The Murdered Men of Ciudad Juárez

by Adam Jones, Ph.D.

[Published in Spanish translation in Letras Libres (Mexico), April 2004.]

The corpses have piled up in their hundreds in and around the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez. Often, the victims are found in the desert, buried in shallow graves or with their bleaching bones scattered around the landscape. Most are young. Many were tortured before being murdered. Gender plays a decisive role in the killings; there is evidence of official complicity.

In the past decade, around 90 young women in Ciudad Juárez have been abducted, brutally raped and tortured, and serially murdered. Their fate has recently, and belatedly, prompted sharp criticism of Mexican authorities' failure to adequately investigate the killings and bring the perpetrators to justice. But this article is not about those cruelly murdered women. It focuses, instead, on the overwhelming majority of victims. It is about the murdered men of Ciudad Juárez.

As Debbie Nathan wrote in an article for the Texas Observer: "Slaughtered, butchered and scorched male corpses are found far more frequently than women's bodies are. [But] few seem surprised, much less outraged, by this male-on-male carnage." For a clearer idea of murder patterns in Ciudad Juárez, consider statistics cited in the 2002 annual report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. According to the IACHR, "1993 marked the first year of a notable increase in the killing of women" in Ciudad Juárez. "... While 37 women had been killed between 1985 and 1992, approximately 269 were killed between 1993 and 2001. ... One analysis based on death certificates and other data concluded that 249 men were killed between 1990-1993, while 942 men were killed between 1994-1997 -- a 300% increase," partly reflecting the explosive growth of the cocaine trade across northern Mexico. "According to the same study, 20 women were killed between 1990 and 1993, and 143 women were killed between 1994-1997, a 600% increase."

The concern of the IACHR is to emphasize the sharp increase in murdered women. There is no doubt that this merits serious concern and attention. Despite the grisly rumours of satanic rituals, "snuff" films, and serial-killer cartels, the key factors are probably more quotidian, though no less atrocious. Hundreds of thousands of young women have flooded into Ciudad Juárez and the surrounding maquiladora zone since the onset of the "Free Trade" era in relations with the United States. The independent roles and assertive public behaviour of these young women run counter to Mexican tradition, and seem to have aroused a murderous backlash among some men. Tradition-minded men and women alike contend that these women are "asking for it" by dressing provocatively or walking the streets at night without a male escort. One can only lament the persistence of such mindsets, and the violent pathologies that they fuel.

But we can also examine the IACHR statistics from another angle. They give a total of 942 men murdered from 1994-1997, as the homicide rate for women was also skyrocketing -- accounting for 143 murdered women during the same period. Thus, men accounted for 87 percent of murder victims; women, 13 percent. This indeed represented a notable change from the 1990-93 period. Back then, the gender gulf was even more yawning, with men constituting fully 92.5 percent of victims.

It is worth noting that the IACHR's figure of 269 women killed between 1993 and 2001 includes all murdered women, not just the roughly one-third of victims apparently targeted by the serial killer or killers. It includes numerous female victims of domestic violence, for example. Note also that in 2000, the most recent year for which I was able to find statistics, 215 men were killed, along with 27 women. This represented a slight increase in the proportion of male victims over 1994-97, to just under 89 percent. Running somewhat counter to gender stereotypes, only 51 killings were classified as drug-related, including five of the murdered women.

What might explain the shunting aside of the overwhelming majority of Juárez's murder victims? In part, it attests to the status of the murdered women in feminist discourse and activism. Usually conflated with other violent female deaths, the serial killings are presented as an example of "femicide" -- sex-selective killing. Again, such a strategy has merit. Serial killings of women are an enduring feature of male criminal activity (the killers are nearly always men, except when the murders occur in "caring" environments like hospitals and nursing homes). Emphasizing the murders of women also provides an important launching pad for discussions of important themes such as exploitation of female labour in the maquiladora zone, the violent reaction of many men to modernizing trends in gender relations, and the brutal domestic violence against women that frequently results.

But there are also more dubious reasons for this marginalizing of male victims. The standard operating procedure in feminist scholarship and activism dicates that when a complex social phenomenon like murder is addressed, certain rules must be followed. Briefly put, trends that evoke concern and sympathy for women -- in this case, the sharp rise in women's murder rates in Ciudad Juárez -- must be carefully separated out and in presented in isolation. Data that threaten to offset or contextualize the portrait, perhaps to the detriment of an emphasis on female victims, must be ignored or suppressed. Hence the invisibility of the nine-tenths of Juárez's murder victims who are male. This ensures that the relevant data are available only to those prepared to dig for it. (The statistics in the IACHR report are buried in footnotes; Debbie Nathan's article, cited earlier, is the only one I have seen that actually casts a critical and skeptical eye over prevailing framings of the Juárez killings.)

This feminist strategy reflects, and exploits, cultural convictions about men that are nearly universal. Men are seen as the "natural" victims of homicidal killing, for two main reasons. In part, this is because in most cases, men's killers are other men -- and we all know that "boys will be boys." Second, men are viewed as implicated victims. As some people believe that young women are "asking for" victimization when they violate social norms of clothing and comportment, so prevailing mindsets depict men as "asking for" the deaths that come their way when they involve themselves in informal or criminal activities -- even though (as in Ciudad Juárez) there may be precious few other employment opportunities, particularly when women workers are favoured in the maquiladora sector. One could argue that the "asking-for-it" framework is objectively more valid in the case of men. However, the bias against male victims might also be more pervasive and unquestioned, especially given feminist successes in alerting us to patterns of discrimination and violence against women.

This is terrain for analysts and activists that cries out for exploration. Surely, it is the moment for a human rights lobby group like Amnesty International to step in and stretch our minds a little. But Amnesty's only interest in the Ciudad Juárez murders lies in the relatively small minority of female murder victims -- as reflected in its detailed August 2003 report, "Intolerable Killings". Everyone should read and ponder this report; it has much to say about women's patterns of violent victimization, and the entrenched sexism that underlies it. Can one hope that soon, Amnesty or some other influential actor will also devote attention to the other nine-tenths of victims -- Juárez's murdered men?

Copyright 2004 by Adam Jones. This article may be freely copied and distributed for educational and other non-commercial use, if the author is credited and notified. For commercial use, please contact the author.