Remembering a Women’s Rights Champion of Ciudad Juárez

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As we mark International Women’s Day, we remember Esther Chávez Cano, a powerful champion for women’s rights who struggled to eradicate gender-based violence and whose efforts raised worldwide attention to the ever-growing toll of unresolved murders of women and girls in Ciudad Juárez.  

Chávez was at the forefront of the struggle to combat the trend of impunity that has long-characterized her adopted city. Her efforts included the founding of Casa Amiga to assist women who had survived rape and domestic abuse and advocate for justice for women who had lost their lives to violence. How authorities in the state of Chihuahua and city of Juarez botched, bungled and otherwise failed to meaningfully investigate the cases of murdered women and girls—concerns long-raised by Chávez—were officially recognized in November 2009 when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights sanctioned Mexico for human rights violations related to their failure to investigate the disappearance and murders of three women in a case referred to as the campo algondonero/cotton field murders. As part of this landmark ruling, authorities were ordered to pay financial reparations to victims’ relatives, publicly acknowledge their responsibility and implement measures to put a stop to similar violations in the future.

Unfortunately, the escalation of violence faced by the people of Cd. Juárez today was a trend that Chávez seemingly foresaw with 20/20 vision. As highlighted in a recent obituary, Chávez understood the systematic problem developing in Cd. Juárez with each murder serving as “a sign of the impunity with which powerful drugs gangs could act.”

Cd. Juárez illustrates how over-reliance on the military to address drug trafficking and organized crime related violence is a short-sighted and dangerous approach, particularly for women. The number of women who have filed complaints of human rights violations committed by federal security forces in the state of Chihuahua—including sexual harassment and physical violence at checkpoints, rape, disappearances and unlawful detention—has  increased dramatically in the last three years according to a recent memo authored by prominent Chihuahua human rights groups and the Washington Office on Latin America. 

Rather than rely on a massive military presence, the strategy held by President Calderon’s administration thus far, the United States and Mexico must work together to cut the supply lines of weapons to cartels, decrease  demand for drugs by expanding treatment and prevention programs on both sides of the border, professionalize state and municipal police, and meaningfully investigate and prosecute murders and human rights violations to bring an end to the trend of impunity that has allowed violence to spiral out of control.

But what must be done now, as the people and families of Cd. Juárez continue to suffer from widespread violence? Esther Chávez Cano understood the problems of her city better than anyone. As quoted in the LA Times, Esther might remind the world not to turn a blind eye.

“This is why I learned to shout for those who couldn’t… and to cry so many times for and with so many women, girls and boys whose voices and whose lives have been crushed by the impunity of our state and our nation.”

Now more than ever, all of Mexico needs the insight and voices of leaders like Esther Chávez Cano.

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