CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico – How best to fight the ongoing wave of violence against women here was the theme of Mexico’s 5th National Poets’ Encounter, held at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez, June 1-3. The Encounter, titled “Eulogy for a City,” drew poets and writers from the United States and across Mexico, and featured a citywide grafitti-painting campaign and the establishment of a women’s memorial “time capsule” as well as more traditional poetry readings and seminars.

Vanesa Bauche, star of the award-winning feature film Amores Perros, was the featured speaker.

Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, has a population of 1.5 million, and is the largest center of Mexico’s “maquiladora” or “twin plant” industry. Maquiladoras now account for up to 40 percent of Mexico’s exports, and employ over a million Mexican workers, including some 250,000 in Juárez alone. The majority of maquila workers are women averaging about 18 years of age.

Since 1993, at least 268 young women, most of them maquiladora workers, have been murdered in Juárez. More than 400 other women are reported to be missing. A dozen suspects have been arrested, and one man was convicted.

But levels of violence against women remain high, provoking widespread popular protests against evident official neglect by the right-wing government of Mexican President Vicente Fox, as well as local officials.

Feminist and human-rights activists in Juárez question the “impunity” with which the crimes have been committed, charging that official indifference has effectively decriminalized murder.

Carmen Amato, an organizer of the Poets’ Encounter, said it is intended as “a way of peacefully protesting and saying that we don’t want any more violence in this city.”

Juárez maquiladora workers earn anywhere from 50 cents to $1.20 an hour, in a city where the cost of living is close to that in the United States.

Recent economic downturns in the United States, along with the ongoing migration of transnational industry to even lower-wage havens in Asia and eastern Europe have recently curtailed maquiladora growth along the U.S.-Mexico border, adding new stresses to an already overburdened economy. With the corporate search for a higher rate of profit, it’s been a race to the bottom.

According to a study published in 2000 by Mexico’s Marxist Popular Socialist Party (PPS), unionization in the maquiladoras has been mainly “decorative.” Although workers’ right to organize is guaranteed by the Mexican constitution, PPS reports that maquila unions exist mainly to control workers, to contain any possible protest or discontent, and to organize the occasional company-paid picnic or dance.

Still, persistent rural poverty, severe drought and the attraction of steady work has drawn hundreds of thousands of Mexican working families to Juárez during the last decade.

“Maquiladora” industries are a who’s who of huge profit-making corporations – Ford, Alcoa, General Motors, DuPont, Contico – which enjoy a perpetual “tax holiday,” depriving local government of a reasonable tax base that would be necessary to improve municipal infrastructures to serve the public.

Evelyn Nieves wrote recently in Mother Jones, “Though the companies have vowed to improve security in the city’s industrial areas, there has been no coordinated campaign to protect the young women workers.”

Texas journalist Molly Ivens wrote in her syndicated column, “Nor have the plants changed policies that may be endangering their employees. Workers are still turned away at many factories if they are as little as three minutes late, leaving them to return home alone and vulnerable … Workers still begin and end their late-night shifts with no police or security patrols in sight.

“Bet you even money if there were even a whiff of a terrorist plan to sabotage those factories, there’d be security patrols all over.”

Although other American and Canadian media have given coverage to these crimes, some border activists are now raising serious questions about whether North American reporting is trying to “sensationalize” the violence. One activist noted that corporate news outlets are commercializing these murders of Brown women. Gruesome details of these young Mexican women’s deaths are far more profitable and publishable than information about their lives and work, or the economic forces that created their plight.

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