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Probing the maquiladora murders


Alicia Gaspar de Alba has researched the maquiladora
murders since 1998. She photographed a close-up (left)
of nails embedded in a cross that stands in Ciudad Juarez
as a memorial. Each nail is tagged with a victim’s name
or “no identification.”

UCLA Today

Since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, young women from poor villages in the interior of Mexico have flocked to Ciudad Juárez, the city that borders El Paso, Texas, to look for jobs in American-owned maquiladoras or factories.

Instead, what hundreds of them have found is a gruesome and early death, said Alicia Gaspar de Alba, associate director of the Chicano Studies Research Center. Since 1993, more than 300 young women and girls have been killed in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from Gaspar de Alba’s hometown of El Paso.

This 10-year crime wave of deadly violence will be the focus of an international conference, “The Maquiladora Murders, Or, Who is Killing the Women of Juárez?” slated for Oct. 31-Nov. 2 at UCLA. It will coincide with Days of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that honors the dead.

The conference, the first of its kind to take place at a major research university in the nation, is being organized by Associate Professor Gaspar de Alba, hosted by the center and co-sponsored by Amnesty International and UCLA student organizations. Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” will deliver the keynote speech.

“The purpose of the conference is to encourage more scholarly inquiry into the crimes and also to examine the social, political, economic and cultural infrastructure of the crimes,” said Gaspar de Alba, who has been researching the crimes since 1998. Participating will be scholars, journalists, artists, activists and po-licy specialists from the United States and Mexico, as well as families of the victims and the campus community.

“You have to understand that these crimes are more than murders,” said Gaspar de Alba, who wrote a mystery novel, “The Factory: A Novel on the Maquiladora Murders.” “They are ritual acts of pure and unadulterated hatred and desprecio (scorn) toward the indigenous female body. Who can hate these powerless women so much?”

The arrests made so far in some of the deaths have usually turned out to be controversial or erroneous, Gaspar de Alba said. For instance, police allegedly tortured some of the suspects into confessing they were guilty while other suspects have been released, she said.

Still, the murders of young women in Juárez have not stopped. In February 2003, four new bodies were discovered, including one of a 5-year-old girl with multiple stab wounds and her eyes removed. Many of the victims remain unidentified.

“Beyond exploring the many theories that exist around the question ‘Who is killing the women of Juárez?,’ the conference will look at the complicity of silence that has protected the killers on both sides of the border,” Gaspar de Alba said.

Participants will examine the sexism that surrounds the murders. According to Gaspar de Alba, some people, including the authorities, believe: “She asked for it by the way she dressed.”

Organizers also hope to draw attention to the American companies who employ many women. Many of the victims were killed on their way home from work at night. “The maquiladora industry needs to be made accountable for not protecting its personnel,” Gaspar de Alba said.

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