Shadow of Death in Ciudad Juárez

The heads of murder victims from Ciudad Juarez, as reconstructed from their skulls by the police.
The heads of some of the women murdered at Ciudad Juárez, as reconstructed from their skulls by the police (Photo: Jorge Uzon/AFP-Getty Images).

The decade-old mystery shrouding the unsolved murders of hundreds of young women in and around the northern border city of Ciudad Juárez has fueled bitter criticism and painful reflection in the nation’s press following the release in late November of a 1,500-page report by Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights alleging a disturbing pattern of official indifference and corruption in handling of the cases.

An editorial in El Universal (Nov. 24) noted that the report concluded from an investigation of 263 known murders of women in the Ciudad Juárez area that police and political authorities at all levels of government have shown a striking lack of diligence—and in some instances, criminal negligence and conspiracy to obstruct justice—that have consistently frustrated investigations over the past decade.

Though several men have been arrested for murder, the unabated killings, which international human-rights agencies estimate at more than 370, have cast doubt on the credibility of even these prosecutions. The failure to solve the majority of these cases “testifies to an intent to downplay the seriousness of the phenomenon, which ...sends a message to society that crimes committed against women are tolerated,” the commission declared.

“The gravity of these allegations,” El Universal commented, “in any other country would be sufficient cause to demand the resignation of the entire hierarchical chain of political, police, and prosecutorial authorities.” In an interview with Victor Ballinas of La Jornada (Nov. 29), commission President José Luis Soberanes Fernández flatly affirmed, “The case of the the most important question on the human-rights agenda of the current administration.” But following his brief formal presentation of the commission report to President Vicente Fox, Soberanes complained that he “did not receive the response from the chief executive that I had expected—that is, a clear and convincing commitment in which he would have publicly accepted and endorsed the recommendations I presented to him.”

The political heat from the scandal intensified further following reports in several national newspapers, including La Jornada and Reforma, citing evidence linking four influential business figures in Chihuahua state to an alleged network of drug traffickers and other criminals widely believed to have carried out many of the kidnappings and murders.

Jaime Avilés of La Jornada (Nov. 29) cited business and personal relationships that link two of the four to Fox and his political associates. Avilés urged Fox to order an immediate federal investigation: “The issue of human rights has cast the shadow of a threat that, if not heeded in time...can destroy irreversibly and definitively the moral authority of Vicente Fox.”

Other press commentaries have focused on the human tragedy of the crimes perpetrated against women typically in their teens or early 20s and often employed in the city’s large industrial complex of maquiladoras specializing in assembly of goods for export. Sergio Aguayo Quezada, writing in Reforma (Nov. 25), observed that the stark brutality of the murders suggests a rage rooted in a culture of machismo and fueled by economic and social dislocation. “The maquiladoras were fed by thousands of young women who, in exchange for a salary, were abandoning traditional roles—and the machos reacted,” the columnist said.

Some commentators expressed cautious optimism that the unprecedented attention devoted to the Ciudad Juárez murders in recent months would pressure federal authorities to launch an aggressive investigation to arrest and prosecute the killers and punish corrupt police and public officials.

“The degree of impunity...has torn the social fabric,” Nora Patricia Jara wrote in La Jornada (Dec. 1). The recent “Day of Nonviolence” demonstration in Mexico City by union, academic, and civic organizations revealed heightened popular awareness that every unsolved murder in Ciudad Juárez “contributes to living in a climate of impunity and constant threat,” Jara said.

The columnist added, “The federal government must act once and for all on behalf of the victims...and dispense justice in this ominous affair.”