Integral Bodies: Cuerpos Íntegros:
Impunity and the Pursuit of Justice in the Chihuahuan feminicidio


This essay focuses on the state of impunity surrounding the girl-killings or feminicido in the Mexico-U.S. border region of Chihuahua, where an estimated 400 girls and women have been murdered in gender crimes since 1993; some 600 more are missing and feared dead. Despite sustained international pressure from political campaigns, inter-American courts and human rights institutions, the criminal justice system has not produced a single credible prosecution. If impunity means that the victims of feminicidio are denied effective citizenship, how does human rights discourse administer justice? Confronting impunity, this essay argues, will require a justice project that goes beyond the rights framework to create new social institutions and relationships, based in economic redistribution and political reform.

Para Claudia

1. Impunidad

If ciudadanía was the watchword for democratic aspirations in Mexico following the collapse of the ruling party's monopoly on state power in 2000, then impunidad is the axiomatic expression of their demise. Impunidad, from the Latin punio or punire, refers to a state of exemption from punishment, or, more literally, exemption from the vengeful blows of retribution. That the term now circulates as a popular indictment of the absence of justice in situations of social conflict signals a more pervasive crisis for the rule of law in Latin American polities. The charge of impunity evokes indignation at state inaction or complicity with violent crime; it prefaces a demand for accountability from institutions charged with the protection of citizens and citizenship: elected officials, police, courts of law. As such, its utterance is a call for democratic response to intolerable instances of violation. Nonetheless, the term connotes a limited conceptualization of justice, of restoring social norms through the penalty of violent reprisal. The consequence may be an unexamined sanction for the state's use of force in its function as the guarantor of rights. At the very least, it suggests a confusion of boundaries between the promotion of human and civil rights and the violent practices of social regulation.

Charges of widespread impunity raise important questions for those concerned with the resurgence of armed social conflict in Latin America. How are the victims of crime, of gross violations, to be restored to rights? How are the basic elements of democratic society to be created and defended? Quite apart from an abiding preoccupation with state violations of human rights, Mexican analysts have articulated grave apprehensions about the viability of the criminal justice system: a recent study by Guillermo Zepeda Lecuona suggests that an estimated 97% of reported crimes nationwide go unpunished by police and judiciaries.[1] The impunity of violent crime necessarily devalues both citizenship and citizens: it produces a climate where sociality is defined less by national belonging than by the more atomizing force of collective fear.[2] A new discourse of security accompanies popular anxiety over crime and delinquency in Mexico, with severe implications for the administration of justice. The question of rights collides with the demand for social order: what is it? Who wants it? Rights for whom?

2. La justicia brilla por su ausencia

The question of how we define and imagine justice within the rule of law has reached a state of emergency at the Mexico-U.S. border, where the impunity of girl-killing in the Chihuahuan feminicidio has entered its second decade. In Ciudad Juárez and the capital city Chihuahua, an estimated 400 girls and women have been murdered in gender crimes since 1993; some 600 more are missing and feared dead.[3] The crimes invariably involve residents of the colonias, the extra-urban settlements of the city's poor and working classes. During some years, the tortured remains of victims have appeared weekly in the deserted lots that surround the industrial centers of the border metropolis, most notoriously in Lomas de Poleo and El Cerro Bola. Despite sustained international pressure from political campaigns, inter-American courts and human rights institutions, as well as successive appointments of special prosecutors by the federal government, the criminal justice system has yet to produce a credible prosecution in a single one of the murders. The lack of resolution permits the escalation of gender crimes in the border region; with impunity comes a broader social tolerance for female exploitation and female suffering. "Lomas de Poleo" has entered the lexicon of domestic battery as a threat by men of the consequences for defying patriarchal authority in the border city; social workers report the marked increase in the severity of "ordinary" assaults on women and children.[4]

In the context of the local movement to halt the killings, the allegation of impunity has resonances beyond the indictment of the government's partiality and discrimination in its administration of protection. It is much more an anguished statement of the immateriality of justice, whether pursued in the spheres of civil or human rights, for the vulnerable subjects of feminicidio. And yet the Ciudad Juárez case has been the privileged locus for international campaigns against gender violence. On a regular basis, human rights rapporteurs arrive in the afflicted communities to collect the testimonies of families about the circumstances of their loss and their mistreatment at the hands of government officials. Some half-dozen governments have issued proclamations condemning feminicidio as a crime against humanity; in the U.S. House of Representatives, Californian Democrat Hilda Solís has introduced legislation censuring the Mexican government for its failure to act. The feminicidio has likewise been the subject of countless international conferences among law enforcement officials, scholars, and journalists, producing an expansive list of investigations, academic studies, best-selling books, and documentary films. The spectacle extends to popular film and television: in 2003, the talk show host Cristina featured Chihuahuan mothers on a show devoted to the revelation of DNA evidence identifying the bodies of their missing daughters; Jennifer López has reportedly begun production of a Hollywood film devoted to the crimes; the novelist Alicia Gaspar de Alba, herself an academic and activist in the justice campaign, published the novel Desert Blood in 2005.

