Femicide — violence against women because they are women — transcends borders.
Through reporting, photography, film and poetry, immerse yourself in the stories of the resilient women
of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, as they search for justice after losing their beloved daughters.
By Corinne Chin and Erika Schultz
Seattle Times visual journalists
Featuring poetry from “Killing Marías” by Claudia Castro Luna
Published March 8, 2020
Ciudad Juárez sits just across the Rio Grande from El Paso at the western tip of Texas. Every day, thousands of people pass between
these twin cities, which form the second-most-populated urban area straddling the U.S.-Mexico border. Juárez is a city known for its pivotal
role in the Mexican Revolution, its manufacturing industry and as a place that draws people from all over the country.
But on the U.S. side of the border, Juárez might be most-known for its reputation as one of the most violent cities in the world.
In the mid-1990s, international media began to fixate on hundreds of gruesome killings of women: mostly young women of modest means.
News stories reported on bodies found en masse in the Chihuahuan desert, at times describing evidence of trauma
and torture in lurid and objectifying detail.
TOP: Juárez — the largest city in Chihuahua, Mexico — is home to around 1.3 million residents, according to
2010 data from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography. Pedestrians cross the street in downtown Juárez.
BOTTOM LEFT: A mural of Mexican superstar Juan Gabriel is painted on a nine-story building in Juárez.
Known as “El Divo de Juárez,” Gabriel grew up in the city and sang at local restaurants and bars before climbing to stardom.
BOTTOM RIGHT: A family walks through downtown Juárez.
No one knows exactly how many women have been killed or kidnapped in Juárez, but gender-based killings continue.
In 2019, the Mexican government registered 1,006 victims of gender-based homicide across the country, with 31
of those in Chihuahua state, where Juárez is located. That is a 137% increase over five years, according to Mexico's
attorney general. Those numbers account only for the women who were found. Many more crimes go undiscovered, unsolved
and unpunished, enough that homicide on the basis of gender has generated its own official classification in
Mexico and in much of Latin America: femicide.
Femicide is not just the killing of victims who happen to be female. It’s a systematic violation of human rights.
Whether through domestic violence or sexual assault, the victims of femicide are women who were killed because they are women.
A cross with the pink sign “Ni Una Más” or “Not One More” sits at the Paso del Norte International Bridge, which connects
Juárez and El Paso, Texas. “Ciudad Juárez has been a very resilient city battered by gender violence,” says Verónica Corchado, director of the
Municipal Institute of Women in Juárez. “From 1993 — when they started registering the cases — until today, around 1,700 women have been murdered
as a result of gender violence.” Local academics and activists have helped compile this data.
Because of this standard's high burden of proof — and because so many women never have been found — official statistics are almost
certainly unreliable. Academics and activists in Juárez have been trying to map killings and compile databases since 1993.
But the missing and murdered women of Juárez are more than statistics and data points. They are beloved daughters who have left behind an
unimaginable and senseless void. They are the fuel of activism against impunity and injustice. They are the seeds of grief that blossom into art.
And they are beautiful, fragile memories that must be preserved.
Play full video (6:45)
Ernestina Enríquez Fierro lost her youngest daughter, 15-year-old Adriana, to femicide in 2008.
Facing indifference from authorities, Enríquez Fierro fights back against a culture of impunity and misogyny.
Ernestina Enríquez Fierro says her youngest daughter, Adriana Sarmiento Enríquez, 15, was last seen alive in January 2008
catching a bus in Juárez’s city center after school. Enríquez Fierro, who supports her family as a housekeeper, says they
searched “every area downtown, every neighborhood, every bus … we never found her.”
Enríquez Fierro says she learned in November 2011 via Facebook that a government forensics office had found her daughter’s
remains in 2009 in San Agustín in the Valle de Juárez, about an hour from her home. No one had told her. “Before living this
nightmare that I think I will never wake up from, I trusted the police … I realized everything was a lie; there are no authorities,
there’s no justice, there’s no respect, there’s nothing … nobody gets punished.”
Adriana, 15, had a lot of friends from a young age. She loved music,
dancing and collecting toy frogs. She remembered her loved ones' birthdays, and often woke them up by singing “Happy Birthday.”
“When my mom died, people called me ‘the orphan.’ When my husband died, I became a widow …
There’s no word to describe this,” Enríquez Fierro says about the loss of her daughter.
The poems in this project are from Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna’s book “Killing Marías.”
