JUAREZ, Mexico — At least 170 women were murdered in Juarez in 2019 — some in very gruesome ways — and police suspect drug traffickers in all but 16 of those homicides.
The killings come as Mexican drug cartels expand domestic sales of their product, faced with increasing challenges to take it across the border into the United States. They are recruiting gang members, drug addicts, students, older couples and even their girlfriends to make sure the product gets to every neighborhood in this city, police officials say.
“In the past few years we have seen an empowerment of women who have joined the ranks of organized crime,” said Silvia Najera, a member of the Crimes Against Women unit of the Chihuahua state Attorney General’s Office. “Many had important positions in these groups. Some sold drugs, others just knew people who are part of those gangs and that perhaps made them vulnerable.”
As of last Saturday, Juarez had recorded 1,486 homicides, with 170 of the victims being female. More murders were reported on Sunday, but the deceased have not been identified.
The last known victim was a woman whose body turned up in a vacant lot in a working–class subdivision. Her hands and feet were bound and a plastic bag covered her head, police said.
Earlier this month, a gunman walked into a bar after midnight and shot dead at close range four barmaids — ages 21 to 34. Two of the women had previously worked at a bar whose manager was murdered in September, police said.
And seven women who identified themselves on social media and friendship circles as members of a group called West Side 18 have been killed since 2017, with the last two victims being shot to death in September.
“Their economic situation, the need to have a better life and provide for their children are some of the reasons why women chose to join these groups,” Najera said, adding that not all the victims were drug dealers. “Sometimes they just had friends or knew people in criminal gangs, and that cost them their lives.”
Most of the women’s killers are yet to be brought to justice, something that activist groups say is just about the norm here.
Juarez can’t shake off ‘feminicides’
Since a streak of serial killings in 1993, Juarez developed a reputation as a place where criminals prey on women. And when eight bodies turned up in a cotton field in the city’s southeast in the early 2000s, international public opinion forced authorities to pass special protection laws.
The Crimes Against Women section of the Chihuahua AG’s office came to be as a result of agreements with the InterAmerican Human Rights Court, Najera said.
The office sits inside a walled-off compound far from any major highway. Dozens of photographs of missing women and girls greet visitors at the entrance. Inside, women sit holding legal papers, waiting to see a prosecutor, a psychologist or a counselor.
State officials go out of their way to show that the office isn’t just a paper tiger. They highlight recent successes like a 30-year prison sentence handed out Dec. 20 against Luis Enrique Rodriguez Martinez,27, for the strangulation death of his 20-year-old girlfriend last year.
Still, many “feminicides” — as Mexican prosecutors define murders of women borne out of sexual attacks, jealousy and other specific motives — remain unsolved.
And activists take exception with the lumping of most women’s murders with drug-trafficking activity. Imelda Marrufo, the coordinator of the group Red Mesa de Mujeres, said at a public protest in November that even the cotton field murders remain unsolved.
She said not only do murders and abductions of women in Juarez remain rampant, but the fact that most perpetrators aren’t caught leads to more discrimination and imperilment of women.
And even at only 16 confirmed cases, Juarez is second only to the industrial giant of Monterrey, with 17, in terms of “feminicides” in Mexico.
Najera says she’s aware of the sensitivity of the topic. She says that since May, her office is the first to be called to any murder scene involving a female. So far, they’ve answered 81 calls.
“From what I see and live here every day, Juarez is safe for women obviously as long as they are not involved with these groups that make them vulnerable to suffer all kinds of crimes,” Najera said. “Being acquainted with people in organized crime, or getting involved themselves makes them vulnerable.”
More killings, collateral damage
On Dec. 6, Juarez police responded to two murder scenes involving women. One case seemed to fit the profile of life in a city where three major drug cartels vie for control. It was a 29-year-old woman shot several times in the head with a 9 mm gun — the drug traffickers’ handgun of choice — on a street corner.
That happened in the late afternoon. Two hours later, officers were summoned to a hotel near a highway, where clerks had pulled the body of a naked woman out of an overflowing bathtub.
According to police, the woman in her 20s had been forcibly drowned in scalding hot water. Ninety percent of her body had second-degree burns.
Both murders remain unsolved.
But even when the motive of a killing is drugs, innocent women and girls have gotten caught in the crossfire.
On June 18 a father attending his daughter’s kindergarten graduation was shot to death going into the school. A stray bullet struck one of his daughter’s classmates in the head, killing her.
And on Nov. 25, several gunmen stormed a ranch in southeast Juarez where two families were holding a party. The assassins kidnapped one of the guests and unleashed a barrage of automatic gunfire as they fled. Many of the 200 bullets fired struck a pickup truck, killing a man inside and mortally wounding his three nieces, ages 4, 13 and 14.
Authorities blamed the “Mexicles” gang, a Sinaloa cartel affiliate, for the massacre. While several members of the “Mexicles” have been arrested recently for a wave of violence against authorities that led a raid on the prison where their leaders are held, none of the gang members have been officially charged with the girls’ murders.