"La justicia brilla por su ausencia," writes Esther Chávez Cano, the embattled director of Casa Amiga, the women's resource center that has operated at the nerve center of the crisis. There is no lack of concerted appeals for justice, but justice remains fatally absent for the girls and women taken with such force from the colonias of Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua. The hyper-visibility of the feminicidio in the international arena thus points to a paradox in the politics of human rights. The recognition that many thousands of Mexican nationals live outside the boundaries of the most minimal legal protections unsettles the very concepts of justice and rights that animate the campaign against the murders. Before these violations, state institutions of civil rights and international conventions devoted to human rights show their debility in permitting cases of feminicidio to arise and persist.

The horror of impunity in the Chihuahuan feminicidio makes it impossible to imagine a female border life free of violence. Although Chihuahuan officials have sought to diminish the significance of the murders by pointing to the escalation of homicides overall during a period of dramatic growth in population in the border city, the nature of the actual killings defies the logic of this dismissal. Observers in Ciudad Juárez have had to ask whether what distinguishes the feminicidio in Chihuahua from gender violence elsewhere is the vicious mistreatment of the victims' bodies before and after death. Prolonged captivity and torture of victims, along with rape and mutilation, characterize many of the sexual murders committed, not only the 137 incidents linked to a serial crime.[5] Victims' bodies have been retrieved with as little left to identify them as a scrap of clothing or an exposed bone. Many of the dead bear signs of rape and torture, as in the case of Alma Chavira Farel, murdered in 1994, who was raped both anally and vaginally before being strangled to death. Some bodies have been left dismembered or mutilated in the desert trash heaps, commonly featuring bite marks, cuts, and severed nipples.

The brutality of the crimes should make us consider what, precisely, incites aggression on this scale, and what about these young girls and women is being extinguished with such force. As yet these questions remain unanswerable. Nevertheless, the persistent problem of impunity strongly suggests that the feminicidio corresponds to sanctioned economic and social processes that remove poor young women from the protected spheres of citizenship and human rights, so that the murders and disappearances of 1000 daughters require little sanction from the state and civil society.[6] Many human rights observers have come to suspect police involvement in the feminicidio; families of the victims repeatedly describe being harassed by police when they report their daughters' absences, or when they demand answers for crimes that have gone uninvestigated. Police consistently refuse to file missing person reports for residents of the colonias, arguing that poor girls are not a lucrative enough target for kidnappers, that their disappearances result from their own amoral behavior and do not merit inquiry.

An open letter from Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas, a coalition representing families of the dead and missing, illustrates the class and gender logic that underwrites the unequal administration of justice in Chihuahua:

Cuando hemos querido denunciar u organizarnos las autoridades nos amenazan con que si andamos de borloteras no buscarán a nuestras hijas. Han pretendido comprar nuestro silencio ofreciéndonos despensas y dinero. A personas que se acercan a acompañarnos las amenazan y hostigan. En Chihuahua disminuyeron los secuestros, robos de autos, etcétera. Como los secuestrables son ricos, se creó un grupo especial con recursos humanos y materiales que ha dado resultado. ¿Por qué no hay atención, personal y recursos para investigar la desaparición de nuestras hijas? Lo sabemos muy bien, porque todas las desaparecidas y muertas son pobres.[7]

The letter concludes with the acute awareness that the residents of the colonias hold no claim to rights within the nation-state: "El Gobierno nos discrimina y los asesinos lo saben, nadie las busca porque nuestras hijas no le interesan a la autoridad."[8] As conditions of poverty and social marginality force the expanding border population to survive "outside the scope of all tangible law," the state becomes more than complicit in the feminicidio.[9] In its calculated discrimination, the state produces the conditions for feminicidio to occur, by permitting criminals to exploit the gap between the written law covering all citizens and its actual practice. The police and the killers become collaborators in converting young women into persons available for appropriation and exploitation without penalty. In the case of Chihuahua, the state has ceased to function as an instrument of law; it is, in the words of the Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas appeal, disinterested in its function as guarantor of rights. That is, other interests contravene the state's work of protecting subaltern girls and women at the border.[10]

