In mid-December 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned Mexico’s handling of the cases of three women who had been murdered in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez.
The decision of the judicial arm of the Organization of American States (OAS) was the latest to validate work started by Esther Chavez Cano, a bold voice decrying the horrific numbers of murdered girls and women in the city of 1.5 million. As it turns out, it was also the final validation of her work. Chavez, 76, died two weeks later after a long battle with cancer.
The Inter-American court ruled that the families of the three women should receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages from the Mexican government and that a monument should be erected to all Juarez’s “feminicide” victims. The three victims were among eight women dumped in a disused cotton field near the town’s business center in 2001.
Chavez began to raise her voice about the murders of women and girls in 1993 before anyone else was paying attention. A former accountant, Chavez noticed a sinister pattern. Girls and young women disappeared on their way to work or school, only to turn up murdered, sexually mutilated and dumped in the desert. Chavez spoke out about the lack of investigation into the crimes, and in 1994, she, along with representatives of 11 women’s organizations, formed “8 de Marzo,” the first anti-violence activist group.
Violent Deaths in a Culture of Discrimination
One of the first stories on my list after moving to Mexico City in 2003 was about the murdered women of Juarez. It had been ten years since Chavez started raising the alarm in this city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.
By the time I got to Mexico the number of women who had been found in such condition had reached into the hundreds. I had discarded the idea of being a war correspondent as I’d realized that many other stories were equally deserving, though less splashy than stories of battle. This was one of them, and Chavez was the first name I heard.
Her Quiet Activism Helped Garner International Attention
In the forefront of efforts to bring world attention to the inadequacies of the murder investigations, the petite, soft-spoken Chavez had begun keeping records of the disappeared women. She documented their last known whereabouts, their manner of discovery and other details, something the authorities were not doing.
In 1999 she founded the rape crisis center Casa Amiga, the first shelter for battered women in Mexico’s border region.
Casa Amiga was an unassuming structure when I visited there in 2003, not unlike others on its tree-lined street. In the office I had to lean over Chavez’s desk to hear what the grandmotherly, diminutive woman was saying. Yet, incongruously, this sparrow-like woman had an iron core, and I was struck, as were many others, by the unobtrusive forcefulness of her words.
“They’re participating in a culture of discrimination, and they don’t take these problems seriously,” Chavez told me, referring to state authorities who had notoriously told family members that their disappeared loved ones had probably simply forgotten to come home from the disco. “Neither the president nor the state governors appear to be making women’s safety a priority.”
The women mostly ranged in age from 15 to 25; they tended to be tall and slim, with long dark hair; and they would vanish while out doing errands or en route to school or work. By the end of the 1990s the estimated number of disappeared was 300 or more, with about 100 confirmed dead, their bodies found mutilated and discarded.
By scouring newspapers in the beginning, and also later with information from families and others who knew to come to her, Chavez began keeping a record of the murdered women (violence that predated today’s drug wars, which claimed the lives of 2000 people of both sexes in 2009).
The so-called Cotton Field Murders in November 2001 were a watershed moment in terms of garnering international attention. Eight bodies were found tossed into dry irrigation ditches in the field across from the city’s business association for maquiladoras, or border assembly plants.
Many of the victims worked in these plants. They were girls like Lilia Alejandra García, kidnapped at age 17 on Valentine’s Day 2001 after leaving work and found six days later, nude, strangled and with signs of sexual assault, wrapped in a blanket and left near the plastics factory that employed her, according to reports. The culprits were never found.
She Was a Constant Voice in the Wilderness of Impunity
Eventually Chavez was joined by other voices as well, including families of the victims who were looking for answers.
“She had a unique vision in defense of women,” said Norma Ledezma, whose daughter, Paloma Escobar Ledezma, disappeared in 2002, her body found in 2006. “Although [Chavez] was so tiny and thin, she had incredible strength…. She was a great example on waging that fight until the last day of her life.”
Ledezma, one of the many mothers of disappeared and murdered women who were inspired and supported by Chavez, helped found a group, Justice for Our Daughters, made up of the women’s family members, whose mission it was to get the crimes investigated properly.
Lydia Cacho, a journalist who runs a battered-women’s shelter in Cancun and has been targeted by the government and others for her crusade against child prostitution, wrote about her fellow activist in the Mexican newspaper El Universal.
“Esther had a mathematical mind; her experience as an accountant prepared her to become the first Mexican to record and count, empirically and with impeccable detail, each and every one of the murdered girls and women in her state,” Cacho wrote. “It was she who blazed the trail…. Esther guided us with a firm hand and a just and true word.”
Government Closes Its Eyes
Although most of the crimes remained unsolved, Chavez was instrumental in drawing international attention to the killings, the lack of investigation and the air of impunity that surrounded the crimes.
A Mexican government commission appointed to study the matter did not give Chavez much hope, and her lack of faith was borne out when it issued its report in February 2006. The commission concluded that, given the level of gender-based violence around the country, the crimes against the murdered women of Juarez were not so unusual.
“It’s a disgrace,” she told me. “There are still the bodies of the girls, and they haven’t done anything about domestic violence. They are not doing anything to stop the violence.”
Chavez did, though.
Her quiet activism helped garner international attention from a wide range of disparate quarters. Amnesty International blasted Chihuahua state and Juarez municipal authorities’ lack of action on solving the killings in a scathing August 2003 report. A six-member team of UN investigators also cited government inadequacy as a root cause of the impunity after a September 2003 visit and inspection at the Chihuahua government’s invitation.
“In a significant number of cases, the brutality with which the assailants abduct and murder the women goes further than the act of killing and provides one of the most terrible examples of violence against women,” wrote Amnesty International in a 2003 report, Intolerable Killings: Ten years of abductions and murders in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua. “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.”
The report also detailed negligence by authorities: “The failure of the competent authorities to take action to investigate these crimes, whether through indifference, lack of will, negligence or inability, has been blatant over the last ten years,” Amnesty wrote. The organization documented delays in the initial investigations, a failure to follow up evidence and witnesses, falsified evidence and inadequate forensic examinations.
A U.S. Congressional delegation visited Juarez in October 2003 and got legislation passed calling for Mexico to thoroughly investigate. Playwright Eve Ensler created a peripatetic V-Day March in Juarez on Valentine’s Day 2004. Even Hollywood responded with two movies, The Virgin of Juarez, starring Minnie Driver, and El Traspatio (Backyard), which is competing for an Academy Award this year as best foreign-language film.
Eventually, even the Mexican government recognized its own, awarding Chavez the country’s national human rights prize in 2008 “for 16 years of outstanding work in the effective promotion and defense of basic rights,” according to a statement by the National Commission on Human Rights.
It was a government with whom Chavez was at virtual loggerheads throughout much of her adult life.
“They just issued reports to appease the international organizations,” she said of the 400-page government opus released in 2006.
Chavez never wavered in her commitment to the women of Juarez, even in the face of harassment, threats and a lack of action by the government that was supposed to be protecting its citizens – circumstances that would have discouraged many. She was a soft but constant voice in the wilderness of impunity and lackadaisical investigation.
Chavez’s words once appeared on Casa Amiga’s site (its domain name seems to have expired since her death). For a woman to be heard “requires twice the energy, twice the intensity of a man’s voice,” she wrote. “This is why I learned to shout for those who couldn’t … and to cry so many times for and with so many women, girls and boys whose voices and whose lives have been crushed by the impunity of our state and our nation.”
Theresa Braine is a freelance journalist in New York City who was based in Mexico for seven years.