The Angel of Juarez

Hundreds of poor Mexican girls have been abducted, raped, and murdered on the streets of Ciudad Juarez. They were forgotten and mostly ignored by authorities until Esther Chavez came along.

That females applying for jobs were forced to take physical examinations that included pregnancy tests was another wrong she vowed to right. "Of course," she says, "the women are not told that a pregnancy test is a part of their physical, but the fact is, if they are pregnant they simply are not hired. That is not right."

And she saw a need to speak out about the cramped living conditions in the city's colonias--the collections of one-room, dirt-floor shanties wherein an epidemic of abuse and family violence festers.

Yet today, as the war continues, victories remain few. "We have to fight very hard to alter society," she admits, "to get past the 'macho' attitude that has been passed down for generations. For instance, in our culture, marital rape is considered a man's right. If a woman does go to the police or a doctor to report what has been done to her, she can only expect to receive a rape of a different sort. She is criticized for the way she dresses, the places she goes, or for not treating her husband with proper respect.

Top: In the colonias of Juarez, Chavez is a welcomed visitor. Here she talks with Monica Lopez (left), 13, and her sister, Jessica, 12.
Bruce Berman
Top: In the colonias of Juarez, Chavez is a welcomed visitor. Here she talks with Monica Lopez (left), 13, and her sister, Jessica, 12.

"These are the attitudes we are fighting, step by very small step."

To date, she points out, rape convictions--a rarity--result in a penalty of only two to eight years in prison. Nowhere in the laws of her land is there any penalty for the crime of domestic violence.

Her latest battlefront is Casa Amiga, opened in February 1999 when Juarez Mayor Gustavo Elizondo agreed that the city would pay rent for the building and modest salaries for Chavez and two assistants. The Mexican Federation of Private Health and Community Development Associations provided $25,000 in grant money, and the neighboring Texas attorney general's office agreed to fund the training of rape crisis volunteers.

With $64,000 raised from a recent telethon, Chavez has been able to add two psychologists and another social worker to her paid staff. A businesswomen's organization in El Paso donated $5,000 for the printing of needed educational materials.

It hasn't always been easy going. She reflects on a time shortly after the facility's grand opening when it was burglarized and its new computer, the most vital and valuable piece of equipment in the small adobe building, stolen. But for her, a lost computer is a trifling setback. Machines can be replaced. Lost lives and dignity can't. "We are," the energetic director proudly says, "here to stay."

"Here" she gets a firsthand view of the parade of abuse in Mexican society. "Women come to us," she says, "with bruises and cuts, cigarette burns on their arms and breasts. Often they bring their children, who have also been badly abused. In this center we see the hatred every day." And she and her co-workers reach out to help.

"This is the first time someone has listened to me," says a 20-year-old client who did not wish to have her name used. Her story is heartbreaking. Her two young daughters, she says, are being raped by their father.

"It is not at all unusual," Chavez says later, "for women to stay with the men who abuse them and their children...Why? In much of Mexico's society, a woman who has been raped immediately becomes an outcast, wanted only by the man who committed the crime against her."

Such is the insanity she and her associates battle.


The women of Juarez are afraid. Particularly the young girls, some barely teenagers, who have migrated north from their poverty-immersed towns to seek the meager wages offered in the maquiladoras, the 300 assembly-for-export plants, half of which are owned by companies with corporate headquarters in the United States (3M, DuPont, Honeywell, Amway, etc.). Since 1993, a year after the maquiladora program was established, allowing manufacturers to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor, local law enforcement officials have counted more than 200 women workers who have been murdered. Most were raped before they were killed, their bodies discarded in the sand-blown desert outside the city, in foul-smelling vacant lots adjacent to the city's night spots, or along the railroad tracks that wind through the most squalid parts of town.

Chavez, who keeps a list of every victim in her computer and quickly e-mails members of the media each time a new body is discovered, is convinced the death toll is far greater than the official law enforcement count. And as she lobbies for more aggressive investigations of the deaths, she routinely angers and embarrasses people in high places.

One of Chavez's primary targets has been Arturo Gonzalez Rascon, attorney general of the state of Chihuahua, who has, in the past, seemed to place at least some of the blame on the victims themselves, suggesting they have put themselves in harm's way by dressing provocatively and frequenting unsavory after-hours nightclubs. Rascon's comments infuriated Chavez. "He is not an attorney general," she once said. "He talks like an old priest. He's stupid. He has to learn to respect women."

Plain-speak is, in fact, Esther Chavez's sharpest sword. And it has reaped results. Owners of the maquiladoras now work with her, even briefly shutting down assembly lines when she arrives to conduct seminars for the workers. The attorney general whom she has lashed out against recently paid a visit to Casa Amiga, leaving the center with positive comments and a promise of help. The police have begun to embrace her efforts. And last month, after Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, took office, Chavez and several other women's leaders were summoned to a meeting with him in Mexico City to discuss the problems of equality for women. "He assured us that he planned to work hard against the violence," she says.

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