In 2003, human rights officials linked to the United Nations and the Organization of American States declared that the gender violence occurring in Ciudad Juárez constituted a femicide: a situation in which the systematic expression of gender dominance and oppression renders women and girls vulnerable to physical assault, and heightens the potential that instances of gender violence will result in victims' murder and disappearance.[11] The growing incidence of aggravated gender violence and murder throughout the country, indeed across Latin America, suggests that the feminicidio in Ciudad Juárez cannot be understood as an isolated phenomenon. In 2005, the federal government appointed the Comisión Especial sobre los Feminicidios en la República Mexicana to investigate gender crimes on a national scale, to examine commonalities between the feminicidios on the northern border, killings linked to the Maras Salvatrucha in the state of Chiapas, and murders of women in area of high narco-trafficking activity.[12] Mercedes Olivera, a researcher at the Center for Women's Rights, links the growing national problem of violence against women to Mexico's ongoing structural crisis.[13] Not only is the escalation of gender violence a matter of pressing concern in many sites of political and economic instability across Mexico, but in each area where such murders occur, the criminal justice system demonstrates an identifiable pattern of police inaction and judicial indifference that only exacerbates women's and girls' susceptibility to victimization. From this vantage point, the United Nations concluded that the cases in Juárez and Chihuahua represented "a situation of violence in a structurally violent society,"[14] in which the state's failure to address entrenched gender inequalities made women convenient targets for human rights violation, so that the feminicidio constituted a critical element of a larger "national crisis of governability."[15]

The feminicidio can thus be seen as a symptom of broader processes in Mexico that have significantly imperiled poor women's access to rights as citizens during this period of neoliberal governance. Since the 1980s, the combined processes of economic restructuring and political transition entailed with Mexico's adoption of neoliberal reforms have had the perverse effect of increasing the government's stake in the denationalization of poor women's citizenship precisely at the moment of women's emergence as new political and economic actors. The feminicidio's victims belong to the class of working poor that sustains the costs of Mexican social reproduction in conditions of extreme economic crisis. At the border, subaltern women's initiatives to secure economic survival for their families have proved a lucrative source of revenue for the Mexican state, for foreign investors, and now, certainly, criminal operations in the region.

As a critical site for the development of the maquiladora industries, Chihuahua played a prominent role in preparing the nation for its integration with the free-market system. The border zone's development is ineluctably tied to the capture of women's labor. Juárez enjoys notoriety for its long history of providing inexpensive sex, drugs, and leisure to international tourists, U.S. soldiers, and working-class migrants. The sale of women's sexual labor represents one of the most stable sources of income for local entrepreneurs and, less visibly, the state. Border industrialization from the 1960s forward built on this cross-border scheme for attracting capital with the promise of cheap, pliant labor and limitless service in the maquiladora system. The feminization of labor, devalued and detached from any concept of labor power, is just one expression of a project of governance that generated new modes and spaces for income generation through the commodification of poor women's bodies and delimited citizenship.

In this period of transformation and crisis, the Mexican state has sought revenue through schemes that increase its vulnerability to cooptation by organizations that use the border as a base for illicit cross-border traffic in goods, arms, drugs and people. The expansion of the informal economy in response to the contraction of the Mexican political economy involved women in new forms of enterprise at the margins of legality. The prevalence of market-led development strategies is likely only to encourage the interdependence of legal and illegal forms of commerce and production, as developing countries compete for investment and income in the global economy. These processes, already long established in the Mexico-U.S. border region, constitute a substantial breach in the capacity of the Mexican state to act as guarantor of rights for its most vulnerable citizens.[16]

As a consequence, restoring the targets of the feminicidio to rights will demand the intervention of outside governing bodies charged with the guarantee of justice that has become unattainable within the Mexican nation-state. For this, Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas issues its appeal to the transnational civil society where the promises of human rights are lodged.

Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas.
Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas.

Human rights discourse rests on a conception of human value deemed inalienable and universal. The feminicidio represents an assault on this bodily agency in the extreme.

Photo: (accessed February 6, 2006).

The case of Lilia Alejandra García illustrates the violence with which young women from colonias experience their removal from the protected spheres of rights. Lilia Alejandra's mother reported her daughter's disappearance to authorities on February 14, 2001 after the seventeen-year-old failed to return from her job at Servicios Plásticos Ensambles, a Juárez maquiladora. Although the teenager was the mother of an infant and a three-year-old son, police neglected to take action in the case. On February 19, 2001, residents of an abandoned lot in the industrial district placed successive calls to the emergency number 060 to report that a young woman was being beaten and raped inside a parked car. The police did not respond to the first call and arrived too late after the second call to locate the car. On February 21, the body of a young teenager was recovered from another lot, showing clear signs of sexual assault and strangulation, and later identified as Lilia Alejandra. Forensic examiners determined that the young woman had been held captive for five days prior to her murder and had most likely died the night when the emergency calls were made. The log for the police switchboard for 11 pm, February 21 reads "nada de novedad" ("nothing to report"). Since then, police and government authorities have made no investigation into the incident, nor have they taken disciplinary action against those responsible for the police failure. When Norma Andrade testified to Amnesty International about how her daughter's killing took place with full police cognizance, she exclaimed, "When we found her, my daughter's body told of everything that had been done to her."[17] The brutalized bodies of feminicidio victims "speak" as testaments to a political culture in which women's social marginality in the border space can be abused as a source of eroticism and violence. If impunity enacts poor young women's forcible removal from the sphere of rights, this removal also permits the conversion of the body of the female citizen into an object made for suffering.

