Al Jazeera visits the border city where more than 800 women have been murdered in a wave of gender violence.
Attacks on women have been lumped into general drug violence in Juarez [GALLO/GETTY]
Juarez - Two days after Christmas, Jazmin Salazar Ponce went downtown in Juarez, Mexico, to apply for a job. She never came home.
"She was just 17. She wasn’t a partier. She always came home until now," said Concepcion Ponce, Jazmin’s mother, her lips quivering.
"I went to the authorities and filed a police report. I put up posters, and called all her friends. My girl would only go to church and come home," Ponce said.
The story of young women who simply disappear is all too common in this border city, but in the last two years, gendered violence has been drawn into the broader blood pool in Mexico’s murder capital. A grisly drug war has claimed at least 7,800 lives in the city since 2008.
But femicides, or targeted attacks on women represent something different from the killings affecting all residents, activists say.
The Mexican government does not keep official statistics on these femicides, says Flor Cuevas, a member of the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission.
"There is a negative attitude from government towards the problem," Cuevas said during an interview in her Juarez office. "Femicides must be covered up, as they are an international shame."
El Diario newspaper, the most respected daily in this city of about 1.2 million, has estimated that 878 women were killed between 1993 and 2010, although activists think the figure is far higher and well into the thousands.
Jazmine Ponce went missing while going to apply for a job she had seen advertisied at a "very nice boot store", her mother said.
Many of the young women who disappeared in the 1990s worked in Juarez’s infamous maquiladoras, factories paying a minimum wage of about $5 per day in a city where housing and food costs are not much less than in the US.
Alejandra Garcia Andrade left for work in a maquiladora fabricating plastics on February 14, 2001. She never returned. "Every day, she had to cross a field in the desert to get to the bus to come home," said her mother, Norma Andrade.
On February 21, police found her body, left in a field with the wounds of physical assault and rape. "The police said she was lucky,” Andrade said, crying during an interview at her small home. "She was only agonising for six days."
After her daughter's murder, Norma Andrade became an activist for women's rights in the city, and started drawing attention to the cases of other missing girls. She thinks her daughter was killed as part of a gang initiation. "The heads of this criminal organisation wanted new members to do this, so they can say ‘now your hands are dirty; you won’t rat on us now'."
She holds this belief because of a phone call that came to emergency services two days before police found her daughter's body. A witness saw a naked woman fitting Alejandra's description running away from two men. They grabbed her and threw her in a car, the witness told emergency services.
Security services published the car's license plate number. The owner was linked to a TV repair shop, where Andrade believes her daughter was held. After spending days watching the shop, Andrade concluded the place was a front for a drug gang in "late night smuggling" and other illicit activities. Elements within the security forces in Juarez are frequently linked to various drug cartels.
When they discuss the murders, police tend to favour the idea that a serial killer is prowling the streets of Juarez, acting alone to murder and rape women. Several people, including Abdel Latif Sharif, an engineer who worked at one of the maquiladora plants, along with former bus drivers for factories, have been charged with committing murders. But activists do not entirely buy that explanation.
"It isn't just about one or two killers, the causes are diverse," said Malu Garcia Andrade, a human rights activist and sister of Alejandra Garcia Andrade. A climate of impunity and machismo, teamed with widespread violence and a large population of women deemed disposable by the city's power brokers all contribute to making the situation worse.
"To justify their inefficiencies and corruption, police try to discredit the [missing or murdered] woman, saying she was like a prostitute, a drug addict or a gangster," said Norma Andrade.
In 1999, Arturo González Rascon, the then Chihuahua attorney general, blamed murder victims for dressing provocatively and thus encouraging men to abuse them. But the institutional rot runs deeper than comments from powerful individuals, activists say.
Alicia Duarte quit her post in the attorney general's office as Special Prosecutor for Attention to Crimes Related to Acts of Violence Against Women three years ago "out of shame for belonging to a corrupt system of justice".
Police forensics in Juarez, and the city’s broader justice system, have been slammed by rights groups like Amnesty International. After visiting the scenes of four separate shootings in the span of a week, Al Jazeera never saw a police forensics team scouring for DNA evidence or searching for finger prints. It seems there is no CSI Juarez.
Drug violence has worsened in Juarez since Felipe Calderon, Mexico's president, declared an all-out assault on drug cartels in 2006. Since then, the profile of missing women may have changed.
In the 1990s, a high proportion seemed to work in maquiladoras with many arriving from Veracruz and other impoverished region's in Mexico’s south. But as the drug war worsenes, a larger number of young and attractive middle class women have disappeared from stable homes. Jazmin Salazar Ponce fits this new profile and some believe women like her are being trafficked into prostitution, perhaps being forced to serve the new narco elite.
"The difference between femicide and the rest of the drug war is the way in which the girl is killed," said Malu Garcia Andrade. "Women are kidnapped, tortured, raped, then murdered. The drug violence is extortion, robberies and murder."
For some, the murder of women is a branding opportunity. Last year, the international cosmetics firm MAC had to discontinue a make-up line, offering products named "Quinceanera" (Sweet 15), "Juarez" and "Pueblo fantasma" (Ghost Town), seemingly referencing femicides for profit and outraging women’s groups.
Protests against the impunity with which women are murdered in Mexico has sparked an international outcry. Movie star Jennifer Lopez starred in the film Bordertown about a journalist sent to investigate the killings, while author Jane Fonda, actress Salma Hayek and play-write Eve Ensler have joined protests in Juarez.
In December 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights slammed Mexico, initiating sanctions against the country for: "The impunity … gender-based violence, which in turn feeds women’s sense of insecurity and their abiding mistrust of the administration of [the] justice system."
Reyes Baeza, the governor of Chihuahua State where Juarez is located, once condemned international attention focused on the killings, accusing activists of tarnishing the city’s public image.
But smearing the image of Mexico’s murder capital does not worry Norma Andrade or other women’s rights campaigners, who have relentlessly organised protests and memorials regardless of the attention paid by famous feminists. Protests seemed to reach their peak prior to 2006 and the all-out declaration of war on the cartels that turned Juarez from a violent city into one of the world’s most dangerous.
Most average citizens are now too scared to go out into the streets, let alone to attend a political protest, as total war sweeps across the city.
When celebrity appearances and official institutions fail, mothers take a bleak view of justice in a city devouring its young women. "You can just beg," said Malu Garcia Andrade, "that within this drug war, these killers and rapists get shot."
Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris