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Violence and Activism at the Border

Violence and Activism at the Border
Gender, Fear, and Everyday Life in Ciudad Juárez

A timely analysis of the disturbing murders that have taken the lives of nearly 400 Mexican women in El Paso's twin city.

Series: Inter America Series, Duncan Earle, Howard Campbell, and John Peterson, series editors

August 2008
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212 pages | 6 x 9 | 24 halftones, 8 color images, 4 charts, 2 tables, 3 maps |

Between 1993 and 2003, more than 370 girls and women were murdered and their often-mutilated bodies dumped outside Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua, Mexico. The murders have continued at a rate of approximately thirty per year, yet law enforcement officials have made no breakthroughs in finding the perpetrator(s). Drawing on in-depth surveys, workshops, and interviews of Juárez women and border activists, Violence and Activism at the Border provides crucial links between these disturbing crimes and a broader history of violence against women in Mexico. In addition, the ways in which local feminist activists used the Juárez murders to create international publicity and expose police impunity provides a unique case study of social movements in the borderlands, especially as statistics reveal that the rates of femicide in Juárez are actually similar to other regions of Mexico.

Also examining how non-governmental organizations have responded in the face of Mexican law enforcement's "normalization" of domestic violence, Staudt's study is a landmark development in the realm of global human rights.


2008 Southwest Book AwardBorder Regional Library Association

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Violence at the U.S.-Mexico Border: Framing Perspectives
  • Chapter 2. Culture and Globalization: Male Backlash at the Border
  • Chapter 3. Women Speak About Violence and Fear: Surveys and Workshops
  • Appendix 3A. Research Design
  • Appendix 3B. Brochures Distributed to Participants
  • Chapter 4. Framing and Mobilizing Border Activism: From Femicide to Violence Against Women
  • Appendix 4A. Fiction or Nonfiction?
  • Appendix 4B. V-Day 2004 Proclamation, City of El Paso
  • Chapter 5. Government Responses to Violence Against Women
  • Chapter 6. Toward Eradicating Violence Against Women at the Border: Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Kathleen Staudt is an award-winning Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Texas at El Paso. She has written or co-authored more than a dozen scholarly books on women's studies, borderlands, and political science, most recently Pledging Allegiance: Learning Nationalism at the El Paso-Juárez Border, with Susan Rippberger, and Fronteras No Más: Toward Social Justice at the U.S.-Mexico Border, with Irasema Coronado.


[O]ther cultures' women-hating practices can obscure the women-hating practices woven into our own cultures.

Uma Narayan, in Orr (2002, 50)

Muerte, el Sabor del Norte [Death, the flavor of the North]



The world's attention has focused on Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, at the northern border of Mexico, as the ghastly, premier center of female homicides in the twenty-first century. For more than a decade, grisly reports and documentaries have emerged about the murders of young women, raped and mutilated before death. Theories abound over who is doing the killings. Some attribute the murders to psychopathic serial killers and gangs. Others decry organ harvesting (the 2003 pretext for the Mexican federal government to intervene). Still others claim that drug traffickers enjoy gang sport after profitable sales. The "sons of the rich," also known as "los juniors," have been implicated. And activists persistently raise questions on binational dimensions of the crimes: snuff filmmakers selling to wealthy men in the United States; a handful of victims from the United States; killer-thugs who use border crossing as a way to escape one "justice" system to another; and/or sex trafficking, forced sex work across national borders. Once a feminist issue, sex trafficking is now embedded into nonfeminist post-2000 U.S. foreign policy that categorizes all countries in terms of vague and broad "human trafficking" regulations.


During the past decade in Juárez, the mothers of murdered girls and women have searched for justice with little response from a criminal justice system that is seriously flawed. Activists have joined the search for justice, creating awareness, raising funds, and pressuring governments to respond to violence against women. The result is a broader-based anti-violence movement in North America, where the toleration of violence against women, with a long history, has begun to change.


In a 2003 monograph on female homicide (femicide) in Juárez, Amnesty International counted 370 female murders from 1993 to 2003. Yet Mexican government officials seemed to spend more time quibbling over the precise body counts than investigating, charging, and convicting the killers. Many others have analyzed what has become commonly known as "femicide," from scholars (Monárrez Fragoso 2002; Monárrez Fragoso and Fuentes 2004) to journalists (Benítez et al. 1999; Washington Valdez 2002, 2005a, 2006) and documentary filmmakers (Portillo 2001; Ravelo Blancas 2004a), to name only a few. Although female death totals are constantly contested (over the type of death or probable killers), approximately one-third of the murders involve the rape and mutilation of victims, who are disproportionately poor and young.


What about the border context propels this grisly terror and torture? On Mexico's northern border, Juárez is a huge metropolitan area—Mexico's fifth-largest city—of booming industrial plants, multiple universities, shantytowns at the periphery, obscene income gaps between rich and poor (not to mention between El Paso and Juárez), and home to the Cartel de Juárez, one of the world's largest drug cartels (Campbell 2005; USDOJ 2004). The city has become internationally infamous as the city of femicide, corruption, and police impunity. It is a symbol of Mexico's ongoing struggle for democracy and the rule of law. Consider one of this chapter's epigraphs—a flyer title "Death, the flavor of the North." Distant journalists visit the city to cover only femicide and drugs. A city where 1.5 million people live and work has been demonized, although generalizations about the city and its inhabitants are hazardous. Many in the United States are all too ready to believe the worst about Mexico. Murder and drugs feed stereotypes of the "other" in this post-9/11 world of continuous U.S. rhetoric about security, defense, and terrorism.