“Castro Luna, who was Seattle’s first Civic Poet, from 2015 to 2017, and the founder of Seattle Poetic Grid, wants
readers to think about how their own choices as consumers of products ... might contribute, in an indirect way, to the hardships of workers
such as the female factory employees at the maquiladoras.
“As she wrote the poems, she also felt a desire to seek vengeance against their killers.” — Tyrone Beason
In Juárez, a pedestrian walks by a mural of Luz Angélica Mena Flores, who was last seen in 2008.
Verónica Corchado, director of the Municipal Institute of Women located in downtown Juárez, says the agency
has been working on a series of initiatives to increase safety there, an area where young girls and women have been abducted.
Female students and workers often commute to and from remote parts of the city,
leaving them at risk during downtown bus transfers and walking home from the bus stop.
Verónica Corchado, an organizer and human rights activist, works as the director of the Municipal Institute of Women located in downtown Juárez.
In her career spanning more than 25 years — focused on eliminating violence against women — she has survived three assaults.
“With every murder, it is all of us who fail — society and government,” she says.
“Gender-based violence is a public health issue.”
Imelda Marrufo Nava is the general coordinator of Red Mesa de Mujeres, a network of civil society organizations
serving women in vulnerable situations, as well as families of women who have been victims of trafficking or femicide.
The work of Red Mesa de Mujeres encompasses everything from influencing policy to using art as a vehicle for therapy and activism.
Marrufo says the number of femicides decreased between 2013 and 2014, but a Red Mesa de Mujeres program
has tracked “an alarming increase” in femicide since 2016, using newspaper articles and statistics from the state prosecuting attorney.
“Violence against women is a global issue; it’s a global phenomenon, and women have been suffering this for
many years,” she says. “We have learned many sexist cultural traits that haven’t been fully eradicated, either in the
United States or Mexico … It doesn’t only happen in Mexico.”
Perla Janina Reyes Loya feeds her children lunch in Juárez. Her daughter
Jocelyn Calderón Reyes, 13 — seen on her shirt — disappeared Dec. 30, 2012, on her way to a friend’s house. She is still missing.
Reyes often protests and engages in activism to remind the community that this still is happening.
“When we go out on the streets, we spread our testimony to stop young girls from dying, right? We have to make young
girls aware of this to prevent it,” says Reyes. “Going out on the streets, screaming out their names … we feel like we are actually
doing something to find them, that we are fighting, and that we won’t stop until we find them.”
Reyes is photographed in her home in Juárez. She says it’s important for the public to help combat
femicide by not remaining silent. “Disappearances continue in Juárez,” Reyes says. “We still ask of you that if you see our
girls, please help them get back home.”
“We aren’t living in a free country where young people, children, can play or go out, because there are
people who want to destroy them … they destroy their dreams, young people’s dreams … Jocelyn was a girl who had big dreams.”
Perla Janina Reyes Loya
Who is killing the women of Ciudad Juárez?
It’s a question that has consumed the public imagination and fueled media fascination. Authorities in Juárez have blamed serial killers,
gangs and even the women themselves, some of whom they claimed were living double lives as sex workers.
For Cynthia Bejarano, who has researched femicide as a professor of gender and sexuality studies at New Mexico State University, “who” is not the
right question to ask. “ ‘Why is it that it’s ongoing? Why is it that it’s happening in every community, in every corner of the world?’
That should be the issue,” Bejarano says.
The reasons are complex and multilayered, residing at the intersections of privilege, class and gender.
In Juárez, rampant impunity gives perpetrators confidence they won’t be caught. The vast majority of crimes are never punished,
according to many researchers, including some Mexican government studies.
“Experts widely agree that the homicide impunity rate is in the high 90s, with the number frequently given as 98 percent,”
says Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She says that number has remained the same for about 15 years.
“Our society is all aware — the victims are aware — that no government was ever interested or willing to solve this issue,” says Norma Ledezma Ortega, founder of
Justicia para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for Our Daughters). “[The victims] don’t have any political or economic power that could be of interest to the state.”
Early research found that many victims were young and economically disadvantaged. Many worked for low wages in the city’s maquiladoras (large factories),
like Ledezma Ortega’s daughter, Paloma Angélica Escobar Ledezma, who was killed in 2002 at the age of 16.
LEFT: A pedestrian walks past an abandoned hotel and bar in Juárez, where pink crosses and
signs seeking information about missing or murdered women are posted.
RIGHT: A poster for María Guadalupe Pérez Montes is displayed.
