Claudia Ivette González might still be alive if her employers had not turned her away. The 20-year-old resident of Ciudad Juárez–the Mexican city abutting El Paso, Texas–arrived at her assembly plant job four minutes late one day in October 2001. After management refused to let her into the factory, she started home on foot. A month later her corpse was discovered buried in a field near a busy Juárez intersection. Next to her lay the bodies of seven other young women.

Posters at entrance to a government building protesting details of the disappearances and lack of police investigation, Juárez, 1998. (© Susan Meiselas)

A few months later, María Luisa Carsoli Berumen, a 32-year-old mother of four and the secretary at a battered women’s shelter in Juárez, was standing by the shelter entrance when her husband approached. He had a history of domestic violence, and although Carsoli Berumen had reported him to authorities, they had released him. Now, as bystanders watched, he stabbed his wife twice, killing her. Carsoli Berumen became another statistic in a decade-long surge of murders committed against women in this gritty border city.

How many killings have there been? Maybe 320, maybe more. No one is sure, just as no one knows how many lives Juárez has. The Mexican census estimates 1.3 million residents, but the real population may be closer to 2 million. Figures are elusive because migrants like González have poured into Juárez from Mexico’s impoverished interior. After the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. companies including General Electric and Dupont set up assembly plants to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor and loose environmental regulations; many migrants have come to work in these maquiladoras, or maquilas. Juárez is now filled with gleaming industrial parks where full-time workers, mostly young women, earn about $55 for a 45-hour workweek.

The city, bursting with shanty towns, has long been rough and chaotic, but until ten years ago only an average of three women a year were murdered here, according to Cheryl Howard, a sociologist at the University of Texas, El Paso. Then suddenly, beginning in 1993, the number skyrocketed to three a month.

Most have been victims of what police call “situational” violence: routine instances of drug, gang, robbery, and domestic violence that one expects in any big city. But in Juárez, the level of brutality against women is extreme: wives shot at home, execution style, then burned by husbands; a female drug trafficker dissolved in a vat of acid. In one case in 1996, a teen-ager tied his girlfriend and her sister to chairs, raped and tortured them for days, then put bullets through their heads. He said he did it because the girlfriend kissed another boy. A 19-year-old molested his 10-year-old niece, killed her so she wouldn’t tell, and dumped her corpse in the desert.

As if this wave of situational violence were not bad enough, a second, chilling surge of “serial sex killings” also hit Juárez a decade ago. Corpses, mostly of young women and girls, started turning up in fields and dumps around the city. Most had been raped, and some had mutilated breasts. Many had been dead so long that they were unrecognizable. Investigators have rarely implicated the family members or close acquaintances of those victims who could be identified. Instead, the culprits seem to have been unknown to the victims. An estimated 90 murders in the last decade–including that of maquila worker González–fit this pattern.

At first, local officials blamed the serial sex killings on the victims. Young women, they claimed, were inviting their own murders by dressing provocatively and hanging out in bars. “Unfortunately, there are women who are in danger because of their lifestyles,” said Arturo González Rascón, the attorney general of the state of Chihuahua, where Juárez is located. “After all, it’s very hard to go out on the street when it’s raining and not get wet.”

A report by the attorney general’s office scolded parents for raising daughters whose “conduct did not conform to the moral order because they went to nightclubs at late hours” –a result, the report said, of “neglect by their nuclear families.” Outraged by this sexism and callousness, local feminists began organizing in 1996 to demand that the crimes be solved.

Their work has not been easy. Pioneering organizer Esther Chávez, a retired accountant in her 60s, says she has faced anger and insults. Prominent activist Victoria Caraveo said that something sinister often happens after she organizes protests. Once someone broke into her Juárez home and dumped several headless birds in her living room. Another time she found dozens of pairs of women’s underwear hanging from trees on her lawn.

National and international outcry has sparked declarations, mass marches, books and films protesting the “femicide” of Juárez women and denouncing the government’s failure to catch and convict the killers. In early February, hundreds of people, including playwright Eve Ensler, creator of the “Vagina Monologues,” and filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, rallied in front of the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office to protest the killings. Even so, the murders continue. Impunity is so pervasive that many believe local police–and perhaps even the federal government–are involved. Other rumors blame international organ traffickers, Satanist cabals or snuff-film producers.

Most common, though, is the belief that one or a few serial killers are responsible. This despite a 1999 U.S. FBI investigation that found that the sex crimes were probably committed by many different men who did not know each other. “It would be irresponsible to state that a serial killer is loose in Juárez,” the FBI concluded.

