Don’t walk between the bark and the tree.
“Two more women have been murdered during the night; one has been found strangled under her bed, the other was lying in the street.”
Name: Susana Chavez
Killed: Aged 35
“Come on, let’s go out and have another drink,” Susana suggests again.
But her friend shakes his head apologetically; he needs to rest, he has to get up early to go to work in the morning. It is time for him to go home
Susana gets up from the table with him, but she is not tired, despite having worked in a shoe shop all day in El Paso on the other side of the border.
She will just have to go out on her own then. She wants another drink, and her artist friends are sure to be already enjoying themselves in the El Recreo bar.
She does not have her bicycle with her, so she will have to walk. Susana pulls a black jacket over her grey sweater, a good idea in the winter in Ciudad Juarez where the desert climate offers strong sun and cold, clear nights.
It is Wednesday the 5th of January 2011.
On her feet she is wearing trainers, her jeans are tight, and as usual Susana looks younger than her 35 years. Before she goes out she tells Lasara that she will be out for a few hours, and then she says:
“Give me your blessing.”
It is the phrase she always uses when she says goodbye to her mother, but this evening Susana waits for a moment and then adds:
“We’re only here on loan.”
Then she turns the handle and with a single step she is outside, since the front door opens straight on the pavement. From the street you can look right into the living room, which is not such a good thing in a city like Juarez. Susana is often worried about her mother and warns her not to watch TV sitting on the sofa, from where she is clearly visible and might be shot. Such things happen.
Susana refuses to allow herself to be ruled by fear, and there is a streak of rebelliousness in this; after all, isn’t this her town?
For her own part, Susana refuses to allow herself to be ruled by fear, and there is a streak of rebelliousness in this; after all, isn’t this her town? Shouldn’t she be able to move around freely?
She begins to wander along Tlaxcala Street, where the low houses are painted white, red, yellow and green. This used to be a middle-class area, but no longer; several houses have been abandoned, the main street has become darker and there are piles of rubbish here and there. The people who could afford to, moved away and now live further out from the city, where the violence is less evident.
Susana does not walk far, nor does she go straight to her regular haunt, El Recreo. She walks just four blocks from her mother’s house. At the crossroads there is a small supermarket, opposite which the lights are shining from Niza’s Bar, a place none of her closest friends knows about.
For some reason, Susana goes inside.
That night, her mother, Lasara, has trouble sleeping. At one o’clock she expects her daughter to come home in a taxi, as she usually does. But no-one comes. She begins to wonder if she has misunderstood; maybe Susana was going to go to her other home, a small house she shares with her girlfriend, three dogs and a cat.
Of course, that could be it.
Lasara is not really sure why she is so worried. Susana often goes out with her artist friends.
It has been a normal day in all respects. Both of them crossed the border to El Paso where Lasara has a job at a care home for old people. Susana has worked there too, cooking and cleaning for the elderly Americans, but recently she has been finding more work in shops.
On this particular day, Lasara went home to Juarez before Susana, as she often does, to take care of her own mother, who is 99 years old. Susana likes to sit in a café for a while after work, working on her poems and emailing her friends.
Susana always tires of her jobs quickly, and she also dropped out of her psychology studies after three terms, but she always finds something new to do. She seems happy and is such a wonderfully home-loving and affectionate friend and daughter.
So why hasn’t she come home?
Why hasn’t she come home?
At eight in the morning, Lasara realises that Susana is not at her girlfriend’s either, and she asks her brother Alfonzo to go to the mortuary and ask what bodies have come in during the night. She herself is going to the police.
It is not far, so she walks. On the way, she meets a newspaper seller who holds up the front page of that day’s PM, as the newspaper is called.
The headline is in red capitals: DOS DAMOS DE MADRUGADA. “Two women this morning.” The morning’s news is that two more women have been murdered during the night; one has been found strangled under her bed, the other was lying in the street.
There is a photograph too, of a woman’s body lying face down. She is naked from the waist, and a black plastic bag has been pulled over her head and secured with grey tape. The photographer has used a flash, which gives the woman’s naked bottom a strange apricot-coloured glow. Nothing is visible of her face and few people would be able to guess who she is, but one of those is Lasara. She does not just guess, she is instantly convinced. That grey sweater with pink stripes is on her daughter’s body.
