." These suggestions that the victims were often prostitutes simply outraged surviving relatives, some of whom went to great lengths to prove otherwise.

In May 1998, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission asked for an investigation of the attorney general's office in Chihuahua, given mounting evidence that office was severely deficient in its inquiries into the crimes. In response, state authorities belittled the commission's work, characterizing it as "partial," and "leading to false conclusions and statements, and lacking any foundation in objectivity." (Flash forward: last week Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission investigator Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson moved to El Paso from Juarez, he said, after multiple threats to his life for publicizing complaints about abuses by army personnel in Joint Operation Chihuahua)

New Mexican's Perspective

At about this time, mid-1998, the issue was escalating quickly to national proportions. As director of the Center for Latin American Studies, I sponsored a conference at New Mexico State University to deal openly with the issue, to be held in the Fall at NMSU. A member of my staff, Anne Marie Mackler did much of the work. We invited Chavez Chavez, Juarez Police Chief Javier Benavides, Vickie Caraveo, Esther Chavez Cano, some of the victims' families, Julia Monarrez, a scholar who had studied the statistics of the murders, and others. While preparations were under way, Chavez Chavez was fired and replaced by Arturo Gonzalez Rascon, who, as I recall, immediately appointed a woman to a newly-created position, the Special Prosecutor for the Murders of Women, Suly Ponce Prieto. This was an obvious attempt to signal that he was more sensitive than Chavez Chavez had been about the issue.

To my astonishment and delight, just about everyone, including the new attorney general and Suly Ponce, accepted our invitation. Chavez Chavez understandably bowed out, since he was no longer in the line of fire. For both the attorney general and Suly Ponce it was to be their first major public appearances since they had been named to their positions. For Chavez Cano, Caraveo, and the families of the victims, it was their first public shot at the new officials.

Until the conference virtually all of the politics around the issue was taking place inside Juarez, often behind closed doors, in an atmosphere laced with unspoken fears and very little civic practice in challenging law enforcement officials. On the neutral grounds of New Mexico State University, with uninvolved New Mexicans as witnesses, after years of pent-up frustration, the surviving victims of violence could let it all hang out. This occasion was perhaps the first time all of the parties, news media, families of the victims, law enforcement, and interested observers, were all sitting at the same table, with rules of the game that privileged only straight talk, not position or sympathy.

As you can imagine, the victims lashed out at the law enforcement officials, who appeared shocked at finding themselves under withering fire. Suly Ponce, who appeared to relish the role of villain, was defiant and disdainful, spouting statistics with great flourish, suggesting most of the cases had already been solved and hardly sympathetic toward the victims. The attorney general was more conciliatory, assuring the victims his office would do more than the previous regime to investigate the murders. Other law enforcement officials confessed their forces were poorly trained, with very little technical support for forensic investigation.

As a keynote speaker we had invited Deborah Nathan, a writer for The Nation. She gave an elegant talk, postmodern in tone, suggesting Juarez had become a metaphor for the downside of the newly globalizing world, the boundary line where the first and third worlds meet. Highly sympathetic towards the women, she suggested the maquila plants were also a metaphor for the new age, where corporate giants took advantage of low wages in poor countries, but refused to accept social responsibility. Extending the metaphor more, she suggested the dead women could be viewed as victims of this new age; poorly paid at maquila plants, some of them resort to outside jobs, including prostitution, to make ends meet, and where violence against women was endemic. Ironically, this latter point was precisely the point Chavez Chavez had tried unsuccessfully to make about the dead women: they were prostitutes, and therefore, to him, the deaths were perhaps not so intolerable.

When she was finished with her talk a woman came up to the stage with a framed photograph of a young woman. She showed it to the audience and glared at Nathan: "This was my sister," she cried. "She is one of the dead women. She was not a prostitute, and you have just insulted her memory." A young colleague of mine, a faculty member in the Spanish Department, dashed up to the stage, addressing Nathan, and said: "I worked for several years in a maquila plant before I got my PhD. I did so because it was the highest paid job I could find and I didn't feel like an exploited member of the underclass. The job was dignified, and I didn't know a single woman working in my plant who was a prostitute on the side."

If the victims of the crime were tolerating none of the excuses given by law enforcement for not investigating the crimes with seriousness, neither were they going to tolerate an outsider, no matter how sympathetic, relegating their loved ones to the status of mere metaphors for a newly emerging global order and disparaging their characters. It was important for them to remember their dead as real people, flesh and blood, and innocent.

In many ways the conference helped shape the battle lines for the next few months, since many of the issues debated at the conference would become the re-debated intensely in the weeks and months that followed. It broke the ice in Juarez and the debate about the dead women of Juarez was never quite the same again.

As you might imagine, some of the people involved in the femicide issue are still active. When told Arturo Chavez Chavez had been nominated to be attorney general Vickie Caraveo said, simply, "Jesus, I can't believe it." Esther Chavez Cano said, "This is bad news." The best book I know dealing with the dead women is Diana Washington Valdez, The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women, published by Peace at the Border, 2006.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Greetings, Dr. G-

This conference was truly amazing, marking the high water line for Bi national dialogue, hope, and unity. It seems so long ago that we all moved so easily back and forth through the border, casually really, sharing, giving, standing together in the struggle for positive transformation.
Even then, we all had a sense of the barbarous, insidious complexity of the forces at work in Juarez, but who could have imagined the relentlessly brutal carnage that would devour the lives, minds,spirits and future of the entire region.
Esther really had no choice but to endure. Irony and scholarship sustained her; her sense of humor and capacity for self-reflection and self-renewal gave her strength in the constant struggle to prevail for the women and children who had managed to survive the onslaught. We hear of the dead, we see the dead, but so little is known of the survivors, the poor women and their children who have been exploited, raped, and tortured in the disintegrated city of Juarez and the twisted feudal state of Chihuahua.
Esther lived and prevailed for the survivors, the wounded living,breathing victims, for justice, for la razon.