With the world's eyes on Juárez, the ordinariness of women-killing in many countries is obfuscated. And with all the focus on the rape and mutilation murder victims, a third of the total presumably murdered at the hands of strangers, people miss the other two-thirds, the girls and women for whom death came at the hands of husbands, boyfriends, partners, or perhaps opportunistic friends or neighbors who transformed interpersonal violence into murders. Domestic violence has become normalized and routine, although it leads to and accounts for some of the women-killing in Juárez, the United States, and other parts of the world. One cannot help but wonder if the public responds only to shock and horror that is dramatized in activism around femicide. All homicides, even less visible but equally horrible "routine" domestic murder and violence against women, should be eliminated. Public safety is enhanced through early public intervention, but over the long term, prevention is necessary to move from the casual toleration of violence against women toward nonviolent cultures.


Several questions prompted me to write this book after many years of research and activism at the border. First, what is the incidence of violence against women (domestic, sexual, and murder) in Juárez, and how can it be explained? Second, how did anti-violence activists frame, prioritize, network, and diffuse their work from Juárez to the border generally and to the national mainstreams? Sociologists who research movement "framing" define it as "interpretive schemata that simplifies and condenses 'a world out there' by selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experiences, and sequences of actions within one's present or past environment" (Benford 1997, 415). Third, how do law enforcement institutions respond to violence against women, and fourth, can people learn and apply preventive and protective strategies from one another on both sides of the border?


I argue that violence against women is the overarching problem at the border, and under that umbrella, female homicide. I analyze several explanatory frameworks with a feminist lens, including (1) the global, neoliberal economy and its local manifestations at the border; (2) comparative institutions; and (3) cultures into which feminist and gender power and performance theories are threaded. As I argue in the book, extensive violence against women is attributable to changing gender power relations, especially backlash in the border economic context. But I also attribute high female murder rates to institutional flaws in political and criminal justice institutions, especially in Juárez, Chihuahua. An equally important part of the book involves the analysis of social movement frames, strategies, "frame disputes"—as Bedford calls them (1997, 417)—and movement networking and evolution over time. As I describe in the book, social movement activists networked from the border to the world, peaking in 2003 but declining in visibility after V-Day 2004. Yet activists' networking resulted in a broader-based movement that addresses violence against women, albeit with selective, minimal responsiveness from Mexican institutions and still no institutionalized binational approach that addresses the problems at the border.


Here I introduce feminist analyses of global, cultural, and institutional explanatory perspectives and the complex contextual richness of the U.S.-Mexico border, specifically Juárez-El Paso. The border, normally considered the periphery, is at the center in this book, symbolizing struggles elsewhere: about democracy, violence, and impunity. I use "gender performance" as an organizing concept in the book, given its focus on political drama, symbolic politics, and the social construction of gender. I offer a framework for readers that maps social movement connections with the state and government for public policy change toward the rule of law and the eradication of violence against women in binational settings. This framework embraces not only abstract variables from cross-national comparative research but also couples them with in-depth understanding through grounded research methodologies.


Before proceeding, it is important to note that violence against women is extensive in the United States as well as in Mexico. To cross borders with research and action, one must be sensitive to context, carefully grounded interpretation, and the avoidance of making the "other" exotic, as Uma Narayan warns. One must acknowledge not only the difference of institutions in sovereign countries but also the potential similarity of social values and power relations in everyday life. Ultimately, femicide, as Federal Deputy Marcela Lagarde declares (in Morfín 2004, 12), is "a crime of the state," which tolerates the murders of women and neither vigorously investigates the crimes nor holds the killers accountable.


Institutions and Cultures at the Global Border


The border is home to people of Mexican heritage on the whole: most Juarenses and eight of ten El Pasoans, according to the U.S. Census (2000). Seven of ten El Pasoans speak Spanish, and many are bilingual, code-switch back and forth from English to Spanish, or speak a mixed Spanglish. One in four women with partners reports physical violence in the United States and Mexico, but despite these similarities, an average of six times more women and girls are murdered on one side of the border than the other, a number greater than the combined populations of El Paso and Juárez might warrant. Paradoxically, two cities sit side by side, one among the safest and one among the most dangerous in their respective countries.


In this book I utilize several frameworks to understand and explain border violence against women. In political science, the comparative politics field calls attention to governance, political and bureaucratic institutions (March and Olsen 1989; Peters 1999). Political and law enforcement institutions bear on the incidence of crime. Institutions are gendered, absorbing social characteristics of men and women from organizational birth to their current modes of operation (Lovenduski 1998). Quasi-militarized organizations, law enforcement agencies are more male-dominated than most government institutions.


A comparative institutional approach calls attention to rules and routines that shape behavior in the state and its agencies and in organizations and social movements in civil society (Staudt 1997). An institutional lens on violence against women would focus on criminal law, law enforcement, police training and behavior, political commitment for enforcement, and civil society organizations that interact with or avoid the state. Mexico and the United States operate under different governance institutions, legal systems, and rules of law, even though both label themselves federal systems. Laws and law enforcement practices vary enormously. Both countries are sovereign, with governmental authority to make decisions about the people and territory they encompass. People may or may not trust in and use those institutions. Such trust is, in part, a product of democratic processes and professionalism in governance (or their absence). Political institutions influence the national/federal, state/regional, and local/municipal levels in the Mexican and U.S. federal systems of government.


Institutions in civil society, including social movements and NGOs, amass the potential of "people power" to transform individual or personal problems into public or political issues. Leaders and activists frame issues in new ways, mobilize change, and engage people with governments and other organizations at opportune times (Johnston and Noakes 2005; McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996; Tarrow 1998). In Juárez, the initial core of social movement activism began with mothers of the murder victims and human rights and feminist organizations. Loosely networked alliances grew within and across the border and spread widely and quickly. Global feminist and women's networks shared an uneasy and tentative consensus about the scourge of and priority to eliminate violence against women, but the core frame involved activism against femicide, a shockingly feminized term.


