Casa Amiga: Leading the Fight to Protect Women in Ciudad Juárez
A major wave of layoffs in the once-thriving maquiladora industry of Ciudad Juárez has left thousands scrambling to make ends meet. Among the most vulnerable to this economic implosion are thousands of working-class women. As the maquiladora sector has contracted, Casa Amiga, the only domestic violence and rape crisis center in the city of nearly 2 million, has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of battered women coming in for help. Despite its overwhelming workload, the staff of Casa Amiga continues to provide much-needed services to women in Juárez, one day at a time, case by case.
Beyond daily efforts to assist victims of abuse, incest, and rape, the center is also playing a leading role in pushing for an adequate government response to the ongoing murders of women that have plagued Juárez in recent years. Since 1993 the bodies of at least 325 murdered women have been found around the city, many of them bearing evidence of torture and rape.
As executive director of Casa Amiga Crisis Center, Esther Cano Chávez knows the dynamics of the Juárez situation as well as anyone. Last year a friend and staff member, herself a former client of Casa Amiga, was found dead on the sidewalk in front of the modest building that houses the crisis center.
One of the leaders of a local and national movement to stop the violence against women in Juárez, Cano has expressed her unconformity with what she qualifies as rage against women–in newspaper columns, on radio and television, and at protests, candlelight vigils, and demonstrations.
Casa Amiga, in turn, is playing a crucial role in providing much-needed services and support to women in Juárez. The number of domestic violence victims coming to the crisis center has grown exponentially since it opened its doors. During Casa Amiga’s first year of operations in 1999, staff and volunteers dealt with over 300 cases of domestic violence against women and children. In 2002, the center handled some 807 cases just between January and June. All in all, during its three-and-a-half years of operation the center has reviewed close to 4,000 cases involving domestic violence.
Casa Amiga offers limited medical services, legal advice, and psychological counseling. Volunteers are available 24 hours every day of the week to work the center’s hotline.
The staff also works to prevent domestic violence and challenge social inequality by regularly offering a variety of workshops and support groups in maquiladoras, schools, churches, and community centers throughout Juárez. Topics include the root causes of violence, conflict resolution, parenting skills, strategies for self-protection, and filing legal complaints against perpetrators. Most of the participants are maquiladora employees and others from working-class families.
Children receive special attention at Casa Amiga. The center has a special play-therapy room where staff can be with kids who’ve been directly or indirectly traumatized by violence. And an art workshop is offered daily to give children an opportunity to express themselves in a safe environment while their mothers are receiving treatment.
After Casa Amiga attended 57 cases of raped children during 1999, Cano and her staff developed a puppet show to counter child sexual abuse and incest. The production “My Body is Mine” teaches children about what it terms “bad touching” and how to protect themselves.
However, women seeking refuge for a night or so have to look somewhere else; the center has no shelter, a fact that causes Cano anguish. Casa Amiga simply doesn’t have the resources, she says.
She is quick to point out that while the number of women coming to the clinic has increased exponentially, the caseload at the crisis center represents a tiny fraction of abused women in Juárez who need help. In addition, formal denunciations of physical and sexual abuse are rare, she notes. “It’s very difficult getting a woman to formally denounce the violence. Maybe 10% of the women that we’ve seen have done so,” Cano says. “They don’t want to do it–for fear, and because there’s little assurance of justice if they do.”
Culture and Politics Play Part
Cano offers a litany of cultural and political factors that she says contribute to the continuing wave of violence in Juárez. One of the primary causes is widespread indifference, she maintains. In a country where it’s not illegal for a man to rape his wife and where most states have no laws on the books prohibiting domestic violence, the abuse of women is officially tolerated.
Cano says that a state law proposed last year is a case in point. It would have reduced the sentence for rapists from four years to one if they could prove that they were “provoked” by their victims. The motivation for the proposed law was purportedly to protect men from being accused of rape by young women afraid to admit to their parents that they’d had consensual sex. Cano and other activists appealed to human rights groups, politicians, and the media, coordinating a campaign that ultimately defeated the proposal.
“It was an outrage. If the law had passed, what rapist wouldn’t say he’d been provoked? They even say that children can ‘provoke’ a rape. The legislators’ view of rape shows a total lack of understanding of the deep problems that a woman faces,” Cano says.
Cano is equally critical of Juárez police and prosecutors, who she says have repeatedly botched investigations and efforts to prosecute sex-abuse linked homicides due to incompetence and indifference. Many observers, including the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), share that assessment.
After reviewing police files, the independent human rights group in 1998 published a scathing report criticizing irregularities in investigation. Some of the files lacked photographs of corpses or DNA tests to help in identification, others were mistaken as to where a body was found, and in a number of cases, victims had been misidentified. As a result, there have been 18 suspects arrested in various murders, but every conviction has been overturned for lack of evidence or because of procedural errors.
Patricia Cabrera, co-author of El Silencio que la Voz de Todas Quiebra , a book about the lives of some of the murdered women, says that the failure to bring killers to justice creates a climate favorable to yet more acts of violence against women in the city. “On the streets, at work, in our homes and in the courts, everyone knows that there’s no problem if you assault a woman. If you do, the law has many twists and there’s a 95% chance you’ll remain free,” she says.
Maquiladoras’ Role Spotlighted
Those who’ve studied the rapes and murders have pointed to quick and obvious measures that could help prevent future tragedies, such as safe public transportation, and police patrols of areas where women have regularly been abducted. Many of the women employed in the maquiladoras live up to two hours from their jobs, and have to walk on dark streets in early morning hours en route to and from work.
