Review: Making a Killing: Femicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera

By Guest Contributor The Feminist Texican

Note: Trigger Warning

Since the days of Prohibition, Juarez has been a place for First World visitors to come and indulge in any number of illicit pleasures (alcohol, guns, drugs, sex). It is also the site where global capital has been making a killing to the tune of billions of dollars in annual profit…Because pollution laws are conveniently lax, the factories can emit fumes and dump waste without much concern or coversight. For all these reason, the U.S.-Mexico border has been made into something of an international sacrifice zone.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first heard about the women who were being sexually violated, horribly mutilated, and discarded like garbage in the desert surrounding Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The femicide that has claimed the lives of hundreds of women–with thousands more unaccounted for–began in 1993, although no one can really know for sure. Looking at several of the time frames listed in Making a Killing: Femicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera and doing the math, I was stunned to realize that I’ve been hearing about this femicide for at least fifteen years now. Over the years, I’ve been even more stunned to learn how many people still don’t know that the murders are even taking place.

To give a brief overview: since 1993, hundreds of women have been found in the desert, deserted lots, and landfills, as well as in more public areas. Mexican government officials and various NGOs estimate that around 350-600 murders have occurred, though there’s no way to get an exact figure, especially since thousands of women have disappeared without a trace over the years. The youngest of the (known) victims are five years old and the oldest are in their seventies, but most of the victims are teenagers and young women in their early twenties, many of whom worked in maquiladoras along the border. Before dying, many of the women suffered through various forms of unimaginable cruelty–stabbings, burnings, beatings, rape, genital mutilation, breast mutilation. Because of the nature of the murders, the femicide has often been sensationalized by the media. But as one of the book’s contributors, a forensic psychologist named Candice Skrapec, writes:

[The crime scenes in Juarez] are like what we see in North America in cases involving the sexual violation of the victims…the motive may be less sensational, and, in fact, more like what we are accustomed to seeing: sexual violations of victims for purposes of personal gratification on the part of the offenders who then discard the bodies.

Yet to this day, the crimes continue to go unpunished. As more information about the femicide came to light, the victims were the ones who were initially blamed by the government, police, and the media for their own murders and disappearances; they were rumored to be prostitutes or wild girls who liked to stay out and party, leaving themselves vulnerable to attack.

Many of the victims were young women from rural areas in Mexico who had come to Juarez to find work in the factories; this influx of young women and the increased demand for a female work force challenged traditional gender roles, and the femicide was portrayed by many to be a result of this disruption of patriarchal norms. In the essay titled “Gender, Order, and Femicide,” the authors write:

If, for women, entrance into the paid labor force often meant acquisition of greater independence, increased status within the family, and freedom to socialize outside the home, it also underscored a process that required local and complex negotiations regarding how these changes would be understood and implemented….To the extent, then, that the failure of maquiladora development began to be written in terms of men’s absence from the maquilas, women workers were cast as a problem rather than another exploited group within Mexico’s struggling development plans, and all women became a target for male resentment.

Perhaps because I was born and raised on the Texas-Mexico border, perhaps because, for the entire time I’ve been aware of the femicide, I’ve also been in the age group that most of the murdered and kidnapped young women fall into, I’ve always felt drawn to the horrific events taking place in and around Juarez. One of the first papers I wrote in grad school was an analysis of media representations of the murdered women. I traveled to Juarez for that project (though I had been there before years earlier with my family), walking around and looking at the black crosses painted on pink backgrounds throughout the city in remembrance of the murdered women. In the years since, the only reports of violence in that area that I hear about have been related to drug cartels, and I’ve often wondered what effect this sharp increase in violence has had on the femicide and its (in)visibility to the rest of the world.

When I heard about Making a Killing, I was immediately drawn to it. Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Georgina Guzmán have put together a powerful book. Though it is mostly academic in nature, Making a Killing also has a very human aspect to it that might appeal to non-academic readers.

The book is divided into three parts: “Interventions,” “¡Ni Una Mas!,” and “Testimonios.” Part One provides a socioeconomic examination of the murders. Taking the effects of the global economy, NAFTA, the prevalence of maquiladoras along the border, and the influence of patriarchal ideals into consideration, this section gives readers a closer look many of the key factors that have allowed the femicide to continue. Part Two takes a closer look at the local and global activism that has developed in response to the femicide. The final section of the book gives some of the victims’ mothers a chance to speak out about their personal experiences. In this section, a forensic psychologist, Candice Skrapec, explains the femicide from a forensic perspective. An artist, Rigo Maldonado, closes this section with his testimonio on activism through art.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into detail on each essay in the book, though a full review can easily be written on every one. Instead, I will say that Part Two, ”¡Ni Una Mas!,” especially appealed to me. This section contained many critical readings of feminist and activist responses that have taken place over the years, and it raised many questions about ethics and the “othering” of the victims and their families. In 2004, for instance, a large V-Day march was organized by Eve Ensler. In “The Suffering of the Other,” the authors write:

[W]hen the call for the V-Day march was received, questions circulated in private conversations: What for? Isn’t it too late? Why not last year, when three more victims were found? Why not seven years ago, when we were struggling to prevent more murders? Why after hundreds of victims? Why’s benefiting from this march? Far or unfair, this is how the majority of the local activists felt and how they structured their feelings. The spirit had its reasons…[Several local NGOs] openly appropriated and misued Eve Enslers’ V-Day event in Juarez by erasing the main objective of agloval movement destined to stop violence against women and girls.

The authors, who themselves participated in the march, were also introspective about their involvement in any “othering” that may have occured as a direct result of the march. They raise many important points about privilege and the practices of using a victims’ pain in order to further one’s cause. This quote in particular stood out to me:

Juarense women cannot be seen as a homogenous group of “Third World subalterns.” This (mis)representation has had serious implications in that privileged women in the locality have been uncritically and socially constructed as the benefactors when they, intentionally or not, have perpetuated oppressive practices toward underprivileged women in Ciudad Juarez.

Other essays that were of high interest to me were the ones on the victim-blaming in government femicide awareness campaigns, as well as those that critically examined media representations of the victims. The mothers’testimonios in Part Three were also powerful–and painful–to read.

The only thing I wish the book had included is an update on the current status of things. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t hear about Juarez in the news, but all of those news reports are related to the cartel-related violence that claims the lives of thousands of people in the city each year. Though that, too, is a narrative that cannot and should not be ignored, it seems that reports of femicide-related news have been subsumed by those related to the drug wars. Because of that last fact, I am all the more grateful that this book was published.