Yet another lens from comparative politics is culture, or the patterns and meanings in people's everyday practices. Culture matters, embracing potentially enormous yet diverse behaviors, attitudes, and historical legacies across generations (Chabal and Daloz 2006). Everyday practices exhibit a range of power and resistance behaviors (Scott 1990). In analyzing Mexico, it is all too easy to demonize men with machismo, a bundle of seemingly hypermasculine stereotypes, and thus blame "culture." Many variations in feminist theory remind one that patriarchy and gender power struggles, whether at the personal level or institutional level, are not peculiar to one culture or to Mexico. Still, it is worth examining gender power and control in Mexico's myths of origin and in global economic contexts (and I do so in Chapter 2).


International approaches begin with the global neoliberal (i.e., market and minimalist state) economic context, the way it shapes local economies, and its generation of inequalities. "Global" also encompasses transnational movements and NGOs that comprise a broader civil society (Ferree and Mueller 2005; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Moghadam 2005; J. Smith 2005). Transnational analysis rarely occurs at borders, with some exceptions (Staudt and Coronado 2002). Tarrow (2005, 11) acknowledges that transnational movement analysis has heretofore given minimal attention to local contexts, a drawback of using solely global approaches. In this book I affirm the global while contextualizing the local.


Mexico and the United States are embedded in the global economy, for better or worse, in interdependent but asymmetrical ways (O. Martínez 1996). Since the Mexican government's Programa Industrial Fronterizo, or Border Industrialization Program (BIP), began in the 1960s to facilitate foreign investment and expanded with foreign export-processing factories (maquiladoras) and global free-trade regimes, the border generally and Juárez particularly have become a visible frontline site of the global economy. The city is Mexico's maquila capital, home in 2004 to three hundred factories and more than 200,000 workers, over half of them women. For nearly a half-century, the city's history involved a growing, industrializing city of legal freer trade across borders. Border trade also involves illegal drug trafficking and otherwise booming organized crime from the early 1990s onward that is only minimally controlled despite massive increases in both governments' resources.


While the focal period of this study is from the mid-1990s onward, it reaches back to the border of the 1960s, with profound changes in the economy, politics, and power relations: how women and men work and how they organize their public voices. Violence against women entered the public agenda in different ways and eras, with organizing around jobs and wages preceding anti-violence organizing in Juárez. In this book I develop the linkages between economics and violence.


In the Juárez-El Paso borderlands, more than a million girls and women live, but not all of them are well. Some live, even thrive, with security in their homes and communities, with adequate food, shelter, and earnings. Some live in homes free of violence but work in the structural violence of a global economy that has shrunk the real value of earnings in the export-processing economic development model that dominates in Juárez. Still others live in fear and terror: the terror of interpersonal violence, the fear associated with living in a city lacking adequate public security, and fear stemming from the impoverishment of minimum wages that amount to US$4-5 per day, inadequate for safe and healthy lives. Yet others feel freer in a large urban region with wider job options than in small towns, villages, and the countryside: rural domestic violence rates are higher than urban rates, according to national studies in Mexico (INMUJERES/INEGI/UNIFEM 2004). The Juárez border region is special—not rural, definitely urban, and a strange magnet for positives and negatives, opportunity and violence.


Border Theories and Spaces


This study is grounded in the two-thousand-mile-long U.S.-Mexico borderlands, a place where the one-hundred-kilometer radius north and south of the borderline is considered a hybrid region of mixed characteristics and identities. Borders are "in between" places, as theorists, poets, and social scientists have so compellingly proclaimed (Anzaldúa 1987; Bhabha 1994; Staudt and Spener 1998). The border population is large, with many "crossers," exhibiting global economic models and trade including illicit drug trafficking.


The ten border states—four in the southwestern United States, six in northern Mexico—encompass a population of more than 80 million people, but the border region envelops 14 million, according to the 2000 censuses (Staudt and Coronado 2002, 11). My specific focus is on the largest metropolitan region, with more than two million people, to span an international borderline in the world: El Paso, Texas, a city and county of 700,000 residents, and the municipality of Juárez, Chihuahua, with 1.5 million residents. The cities sit together, hugging one another in more ways than their interdependent geography implies.


At the U.S.-Mexico border, analysts and activists deal with the peculiar politics of two cities in two sovereign countries, where people share much in common but live in different economies governed by different institutions. The forces of economic supply and demand, of production and consumption, and of kinship and friendship lock people together in cooperative, complicit relationships. Likewise, Mexico and the United States are close neighbors and trading partners that have enjoyed usually friendly relationships over at least a century.


Prior to end of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, the greater Paso del Norte region was part of northern Mexico. Since then, the area has developed as two border cities growing side by side from a total of 26,000 in 1900 to 253,000 in 1950 to nearly 2 million in 2000 (Staudt 1998, 34). Together, El Paso and Juárez offer a striking example of the difference a nation can make in terms in incomes and minimum wages. U.S. official minimum wages are eight times the minimum wages of Juarez.


Interdependence manifests itself with daily crossings, south to north and north to south, most of them legal. Northbound international bridge traffic into El Paso for 2005 totaled 8,453,000 pedestrians and 16,189,000 cars, many of them carrying more than one person (Fullerton and Tinajero 2005, 14). People cross the border to shop and to visit family and friends. More than 10 percent of the students at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) commute across the border from Mexico daily at Texas in-state tuition rates. At the 2005 Ni Una Más (Not One More) anti-violence conference for 450 El Paso high school students that I moderate annually, approximately 40 percent raised hands indicating that they have relatives in Mexico.


At the frontlines for global economic change, the U.S.-Mexico border became a pioneering test for a neoliberal free-trade regime. The borderline restricts the movement of people and workers separated into labor enclaves of enormous pay differentials, while commerce and goods cross more freely than people. Tariffs that once bound trade were discounted with BIP, based on the value added by export processing. And since Mexico entered the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1986 and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, free-trade policies have increasingly governed industry and commerce along the border. Free trade has not eliminated U.S. Customs regulations and payments but has added nuances and schedules best understood with counsel from accountants and lawyers (Staudt 1998, Chapter 8).