This violent evacuation of poor women's citizenship has not gone uncontested, however. The justice movements in Chihuahua represent a defiant initiative for reconstituting the gender and class orders of rights and belonging in the border region. Their charge that the thirteen-year spate of killings and disappearances constitute a feminicidio moves the private and unspeakable nature of gender crimes into the public realm, revealing its global implications in ways that threaten the power interests governing the apparently neutral orders of state governance of commerce, development, foreign policy, and perhaps most critically, security. By invoking and gendering the legal term genocide, the protest movement seeks to reconstruct conventional understandings about where personal violence intersects with official terror. Feminist activists argue that the killings in Juárez represent a deliberate and systematic effort to deprive poor women and girls of their most basic rights to personal security and freedom of movement. In the absence of overt armed conflict or official state repression in Juárez, the narrative of feminicidio presents a significant challenge to the very apparatus of rights and legal conventions it invokes for protection.

Through the discourse of feminicidio, which activates networks of international human rights institutions, activists perform the delicate operation of opening up the transnational sphere as a space of political agency without foreclosing on the national as a site for reclaiming and embodying citizenship. The grassroots justice campaign mobilizes around the figure of female suffering as a means to reanimate both the wounded body of the law and the denigrated body of the citizen. Mourning the missing and the dead as beloved daughters permits the justice movement to connect the personal, private pain of afflicted families to the public, political labor of constructing new institutions of justice, democratic representation, and security at the border, articulated within and beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. In order to examine the ardent struggles involved in this effort, I will describe the case that has shaped my own, partial, understanding of what is at stake in our confrontation with impunity: the case of Claudia Judith Urías Berthaud.[18]

Photo: Familia Berthaud, given to author June 13, 2003.

Claudia Judith

Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Mexico

Photo: Familia Berthaud, given to author June 13, 2003.

3. Se Busca: Claudia Judith Urías Berthaud

I first encountered the story of Claudia Judith Urías Berthaud when my mother and I traveled to the capital city of Chihuahua in June of 2003 at the invitation of the Mexico Solidarity Network and its partner, Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas. We had come intending to participate in an international delegation to protest the impunity of the feminicidio, which had recently expanded from Ciudad Juárez to the interior of the state. The planned delegation never materialized, but Alma Gómez and Lucha Castro, representatives for the local justice movement, brought us to a rastreo so that we could witness the efforts of the local community to raise awareness of police abuses in the cases of disappeared and murdered young women from the Chihuahua colonias. The rastreo is an organized search for evidence linked to the crimes of feminicidio. Because of police inaction and manipulation, families of the disappeared conduct their own searches for the remains of their missing daughters. The rastreo has emerged as an instrument of social protest, a form of political theater in which the morbid search calls attention to the gross negligence of government officials. By ritualizing the search for human remains, the justice movement seeks to make the material absence of the disappeared felt in the broader civil society.

That day the coalition of families, community members, human rights workers and activists converged on an unoccupied dirt lot adjacent to a Motorola factory. Organizers for Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas had designated the site a likely location for the disposal of presumed murder victims. The deserted land functioned as a dumping ground for industrial refuse and garbage from the city. Mounds of scrap metals, burnt trash, and old tires covered the scrub brush and rocky soil. Earlier that year, the bodies of two murdered young women had appeared at a similar location on the desert outskirts of Chihuahua. Our task, then, was to look for the traces of nearly a dozen other young women disappeared from the nearby colonias. Organizers divided the group of fifty or so people into small teams, distributing plastic bags and instructing us to follow an imaginary grid over the littered terrain. We met the relatives of the missing and the murdered young women. The families walked together amidst the larger groups, many of them wearing shirts printed with photographs of the girls we were looking for.

