Femicide, mother- Activism, and the geography of protest in northern Mexico

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"Th is silence terrifi es me," said Esther Chavez Cano, the director of Casa Amiga, a rape crisis center in Ciudad Juarez, the city that borders El Paso, Texas.1 Th e silence she refers to is the quiet surrounding the ongoing violence against women in northern Mexico. "No one is protesting," she said. "Th ere are no press conferences. No marches. It's like we're back in 1993." Th e year 1993 marks the beginning of what is widely recognized as northern Mexico's era of femicide (feminicidio)- The killing of women by persons granted impunity.2 Th e year also marks the beginnings of the protests that made this violence infamous around the world. As I listened to Esther, a woman in her mid-seventies, while she lay on her sofa, preparing for another round of chemotherapy, I wondered if I should state the obvious. "You know, Esther," I said, "no one, anywhere, protests violence against women on a regular basis." "Well," she said, "we used to." Indeed, between 1995 and 2005, the northern Mexican cities of Ciu-dad Juarez and Chihuahua City (both in the State of Chihuahua) were renowned for protests led primarily by women; the protests shocked fi rst the country and then much of the world with the news that women and girls were being kidnapped and murdered with impunity throughout the border region. For simplicity's sake, I refer to these protests and their protagonists as part of an "antifemicide" movement or campaign.3 Th ese protests took many forms and involved a variety of organizations and individuals who formed coalitions that spearheaded marches, press conferences, the creation of public monuments and memorials, artistic performances, and confrontations with public offi cials, among other actions. In recent years, however, the local antifemicide coalitions have dissolved as groups or have parted ways to work on separate projects or have coordinated activities around issues other than femicide.4 And with the disappearance of these local antifemicide coalitions, there has been a quieting of the protests across the region. Unlike in previous years, the discovery of a female body is not followed by press conferences or other public actions that keep the violence on the front pages of local dailies. Indeed, local press coverage of the femicides has waned despite evidence of enduring violence against women, an escalation of violence more generally, and impunity for criminals across the board.5 Recent municipal and statewide elections reveal that femicide, and how candidates address it, is no longer the campaign issue that it was from 1995 to 2004. Th e dissolution of local coalitions and the quieting of public protest in northern Mexico, however, does not signify a lack of activism around femicide. Instead, it indicates a shift in the geographic orientation of the movement as activists from Mexico form coalitions with organizations and individuals in other countries to raise public awareness of the problems in their country. For instance, some activists and their organizations in northern Mexico have been working on cases on behalf of victims' families to pre sent to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights under the Organization of American States;6 others are working with Argentina's Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (Forensic Anthropology Team), a nonprofi t organization that assists in the analysis of forensic data and the preparation of reports;7 others are trying to foster regional and international support for the preservation of the public monuments to the violence and its victims in northern Mexico;8 and still others participate regularly in academic, political, and human rights events around the world. While it is hard to place an actual number on such eff orts, it seems clear to activists within the movement that, as visibility of their activism has faded locally over the last few years, it has increased outside of the country.? Th e movement's geographic shift toward the international arena refl ects the impact of two principal processes on the antifemicide movement.1 One is the strategy of activists within and beyond Mexico to generate international political pressure on Mexican politicians in order to seek justice for the victims and their families and to prevent further crimes. Th is strategy is especially important when activists are harassed or receive threats, as has been the case in the antifemicide campaigns.11 Th e other is a weakening in northern Mexico of the movement's coalitions, which are fragmented by political disagreements and competition for resources. In this chapter, I investigate these two processes in relation to each other in order to ask how the quieting of this movement within Mexico is connected to its internationalization and what this holds for Mexico's democracy and for women's participation in it. As a starting point, I take my cues from activists and scholars, primarily in Ciudad Juarez and in the state capital of Chihuahua City, who express concern over the divisions that have debilitated the coalitions within the domestic campaign.12 In my experience within this movement, such divisions are palpable in marches, academic forums, and other public events. And as one scholar based in Ciudad Juarez put it, "Th e in-fi ghting makes all of this so hard."13 In conversations with event participants, a variety of explanations describe the quarrels as based on a range of issues from politics, class, and regional orientation, to diffi cult personalities among key participants. While there is no single opinion as to why the movement has so many internal fi ssures, there is a commonly held view that, as one activist put it, "working on local coalitions is not a good use of our energy right now."14 Or as another activist said, "We are working on our separate projects, and we are doing important things. But it does show that there are no strong [antifemicide] coalitions here right now."15 Rather than regard such expressions of frustration as indicators of a "failed" movement in Mexico, I view them as part of the ongoing materialization of social movements out of the destruction of previous forms, as has been analyzed in the large literature on social movements in Latin America. 16 Th erefore, I agree with those scholars who urge careful study of the infi ghting and divisions so common to social justice movements around the world. Th ey argue that treating these troubles as idiosyncratic or as inappropriate for public discussion leaves gaps in the literature on social movements, on networks, on collective action, and on the realities of social justice work in past and present times.17 Indeed, as one scholar and antifemicide activist has written, we must treat this movement as a "drama" full of "contradictions and constant transformation."18And so it is in this vein that I investigate how the dramas unfolding within the local coalitions in northern Mexico are connected to the production of international ones and to a geographic transformation of this movement. I do this primarily by focusing across scales, at the connections linking the faltering of the movement domestically to its production internationally and ask how the former contributes to or limits the latter. Toward this end, I fi nd useful Cindi Katz's elaboration of topography as a metaphor for tracing the dynamic alignments of social movements across scales that form around particular concepts.1? Her usage of contour lines to refer to points of social contact refl ects a Marxian allegiance to the idea that connections among people are based on social, rather than essential, relationships that incorporate spatial strategies for mediating these relationships. Th is thinking also fi nds common ground with network theory, but metaphors of networks and of cartography work slightly diff erently. Katz refers to contour lines as a means for integrating these spatial strategies into a conceptualization of the processes that mediate social relationships across space and through time: "My intent in invoking them is to imagine a politics that simultaneously retains the distinctness of the characteristics of a particular place and builds on its analytic connections to other places along 'contour lines' marking, not elevation, but rather a particular relation to a process. . . . In this way, it is possible to theorize 'the connectedness of vastly diff erent places made artifactually discrete by virtue of history and geography but which also reproduce themselves diff erently amidst the common political-economic and sociocultural processes they experience."2 Instead of regarding this social movement in terms of people- To-people contacts, I use Katz's formulation of contour lines to imagine the antifemicide social movement as emerging through the various eff orts of diff erent actors as they engage with similar sets of issues. Th ese eff orts include positive as well as negative interactions, as some people may prefer not to work directly with each other even as they seek justice around shared concerns. Th e contour line that I identify and follow in this case is one that creates connections, including negative connections (or disconnections), within the antifemicide movement around the concept of the "public woman." By combining Marxist critiques of political economy with poststructuralist feminist interrogations of discursive production,21 I investigate the discourse of the public woman as a technological device for producing the public woman as a material force of power that the antifemicide activists must confront at every turn. And they do so via spatial strategies for confi guring and reconfi guring their alliances in relation to her.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMaking a Killing
Subtitle of host publicationFemicide, Free Trade, and la Frontera
PublisherUniversity of Texas Press
Number of pages32
ISBN (Print)9780292722774
StatePublished - Dec 1 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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