Global economic forces have altered the contexts within which working people live and earn money. Juárez is a magnet for migrants from towns and states to its south. A once-dominant male workforce gave way to a growing percentage of women workers. Among women, 35 to 40 percent work in the formal labor force; others generate income outside the regulated economy. At the inception of the industrialization program in the mid-1960s, however, maquiladoras recruited far more women (operadoras) for their assembly-line operations. In the first phase of maquiladorization, women made up 80 percent of the industrial workforce (Fernández-Kelly 1983). Through the second and third phases as factories diversified (Kopinak 2004), a far larger, more gender-balanced workforce peaked at 250,000 workers, spawning new, imaginative social constructions of gender within diverse factory settings (for example, see Salzinger 2003). Even though massive changes occurred in the workplace, gender ideologies have not caught up with the different economic base (Staudt 1986), giving rise to the male backlash that I analyze in Chapter 2.


Violence at the Border


The frontier location stimulates crossing for what is quaintly called "vice," whether it is illegal on one side and not the other or enforced more effectively on one side than the other. RAND researchers Peter Reuter and David Ronfeldt note that "Mexicans have always been available to supply whatever Americans want but cannot obtain legally in their own country—just as Americans have always been ready to provide whatever Mexicans want and cannot acquire readily in Mexico" (in Andreas 2002, 196). Current demands at the border involve drugs (for the United States) and guns (for Mexico).


Juárez was the city to which people crossed southward for alcohol (during U.S. prohibition), prostitution (as sex work is regulated, not outlawed), and divorce (prior to the passage of U.S. no-fault divorce laws; O. Martínez 1978). In contemporary times, Juárez is widely perceived as a "city of vice": Pablo Vila's narratives (2005) portray the city as highly sexualized, dirty, violent, decadent, and corrupt.


The border is a key drug trafficking gateway, and Juárez has undergone a seeping "cartelization." Like Tijuana, it is home to drug-transit operations that grew once the U.S. war on drugs shifted the Colombia connection from Miami to the long U.S.-Mexico border. The enormous amounts of drug-money profits, skyrocketing since the early 1990s, generate corruption and collusion with officials (Andreas 2000). José García notes that "at one point 90 percent of the police officers, prosecutors, and judges in Tijuana and the state of Baja California were on the Arellano Félix payroll . . . [and] the cartel pays up to US$1 million a week in bribes to law enforcement officials" (2002, 322).


While media attention often focuses on drug "lords," it is important to understand the broad networks of mid- and low-level players in drug marketing and distribution, especially in areas with high unemployment and poverty rates. El Paso is one of the five poorest big cities and one of the three poorest counties in the United States. Howard Campbell's research shows the ubiquity of drug trafficking as a normal, everyday part of life in the border region. In El Paso, he says, "trafficking is a practical, quick way poor people can increase their incomes" (2005, 327).


Drug consumption is higher in the United States than in Mexico (J. García 2002, 304), and the prospect for legalization (and greater control) is dim. When the U.S. war on drugs is effective (the exception rather than the rule), drugs are stuck in Mexico, likely dumped at lower prices and thereby spreading drug use in Juárez.


In paradoxical contemporary times, the border-as-drug-corridor has been coupled with a dense network of national agencies that police the movement of people and goods, whether legal or illegal and documented or undocumented. The border has been "militarized" (Dunn 1996) yet with a drama and spectacle of "border games" (Andreas 2000) and irregularities among police agents on both sides of the international line (Bowden 2002).


With the mix of "bordering and debordering" (Spener and Staudt 1998), along with new laws and policies that since 1994 have facilitated more trade in legal commerce, freer trade in illegal commerce is omnipresent. Former U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) employee Phil Jordan called NAFTA a "deal made in narco-heaven" (in Andreas 2002, 203; also see Payan 2006a,b). Investigative journalists have identified the hunting of young women for rape and disposal as a form of drug-cartel "sport" after big sales (Corchado and Sandoval 2004a).


Violence against women is a global problem, and the scale and scope of global legal and illegal trade and production contribute to the scourge, as do urban size and growth, migration, inequalities, and anonymity in big-city life. As a high-growth industrial region, northern Mexico became a magnet for people seeking a more prosperous life in a place of glaring contrasts between rich and poor in Juárez and El Paso. Paradoxically, Juárez and the state of Chihuahua have a higher per capita income than most states in Mexico, while El Paso's per capita income is only 60 percent of U.S. per capita income (Staudt and Coronado 2002).


Historically the border is a legendary and lawless periphery that outlaws cross for safe haven. Criminals still cross in the twenty-first century, including men who hide after being charged with domestic violence and murder. Occasional consumers cross with wads of cash but no visible means of support, paying for cars or houses without paper trails. The border is not only a place of transnational activism but also an escape valve.


Criminals' escape across the border makes tracking them and investigating their crimes difficult. After all, Mexico and the United States, two sovereign countries, are at work, each with its own set of criminal justice institutions. Even victims cross the border seeking higher justice standards. The vignettes that follow came from extensive news clippings (with surnames omitted) and from participant observation.


  • In 2005, Maria Luisa was found beaten, strangled, and stuffed in the closet of a home, but her alleged killer, ex-boyfriend Richard, fled to Mexico.
  • A U.S. Marine recruiter was shot in Juárez. The high-tech surveillance camera installed by the new state Preventive Police was turned upward, rendering it useless in identifying the perpetrator on the video.
  • David, who reported his cousin's killing in Chihuahua City, was in southern Mexico when she died, but after police torture in prison, he confessed and was convicted of her murder. Women in Black, an international NGO, mobilized appeals for justice, and border activists pleaded for justice on appeal with the Mexican Consulate in El Paso. David was assigned a fifty-year sentence but released in 2006.
  • On the sidewalk in front of Casa Amiga, a nonprofit organization that counsels battered women, a woman was murdered by her ex-husband in 2002. He was tried, convicted, and served time in prison but allegedly used political clout to seek early release. With a letter-writing and email campaign, activists on both sides of the border convinced the state of Chihuahua to deny early release.
  • Battered women cross into El Paso seeking safety at one of twenty-two homeless shelters. They report husbands threatening to kill them and leave them in the desert without fear of investigation. El Paso County Attorney professionals cannot easily serve offenders with notice about protective order hearings—a civil law remedy—once abusers cross.
  • El Paso County Sheriff's deputies warned callers at a semi-rural home who phone 911 on multiple "58s" (domestic violence): "If you call again, we'll report you to the Border Patrol." This is not supposed to happen with federal legal protection to undocumented domestic violence victims.