For a while, I walked in the company of Virginia Berthaud (Vicky), the mother of Claudia Judith, who had been missing three months. Señora Berthaud appeared to have come alone, and her solitude set her apart from the other family groups. She and I exchanged few words, and I wondered what it meant for her to be accompanied in this melancholy task. I conveyed my concern in awkward words, hoping to nurture her hopes for recovering her daughter alive, although our actions seemed only to confirm the likelihood of the girl's death. Together, we stooped over the low-lying brush, turning over pieces of metal, discarded plastic bottles, and scraps of paper. Señora Berthaud began to narrate her search aloud, picking up objects that held some significance and whispering to herself about their likely connection to her daughter's whereabouts.[19] A couple of times she turned to me as if for confirmation of their import. Señora Berthaud stopped at a hand-lettered posterboard that advertised the sale of tacos and tamales from a private residence, saying, "This comes from my colonia, this address is near my house." Whether or not the various articles we retrieved would ever reveal anything about the actual crimes was impossible for me to know. The captain of our group dutifully bagged and labeled everything that Señora Berthaud passed forward, as our smaller unit of ten people hovered nearby, offering our limited perspective on what the desert might yield up as evidence.

I have revisited the scene many times since then in memory to consider my own location in this fragile mobilization against death and impunity. Señora Berthaud never named her daughter to me during our walk through the deserted lot. At one point she stumbled over a rock as we climbed a steep hill. As a group of us moved to catch her, she drew back, as if steeling herself against this momentary intimacy. It may well be that my own presence, a foreign visitor, mediated that wordless exchange. Perhaps naming Claudia in that desolate space would have been too painful—not just because it might have evoked the terror of the acts committed against her, but because as political theater, the rastreo must have impinged on her personal connection to Claudia as a daughter. The political movement may partner bereft families in the pursuit of justice, but I am not sure we perform adequately the labors of mourning. The grim narratives of feminicidio can threaten to overwhelm the personal petition, "Se Busca…" Señora Berthaud did give me numerous copies of her flyers to distribute for her, so perhaps in this small task I was entrusted with Claudia Judith's life story. Claudia's biography is an inextricable chapter of the Chihuahua feminicidio, but her mother knows it had a different beginning. Nor should our acts of remembrance accept the feminicidio as its final end.

At 9 am on March 9, 2003, the fourteen-year-old schoolgirl left her house in Colonia Mineral 2 to go visit her grandmother, and never arrived. The family reported Claudia Judith's absence to local authorities, but received no material assistance. Señora Berthaud made repeated efforts to obtain answers about the investigation of the case, to no avail. After denouncing police inaction through the local coalition of Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas, Señora Berthaud began receiving anonymous telephone calls from a man who threatened the family with further reprisals. According to the case report on record with the Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, A.C., the caller offered to return Claudia in exchange for another young woman.[20] Around the same time, Señora Berthaud reported being followed around the city by a dark van as she distributed flyers announcing her daughter's disappearance. Students at Claudia's secondary school sighted a similar vehicle following the school director and one of Claudia's close friends. Señora Berthaud's experience of menacing harassment fits a pattern of intimidation common to many of the family members involved in the campaign for justice.

The name of Claudia Judith Urías Berthaud has traveled the communicative circuits of the international justice movement attached to the modest and yet incomprehensibly painful plea, "help us bring her home." Her adolescence makes it almost reflexive to imagine her belonging at home; as a minor, the girl's political rights become coherent only within the protective enclosure of her household. The rupture of the family thus provides the most recognizable and potent force for popular mobilization against the feminicidio. The school snapshot on the flyer advertising her disappearance shows Claudia in uniform, her face and shoulders placed against a background of her peers. The image conveys both the particular urgency of Claudia's individual case and acknowledges a more general assault on her class: the feminicidio is devastatingly personal in its effects on victims' families, but cruelly random in its selection of targets. The terror exposes girlhood as a site of extreme vulnerability for the border society. Like the majority of the missing, Claudia vanished at the age when girls make the precarious transition into womanhood, an operation freighted with inordinate cultural anxieties about female autonomy and sexuality. The somber-eyed expression with which Claudia posed for her picture suggests a frank awareness of the stakes involved in making that crossing. Taking a photograph is an act that both freezes time and preserves it as visual testament for the future. I would like so much to know what prospects Claudia was imagining as she stood for her portrait.

Claudia Judith's future was decided for her with exceeding brutality. In December of 2005, an Argentine team of forensic anthropologists, working at the behest of local non-governmental organizations, examined the remains of bodies in the Chihuahua morgue and issued positive identifications of two missing girls, Miriam Cristina Gallegos Venegas and Claudia Judith Urías Berthaud.[21] On February 3, 2006, Alma Gómez issued a statement on behalf of the victims' families along with notices for the girls' funerals. The announcement, bearing Claudia Judith's same school picture, carries her mother's words of farewell to her daughter:

De haber sabido que era la última vez que te iba a ver te hubiera dado un beso y un abrazo. Te hubiera tomado de la mano para que caminaras junto a mi, te hubiera protegido y cuidado para siempre. Le pido a Dios que me da el tiempo necesario para seguir diciéndote que TE AMO. Tu mamá Vicky[22]

The crime of feminicidio violently interrupts the labor of mothering, of accompanying a daughter through her passage to adulthood. Mourning sanctifies a life rudely torn from the protected circle of kinship and community. The brutalized child is no less an object of love and devotion in death; her personhood denied in life survives in acts of remembrance and struggle. Made public, the words of Vicky's prayer enact the transfer of her daughter's vital being to a community of memory entrusted with the pursuit of justice in her name.

