Q&A with Molly Molloy: The Story of the Juarez Femicides is a ‘Myth’

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Courtesy of Molly Molloy
Molly Molloy

For years, a specter hung over Ciudad Juárez. In the 1990s, the largest city on the Texas-Mexico border became infamous for its gruesome “femicides”—the murders of hundreds of women. The murders, held to be predominantly mysterious and sexual in nature, grew in the public’s imagination. Juárez developed an international reputation as a place of horrific violence against women, a reputation that has become an internationally dominant narrative about the city. The femicides of Juárez have spurred activism and academic study, and become a major part of artistic and cultural depictions of life in Juárez—from the Tori Amos song “Juárez,” to Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, to FX’s recent drama The Bridge.

Some who write about the femicides speculate wildly about the source of the violence, suggesting the killers “belong to street gangs, organized crime syndicates, powerful families, a satanic cult, an underground snuff film industry, the police—or all of the above.” The killings, they claim, are sexual, brutal, commonplace, and above all, inexplicable.

That’s a narrative that Molly Molloy, a research librarian and professor at New Mexico State University, finds deeply troubling. Molloy has studied Juárez for two decades, and has written for The NationPhoenix New TimesNarco News Bulletin and The Texas Observer. She’s also the force behind Frontera List, an invaluable and long-running repository of raw information and discussion about border issues.

In recent years, she’s become increasingly convinced that the commonly accepted story of the Juárez femicides is a myth. While violence has extracted a horrific toll in the city, Molloy says, the proportion of homicides with female victims in Juárez is less than it is in many American cities. What’s more, she says, the sensationalistic narrative of the sexual murders of young women in Juárez distracts Americans from the real social dysfunction experienced by Mexicans living near the border. It’s a contention that’s been hotly contested by others who write about the femicides, but Molly says careful study of Juárez paints an unambiguous picture.

The Texas Observer spoke with Molly Molloy by phone and email about life in the city:


Texas Observer: Does Ciudad Juárez experience a disproportionate amount of violence against women?

Molly Molloy: Female murder victims have never comprised more than 18 percent of the overall number of murder victims in Ciudad Juárez, and in the last two decades that figure averages at less than 10 percent. That’s less than in the United States, where about 20 to 25 percent of the people who are murdered in a given year are women. Ciudad Juárez is experiencing profound social distress, and the elevated violence in the city is a continuing crisis. But this idea that Juárez is a place of disproportionate violence against women is a misperception.

TO: How confident are you in the accuracy of the available statistics?

MM: Mexican statistics are notoriously difficult to get and unreliable. That said, statistics do exist—and they can be very useful, especially when you can track them over time. And there are other sources. From the late 1980s until her death in 2009, Esther Chavez Cano, one of the most eloquent voices on women’s rights and human rights in Juárez, wrote hundreds of columns in Juárez newspapers to draw attention to the lack of social services in the city and especially to the ravages of domestic violence that primarily affected women and children. She became a spokesperson and a resource for families of victims, and she began to keep meticulous records of the crimes against women.

Of the roughly 400 cases documented in Esther Chavez’ files from 1990 to 2005, about three-quarters of the cases were domestic violence, and the cases were essentially resolved. That is, the killer was known as an acquaintance or domestic partner or other relative of the victim. Only about 100 were completely unsolved cases. These are the cases that have received (and continue to receive) most of the media, artistic and academic attention. The only real statistical study on the topic, done in 2008, found that the proportion of female homicides in Ciudad Juárez was lower than Houston’s.

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What’s more, until 2008, when the violence associated with organized crime escalated and the Mexican military was deployed, Juárez was not exceedingly violent—at least not compared to other places around the globe that have similar kinds of social pressures. Before 2007, as far as I know, there was never a year with more than 300 murders, and that ends up being a murder rate of somewhere between 25 to 30 per 100,000 people. That’s a relatively high rate, but it’s not as high as some of the rates you see in U.S. cities like Detroit and New Orleans, where the murder rate can be upwards of 60 per 100,000.

When you look at the 427 murders—that’s the figure usually quoted for the number of women killed between 1993 and 2007—those are all of the female murder victims. Those are not categorized by the type of crime. If a woman is shot in a robbery, it goes into that number and is categorized [by some] as a femicide, even though there would be nothing to indicate in that crime that she was killed because she was a woman. There was a famous case in 2004 that Mexican reporter Sandra Rodríguez wrote about in her book La Fábrica del Crimen of these young boys who murdered their family—mother, father and sister. The mother and sister are counted as femicides, even though that wasn’t a gender-specific crime.