The majority of the more than 300 women murdered in Juárez are known to have worked in maquiladoras. The majority of the more than 85 murdered women presumed to be victims of a serial killer or killers were employees of maquiladoras who worked the late shift, and most of them disappeared on their way to or from their jobs in the factories.
The lives of maquiladora workers aren’t the only ones that might have been spared by safe public transportation and police patrols. Investigative journalist Ignacio Alvarado Álvarez, who has studied the murders extensively, reports that 90% of the women murdered since 1993 lived in colonias–poor, marginal communities without police services–and none of these victims owned their own vehicle. “The authorities, however, haven’t been able to design prevention campaigns that reflect those realities,” Alvarado says.
Cano has repeatedly called for maquiladora owners to provide more security to ensure workers’ safety, including secure bus service to and from workers’ homes.
Some members of the Juárez Maquiladora Association recently began sponsoring self-defense and karate classes for women workers. Meanwhile, city officials argue that no funds are available for increased police patrols or better public transportation.
At Casa Amiga in June, nearly twice as many battered women came to seek help and support than in some previous months.
“There’s definitely a connection between the layoffs and the increased cases of abuse we’re seeing. A woman asks for money for food or school supplies for the kids, for example. The husband has no money to give her, so he responds with blows. He’s frustrated that he doesn’t have work, and he’s angry,” explains Cano. “We see the results of the anger and hatred here every day.”
Mobilizing to Improve Conditions
Around Mexico, in the United States and elsewhere, activists are mobilizing to stop the beatings, rapes, and murders in Juárez. This year’s observation of the UN International Day against Violence against Women set off two weeks of actions to highlight the plight of Juárez women. Participants are challenging governments on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to conduct serious, professional investigations into the murders. They are carrying out marches, demonstrations, vigils, and letter writing campaigns to educate people about the problem and foster solidarity with the women of Juárez. Many are connecting issues of NAFTA’s free trade model with the social and physical violence in the city.
On the wall above Cano’s desk at Casa Amiga is a poster for the crisis center with the words: “For the woman who has been the victim of physical, sexual, or psychological violence–there’s something more than rage, something more than sadness, something more than terror … there’s hope.” The emphasis on hope is as important for Cano as for the victims she works with. For example, one morning a woman came to the shelter so severely distraught she had to be taken to a psychologist immediately for counseling and medication. The woman had no money to pay for it, and she had nowhere to stay. “Some days–days like that–I feel I can’t continue. Then something like this happens,” says Cano, holding up a plain, white envelope. “I just received this in the mail. There was $20 inside. Just an envelope with $20, from someone in Westchester, Illinois. Very beautiful. Now we have the money to pay for this woman’s medicine. That’s precious.”
While Cano finds hope in the kindness of strangers and continues to work most days and many nights to heal the wounds caused by the violence that plagues her city, she’d love to wake someday to a different Juárez–one where the services and solidarity offered at Casa Amiga were no longer needed.
But some observers argue that unless the city is able to chart a new role for itself in the global economy, the ugliness the staff at Casa Amiga confronts daily isn’t likely to go away.
Julian Cardona is a native of Juárez who’s covered the city’s violence as photographer and journalist for more than 20 years, and has focused much of his work on the disappearances and assassinations of women in the city. He sees the economic niche Juárez has carved out for itself and the violence against women as cause and effect.
“You have to ask yourself why there’s been this silent war. You have to consider that the transnationals and the governments of both countries have exploited the region for 40 years without paying sufficient salaries to men and women so they can see their children develop. The biggest necessity is money–a fair wage,” Cardona says. “As long as Mexico doesn’t have an adequate economic system–and it looks like it never will–the violence will continue to expand in concentric circles from the zones of exploitation, like Juárez.”
Jonathan Treat writes frequently for the Americas Program. He encourages organizations and individuals interested in efforts to help Casa Amiga build a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Juárez to contact him at < firstname.lastname@example.org >.
Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis
Email: email@example.com , firstname.lastname@example.org
Coalition on Violence against Women and Families on the Border
Tel: (915) 593-1000
Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance
Maquiladora Solidarity Network
Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights
Websites and other online resources
- Mujeres en Red: http://www.nodo50.org/mujeresred/mexico-juarez.htm
- Promujer-L listserv for women’s rights advocates in the El Paso – Ciudad Juárez area. To subscribe or get more information email: email@example.com
- Women on the Border
- Online Reading
“Activists See Mixed Signals as Juárez Murder Cases Go to OAS,” Kent Paterson | Americas Program, October 21, 2002 http://www.americaspolicy.org/articles/2002/0210juarez.html
“As Corpses Multiply in Juárez,” Molly Ivins | Star-Telegram.com , May 16, 2002. http://www.dfw.com/mld/startelegram/news/columnists/molly_ivins/3272927.htm
“Juárez Center Fights for Forgotten Women,” Tessie Borden | The Arizona Republic , February 26, 2002
“Juárez: El Asesino Oculto,” Ignacio Alvarado Álvarez | Almargen Periodismo de Investigación No. 2
“Killings of women in Ciudad Juárez Continue,” Kent Paterson | Americas Program, February 28, 2002
“Saldo de 9 Años de Impunidad,” José Pérez-Espino | Almargen Periodismo de Investigación No. 1, June 1, 2002 http://www.almargen.com.mx/pdi/El%20silencio/impunidad.htm
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Published by the Americas Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2002. All rights reserved.
Jonathan Treat, “Casa Amiga: Window on Political Economics of Juárez Violence,” Americas Program, (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, December 3, 2002).
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/articles/2002/0212casa.html