Justice is no less a matter of preserving life, but of re-consecrating death within an ethical social order. This task is not reducible to the limited realm of law and rights; these violated and violating deaths demand a reckoning with our limited political understanding of what has been extinguished in Chihuahua, and what must be remade there.

Mujeres de Negro. Demonstration in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, November 25, 2002.
Mujeres de Negro. Demonstration in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, November 25, 2002.

Photo: Associated Press. Reproduced on website: (accessed February 6, 2006).

4. Mourning and Justice

The local movements in Chihuahua draw international attention through the spectacle of mothers' grief. Protest marches of veiled women dressed in mourning adopt the familiar postures of mothers' movements to make legible the charge of feminicidio in the broader arena of human rights struggles. The funereal processions behind the banner "Ni Una Más" consciously invoke the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo to stage confrontations between the moral authority of women's suffering and the intransigence of the state. Through the symbolism of violated motherhood, the Chihuahuan movement aims to draw equivalences between the victimization caused by the feminicidio and the state-sponsored terror of the Argentine dictatorship. So too, organizers adopt now-familiar representational practices for making visible the wounds of gender crimes to bodies now hidden from view—disposed of in abandoned lots or simply vanished. Like the Argentine women, mothers in Chihuahua have had to defer their mourning in the realm of consecrated ritual, and politicize their grievances as a means to contest the state discourse that blames the families for their daughters' deaths.[23]

If, as Diana Taylor states, the marches of Argentine mothers conformed to the codes of performance, as "twice-behaved behavior," then the marches in Chihuahua add new layers of reiteration to their enactments of behaviors deemed private or antithetical to politics.[24] The strategy is thus doubly performative, staked on the hope that symbolic association with earlier women's movements will have currency in the international arena and communicate what is at stake in Mexico. Whether in fact this iteration of motherhood retains its symbolic purchase remains to be seen. The gendered boundaries of private and public that helped define the transgressive power of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, as articulated within the particular framework of authoritarian rule, are not so clearly delineated in Mexico today. That women in the border region have occupied public roles as wage earners and political figures may also undercut the figure of the veiled woman in black; Melissa W. Wright argues that the marches cannot dislodge the border society's association of public women with prostitutes.[25] To my mind, the uniform postures of female mourning run the risk of occluding the relationship between the actual suffering women of the colonias and their supporters, many of whom belong to the more secure working and upper classes. If so, the politicization of a generic motherhood may actually deny the particular violations women in the colonias experience at the hands of the state. That is, subaltern women are already excluded from the bourgeois institutions of civil society that enshrine maternity within the state. As I have shown, their class status may preclude their access to the protected status as mothers of the nation.

My sense is that the organizers in Chihuahua know this already, and have calculated the contradictions inherent in this movement "script." They have had to design their political labors for a wider international audience. In making my critique, I do not want to suggest that the marches are not genuine expressions of female anguish, nor that these enactments lack communicative power. I have taken comfort in them; the black garments give us a sense of our own collective unity before terror, just as the ritual gives us a form for grieving where words are lacking. Nonetheless, I have often felt the discomfort of the families of feminicidio victims in the midst of the spectacle. Señora Soledad Aguilar, who lost a teenaged daughter and newborn granddaughter to the feminicidio, told me she felt her participation in the mother's movement was her "Calvario," her burden, because it entailed converting her family's suffering into a political resource at enormous personal cost. She persists, she says, for the sake of her missing grandchild. I did not ever hear Señora Aguilar speak of rights; I heard her speak of justice. As impunity persists, it necessarily redraws the calculus of what justice can ultimately mean for the bereaved, and if it can even occur through the rule of law. For this reason, the issue of survival must be a matter of ethical concern for the social movement as it seeks a new horizon of rights and redress for the wounded communities of the feminicidio in the arena of transnational politics.