TO: But what’s the problem with focusing on femicides if it heightens awareness of the real problem of violence in Juárez?

MM: I have a problem with this extreme focus on the women victims. I think every single one of the victims matter. The fact that a crime or homicide victim is a woman, or a child, or a man—it makes a different story. But in human terms, no one victim should be more highly valued than another.

If 300 people are killed and 30 of them are women, but the women’s murders are the ones that get all of the attention, I find that to be absolutely mistaken and wrong. There are so many other victims and people are killed for many different reasons. Not every woman victim is killed for some sexual reason, or simply because she’s a woman. Sometimes people say to me, well, the women are innocent, the men that are killed are narcos and criminals. That’s such an oversimplification, and it is a statement made with absolutely no evidence. It is a criminalization of the great majority of all of the homicide victims. This is what has happened especially since the number of murders exploded in Juárez in 2008. And it is false.

It’s almost like we’re fetishizing these dead women. To always be looking back at these women as if their bodies are this kind of sacrificial host—I find that to be troubling, in terms of our culture and our focus on life and death and what it means. In other words, if you’re constantly focusing on women as if they’re this symbol for suffering, you never move beyond that particular death to look at the social conditions that gave that kind of life, and that kind of death, for so, so many people.

TO: Could you say more about why you think the portrayal of the murdered women is problematic?

I’ve read things by some feminist scholars talking about the “harvest” of young, nubile women. I mean, the terminology becomes kind of sensual, or sexual. Some of the writing about these cases I find to be pushing over into the extreme and eroticizing the victims in a way that makes them appear a lot more helpless and powerless than women in Juárez are. Some of the writing makes the women appear as if they’re just parading on the street to be picked off by predatory men. I just don’t think that’s a realistic depiction of life in a place like Juárez.

Many of the women, who do the work and are the only breadwinner, are quite powerful. Many of them are mothers, and workers, and take care of other people. They’re not the powerless people that some of the literature portrays them as. And I find that, as a feminist, to be counterproductive in the extreme.

TO: Why do you think the narrative about the Juárez femicides has been so enduring? Why do you think it appeals to people?

If you look at the problem of violence in Juárez as essentially being a problem of young women being murdered, and that if you can solve those murders, then everything will be ok, it feels safer. It feels like you can accomplish something, because then you don’t actually have to look at the real problems of the city. The economic system and the social conditions in Juárez are not any better now than it was in 1993. If anything, conditions in the city have gotten worse

More people are being killed now, men and women, than were killed in any year before 2007. So obviously, whatever has gone wrong in Juárez continues to go wrong. We went through a period of hyper-violence where Juárez was one of the most dangerous places on the planet. It’s still a very dangerous city, for men and women and children. And almost nothing has been done to correct the social issues that underlie this kind of violence.

Nothing has been done to address the economic suffering that came from [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. Nothing has been done to address the issues of drug trafficking, and why it’s so appealing for people in Juárez to become a part of these criminal enterprises. No one has really created a public school system in Juárez that serves all of the children that need to be going to school rather than working in factories or joining gangs.

TO: What are the social conditions you see driving violence in Juárez? What are the factors you think don’t receive enough attention from Americans?

MM: Trade policies are the most important thing. One of the major things that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did was make it very difficult for Mexican farmers to compete economically with the giant industrial agriculture in the United States. When a lot of these small and inefficient farms went under, many people were left without any way to make a living. That feeds into the other aspect of the free trade agreement, which encouraged the development of manufacturing facilities, or maquiladoras, along the border.

The people who work at these factories earn a tiny fraction of what workers in the United States would earn. Most of the salaries in Juárez range from $50 to $70 a week. But the cost of living in Juárez is not commensurately lower; it’s 80 to 90 percent of what it is in El Paso. And El Paso is one of the cheaper places in the United States.

You have a core part of the city, and then you have miles and miles that stretch south and east into the desert. Most of the housing in those areas is absolutely substandard. The most heavy aspects of the violence, when it got really bad, occurred in these neighborhoods. In 2008, many of the people who had moved to Juarez for jobs decided to leave to try to get away from the violence. So what you see when you drive around the city are abandoned neighborhoods with acres of empty houses that have been stripped of everything. Other areas had never had proper houses and people lived in shacks they had built with thrown-away goods from the factories where they worked.