In late 2006, binational and national killings and crossings made headlines. One of the alleged killers of the eight young women brazenly dumped in a cotton field inside Juárez in 2001, galvanizing much activism, was identified in Colorado and transferred to Mexico. An El Pasoan was killed by her live-in boyfriend who crossed the border, hanged himself, and was later identified by Mexican authorities.


Despite seeming lawlessness, an atmosphere of lawfulness and civility also prevails. Binational cooperation and cross-border organizations operate in many areas of commerce, trade, water, and civil society interests (Staudt and Coronado 2002). At the national level, scores of treaties specify details about air traffic control, insect infestation, and drugs. At the local level, police departments have long cooperated over stolen cars. While human rights treaties abound in the Americas and internationally, there is no U.S.-Mexico human rights treaty. Nor had local police cooperated over femicide until 2003, when regional anti-violence activists called for cooperation around female homicide at least on a par with auto-theft cooperation.


After pressure from anti-violence activists, meager cooperation began for such matters as training on evidence preservation at homicide sites and a toll-free tip line in Spanish and English for details about the serial killings. Lately, more official requests for cooperation occur. When in 2005 the authorities located the body of an eight-year-old girl buried in cement after sexual assault, the Chihuahua state attorney general requested U.S. FBI profiling assistance from its Quantico, Virginia, database. A sex offender profile matched, leading to identification. Activists called for a binational Amber Alert-type quick response to binational child kidnapping, but sovereign governments maintain their separate ways on sex offenders, one counting and registering them and the other using the same routines as for other crimes.


Borders are special, hybrid places where binational, cross-border solidarity, government cooperation, and action are necessary to address public problems in a common region. Given the global economic context for extensive legal and illegal trade, cooperation is warranted, even in a U.S. political context that stresses walls, fences, and defense. Violence epidemics may be more common in a metropolis like Juárez, where anonymity and a perception of big-city vice can prevail. The global-local border locale cheapens labor, and people's earning capacity is linked to capacity, self-worth, and the ability to exit dangerous relationships.


In Chapter 2 I will discuss gender as socially constructed performance, and such performance is dazzlingly patriarchal, as demonstrated in a close reading of Mexican intellectuals like Paz and Bartra. I develop the argument that the construction of "masculinities" at the border has not caught up with change among women who resolutely denounce violence—as I document in Chapter 3—but who cannot easily exit abusive relationships. Some men become violent when threatened with loss of power and control, meager as control may be in the general economy and the private household.


Gender Performances


Political drama is a central organizing theme in this text. Governments and activists produce drama with outcomes both symbolic and real (Edelman 1964, 1971). Symbolic politics are vivid at the U.S.-Mexico border. Social movement analyses highlight the importance of frames, drama, performance, and media spectacles (Benford 1992; McCarthy, Smith, and Zald 1996) for expanding the base of support.


Popular culture emits mixed messages about violence against women, whether in newspapers, films, art, music, the Internet, and television or from social movement frames themselves. Violence against women is a constant, embedded theme in popular culture. Its portrayal is rarely neutral but rather emerges in one of two orientations: critique or celebration. The combination of sex and violence titillates some. TV dramas and movies focus excessively on violence against women, suggesting prevalence far more common than actual numbers and thereby generating a "politics of fear" (Glassner 1999). In U.S. crime shows of the past decade, police perform as dutiful investigators of violent crimes, although Mexican television (transmitted across the border on several channels) offers little by way of their own police and crime dramas. However, newspapers on both sides of the border dwell on lurid tales of murder and death. Through the mid-1990s, reports in Juárez impugned the victims' reputations (Rojas Blanco 2006), but after that, with social movement activism and its criticism of police impunity, the tide turned in media reports on femicide.


Worldwide, women and feminist activists organize against violence, one of the few issues about which South-North consensus exists, across class, nationality, and ethnic lines. United Nations conferences, from the 1975-1985 International Decade of Women to the 1995 Beijing conference and subsequent gatherings, resolve to eliminate violence against women. Keck and Sikkink (1998) show the rapid spread of this compelling, priority transnational issue for women. Popular culture and the media spread awareness about violence that titillates and warns, that evokes fear and outrage, that evokes emotion and empathy. Dramatic representations arouse emotions that allow social movement activists to communicate with broader publics (Cadena-Roa 2005; also see Benford 1997; Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta 2005). Given the commonality of violence, few women's lives are untouched by such knowledge, whether from partners, parents, strangers, or their own personal experiences.


To change policy and society, activists and policy advocates must generate awareness and build support for systemic, concrete changes among constituencies and multiple groups, the broader the better (Stone 1997). Anti-violence activists have used drama, testimonies, films, and plays to frame and extend their messages. Performance is a useful concept around which to analyze anti-violence social movements at the border. In literal and figurative performance, activists have spurred the development of constituencies that press governments for change.


I will begin with performance as literal and concrete. Consider decades of street theater, films, and plays, including Vagina Monologues: Until the Violence Stops. Playwright and activist Eve Ensler began a global campaign to call attention to violence against women, female sexuality, and other long-dormant issues once part of the 1960s-1970s women's movement in Mexico and the United States. V-Day in February, often February 14, evokes several images and symbols: violence, vaginas, and/or Valentine's Day. The celebration of V-Day calls attention to violence on a global scale; in 2004, women performed in 2,300 Vagina Monologues worldwide in 1,100 cities ( Baumgardner and Richards, in their book on grassroots feminist activism (2005), note that those plays and accompanying activism "have exposed more people to feminism than any other entity in the last decade" (177).


