On 8 March 2011, to mark the occasion of International Women’s Day, PEN centres around the world commemorated Susana Chávez Castillo. Two months earlier, Chávez’s mutilated body had been found in an abandoned house in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Her left hand had been cut off. A well-known poet and campaigner for women’s rights, Chávez had repeatedly criticised the failure of the authorities to effectively investigate feminicidio in the city.
Since 1993, over 500 women have been abducted and murdered in the border towns of Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua. Many of them have been brutally beaten and raped before being killed. Their bodies are dumped in the desert or left in ditches or in the doorways of secluded streets. Chávez coined the phrase ‘ni una más’ (not one more) to denounce the local authorities’ inability to stem the horrific murder rate.
Juárez is now the most heavily populated city in Chihuahua State and, because of its proximity to the US, it has high levels of drug trafficking and crime. The city has also been dubbed the ‘femicide capital of the world’. Most of the victims are young women, some of them just girls, who work in the region’s maquiladoras. For many impoverished women in Mexico, working in these sweatshops is their only option. The factories spread rapidly during the 1990s after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force. Those who work in them make clothes for United States-based companies such as Levi Strauss and Gap.
Because it is mainly women who are prepared to work in the factories, putting in long hours for appalling rates of pay, male unemployment in the area has risen. To compound matters, small farm owners and indigenous collectives have been forced out of business and off their land, creating further poverty and hardship in the rural sector. The women have become a lot more visible as they travel to and from work, and their new-found independence breeds resentment among local men.
When the women’s murders first began to be reported, the authorities were openly discriminatory in their public statements. The women themselves were blamed – because of the way they dressed or because they were returning from work alone at night – for their own abductions or murders. According to a 2003 report by Amnesty International, many of the women ‘were abducted, held captive for several days and subjected to humiliation, torture and the most horrific sexual violence before dying, mostly as a result of asphyxiation caused by strangulation or from being beaten’. Most of the killings remain unsolved and many believe that the people behind them are being protected.
News of Chávez’s murder has reminded the international community that violence against women in Ciudad Juárez, and elsewhere in the country, continues unabated. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics, an average of five women per day are murdered nationwide. By allowing these killings to be carried out with impunity, the government conveys the message that women’s lives are worthless, and that their human rights are non-existent. Lydia Cacho’s life, for example, was valued at little more than ‘two beautiful bottles of Cognac’ (LR, October 2007).
At the time of writing, Chávez’s murder remains unsolved. The authorities have denied that it was related to her activism and poetry or to organised crime, despite the recent murder and harassment of numerous other local activists and the area’s long record of extreme violence against outspoken women.
According to PEN, three weeks earlier another human rights campaigner, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, was also murdered. Escobedo had fought tirelessly for an investigation into the 2008 murder in Ciudad Juárez of her daughter, Rubí Marisol. On 16 December 2010, Escobedo was shot dead while picketing outside the governor’s palace in the state capital, the city of Chihuahua. At least five other rights activists have reportedly been killed in Chihuahua in the last two years, and others have been threatened and attacked.
Readers might like to send appeals protesting against the murder and mutilation of the poet and women’s rights activist Susana Chávez Castillo; calling for a full and impartial investigation into her murder, including due consideration of any possible links with her activism and poetry; and calling for effective investigations into all other unsolved killings and disappearances of writers, journalists and human rights activists in Mexico.
Appeals to be addressed to:
President Lic Felipe De Jesús Calderón Hinojosa
Fax: (+ 52 55) 5093 4901 / 5277 2376
Attorney General Lic Arturo Chávez Chávez
Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Journalists and Freedom of Expression Dr Gustavo Salas Chávez
His Excellency Eduardo Tomas Medina Mora Icaza
The Mexican Embassy
16 St George Street
London W1S 1FD
Fax + 44 207 495 4035
Updates: On 4 March, the last of the 2003 ‘Black Spring’ writers was released from prison in Cuba. A number of ‘Black Spring’ cases were covered in these pages. Thanks to all readers who sent appeals.
On 10 March, Turkish publisher Ragip Zarakolu and author Mehmet Güler were convicted of spreading propaganda supporting the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), following the publication of Güler’s book The ‘KCK File: The Global State and Kurds without a State’ (LR, May 2010). Zarakolu was fined and Güler received a fifteen-month suspended prison sentence.