The Crosses of Ciudad Juárez
Theme: Violence against women, sexual diversities and/or for gender reasons
Navajo Stream, Juárez Valley
Theme: Violence against women, sexual diversities and/or for gender reasons
Purpose of Memory
To honor the memory of the Arroyo El Navajo’s victims and demand an end to femicides.
The memorial consists of 16 pink-painted wooden crosses sunken into the ground and is located near the Navajo Creek in the Juarez Valley desert, where a clandestine cemetery was found containing the remains of 24 girls and women between the ages of 14 and 26 who were victims of enforced disappearance, human trafficking and femicide. The crosses placed there form a pantheon, inscribed with the names of the murdered women, messages from their families and floral decorations. The place was turned into a site of remembrance and to request for justice by the victims’ relatives, who also make processions to the site on symbolic and commemorative dates.
Throughout Ciudad Juarez, the pink crosses have become a symbol in the fight against femicides that relatives of the disappeared women, victims’ families and human rights defenders find helpful to make visible the lack of justice. The public spaces of the city and especially the places where the victims were last seen or where their bodies are found are decorated with pink crosses.
The gender-based violence that runs through Mexico is expressed in the most extreme form in the high rate of femicides in its border areas. According to a report by Mexico’s Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System, there are at least 10 femicides a day in the country. Ciudad Juarez is a border city with the United States, with 1.5 million inhabitants, and is marked by gender violence and organized crime. In the last three decades the city has registered more than 2,300 femicides and in January 2022 there were 11 femicides.
Previously, the murders of women were classified as passional crimes, which was a mitigating factor in their conviction. The Ciudad Juarez cases gave rise to the term femicide, allowing it to be classified as a gender-based homicide of a woman.
The women who disappear or are murdered in Ciudad Juarez share certain common traits: they are between 15 and 25 years of age, have a low socioeconomic level, straight hair, an average height of 1.60 cm, live in the outskirts, are migrants and work in maquila industry, factories that assemble raw materials for the manufacture of tariff-free products.
These femicides have been linked to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the intensification of gender violence, the increase in drug trafficking and the organized crime attracted to this strategically located zone disputed by drug gangs.
The signing of NAFTA in 1992 enabled the installation in Ciudad Juarez of tax-exempt U.S.-owned maquiladoras, which attracted rural populations in search of job opportunities, especially low-income women. The maquiladoras constantly demand temporary workers who are subject to exploitative and precarious labor conditions. Far from generating an improvement in the development of the area, the demographic increase led to a surge in drug trafficking, organized crime and femicides. In fact, many of the femicide victims were employed in the maquiladoras.
The first femicides in Ciudad Juarez were recorded in 1993 and were followed by an increasing trend of femicides. Concern about the issue became widespread with the “Campo Algodonero” case. In 2001, the bodies of eight women between 15 and 20 years of age were found with clear signs of violence and rape. Given the lack of response, the victims’ relatives filed a complaint with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which held the State of Mexico responsible for failing to comply with the Convention to Prevent, Punish and Eradicate Violence against Women and for violating the Right to Life, Right to Personal Integrity, Judicial Guarantees, Rights of the Child and Judicial Protection.
Later, in 2012, the skeletal remains of at least 24 women were found in a clandestine cemetery near El Navajo Creek in the Juarez Valley, 94 km from the U.S. border. The Attorney General’s Office claimed that the women were kidnapped and subjected to sexual exploitation in Ciudad Juarez and then murdered and abandoned in clandestine cemeteries far from the city. The Hotel Verde was also identified as the building where the trafficking ring operated and where the victims were sexually exploited between 2008 and 2011.
Although five people were held responsible for the kidnapping, sexual exploitation and murder of 11 of the women, experts, family members and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights pointed out irregularities in the investigations and demand justice for the women who were excluded from the judicial process.
Femicides continue to grow, the search for justice has not ceased and several international veredicts pointed out the lack of rigor in the investigations and the absence of an adequate response from the Mexican Government.
Ciudad Juarez is a city marked by the search for justice and memory by victims’ families and social organizations. Pink wooden crosses, nail crosses, murals with portraits of missing women, inscriptions of “not one more”, black crosses on pink backgrounds indicating where the missing women were last seen, panic buttons on lamp posts and signage indicating the “safe corridor for women” are constant signs of the intentions to make visible and prevent femicides. The entire city is mobilized by gender violence.
Since 1990, organizations have begun to emerge to support the femicide victims’ families, mostly made up of women, including Casa Amiga, Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, Justicia para nuestras hijas and Red Mesa de Mujeres de Ciudad Juárez. The community and the press made the cases visible and denounced the violence exposed by the victims’ bodies. In 1993 the femicides in Ciudad Juarez began to be counted: Esther Chavez Cano began to collect newspaper articles that alluded to the murders and disappearances of girls and women where many times the victims were described in a misogynistic and classist way, underplaying the authorities’ and the murderers’ responsibility.
In 2001, the mother and the teacher of Lilia Alejandra Gracía Andrade, a 17-year-old girl who was raped and murdered outside her work in a maquiladora, founded the civil association Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Our Daughters Back Home), bringing together family members and friends of victims to demand justice for femicides. Organizations and victims’ families denounce the irregularities in the processes that deal with cases of femicides. They also participate in the searches, hand out flyers and intervene in public spaces with images of the victims.
Although the Chihuahua State Attorney General’s Office and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team were able to identify some of the women whose bodies had been found, the remains returned to the families are minimal and show the physical and sexual violence suffered by the women before they were murdered. At the request of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Mexican government has built a memorial for the victims of the Campo Algodonero case, which, however, was poorly received by the victims’ families.
After the discovery of the Arroyo El Navajo’s clandestine cemetery, the victims’ mothers have placed wooden crosses painted in pink to have a place to visit and honor the memory of their daughters. The installation of crosses at the sites where women disappear or their bodies are found has become a popular practice in the community of Ciudad Juarez to remember the victims and demand justice. The Hotel Verde, where the trafficking ring operated, was also decorated with photos of the disappeared women, poems and pink crosses. In order to sensitize the community and denounce femicides, a self-managed group of mothers has also painted more than 50 mural portraits in public spaces and social organizations have called for the placement of stickers with pink crosses. Many of the family members involved in the search for justice received threats and attacks and even had to go into exile.