These are very dangerous areas. There’s no lighting, no police protection. It’s true that a lot of young women were abducted. That’s absolutely true. The only thing I’m pointing out is that these conditions were not terribly unusual or specific to Juárez. These conditions existed in a lot of places. Women were at risk there in the same way they were at risk in some neighborhoods in Chicago or New Orleans, or in other cities in Mexico.

TO: When you look at Juárez’s future, what most worries you?

MM: As anyone who’s taken a sociology class in the last 50 years knows, children who grow up in a violent home can grow up to be perpetrators of violence. If you look at Juárez now, with 11,000 murder victims in the space of six years, you have thousands of families who have lost one of the breadwinners of the family.

Most of those victims are young men; some of them are young women. Now you have thousands of orphaned children who’ve lost at least one parent—some have lost two. What kind of social services are available for those children? This is a recipe for this violence to recur. And when you think of the things these young children have witnessed—in the street, in their homes, in public places of all kinds, it doesn’t bode well for the near future of Juárez.

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Christopher Hooks joined the Observer in 2014. Previously, he was a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.

  • Michael Drescher

    Great article of an intelligent researcher, seemingly more knowledgeable about the subject than many who have sought to sensationalize the topic. I believe in our own area Indianapolis has had a greater murder rate than Chicago last year, and in our own small town, Bloomington, two women have completely disappeared within the last couple of years. No place on the planet seems to be immune from senseless violence currently.

  • Debbie Nathan

    Thirteen years ago in Texas Observer, I made virtually the same argument as Molloy makes today: see http://www.texasobserver.org/1011-movie-review-missing-the-story/ I had previously discussed the same issues in NACLA — the magazine of the North American Conference on Latin America. And before that, I organized a community meeting in El Paso/Juarez to critically discuss the origins of the fetishization of Juarez women’s deaths that Molloy is now criticizing. Those origins date to a late-1990s article in Harper’s magazine by Charles Bowden — who, recently, has been Molloy’s research and book-writing colleague. Bowden’s piece started it all. It was packed with the most lurid descriptions of dead women’s bodies: not just words, but photos (including one, of a women Bowden called “unidentified” whose name was in fact known, and whose cover corpse photo was splayed not just across the magazine racks of the United States, but of the more affluent kiosks of Juarez, too — places where this young women’s poverty-stricken parents might pass. (Would Harper’s ever had done such an awful thing to a dead American women?) Bowden described the body of another young woman, claiming it had been found violated and murdered. He said the authorities ignored this girl’s death because in Juarez, no one really knows if you’ve ever existed or not. I had a list compiled by Esther Chavez, the anti-domestic-violence activist whom Molloy lauds in this TO interview. The girl’s name did not appear on the exhaustive list, and I went to the offices of a local Juarez newspaper, which had published her “missing person” notice. I found her parents’ phone number in that notice and called them from the newspaper office. They said she was not dead. But my calling, of course rendered them distraught; they thought I knew she was dead. It was a terrible experience, one which I blame on Bowden and his incompetence — not to mention that of Harper’s fact-checking department. I mention all this because Molloy knows full well her co-author’s role in spreading the murdered-women-of-Juarez craze internationally. I wish that knowledge had made it into the TO piece just published.

    • Molly Molloy

      In response to Debbie Nathan’s comment, I read her reporting about the violence in Juarez in 1996 on the early frontera listserve–before I read Bowden’s article. But as far as I know, his article was the first time the deaths of young women in Juarez was mentioned in the English-language press. I did mention this history in my written responses to the Texas Oberver’s questions and also in our conversation. Here is that exchange:

      Question from the Texas Observer:
      How did the idea of the Juárez femicides gain currency in the popular imagination of many non-Mexicans? Was it an idea you held before you began your research in this subject? Why do you think the femicides became such a powerful way to conceptualize the violence in Juárez?