Mothers say they don't get much help from officials and are left alone to do the work of finding their daughters and fighting for justice.
In November 2001, eight young women were found in el Campo Algodonero, an abandoned cotton field on a busy street near the maquiladora association
headquarters. The following year, three mothers presented a petition against the state of Mexico to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The state argued that their daughters' killings were isolated crimes — and not part of a systemic pattern.
“Authorities deny [femicide],” says Perla Janina Reyes Loya, whose daughter Jocelyn Calderón Reyes has been missing since 2012, when she was 13.
“They don’t respect women’s rights; they always try to cover this up. They say, ‘Nothing’s happening,’ when in fact our daughters have been
missing for many years.”
In 2009, the Inter-American Court ruled that Mexico mishandled the Campo Algodonero investigations, failing to protect the victims’
human rights — the first time a state was held responsible for gender-based killings, setting a historic precedent.
LEFT: Memorial Campo Algodonero, the Cotton Field Memorial, honors femicide victims in Juárez. The name of
the memorial references eight young women who were found in a Juárez cotton field in November 2001. In 2009, the
Inter-American Court of Human Rights found Mexico mishandled investigations and failed to protect the victims’ human
rights — the first time a state was held responsible for gender-based murders, setting a historic legal precedent.
TOP RIGHT: Weathered notices of missing women are displayed at Memorial Campo Algodonero, the Cotton Field Memorial, in Juárez.
BOTTOM RIGHT: A cross reads “Ni Una Más” — or “Not One More” — at Memorial Campo Algodonero.
Despite that legal victory for the mothers, entrenched social and economic systems remain unequal. A culture of machismo — male dominance —
reinforces stereotypical gender roles. Some have speculated that it fueled resentment toward wage-earning women. Research shows that many
perpetrators of femicide are known to their victims, especially in cases of intimate partner violence. With so many systems intersecting, it’s
hard for mothers to envision what justice might look like.
“I know I don’t have it, and I know I’ll never have it,” Ledezma Ortega says.
Justice is about more than holding a singular perpetrator accountable, Bejarano says.
“It’s much more complicated and difficult to look systemically at things,”
she says, “to look societally at these issues and to say, ‘When have I been guilty of misogynistic acts?’ ”
Norma Laguna Cabral says her daughter Idalí Juache Laguna, 19, never came home one afternoon in 2010.
Two years later, authorities found fragments of her skull in the Navajo Arroyo in the rural Valle de Juárez,
a region known for cartel violence located roughly an hour east of the city.
Keeping Idalí’s memory alive is important to her mother.
“When we meet with other mothers that have been through the same thing, it is like therapy for us,” Laguna Cabral
says. “Only we can understand what we are going through … The courage, the disappointment, the helplessness, the despair,
the sadness, the pain — that pain that never goes away.”
Laguna Cabral created a mosaic gravestone with the organization Red Mesa de Mujeres to honor her daughter Idalí.
“I always say that as long as I’m alive, her memory will be alive as well,” she says.
Laguna Cabral holds a necklace someone gifted her to remember her daughter.
Idalí enjoyed playing soccer on a local team and was
“very confident” and “would always see the good in people,” her mother says.
Panteón Jardines del Recuerdo, a cemetery on the western outskirts of Juárez, is the site of Idalí's grave.
“It is very sad to hear the news and find out that girls keep disappearing and are found murdered, just like our daughters.
When we hear that, our pain reopens — it’s as if they were our daughters, too,” says her mother, Laguna Cabral.
“With each day that passes, our authorities disappoint us more. We feel more helplessness and despair.”
“Even though remembering can be very painful, I refuse to let other families, other mothers, go through something like this.”
Norma Laguna Cabral
Norma Ledezma Ortega is a lawyer and the founder of the organization Justicia para Nuestras Hijas, or “Justice for Our Daughters.”
In 2016, she earned her law degree, 14 years after her daughter Paloma Angélica Escobar Ledezma, 16, was killed in March 2002.
At the time, Ledezma Ortega had an elementary school education and worked in a factory that produced parts for airplanes.
She vowed then to get justice for her daughter and other missing women. “With this legal weapon, I can fight for all the other victims as well,” she says.
Ledezma Ortega, a lawyer and founder of Justicia para Nuestras Hijas, works on cases related to kidnapping,
femicide and corruption. Ledezma Ortega works to locate victims of sex trafficking — from the state of Chihuahua to
southern Mexico to the United States.
