Ciudad Juárez is a buzzing town just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, that ranks as the most populated US/Mexican border city. It also serves as the inspiration for the fictional city of Santa Teresa, one of the prominent locales of 2666. To many, Ciudad Juárez is viewed as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but to the two million residents who occupy the area, it is home. From the potholes and poor roads that blanket the city’s geography, to the pink crosses firmly planted in the nearby deserts, Ciudad Juárez is much more than the setting for many psychological thrillers and murder mystery novels (as it’s often depicted) – it’s a place where people live, raise families and grow old, like any other city in the world. Despite its robust community, authentic Mexican cuisine and affordable nightlife, Ciudad Juárez is also a city hiding many secrets – some of them buried deep in the sand.

According to Amnesty International, since 1993 more than 800 women have been brutally mutilated, murdered and had their bodies dumped in the city’s nearby deserts. Though the city also has an unusually high male homicide rate, the methods of and motivations for killing these women are especially disturbing. Many of the victims are factory workers and fit a particular profile: young (usually between 12 and 30 years old), from poor families or neighborhoods and abducted en route to and from public transportation buses known as la ruta. These systemic murders have been termed femicides, or a mass killing of women.

These disturbing events began with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, which led to the introduction of more than 300 maquiladoras: internationally owned factories supporting approximately 219,000 workers. These jobs, high-paying by Mexican standards, have consequently attracted droves of migrants from throughout Mexico and other Latin American countries. But beyond the cold, metallic gleam of the promising industrial parks and the frenzied urban sprawl lies a city chronically plagued by social issues such as environmental degradation, impoverished living conditions, drug trafficking and alarmingly high murder rates. Because of this displacement, hundreds of maquila workers are positioned in a place of increased vulnerability as many are forced to commute to and from work at some of the darkest hours of the day and night.

Beyond the cold, metallic gleam of the promising industrial parks and the frenzied urban sprawl lies a city chronically plagued by social issues such as environmental degradation, impoverished living conditions, drug trafficking and alarmingly high murder rates.

The ways in which they are tortured and murdered sets the female victims apart from the city’s male murder victims. Women’s bodies have been found riddled with stab wounds and bite marks, exhibiting signs of rape, mutilated breasts, chopped hair and facial disfiguration. Some women have been tied up with their own shoelaces and others have been stuffed into 55-gallon drums filled with acid. Despite intense outrage and public protests within the country and throughout the international community, the Mexican federal government has taken little decisive action in investigating the murders and preventing future ones. The state government of Chihuahua, in which Ciudad Juárez is located, has reportedly bungled investigations, and has even been implicated in covering up and/or playing a role in the feminicides. Crime scenes and investigations are often manipulated. In many cases, surviving family members have discovered that Juárez police are equally as responsible for these murders. Approximately 80% of documented murder cases have been corrupted through poorly conducted police and forensic investigation, false and/or forced confessions and the impotence of federal appointed investigators in prosecuting the co-opted authorities.

At the very core of these femicides lays a factor not only specific to culture in Ciudad Juárez, but in several parts of Latin America – misogyny and machismo mentality. Domestic violence in households is alarmingly high. Esther Chávez Cano, founding director of the Casa Amiga crisis center in Juárez, stated in a interview with the Center for International Studies of Ohio University that married men often feel that they are entitled to physically abuse their spouses. “[Husbands] say, ‘I have the paper [marriage certificate], so I have more rights to hit,’” she said. And though Mexican machismo alone is not the sole contributing factor to the femicides, it’s through this perpetual violence that a system of abuse and murder becomes normalized and never-ceasing in a city like Juárez.

A row of pink crosses in the desert near Ciuded Juárez, Mexico.
A row of pink crosses in the desert near Ciuded Juárez, Mexico.

While the situation in Ciudad Juárez can seem hopeless—with Mexican authorities seemingly prepared to do little to stop the violence or provide resources for the vulnerable—the town’s women have increasingly taken matters into their own hands. Their action in the form of protests, rallies and marches has brought the fact of these deaths into the light of day. Women have placed hundreds of small wooden crosses, each painted pink, in the hard ground—one for every murdered or missing woman to date. The women of Juárez aren’t solely victims of misogyny; they are caught in a broader web of violence that must be dismantled. They navigate that territory, however, with remarkable strength and power in numbers, like the many crosses they have planted so firmly in the desert.