Performance can also be conceptualized in figurative, less concrete terms. Philosopher Judith Butler analyzes gender as performance, as historically performative (2004, 30); "how one does gender" is also a lens through which one can understand violence in context: at the border. Women and men perform gender in socially constructed ways. Violence is embedded in language and in behavior; it is learned. Moreover, activists and social movements "do gender performance," using drama and performance with symbols, icons, colors, wrenching and emotional testimonies, and stories. Symbols can help build movements and expand constituencies. Interactive performances occurred among NGOs and governments with the use of numbers, maximized and counted over a decade, while the Mexican government responded with minimizing and contesting numeric counts. As Deborah Stone has analyzed so well (1997), "numeric metaphors" are common in symbolic politics.


At the border, anti-femicide activists have communicated, silently and loudly, with the use of symbols and colors: crucifixes, pink and black crosses. They painted names and colors on crosses, dresses, and public signs. Activists mourned silently in public, setting symbolic political stages for anti-violence activities. Victims' mothers and activists repeated stories, showed pictures, and gave personal testimonies at rallies, creating vivid memories with personal names and faces attached to them. At various levels, Mexican government officials disputed the numbers or trivialized the totals as crimes of passion or normal domestic violence.


Of course, violence on the border is not only about symbols. Death and violence are real. Many women and girls have died; many more have been injured and threatened. Fear has been engendered into everyday life.


In analyzing gender as performance, Butler offers seeds of hope with her conception of regulation and reregulation. Butler reminds readers that gender practices are regulated through social norms and that common practices normalize behaviors and interactions (2004). Violence against women is all too "normal" in gender interaction. Anti-violence activists challenge the normalization of violence, reframing it instead as abnormal and no longer (if it ever was) legitimate. Butler's discourse evokes questions about a new form of regulation, one that deregulates gender injustice and uses gender-fair law to reregulate, to shame, and/or to criminalize previously "normalized" interpersonal violence as pathology.


From Cross-National to Grounded Approaches


At the U.S.-Mexico border, violence against women derives from and symbolizes flawed governance and criminal justice institutions, whether the violence involves more than a decade of femicide and its hundreds of victims or the everyday domestic violence and tens of thousands of survivors. Whether at the border or elsewhere, violence against women is an exposé of the state, masculine privilege embedded therein, and unequal gender power relations in state and society. The exposé is reiterated in the media from local to national and global on daily bases. State unresponsiveness to women is advertised. The exposé has penetrated people's awareness and consciousness to create multiple climates—of fear, of disgust, of anger.


Governments and policies can and do change, sometimes in response to public pressure, problem documentation, and the dysfunctions and costs associated with protecting those who injure, maim, and kill. Cross-national analysis offers a focus on institutions and cultures with testable hypotheses that can be connected to government responsiveness.


Cross-National Analysis: Why Governments Respond


S. Laurel Weldon, in Protest, Policy, and the Problem of Violence Against Women (2002, 23), uses a cross-national approach to compare thirty-six countries that according to Freedom House rankings were continuously democratic from 1974 to 1994. The United States is one of those countries. Looking at the protest-to-policy relationship, Weldon methodically analyzes factors that influence governmental responsiveness to the problem of violence against women (13-17); I group the indicators she uses into five categories:


  • Legal reform for wife battering and sexual assault
  • Crisis centers and shelters for victims of battering and sexual assault, along with government funding for those services
  • Training about violence against women for police, judges, and social workers
  • Preventive public education
  • Central coordination of national policies on violence against women


Weldon explores four possible explanations for the adoption of responsive policies and practices, all of them with numeric or categorical indicators for statistical analysis: culture, ideological orientations that frame policies, and development levels; women's and social movements; women legislators; and governmental institutions such as women's bureaus that the United Nations calls 'women's machinery.'"


Contrary to popular notions, Weldon found culture, ideology, and development levels to be poor predictors of government responsiveness to violence against women. It made little difference whether countries were rich or poor, leaned ideologically left or right, or exhibited intensely religious or hypermasculine, hegemonic character. Costa Rica, with a lower per capita income than many other countries in the comparison, was among the most responsive. Nor did high percentages of women in legislatures or the presence of women's machinery in government make a difference for responsiveness to violence against women. Rather, Weldon found that pressure from civil society, especially women's and human rights activists, explained policy adoption far more than other factors.


Deepening Comparative Analyses at Borders


Where might Weldon's analysis leave comparative border analysis? Institutional response to domestic violence is far greater in the United States than in Mexico and in El Paso greater than in Juárez. But analysis must go deeper, from the ground up. A grounded approach confirms some of Weldon's conclusions but also locates further refinements and new variables, especially if binational governance is to be responsive (Figure 1.2).


But first I review Weldon's variables of ideology and development. The U.S. gross domestic product is approximately four times that of Mexico (UNDP 2003). Minimum wages at the border exhibit more glaring inequalities, with a tenfold difference. And as noted earlier, Juárez is considered relatively well-off in the Mexican context, while El Paso's per capita income is just three-fifths of the U.S. average. But again, money alone does not make the difference, as Costa Rica has shown. The United States and Mexico pursue neoliberal, market-driven approaches to trade and economic development, with constitutional prohibitions against collusion between church and state. These variations provide little ability to predict responsiveness here, as Weldon would agree.


Consider also women in politics and women's machinery in government. Women have much better prospects for election into Mexico's national legislative bodies. Mexico exceeds global averages in the proportion of women in national assemblies, while the United States falls below those averages (IPU 2007); however, the reverse is true at state and local levels (Staudt and Vera, 2006). And Mexico has far more women's machinery in government at centralized and state levels than does the United States, with its mid-level Women's Bureau inside the U.S. Department of Labor. In Mexico's response to the United Nations' routine queries about the Implementation of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (INMUJERES 2004b), remarkably complex programs are described that would seemingly provide multipronged attention to violence against women, although Juárez has felt few ripple effects. Like Weldon's analysis, these factors do not take one far.