“Recovering them and delivering them to their family is also very rewarding,” she says. “As a lawyer, I have a certain concept
of justice ... but as a mother, I believe justice means a lot more. I know I don't have it, and I know I'll never have it.”
Paloma, 16, loved cats and worked in the same airplane parts factory as her mother while attending high school.
She dreamed of studying English and working in tourism or as an interpreter. She hoped to one day adopt children.
On March 2, 2002, Paloma went to a computer course and never came home. Her mother, Ledezma Ortega, searched for her for 27 days.
When Ledezma Ortega filed the police report, authorities minimized her concerns, saying Paloma “probably just wanted to have some fun”
with a boyfriend. Ledezma Ortega believes it’s important for the public to hear and share the stories of femicide victims. “Doing this
might be the only thing that can make the Mexican government feel accountable.”
“I think something changed in me that night… I was born again that day: the woman, wife and
factory worker was buried next to Paloma, and a warrior mother was born — a daring mother, a lioness.”
Norma Ledezma Ortega
“Ciudad Juárez is ahead of Mexico — for good and for ill,” says Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States
and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute and a professor of social sciences at Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez.
In many ways, Juárez is not unlike Seattle. It’s known as a progressive urban center that has been dubbed the “laboratory of the future,”
attracting diverse workers from other parts of Mexico to the border. Juárez is home to 326 maquiladoras, which employ 300,000 people, according to
Index Juárez, Asociación de Maquiladoras, A.C.
The manufacturing industry began to flourish from the 1970s through the 1990s, when global industrialization brought an economic and demographic boom
to the border. Maquiladoras broke ground in the open space surrounding urban Juárez, including American manufacturers like Delphi and Johnson & Johnson,
seeking cheap labor to build parts for cars, home appliances and medical devices. Juárez grew so quickly with the influx of workers that dense informal
settlements sprang up on hillsides along the edges of the city. They lacked electricity, sewage and paved roads; some of these neighborhoods still lack
TOP: Pedestrians walk in Lomas de Poleo on the outskirts of Juárez. During the maquiladora boom of the late-20th century,
workers built informal settlements, sometimes lacking running water or electricity, on the edges of the city. These areas are
still economically disadvantaged, and workers and students can face long and sometimes risky commutes by bus and on foot.
BOTTOM LEFT: The sun sets on the U.S. and Mexico border wall that runs through the Chihuahuan Desert near the Juárez neighborhood of Anapra,
where several women’s bodies have been found. “We have a tendency — not only here in the U.S., but in general — we see what is wrong in other
places, but we don’t see what’s wrong here,” says María-Socorro Tabuenca C., professor of Spanish at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“We need to pay attention — there is a lot of vulnerability with migrants, with documents and without documents, in the country.”
BOTTOM RIGHT: Discarded clothing lies in the desert sand in Lomas de Poleo.
By the time NAFTA was implemented in 1994, formally incentivizing trade between the United States and Mexico, the structures that targeted
women for violence were already well-established: For years, maquiladoras preferred to hire women, Payan says — they were seen as more punctual than
men, as well as less likely to commit crimes or consume drugs and alcohol. Single young women from small towns had moved to Juárez in waves to
become wage earners, sometimes facing long and dangerous commutes to work. Maquiladora jobs often pay minimum wage, which was just $4.50 per day as recently as 2017. (In January, it increased to $9.75 per day in border states.) To earn enough to get by, workers rely on bonuses given at the discretion
“The economic model favored the exploitation of thousands of women,” Payan says.
Economic exploitation, weak government institutions and organized crime — trafficking
corridors run through the border city — have created “a perfect storm” in Juárez, Payan says.
A Juárez market sells religious statues, including the Virgin of Guadalupe.
This apparition of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is an important cultural symbol of Mexico. The city’s cathedral is named after her.
“We cannot just negate the role of the United States, the role of capitalism, the role of drug consumption in the United States,”
says Bejarano. “[Femicide] has so much to do with our desires and our addictions here in the United States.”
Activists protest the culture of economic inequality, impunity and misogyny that enable violence against women. But the work is not without risk.
In 2010, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz was shot to death while protesting government inaction after the killing of her 16-year-old daughter,
Rubí Marisol Frayre Escobedo. Feminist poet Susana Chávez, who coined the protest cry “Ni Una Más” — “Not One More” — was found strangled in 2011,
her left hand severed. And in January, feminist artist Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre, 26, was found shot to death in downtown Juárez. She was an
active member of Hijas de su Maquilera Madre, one of several feminist collectives in Juárez.