      Answer from MM:
      I became aware of the Juárez femicides in 1996. At that time, there was an earlier incarnation of the “frontera-list” (https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/frontera-list) via a listserv (email protocol allowing sharing among subscribers). Members of the original list were a few dozen activists, journalists and academics interested in the US-Mexico border region who discussed free trade, human rights, crime, the environment and other border issues. News stories about the murders of young women were appearing in local newspapers like El Diario de Juárez and Norte de Ciudad Juárez and got the attention of people on the list. The December 1996 issue of Harpers featured a story by Charles Bowden, “While you were Sleeping, In Juárez, Mexico photographers expose the violent realities of free trade, (http://harpers.org/archive/1996/12/while-you-were-sleeping/) that mentioned the appearance in local news of the disappearances and deaths of very young women. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first mention in the English language press of women being murdered in Juárez. Interestingly, instead of recognizing the article for calling attention to this horrific aspect of the boom in border factories, the flood of poor Mexican workers (many of them young women) to the border to take very low wage jobs and the lack of housing, schools and other social infrastructure needed to serve the large influx of residents, Bowden was harshly criticized for painting an ugly portrait of the city upheld as the model for development in the early years of NAFTA. I attended a community forum held at an art gallery in El Paso, Texas in January 1997. Social activists and business boosters from both sides of the border made strange bedfellows as they gathered to condemn Bowden’s reporting for its negative portrayal of the borderland.

      When I met Charles Bowden in 2003 he mentioned that his article had highlighted the murders of young women in the early 1990s because the news photographers who were his protagonists had taken many graphic photographs of crime scenes that had never been published. Bowden thought that the subject would have some shock value and thus turn U.S. readers’ attention to what he saw as the real issue: the “violent realities of free trade” of the title. It is a fact that murders of young women rose during the early 1990s–as did the murders of men. The fast growth of the assembly plant industry in Juárez after NAFTA led to a huge increase in the population of the city: many newcomers migrated from the south of Mexico for jobs in these maquiladoras and many of them were young and female. Yet, all of the conditions of poverty, overpopulation and underdevelopment and social neglect led to violence in many forms. And the actual statistics on murder in the city (imperfect as they are) consistently show that men were 85-90 percent of the victims.

      • Yasmin Nair

        Your response does not get at the core points made in Debbie Nathan’s comment. In fact, you’re actually justifying what she has criticised as Bowden’s sensationalism.
        Instead of evading the issue, could you please respond to Nathan’s point about the one young woman in particular, whose parents she found herself calling?
        That, of course, is an example of the kind of havoc created by Bowden’s “reporting.” Please respond to Nathan’s specific points without obfuscating matters any further.
        As you no doubt know, Debbie Nathan is well aware, and has written extensively about how “all of the conditions of poverty, overpopulation and underdevelopment and social neglect led to violence in many forms.”
        How do you actually respond to her points?

        • Molly Molloy

          First, I am not evading any of the points raised by Debbie Nathan. When Bowden’s article came out in Dec 1996 in Harpers, Debbie and others on the Frontera List critiqued the article. The Border Rights Coalition (various people in the El Paso-Juarez activist communities) drafted a letter to Harpers. That letter was also circulated to the Frontera List. Harpers did not publish the letter. To my knowledge, Bowden had no control over whether or not the magazine published the letter. The critiques of Bowden’s article were aired in a public meeting at the Bridge Gallery in El Paso in January 1997. I attended that meeting along with a lot of other people.

          The erroneous information about the victim mentioned in Debbie’s post and in the letter to Harpers came from one of the Juarez photographers who were the subjects of Bowden’s article. When the error came to Bowden’s attention, he corrected it. That correction was published later in the text of the book: Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future (Aperture; 1st edition (April 15, 1998) ISBN-10: 0893817767 ISBN-13: 978-0893817763.

          As you note, I am aware of Debbie Nathan’s writings about Juarez and her knowledge of “all of the conditions of poverty, overpopulation and underdevelopment and social neglect led to violence in many forms.” I’ve recommended her work to many researchers over the past 17 years.

          What is true is that Bowden’s article was the first widely available reporting in English about conditions in Juarez — “the violent realities of free trade.” The photographs of the Juarez journalists featured in the Harpers article and in the subsequent book published by Aperture would have remained unknown without his efforts to get them published in the U.S.

          I also remember noting after I attended the community meeting in January 1997 that progressive activists joined forces with the business communities in Juarez and El Paso to critique Bowden, rather than to confront or even acknowledge the violent effects of trade polices that were beginning to come to light. It is also a fact that neither Bowden, nor some of the Juarez photographers featured in the article and book, could have imagined that the violence would reach the horrific levels seen since 2008. Correctly predicting disasters doesn’t make one popular.

          • Yasmin Nair

            The idea that Bowden’s article was the first is not at issue here. What’s at issue is what Nathan has pointed out as erroneous reporting which, you seem to believe, is somehow justified despite it potentially having been sensationalistic. That serves no one, and neither do evasive responses.