Women's movements are visible along the border and in both countries (Evans 2003; V. Rodríguez 2003). Beginning in 2001, media stories on women in Juárez and El Paso reported through the lens of women's and human rights NGOs. Yet Mexico's institutional response to violence against women is meager and more symbolic than real. Regardless of how women's and human rights organizations flourish in both countries, NGO relationships with the authorities differ. Mexican activists, who tend to be cynical and wary of co-optation (with good reason), interact less with government institutions and mainstream political campaigns. Thus, even with Mexico's outsider NGOs and insider women, the government hardly appears more responsive to violence against women. The qualitative engagement with the state by social movement activists and NGOs warrants analysis.


Other details about both countries are worth noting, including indicators amenable to cross-national analysis. Mexico ratified the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the United States has not. U.S. women won the right to vote in 1920, more than thirty years before female enfranchisement in Mexico in 1953. Neither the era of the women's vote nor treaty signatures predict differences in government responses to violence against women.


Weldon's framework assumes that the rule of law exists in democracies and that professional standards of accountability prevail in bureaucracies. Most scholars and activists would classify Mexico as democratizing or in transition to democracy. But Mexico does not exhibit the rule of law, and its criminal justice institutions perform poorly (Bailey and Chabat 2002a; Domingo 1999; HRW 1999). Citizens express widespread mistrust of the police. Police officials have low stakes in reducing crime and crime rates, and few bureaucratic incentives exist to investigate crime (Zepeda Lecuona 2002). The United States and Mexico take very different approaches to justice.


With the opportunity to pursue grounded border analysis in this study, I expand Weldon's broad and abstract cross-national analysis for deeper explanations about the response or lack of response to violence against women at the border. I examine the considerable differences between the United States and Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua, El Paso and Juárez, all hosting relevant institutions within federal systems of governance. To explore meanings more deeply, I turn to grounded analysis that draws on multiple methods to learn from the context.


Multiple Sources and Methods: Grounded Analysis


This book builds on cross-national insights to address violence against women at the border through grounded analysis that gains insight from deep knowledge of the border context and its institutions. Grounded analysis is holistic and relational, aiming to learn from context and understanding through field experience. It moves from deductive to inductive understandings, from quantitative to qualitative methods, using a mix of methods and sources. The researcher describes her participation transparently (Naples 1998, 7).


I have drawn on multiple methods—quantitative and qualitative, participant observation, rich secondary sources (published and unpublished), and a large sample of women ages fifteen to thirty-nine in Juárez. The research builds on participant observation and activism based on compromiso, that is, commitment to the community. As Irasema Coronado and I more fully outline (2005), researchers' compromiso "transcends friendship to ensure that the research in some way benefits or addresses the cause" (145). As Nancy Naples says about ethnographic work (1998, 6), my goal is "to produce a narrative that retained the integrity of the specific events, actors, and context while revealing the broader processes at work."


I have woven together many concepts and perspectives, drawing on decades of research on women and gender, institutions and bureaucracies, and the border. Over the past four years, the research became more specialized and focused on violence against women. The analytic movement back and forth was continuous and constant. To formulate these ideas in a "logical, systematic, and explanatory scheme," I used many angles and perspectives in an interplay of inductive and deductive thinking and of methods that allowed the emergence of explanation during the research process, or what Strauss and Corbin call "grounded theory" (1998).


I have been active in the Coalition Against Violence Toward Women and Families at the U.S.-Mexico Border since its inception in 2001. The coalition illustrates one among many cross-border organizing efforts by people who join forces around common interests that transcend the borderline in this binational metropolitan region (Staudt and Coronado 2002).


Collaboration was built into the research. Edleson and Bible define collaborative research as "investigative partnerships between advocates, practitioners, social scientists, community activists, and women" (2001, 74; also see Bojar and Naples 2002). Partners included the El Paso Center Against Family Violence, public schools, and FEMAP.


In the quantitative research, I collaborated with FEMAP, a large NGO, and its U.S. support organization, the FEMAP Foundation. Women participated in workshops that facilitated active learning, discussion, and small-group projects that produced informative posters, and their voices emerged in an otherwise mechanical, quantitative research project. The content of women's posters revealed their keen awareness of violence, its multiple causes, and the numerous strategies necessary to overcome violence. Women provided answers to many research questions about the incidence of and risks associated with violence. Other qualitative research complemented and deepened more comprehensive understanding of domestic violence.


A Border-Grounded Framework


Drawing on grounded theory, this book offers a framework to examine the connections of social movement and NGO activism and government responsiveness (or lack of it) to violence toward women at the border. The model is not intended to reinvent social movement theories but rather to provide a roadmap for this book and the missing pieces of the puzzle to connect activism with government responsiveness on both sides of the border. The model unpacks some of the interactive relationships deemed necessary to facilitate social movement activism to broad-based NGOs and government, with accountability and oversight relationships from outsiders (civil society) and insiders.


The model in Figure 1.2 posits the interplay of external/outsider and internal/insider activists and strategic players in building and broadening the base of pressure to protect women, to intervene early after conflict, and to prevent violence against women. Broad-based responsiveness emerges from multiple institutions, not merely law enforcement but also nonprofit organizations and civic oversight. The sources of pressure on government are numerous, from outsiders to insiders, from external to internal activists. The external outsiders who bear on public agency responsiveness include feminist and human rights activists and mainstream associations in the business and economic, nonprofit, faith, education, and health sectors. Men also join these efforts. With changing popular culture, dramatic education expands with music, novels, art, and film.


Outsiders interact with insiders, or those in government who also pressure decision makers in the public system with the capacity to budget for and sustain programs that protect women, intervene against perpetrators, and prevent violence: women decision makers who control budget strings in federal governance, women's machinery, and legislative bodies are more likely to take the lead before their male counterparts in pressing for responsiveness, even though men and women share interests in protecting mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. However, women legislators have never been the majority in the political system of Mexico or the United States.