After Cabanillas was found, activists in Juárez filled the streets, shutting down a border crossing for hours. Women in Juárez continue
to demonstrate, fighting to change society’s norms — and to keep victims’ memories alive.
Janette Terrazas is a visual artist known as “Mustang Jane” and a project coordinator and
co-founder, with Norwegian visual artist Lise Bjørne Linnert, at NI EN MORE. The nonprofit women’s sewing studio in
Juárez is working to create a sustainable business that offers fair wages, a safe work environment and training to women.
All of NI EN MORE’s proceeds are invested back into the business and the workers’ communities.
Terrazas — a visual artist, cultural activist and cultural promoter — created this protest patch with a loom and natural dyes.
The pink cross in the center is a symbol of justice for women who disappeared or died by femicide in Juárez.
Terrazas believes the boom in maquiladoras (factories) in Juárez created vulnerable working conditions for
women, including low wages and sometimes dangerous commutes across the city. The flowers around the cross are a tribute to the women’s lives.
Terrazas creates different types of textile maps, where hanging threads or lights symbolize the lives of women killed in Juárez.
Preserving collective memory and increasing awareness of femicide is important to many activists in the region, where many of the crimes
are unsolved. In January,
activist and artist Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre, 26, was killed in downtown Juárez. “It’s the first time
I’m going to embroider someone that I really know,” says Terrazas.
Candelaria Gutiérrez Pérez sews at NI EN MORE. Gutiérrez Pérez, of the Indigenous Rarámuri community, will lead the opening of a new NI EN MORE studio
in a Rarámuri neighborhood in Juárez, expanding sewing and dyeing programs. NI EN MORE acquired a grant for the new studio, and is looking for funds
to continue its development.
Gutiérrez Pérez, an expert in dyeing with natural plant materials, wraps flower petals into clothing to be
dyed at NI EN MORE in Juárez. Plants, flowers and vegetables are used in the hand-dye processes.
“The NI EN MORE studio acts in opposition to the maquiladoras’ mass
production standards,” says Terrazas.
Hilda María Ortega Trillo, a mother of two and an expert dressmaker, is photographed in one of the NI EN MORE dresses.
NI EN MORE is a combination of Spanish, Norwegian and English words meaning “Not one more.” The phrase was inspired by the poetry of
Susana Chávez, who protested femicides in Juárez, before being killed herself in 2011. Terrazas says their name was created as
an act of solidarity. “We are talking about a movement, and we are not owners of this movement,” says Terrazas.
“I’ve learned that as a woman, we have a lot of power and potential.”
Hilda María Ortega Trillo
Ortega Trillo attends services at her church in Juárez. “On one side there’s violence, but on the other side,
we have to keep on going with our responsibilities,” she says. “We can’t lock ourselves in our homes
because we’re scared that something bad could happen to us. The only thing we have left is trying to prevent everything
that is happening on the streets.”
Ortega Trillo attends a church service in Juárez.
In memory of
Jocelyn Calderón Reyes
Paloma Angélica Escobar Ledezma
Idalí Juache Laguna
María Guadalupe Pérez Montes
Adriana Sarmiento Enríquez
and all the missing and murdered women of Ciudad Juárez.
How you can help
“You can start in your own neighborhood to make a change. I think that is the first step,”
says Janette Terrazas, artist and co-founder of NI EN MORE.
Terrazas suggests volunteering for or donating to shelters that serve women facing violence.
In Juárez, Casa Amiga is a nonprofit crisis center founded by activist Esther Chávez Cano, who began tracking femicide cases in 1993.
Norma Laguna Cabral, whose daughter Idalí, 19, disappeared in 2010, says donations to Red Mesa de Mujeres have helped her and other
families commemorate their daughters’ would-be birthdays and the anniversaries of their disappearances.
Imelda Marrufo Nava, general coordinator of Red Mesa de Mujeres, adds,
“Should anyone be interested in helping a particular family, we will be happy to put them in touch.”
Even those who can’t afford to donate can contribute by analyzing their consumer habits,
says Cynthia Bejarano, professor of gender and sexuality studies at New Mexico State University.
“Be aware of where you’re purchasing your products, clothing,” Bejarano says.
Bejarano also suggests reaching out to members of Congress and posting on social media to raise awareness.
Join Claudia Castro Luna, Corinne Chin and Erika Schultz at Elliott Bay Book Company on March 29 for readings
from “Killing Marías,” a screening of visual poems and a discussion of the photojournalism in “Disappearing Daughters.”