The very notion of "rights" is highly variable and contested terrain; it entails access to representation, goods, and services, as well as a guarantee of protection. At their most basic level, human rights laws enshrine the principal entitlement to freedom from harm. This discourse derives its political power from its moral claims to prevent or curtail human suffering from needless cruelty. According to Michael Ignatieff, its language is "a decidedly 'thin' theory of what is right" by design.[26] That is, human rights law is necessarily confined to delineating the bare features of universal human dignity, and cannot prescribe the terms for defeating injustice. Ignatieff defends the structure of "negative freedoms" that characterizes international conventions as a platform for promoting individual agency against oppression. International courts and non-governmental organizations may ultimately prove to be fertile ground for finding relief from the terrors of feminicidio; nonetheless, it remains uncertain whether these institutions can adequately support the grassroots movement's aspirations for social justice. In my opinion, the problem of impunity points to a fundamental debility in the "negative" design of human rights law. That is, how does this framework contend with the material logic that makes police discrimination less an aberration from the law then a reflection of their rational understanding of what their function is at the border?

Mexico signed onto the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the primary instrument for combating gender violence, ratified by the United Nations General Assembly on December 18, 1979. The law has served as a basis for introducing new legislation promoting Mexican women's citizenship and increasing penalties for domestic violence and gender crimes. Nonetheless, Mexican scholars report that despite this legislation, criminal courts have not produced any significant rise in the number of prosecutions of rape or spousal abuse cases. Because CEDAW has little to offer by way of enforcement, its ratification may actually extend the legitimacy of the Mexican state at the expense of feminist interests. So too, CEDAW is limited to establishing women's equality with men, and cannot address the material processes that prevent subaltern women from exercising their rights. That is, CEDAW does not comprehend the particular vulnerability of girls and women to the forms of exploitation and abuse that characterize the Chihuahuan feminicidio. If impunity means that the victims of feminicidio are denied effective citizenship, how does human rights discourse administer justice? Confronting impunity will require a justice project that goes beyond the rights framework to create new social institutions and relationships, based in economic redistribution and political reform. CEDAW may help us clarify the entitlements of female citizenship, but it does not answer for how the particular agency of subaltern women in the border could be instantiated and protected.

In 1950, Hannah Arendt offered her melancholic summation of the persistent problem of rightlessness: "From the beginning the paradox involved in the declaration of inalienable human rights was that it reckoned with an 'abstract' human being who seemed to exist nowhere."[27] Arendt's study of totalitarianism documents how terror likewise functions by abstraction, to convert certain populations into classes of "superfluous" persons. Arendt's cautions are instructive in our case. The Chihuahuan feminicidio exploits the gap between the law as it is written and the law as it is embodied. The demand for justice in the border region returns us to the violation so brutally inscribed on the victims of the feminicidio. We have yet to calculate the enormity of what has been stolen with the loss of these young women and their aspirations in life; at the moment where no politics seems possible, when no ethics can carry our grief, then we begin to reckon with the burden of justice.


El Diario (Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, MX: February 4, 2006).
Accompanying image to Gabriel Acevedo Leyva, "Identifican osamentas de dos adolescentes," El Diario (Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, MX: February 4, 2006).

Photo: (accessed Feburary 6, 2006).

Claudia Judith Urías Berthaud was laid to rest in the afternoon of February 4, 2006, at La Colina in her native city. The day before, her family convened her velorio in the company of Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas. One final picture of Claudia now circulates the networks of media and solidarity devoted to the Chihuahuan feminicidio: a newspaper photograph of Claudia's white coffin standing beneath a cross. The casket is closed, but her school photograph once again conveys Claudia's living image. A single arrangement of flowers accompanies her remains, with the words, "Procuraduría." It is a last offering from the state special prosecutor, La Procuraduría de Justicia; or perhaps it is the beginning statement of a promise.

Alicia Schmidt Camacho is an assistant professor of American Studies at Yale University. She serves on the board of Junta for Progressive Action, a community agency serving the Latino neighborhood of Fair Haven. She has published articles concerning cross-border social movements, feminicidio in Ciudad Juárez, and the human rights of migrants. Her book, Migrant Imaginaries: Cultural Politics in the Mexico-U.S. Borderlands, is forthcoming from NYU Press.

End Notes

 [1] Guillermo Zepeda Lecuona, "Inefficiency in the Service of Impunity: Criminal Justice Organization in Mexico." Transnational Crime and Public Security: Challenges to Mexico and the United States, eds. John Bailey and Jorge Chabat (La Jolla: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California at San Diego, 2002).

 [2] See Susana Rotker, ed. Ciudadanías del miedo (Caracas: Editorial Nueva Sociedad, 2000).

 [3] My statistics come from Amnesty International and the grassroots campaign, Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa.

 [4] Personal communication with social workers at Casa Amiga, Ciudad Juárez, June 2003; corroborated by Linabel Serrat of Las Hormigas de Anapra, June 2003.

 [5] This assessment was confirmed by a caseworker for prostitutes in the city. This social worker chose to remain anonymous. Interview with author, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, June 12, 2003.

 [6] I discuss this question at greater length in "Ciudadana X: Gender Violence and the Denationalization of Women's Rights in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico," in The New Centennial Review: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Americas, Vol. 5, No.1, Spring 2005.