For governments to respond to violence against women, several conditions are necessary: free press, rule of law, and professional accountability. Border media provide sustained coverage of murder and violence, allowing activists to count the victims and develop an evidence base to promote change. Law enforcement differs across the border, each side with its own flaws, but one side invests little energy into professional investigation. Vividly framed activism displays symbols and dramatic gender performances that make systemic deficiencies memorable. Governments counter with equally symbolic actions, but they are far more powerful and far better funded than the activists. What makes the border context special is the binational scope of the problem, the ease with which criminals cross to elude justice, and the absence of an overarching human rights agreement with concrete, accountable mechanisms that respond to violence against women. Once-local networking that grew enormously over a decade must be sustained in ways that connect to the United States and Mexico and the binational responses necessary to address violence against women.


Roadmaps in This Book: Outline of Chapters


The book contains conceptual, empirical, and strategic analyses of interest to multiple audiences concerned with violence, borders, activism, and women and gender. Chapter 2 presents a review of existing knowledge on violence against women from global to local perspectives. In it I analyze cultural and global studies that deepen understanding of border economic changes over the past half-century, joining seemingly disparate but coherent connections from Octavio Paz to Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt and ultimately to masculinity studies that speak to the border.


Chapter 3 draws on the representative sample of women who participated in workshops and completed surveys in collaboration with FEMAP in 2004-2005. I report on the climate of fear and the reality of violence, on the incidence of physical and sexual assault, and on the risks associated with that violence. Tapping insights in women's posters from workshops and survey responses, I further consider women's own analyses of the violence and the strategies they use in response to it. Data from the survey challenge cultural notions of women in Juárez as submissive to and compliant with violent behavior.


Chapters 4 and 5 of this book focus on comparative institutions in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Chapter 4 spotlights civil society, including a wide range of social movements and NGOs that make violence against women dramatic and visible. A core NGO base in human rights and women's organizations networked with distant and wide networks, peaking in 2003-2004, expanding anti-violence constituencies in civil society thanks to electronic communications, a relatively free press in Mexico and the United States, and the press' perceptions of its readers as having insatiable hunger for murder stories. One part of civil society performs popular culture and performs with drama: music, art, film. Those activists magnified and heightened the dramatic presentation of horror stories with colors, icons, and images. Subsequently, the economic establishment invested sporadic commitments to eradicating violence, with perhaps more attention to the border's image than to substance. Many border people built a wider base to foment cultural and organizational changes to reduce the social toleration of violence against women. Much work still remains to be done.


Chapter 5 looks at government institutions that can and should respond to violence against women. Public institutions are the slowest sector to change in ways that would address the violence epidemic. In the chapter I look specifically at whether protection from violence against women is available, from where, and whether public intervention occurs early enough to forestall the spiraling momentum of often-worsening violence. Once women report violent crimes, a host of public and private responses are possible, not only from the police but also in the nonprofit sector and the courts. The chapter reveals flaws on both sides of the border, with huge challenges that result from bureaucratic tangles.


In the conclusion, Chapter 6, I rethread all these lines of analysis with strategies and possibilities for change. I also warn of the significant obstacles to change, not the least of which involve the economic violence and harsh drug and human trafficking so visible at borderlines yet seeping across other borders into mainstream societies.


Violence produces injuries with multiple consequences, thereby evoking the need for action and policy change. This research is conducted in the spirit of hope and faith in democracy and in reasoned policy analysis. Will authorities use evidence to address public health and safety problems, including violence against women? Historically, class and gendered analyses offer doubt for affirmative answers to these questions. While Mexico and the United States claim the label of democracy, functioning political practices have muted the voices and agendas of many women and of economically marginalized people in general for much of the history of each country.


Amid grim narrative and cynicism about delays and obfuscation, this book coincidentally exhibits the politics of optimism. On one side of the border over a span of thirty years, pressure for responsiveness on violence against women produced changes toward early intervention and prosecutorial action on domestic violence as crime. The other side of the border delays such action with defensive posturing but cannot afford to wait any longer if injury and death to women are to diminish and finally end. Yet even with early public intervention, strategies are hardly in place in either country to change a culture that tolerates violence against women—even death—at exorbitantly high rates.


Fronterizos and fronterizas are aware of the daunting challenges associated with change, including the alleged collusion among authorities and segments of the super-rich (including drug cartels). However, people are engaged in struggles for democracy and rule of law that is fair to women and men. Many people invest considerable time, talent, and risk in this movement: human rights activists, professionals in health and public safety organizations, attorneys, and feminist and labor organizations. This is their story.



“In this sensitive book about border violence, Staudt provides illuminating answers to perplexing questions long asked by people around the world about recent grotesque crimes against women in the notorious city of Ciudad Juárez. Staudt skillfully examines the femicide phenomenon and proceeds to investigate everyday domestic violence, grounding her findings in direct fieldwork and wide-ranging multi-disciplinary and theoretical research. Spotlighting the frustrated efforts of public and private institutions to address the problem, Staudt eloquently points out the urgent need for greater gender justice on the border.”
Oscar J. Martínez, Regents' Professor of History, University of Arizona

“In her splendid book, Kathleen Staudt shows why paying close and nuanced attention to violence and organizing against it reveals so much about both gritty urban politics and sprawling globalization. This book deserves a wide readership across disciplinary borders.”
Cynthia Enloe, author of Globalization and Militarism: Feminists Make the Link

“This accessible book exposes the complexity of the murder of women in Ciudad Juárez. Avoiding easy explanations, Staudt presents a nuanced analysis of the different factors that contributed to such a level of violence against women. Her perceptive analysis illuminates how political drama is central to understanding both, how the Mexican institutions have reacted to the murders, and how activists mobilized to obtain an institutional response to stop violence against women.”
Pablo Vila, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies, Temple University


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