Ciudad Juárez, Mexico gained notoriety in the 1990s for its epidemic of female abductions. Over a decade, close to 1,500 women were disappeared from the border town. Today, reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky profiles Marisela Ortiz, an activist who’s spent years in fighting for justice for families of what's known as femicide. The story is part of a series on women and girls in Bolivia and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico called Ground Shifters: Stories of Women Changing Unseen Worlds. The series is a collaboration between WBEZ and the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media at Columbia College-Chicago. Series Executive Producer, Steve Bynum. Series Producer/Creative Advisor, Jane Saks
The bustling downtown centro of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico is deceptively festive. Stalls of bright clothes, dance music and colorful sweets line the plaza’s streets. They seem to mock the area’s history.
In 1993, women in Juárez started disappearing. Most vanished from here, the centro, abducted on their way to or from their night shifts at the maquiladoras, the city’s infamous mammoth factories that churn out cheap goods for US import. Often the women were on company transport buses. They were raped, tortured and killed; their bodies dumped on the city’s outskirts.
As of 2005, 600 victims had been found of what’s now known as femicide. Another 800 remain unaccounted for.
Marisela Ortiz says it all began when a student of her student Liliana Alejandra Garcia, went missing. Lilia’s mother, a teacher friend, sought Marisela’s help.
"At that time, we only focused on finding the girl and then seeking justice," says Marisela. "She had been raped by many men and then strangled to death. Her body appeared 8 days after its disappearence. We made our actions very public and so soon, other mothers and fathers with disappeared daughters asked us to help them in their search. Little by little because of this solidarity and cohesion among affected families, we decided to formalize our efforts. We officially began our organization in 2001—helping and supporting the femicide victims, and the sons and daughers who were orphaned when their mother was disppeared or killed."
The organization is called Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa. Marisela and co-founder Norma Andrande became the most well known anti-femicide campaigners in Juarez. Their tales inspired Hollywood movies and sparked worldwide human rights campaigns.
Marisela, a powerful presence with hair dyed auburn, has not stopped to rest since. She still works as a school counselor.
Her political routine? Take to the streets, talk to government authorities, press conferences and above all, she says, keep up constant pressure.
This may sound like standard activist fare. But remember, this is Ciudad Juarez: ground zero of the drug war — over 6,000 murders in the last three years, all supposedly drug-related.
But that’s not always the case, and being in the public spotlight means you are more likely to be consumed by the city’s tidal wave of violence.
The costs of (not) speaking out
Last December, a Juarez mother became enraged when authorities let her daughter’s convicted murderer flee the city. The determined mom planted herself in front of the state capital building in Chihuahua, vowing she’d stay put until her government brought her daughter’s killer to justice. A week later, just steps from the seat of government, the mother was gunned down in broad day-light. No one has been arrested. I asked Marisela if she’s scared.
"Of course I am," she admits. "For those of us who defend human rights, fear becomes an inherent part of your actions. I think if we didn’t feel fear we wouldn’t be human. Fear is necessary but you have to learn how to control your fear so that it doesn’t paralyze you. When someone has taken a gun to your head and said 'you are going to shut up, you are going to stop with these public statements,' it’s terrible. Your life changes completely. You have to say goodbye to many of your normal daily routines. You have to even say goodbye to many of your loved ones because those relationship are never the same again. I felt obligated to separate myself from my daughters. They were under threat too and so I had to say, 'there’s no other choice. You guys have to leave because to live here means constant danger and risk.'
"I have never considered leaving. I couldn’t do something so incongruent. We are struggling to better this community so how could I abandon something that I have struggled so hard for, something for which I’ve almost had to give my life? I couldn’t. I am not leaving Juarez. Not until I am in a coffin."
On a chilly winter evening at Marisela’s school, I meet Laura, 17, and Silvia, 15. Oh, and he’s one, Silvia says, nodding her head towards the little guy on her lap. Classes just ended for the day. Students scamper and shout school in the yard. The sisters sit quietly. They wear thick black mascara, and their mother must have been a beauty because they are stunning.
"Her name was Elena Guadiana," says Laura, recalling her mother. "We know that it was on a Saturday. She went to do extra hours at the maquiladora and she never came back. That’s all we know. My memories of her are fuzzy, almost nothing. I remember things like smells, the smell of burning sugar. But that’s all I remember. Nothing else."
It’s amazing that Laura remembers anything at all, as she was just 3 years and ten months old when her mom disappeared. The two sisters were essentially raised by Marisela and others in the group.
