The city of the dead

LEON, MEXICO — LEON, Mexico - Another of those melancholy stories appeared in one of the local newspapers recently, about a young woman gone missing in Ciudad Juarez, up on the border. She had "light brown skin, long black hair;" she was "slender." That physical description would match millions of Mexican women; it's an archetype of this Mestizo country.

About 10 days after she disappeared, her mother went to the news media. The story didn't say she reported it to the police, but no one would be surprised if she hadn't. They have proved utterly ineffective before the malignant contagion that envelops the border region: the continuing incidence of kidnapping, rape, mutilations and killings of young women.


Depending on which source you accept, between 300 and 400 or more women have been killed in and around Juarez in the past decade. There is no official count on the number missing, those whose remains haven't been found. Vital statistics are never readily available in Mexico.

Amnesty International has put the number of dead at 370. Casa Amiga, a women's crisis center in Juarez, recently counted 281 known victims, 72 unknown. The phenomenon has inspired a neologism: feminicidio.


There have been fewer than 100 convictions for these crimes. Many of these, if not most, are viewed as scapegoats subjected to a perverted justice. Impunity is the preferred word to describe the state of affairs in Juarez and other parts of Chihuahua state.

To many, this general exemption from punishment is as alarming as the killings themselves. It reveals the abysmal weakness of Mexico's criminal justice system, a degree of official incompetence impossible to contemplate. The response has been, well, glacial: slow and cold. As is often the case with crimes such as these, there have been suggestions that these women have been killed as a consequence of their "style of life." That is, they were poor.

Juarez is a rough, seething town of a little over a million people. Many down-and-outers, some desperate, have been drawn there in recent years by its few specific attractions. There still are jobs in the maquiladoras - factories planted in northern Mexico and elsewhere, usually by American companies - though these are disappearing as the plants move to countries where labor costs are even lower than Mexico's.

Also, Juarez was for years a vestibule to the United States for those intent on crossing illegally. That's harder to do now; the border there has been heavily fortified in line with Washington's anti-terrorist strategies. (Actually, the flow of illegals has not dropped much; they have found new, more dangerous routes through the Arizona deserts.) Juarez's location on the border has also attracted drug smugglers eager to supply the world's largest market for dope on the other side.

Theories on the killings abound. It is the work of serial killers. It is organized by nefarious organizations whose purposes remain hidden. The women are being stalked by ghouls harvesting organs from their victims to supply that particular black market. They are being killed by drug dealers. The sons of Mexico's political and business elite are doing it for sport, or the police for the same reason. These would explain the intimations that important people are involved, and also the arthritic response of the authorities. There are also suggestions that the whole phenomenon is a grotesque outburst of Mexican machismo: sexism pursed to its rational conclusion.

Whatever, it is no longer a domestic issue. Mexico couldn't deal with it, so it has been globalized. The world press has written and filmed the story from every angle. Women's groups of all sorts rally in cities around the planet: Washington, London, New York.

A delegation of concerned members of Congress visited Juarez and has urged Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to take the matter up with the Mexican government. On the Day of the Dead, Mexico's national holiday in November, many women assembled in front of the Mexican consulate in El Paso, Texas, to demand action from Mexican President Vicente Fox. He seems utterly perplexed.

There is talk in Mexico that the Fox administration's inability to deal with this quite localized slaughter might effect the outcome of the next presidential elections - if something isn't done, that is. Between now and the election, three years away, perhaps somebody will figure out just what that something should be.


Richard O'Mara is a former foreign correspondent and foreign editor of The Sun.

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman will return Tuesday.