  • MarkPritchard_SF

    The argument that women’s murders shouldn’t be unduly emphasized or eroticized is a strong one, as is the suggestion that it’s more important to focus on the economic and social conditions for workers. But this article left me wondering what the writer is arguing. The brutal rapes and murders did happen, right? It’s the interpretation of the crimes that you’re arguing against?

    • Molly Molloy

      It is the almost exclusive emphasis on the murders of women over the years and the interpretation that these crimes were the major expressions of violence in the city. Yes, there were brutal rapes and murders of women and yes those crimes continue to happen in Juarez and in many other places in Mexico and in the world. But for all of the years since 1993, women average about 10 percent of murder victims in Juarez and this ratio is fairly constant in different places in Mexico. In the US, women make up 20-25 percent of murder victims. In general, in places that are less violent overall, there tend to be proportionally more female victims and most of them die at the hands of domestic partners.

      In any search of academic databases (I do this all the time in my job), if search Juarez AND violence… nearly ALL of the results are about violence against women–femicide and its variants… So, the academic record (in disciplines of sociology, criminology, anthropology, geography, cultural studies, womens studies, literary studies…etc.) has been skewed by the almost exclusive focus on “gendered” violence… And most of the articles focus on the “about 400″ murders of women between 1993 and 2007. And none of them mention that during that same period, the number of male murder victims is around 3,100 (about 12 percent of victims in this period were women).

      Here are some of the numbers I provided.

      Murders of women

      women (total homicides)

      1993-2007…………………427 (3,538) – 12%

      2008 ……………………….98 (1,623) – 6.0%

      2009……………………….183 (2,754)— 6.6%

      2010 ………………………325 (3,622) – 8.9%

      2011 ……………………….196 (2,086) – 9.3%

      2012 …………………..……91 (797) – 11%

      2013 (Jan-Nov) ………………..49 (447) — 10.9%

      Women………………………..1,369 ( 14,867 total victims) – 9.20%

      Women = 9.2 percent

      of total murder victims over the past 19 years

      Statistics from El Diario & El Paso Times based on official data from the Chihuahua State Attorney General. Data for the years 1993-2007 also come from the independent research of Julia Monarrez (Colef) and cited by Yale researcher Erin Frey (2008).

      • Debbie Nathan

        Here is a more nuanced approach to Molloy’s focus. It was written 10 years ago. The author points out something not mentioned by the Molloy interview: when the wave of homicide in Juarez began in 1993, suddenly three times more men were being killed as earlier, yet at the same time SIX times more women were dying. This is a discrepancy not addressed by Molloy; it suggests that women during the years from 1994 to before the out-and-out drug-related massacre WERE being singled out in some way related to gender. This might include not just the sex crimes which the media has so obsessively covered, but even the domestic violence murders. (Read my article in the 2002 Texas Observer and you’ll see accounts of domestic violence more grisly and sadistic than had been heard of previously). Many other points in the 2004 article, including critical discussion of the political use of focusing on female homicide, are worth considering: http://adamjones.freeservers.com/juarez.htm

  • Carolina Drake

    This article is extremely harmful to the women and mothers who are victims of femicides, domestic violence, and the cultural environment of machismo and lack of justice in Ciudad Juarez. Nobody ignores that men are getting murdered too, but by not considering this issue intersectionaly and by not considering gender oppression as a form of violence, the author is denying femicide. It is basically like saying “men get murdered too, so femicides are a myth,” “white people get stopped by the police, so racial profiling is a myth” or “men get abused and raped too, so domestic violence is a myth.” Has anyone taught you critical theory in college? Has anyone taught you about intersectionality? You attempts at “solidarity” end up claiming violent conclusions. This month, a survey of femicides in Latin America was released by BBC, and the numbers are pretty horrible. Please stop denying that femicide is a myth. http://www.bbc.co.uk/mundo/noticias/2013/03/130225_feminicidio_femicidio_grafico_latinoamerica.shtml

    • lessthantolerant

      American should mind their own business, we do not have the right to force our cultural expectations on Mexican culture, so as always the case of liberalism, we interject our emotional beliefs on other and wonder why resentment happens.

  • lessthantolerant

    Just another liberal myth proven untrue. For years the left used this story as prove that men and the right were behind the subjugation and violence.
    Like all causes of the left they are based on lies and emotional fabrications.

  • Roberto Matus

    excellent interview.