Fighting Femicide in the Americas

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles about resisting femicide in the US-Mexico borderlands and the Americas

In a room hidden away in the basement floor of a campus building, gut-wrenching  images greeted visitors. A “life-size collage” constructed like a statue projected women’s faces, missing persons posters, death masks and other snapshots of sexual violence. Nearby, a poster of a skeleton and blind-folded girl depicted the “duality” of femicide (also known as feminicide) in the form of a victim coming back to life to give a potential victim advice. The works of art were products of New Mexico State University (NMSU) students and staff.

“We just wanted to show (people) what femicides looked like,” said student and collage creator Johana Bencomo. Jose Montoya, a retention adviser for NMSU’s College Assistance Migrant  Program, added that  his art  was meant to encourage people to visualize and think about femicide, the killing of women based on gender,  as the “most extreme form of violence against women.”

The collage and poster were appropriate if disturbing backdrops to a recent presentation of a ground-working book at NMSU’s main Las Cruces campus.  Terrorizing Women: Femicide in the Americas, is a book that examines women’s murders in Mexico, Central America and South America. Its chapters tell the personal stories of  victims and their relatives, delve into femicide theories, portray the cross-border anti-violence movement, and explore the notion of transnational justice.

Published by Duke University Press, the new book is co-edited by Dr. Cynthia Bejarano, associate professor of criminal justice at NMSU, and Dr. Rosa-Linda Fregoso, professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz. “This book is really a call to social action,” said Bejarano, stressing that the book’s concept goes beyond typical academic tracts to incorporate off-campus voices.

Two community women were on hand to discuss the book and share their personal stories: Ciudad Juarez mothers Evangelina Arce and Paula Bonilla Flores. Arce’s daughter Silvia disappeared in March 1998, while Bonilla Flores’ daughter, Sagrario Gonzalez, was murdered the same year. Both women have been committed and outspoken human rights activists over the years.

“We were driven to write this book by our shock and outrage,” said UC’s Rosa-Linda  Fregoso. “We’re writing against centuries of invisibility of violence against women.”

In a panel discussion, Fregoso set a framework when she spoke about violence against women in Latin America and other parts of the world as a kind of “low-intensity warfare on women’s bodies.” In places as geographically and culturally diverse as World War Two Europe, Vietnam, Africa, and the modern Balkans, women have been treated as “war booty,” Fregoso said.

With drug-fueled violence devastating Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, only 40 minutes south of  NMSU, the discussion soon began to consider the connections between femicide and other forms of violence. In the El Paso-Las Cruces area, the violence hits home. For instance, Johana Bencomo recently lost a relative to the violence devastating the state of Chihuahua.

The NMSU student told Frontera NorteSur how her father’s uncle was murdered on a trip back home to a little Chihuahua mountain town. The man had relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the urging of his son, but went back to check the house only to encounter an unexpected and violent end. The relative was not involved in the drug business, Bencomo insisted.

“It’s really scary how much this drug cartel violence has hit every single corner of Mexico and not just Juarez and the bigger cities,” Bencomo said, adding that she has relatives in Ciudad Juarez but doesn’t visit them because of the unsafe situation in the city. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s sad, really sad,” she said.

Dr. Hector Dominguez-Ruvalcaba, an associate professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas-Austin, also participated in the panel discussion. Dominguez-Ruvalcaba said “impunity” was a common thread linking the femicides with other homicides in Mexico.

“Anyone can kill anyone with the possibility that they will get away with it,” the one-time Ciudad Juarez resident and former NMSU student warned. Mexico, he added, has good laws on the books, but the problem resides with applying them.

Central to their mission, the panelists analyzed strategies and tactics to combat gender violence. Bejarano was a co-founder of the Las Cruces- based Amigos de las Mujeres, a group established to aid the relatives of femicide victims in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City.

She recalled how activists had brought US Congressional delegations to the border and engaged high-level US authorities to put pressure on the Mexican government. Ultimately, she said, the strategy had limitations due to Washington’s stance that Mexico was a sovereign ally of the US and a “friend of business.”

Bejarano criticized other aspects of US policy, including Washington’s failure to ratify the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The US’ inaction on the treaty sets it apart from virtually all the world’s nations.

In recent years, Bejarano added, an increasing number of groups in Latin America have returned to the grassroots to  resist gender violence. The New Mexico scholar cited the example of community defenders in Peru who accompany victims of violence to court and pressure the justice system to uphold women’s rights.

The issue of vigilante justice was debated by Bejarano, Fregoso and others in attendance at the Las Cruces event.

On September 22, residents of Ascension, a small town in the northern part of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, rose up and detained a gang of kidnappers which had been terrorizing the populace for months. Two of the suspected kidnappers, young men, were severely beaten by townspeople and later died while awaiting transfer by law enforcement officials.

Residents then took over city hall and disarmed the town’s police force, which had been accused of collaborating with criminals, and vowed to defend their farming community. In subsequent days, the Mexican press carried stories of other alleged rapists and kidnappers killed by outraged citizens in Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez.

In the absence of effective rule of law, the “Ascension Syndrome” represents a double-edged sword, Bejarano said. “Even though I can understand Ascension, it is a dangerous precedent,” she added. “I think we need to reinvigorate or reinvent this movement at the community level… and we’re seeing some of that in Ascension.”

Bejarano cautioned against the Ascension uprising as being misinterpreted in the US as another instance of the violence some contend threatens to spill across the border. In her view, Ascension is an opportunity for people on both sides of the border to come together for the purposes of mediating grievances, restoring the rule of law and assuring genuine justice. “Unfortunately, it will take something like this to be a wake- up call on this side of the border,” Bejarano contended.

For NMSU student Johana Bencomo, fundamental awareness is still lacking at home. As part of a class with Dr. Bejarano this year, Bencomo helped interview 15 randomly selected NMSU students, mostly in their 20s, about their knowledge of femicide in general and the murders of women in nearby Ciudad Juarez in particular. According to Bencomo, only three or four students knew about the Ciudad Juarez slayings, and one student even said the word “femicide” meant “some sort of pesticide.”

“I was unpleasantly surprised how many people didn’t know,” Bencomo said.

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news

Center for Latin American and Border Studies

New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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