 [7] My translation: "When we have tried to denounce the killings or organize ourselves, the police have threatened us with refusing to search for our daughters. The police have hoped to buy our silence with handouts and money. They intimidate and harass anyone who tries to join us. In Chihuahua, the rates of kidnapping, auto theft, and other crimes have gone down. Because the likely targets for kidnapping are rich, the government created a special task force, with resources and personnel to address the problem. They have been successful. Why has their been no comparable attention, personnel, or resources given to investigate the disappearances of our daughters? We know the answer very well, that it is because the murdered and the disappeared are poor women." Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas, 2003. Website:

 [8] "The government discriminates against us, and the murderers know that no one will come after them because authorities have no interest in protecting our daughters."

 [9] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951, 1976), p. 293.

 [10] Verónica Zebadúa-Yañez, writing in these pages, argues that the feminicidio of Ciudad Juárez marks the emergence of a mode of governmentality in which the murders and disappearances of young women performs the formation of a distinct type of political community. She writes, "When confronting Juárez we seem truly to stand before a 'death zone' in which the politics of civility and democratic conflict have been erased and the public space has become a realm of violent performance—a place in which public acts take the form of rape, torture, and murder. It is a fact that the identity of this community of death is being reshaped, and its borders reworked, by femicide." Zebadúa-Yañez, "Killing as Performance: Violence and the Shaping of Community," p. 6. This analysis usefully echoes human rights obervers' arguments that the feminicidio represents a systematic deprivation of women's human rights, and that impunity removes the targeted class of girls and women from the sphere of political rights and protections. I am less ready to adopt her position that Juárez constitutes a "zone," or that poor young women are the "homo-sacer" of the border society, simply because I am afraid that such discourse forecloses prematurely on the ardent struggles for justice that seek to refute this equation of young women with "non-value" and resist the equation the border space into a "death zone." See my discussion in "Body Counts on the Mexico-U.S. Border: Feminicidio, Reification, and the Theft of Mexicana Subjectivity," in Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social, Vol. 4, Fall 2004.

 [11] United Nations, Diagnóstico sobre la situación de los derechos humanos en México (Mexico City, 2003).

 [12] Marcela Lagarde, Por la vida y la libertad de las mujeres: Primer informe sustantivo de la Comisión Especial para Conocer y Dar Seguimento a las Investigaciones Relacionadas con los Feminicidios en la República Mexicana y la Procuración de la Justicia Vinculada (Mexico City, Cámara de Diputados, Congreso de la Unión, LIX Legislatura, 2005).

 [13] Mercedes Olivera, "Violencia Femicida: Violence Against Women and Mexico's Structural Crisis," Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 2, March, 2006, pp. 104-114.

 [14] United Nations, Diagnóstico.

 [15] Olivera, 107.

 [16] See for instance, studies of criminality and corruption in the northern border region: John Bailey and Jorge Chabat, eds. Transnational Crime and Public Security: Challenges to Mexico and the United States (La Jolla, CA: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California at San Diego, 2002).

 [17] Amnesty International, "Mexico: Intolerable Killings. Ten years of abductions and murders in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua." August 11, 2003. AI index: AMR 41/027/2003, 2.

 [18] There are some discrepancies in the documents linked to the case of Claudia Judith Urías Berthaud: some list her last name as "Urías Bethaud," and others as "Urías Berthaud." I have adopted the spelling "Berthaud" in accordance with the case files given to Amnesty International, which correspond to the usage employed by Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas, the organization representing Claudia's mother, Virginia Berthaud (Vicky).

 [19] I narrate this process at greater length in the article "Body Counts on the Mexico-U.S. Border: Feminicidio, Reification, and the Theft of Mexicana Subjectivity."

 [1] Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, A.C., Acción Urgente Nac. 14, Julio 2003., accessed July 31, 2003.

 [21]. Miriam Cristina Gallegos Venegas disappeared on May 4, 2000, from her home in Chihuahua City as she made her way to work in the maquiladora ACS.

 [22] Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas, "Esquela de Claudia," received from Alma Gómez, February 3, 2006.

 [23] See Jean Franco, "Going Public: Reinhabiting the Private" (1992), in Critical Passions: Selected Essays, eds. Kathleen E. Newman and Mary L. Pratt. (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 1999), pp. 48-65.

 [24] Diana Taylor, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's "Dirty War" (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), p. 185.

 [25] Melissa W. Wright, "The Paradox of Politics: Femicide and the Mujeres de Negro of Northern Mexico." Paper presented at the Primer Encuentro Sobre Estudios de la Mujer en la Región Paso del Norte: Retos Frente al Siglo XXI, Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, November 14, 2003.

 [26] Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 56.

 [27] Arendt, 291



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