Now, they are notably teenagers - with a surface confidence protecting an inner child not much deeper. But their strength is palpable. Over time, they’ve become active members of Nuestras Hijas.
"This group is important for me," insists Laura. "It’s been very helpful for me to vent things those difficult thoughts. And to know that I don't have to talk about anything and that’s ok, too. With my mother gone, I want to do something so that what happened to her doesn’t happen again. We are here to support others going through what we went through, just as we were supported in our rough times."
Laura's sister Silvia agrees. She used to want to be a policewoman, until she says she realized police are corrupt. Now she's put her dreams of being an architect on hold to raise her son.
"I think that in every march, when we go to the streets and hand out flyers, we are making up for what we weren’t able to do for our mom," Silvia says. "That’s what I’ve come to believe and that’s why I do what I do. Now as an adult, I try to do for others what I couldn’t do before."
Empowering women, changing laws
Soon the room fills with girls Silvia and Laura’s age. The steel bar door closes and the workshop begins. The workshop leader quiets the group and explains: Few of us have the chance to tell our stories— to find our voice in this city. That’s what we’re doing here for the next few months.
Marisela told me she started these programs because the battle of Juarez’s women shouldn’t just be about those who are gone — but about empowering those who are still here. Mothers who’ve lost daughters participate too.
"Some of these workshops are aimed at empowerment," Marisela says. "So that the women starting taking responsibility in society and stop taking on the role of victim that society gives them. They end up stronger in the struggle and better able to support other women. We’ve been able to accomplish this with some of the women, but not with all. This de-victimization work is very difficult. Many women themselves dont want to let go of the victim role because it becomes a refuge for their emotional necessities."
In the past ten years, Nuestras Hijas campaigns changed Juarez law. Now the state is required to search for a woman who disappears. Before, authorities would simply say: “It’s not illegal to leave Juárez. Maybe she just crossed the border.” And not do anything. The organization has rescued women from human trafficking rings and even managed a few convictions. Over 90% of Juarez’s femicides have gone virtually uninvestigated, let alone with an arrest.
But international notoriety triggered by grassroots work like Marisela’s likely put an end to the mass maquiladora bus abductions years ago. These women also helped set a daring precedent for those who seek justice in Juarez: fear will not keep us silenced.
"Here, we are emotionally involved because the majority of us in the organization have been directly affected by the loss of a loved one, a relative and so we have common objectives," says Marisela. "Nothing separates us no matter how different we are. Some did not have the chance to go to school, others [had] few economic opportunities in their lives, [and] others suffer because their families don’t support their activism. None of that has mattered when it’s come to our work. We focus more on our what we can acheive rather than on what we lack."
Everyone has a theory to explain the Juárez femicide phenomenon. The maquilas brought hundreds of thousands of young women to an already dangerous border town, often alone. They made easy victims. Or, the justice system, saturated by impunity, fed by corruption. Or that Juarez—transformed into one of the world’s largest free-trade zones – made even human life dispensable. Maybe it’s all of this, rolled into one.
Without clear cause, there is no clear solution. And the problem grows.
"Frankly, over the last three years, female disappearances have increased 400% and in these last three years is when we’ve seen the highest number of women violently killed," Marisela points out.
"This has been hidden behind all the other violence of the street war between drug cartels. This has allowed the government to put the femicide issue to the side, though it wasn’t a real priority for the government to being with. They will never give you any real figures. In fact they try to hide the severity of the problem. Impunity is an inherent part of femicide. Femicide is not only the assasination of a woman but everything that surrounds that act, including impunity and institutional violence. Even after these women are killed they continue to be raped by our government institutions."
Memories, identities buried deep
Las Lomas are a set of hilly peaks just west of Juárez. The locale serves as the unofficial cemetery for Juarez’s women. It was a preferred dumping ground for their bodies in the 1990’s. I don’t consider myself a particularly spiritual person, but standing there, I felt something around me in the winter breeze; as if their ghosts surrounded me.
A local told me that police rarely bothered to come up here. Mothers would climb the sandy soil hills looking for—and often discovering—their daughters bodies; mutilated and decayed.
Today, a built road stretches to the top and nearby residents come on the weekends to enjoy the view. There’s a soccer field for afternoon games. Eight wooden crosses, painted pink, stand off to the side, covered by tall brush. One more, at the top of a high post, leans sideways, barely hanging on. Passersby, even if they do notice, don’t even glance in that direction.