The situational murders committed by husbands, boyfriends, uncles, drug dealers, and gang bangers may, in fact, have much in common with the serial sex crime. In Juárez, as throughout the world, traditional gender relations are changing. With its Spanish colonial, Catholic heritage, Mexico retains elements of a patriarchal society. According to traditional norms, men are supposed to work to support their families and participate in public life; they have license to enjoy sex outside of marriage. “Respectable women” are supposed to stay at home, confine their public lives to church functions, and remain virgins until marriage and chaste thereafter. For people who cling to this double standard, a woman who works for wages or has extramarital sex may be marked as a whore and considered fair game–if not for murder, then for violence. In Juárez, where narco-trafficking, the sex trade, and globalization have eaten away at the social fabric, women are particularly vulnerable.

Against this cultural backdrop, Mexican border cities have developed a bar and brothel economy to satisfy U.S. tourists’ desire for cheap alcohol, narcotics, and prostitutes. As a result, Juárez and other border communities have a longstanding and humiliating “sin city” image throughout Mexico. As one person told Pablo Vila, a University of Texas-San Antonio sociologist, Juárez needs to be cleaned up by getting rid of evil things: not only the bars, but “the women.” The maquila murders may be taking this sentiment to a chilling extreme.

The maquila economy has exacerbated the gender tensions of border-town culture. The transnational assembly plants arrived on the U.S.-Mexico boundary a generation ago and boomed after the passage of NAFTA. Like similar factories worldwide, they prefer to hire women rather than men, supposedly because they are more nimble. In reality, the preference is based on the fact that traditional patriarchal socialization makes women workers more exploitable than men. Writer William Lange wiesche illustrated this point well a few years ago in The Atlantic Monthly. During a visit to North American Philips, a maquila in Juárez that makes televisions, Langewiesche asked the plant manager why all the assembly workers were women. “Concentration and dexterity,” answered the manager, who then “stopped behind one worker and, in a fatherly gesture, laid his hands on her shoulders” before introducing her as “our plant beauty queen.” Maquilas are also generally anti-union, and Mexican women have less experience with political or labor organizing. In addition, some maquila owners justify lower wages for women with the old argument that they are “just working for pin money and men are the real breadwinners.”

Maria Sagrario Gonzáles Flores was 17 when she disappeared in 1998. Her family in Juárez searched for her and posted her photo. (© Susan Meiselas)

Now, young rural women who have poured into Juárez are suddenly making and spending money while men are unemployed. Some men react with hopelessness or anger . “Men are no longer king of the home,” says feminist organizer Chávez. “So now, in this city, women suffer too much. A lot of people are raping and bothering women.”

Although about a third of the identified murder victims worked in maquilas, the industry has done virtually nothing to protect them. Instead, some company policies actually endanger women by leaving them alone with strange men at odd hours. In 1999, a 13-year-old maquila worker was attacked by a man who tried to rape and strangle her. She survived and identified her attacker as the maquila bus driver on the late-night shift. Despite similar accusations, maquila officials say they are not responsible for screening bus drivers.

Disciplinary practices such as sending tardy workers home also create risks. After González’s murder, her employer, Lear Corporation, refused to address her death. But a spokesperson for the Michigan-based auto-interior supplier company recently told Salon magazine that the company sees no reason to provide its workers with extra security because González’s murder “did not happen on Lear property.”

Maquila owners provide little help to resolve the infrastructure and social services crisis in Juárez that they helped create. In 2001 at the height of the factories’ prosperity, their owners gave Juárez only $1.5 million in a voluntary tax, according to the New Mexico State University-based research publication Frontera Norte-Sur. At the same time, according to the Canadian organization Maquila Solidarity Network, maquila exports from the Juárez region totaled more than $10 billion.

Lately, maquilas have been moving from Juárez to countries such as China, which offer even cheaper labor. In the past two years, according to the New York Times, Juárez has lost some 300,000 maquila jobs. Women’s rights activists say that the resulting unemployment is aggravating domestic and sexual violence, yet Juárez has only one battered women’s and rape crisis center, Casa Amiga, with an annual budget of just $4,500. The center’s founder, Esther Chávez, has spent almost a decade documenting the murders of women in Juárez and organizing protests to demand justice. She believes that Juárez is awash in socioeconomic tension and male rage. The murders, she thinks, are committed not by a “serial killer,” but by countless men who rape, torture and murder because they know they can get away with it.

“This city has become a place to murder and dump women,” Chávez says. “[Authorities] are not interested in solving these cases because these women are young and poor and dispensable. A woman goes to work so she can support her family. She works hard, but when she is killed, people say she was a prostitute that isn’t worth anything.”

“This is what we’re fighting against,” Chávez said in early 2001. What we are fighting for is “to save these women’s lives.”

Since then, at least 70 more women were murdered in Juárez. In February the bodies of three more women were found.