A black plastic bag has been pulled over her head
We were in Juarez just a few weeks after Susana’s death, and on a Sunday afternoon we went to see the place where her body was found. The saffron yellow façade of a derelict house had already been sprayed with a message in response to her death: Susana, your poet’s blood will nourish a future of peace for Juarez, Mexico and the world.
And letters two metres high scream out: Ni una mas! Not one more!
That was what the women of Juarez chanted as their procession passed through the streets in their fight for justice for the murder victims. Susana was one of them. It was her friend, Armine, who came up with the slogan which took a hold in the city, that enough was enough. No more women murdered for reasons no-one could explain and dumped like waste. Not one more!
Susana was one of the city’s poets, whose breakthrough came when, at the age of 20, she stepped up onto the stage during an arts festival and read her poems for two hours. Her work was published in journals and anthologies and she was one of the many who discussed the unsolved women’s murders in Juarez that came to be known as feminicides. And she wrote about them.
She dedicated a poem from 2004 to a murdered woman:
My blood the dawn’s blood
the divided moon’s blood
Blood, blood from dead stone
blood from woman in bed
Blood dripping in emptiness
open to madness
Bright and distinct blood
Fertile blood and seed.
But Susana became less active, at least in public. She continued to discuss the violence with her family and friends, but she stopped taking part in the demonstrations. It was as if she no longer had the energy for the chanting. Her friends knew that she was also frustrated by her life situation, as she was unable to have her own collection of poems published. She started studying to become a psychologist but dropped out.
At the same time she was happy in her relationship and was the same curious and committed woman. So very alive.
While Lasara hurries home carrying the newspaper, her brother Alfonzo is at the mortuary, from where he is sent to the public prosecutor’s office. They might have pictures of the latest victims. Alfonzo is shown a photograph which the police took just a few hours earlier. The black plastic has been removed and the woman’s face, although swollen, is not unrecognisable to someone who knows her well. It is Susana.
And her killer has already been found.
Her killer has already been found.
His name is Sergio and he is known as Brake-block, perhaps because he did a period of work experience at a car repair workshop where it is the young boys’ job to wash the car wheels. He is 17 years old and has been abandoned by his family.
One of his neighbours, a teacher who feels sorry for him, usually gives him food and has given him permission to live in the derelict brick house. At the same time, he is trying to find a legal guardian for the boy. No-one knows how Sergio and his friends of the same age, Aaron and Carlos, persuade Susana to go to the derelict house with them.
What we do know, is that at eleven o’clock on the evening of Wednesday 5th January, Susana, somewhat inebriated, leaves the bar alone, turns right, but then instead of going in the direction of the city centre, turns left.
About a hundred metres down the road lies a closed-up brick house with iron bars at the windows. Susana is murdered inside this house. The teenagers bind tape over her face, which suffocates her.
They cut off her left hand with a saw.
They then drag Susana twenty-five metres away to another derelict house, where they leave her.
Their hope is that the police will interpret the find as yet another drugs-related murder which there is no point in even trying to investigate.
They cut off her left hand with a saw.
But the boys were spotted. In a pale blue house opposite lives an engineer who raises the alarm, and it is not even one o’clock in the morning when the police arrive and immediately notice a trail of blood which they follow to the scene of the murder, the first derelict house.
Susana’s hand is still lying there.
The police already know who rents the derelict house, and three hours later they find him wandering around, his trousers and shoes covered in blood. The footprints in the blood from Susana’s body match the soles of his shoes. He is severely intoxicated after sniffing glue, so-called Agua celeste, or Heavenly water.
Sergio is still high when, later the same day, he is paraded in front of the city’s journalists, as is the custom when a suspected murderer has been arrested. Masked guards keep a firm hold of him while the photographers’ cameras whirr and he insists that he is just an ordinary schoolboy, wrongly suspected of a crime which some friends have committed.
Susana insulted them, they say, so they took her to the bathroom and taped over her face.
The following day, at a press conference, all three boys are under arrest. They are now a little more communicative and tell roughly the same story.
They say that they had gone out to buy more alcohol when they met a drunk woman whom they invited back to the house. Once there, they started dancing, drinking and petting.
Susana insulted them, they say, so they took her to the bathroom and taped over her face. Then they cut off her hand to make it look like an execution.
But we forgot the hand, says Sergio.
“Everything they say is preposterous,” says Armine Arjona, an elderly, earnest woman, doctor, and poet who was a close friend of Susana’s for fifteen years.
“We don’t believe for a moment that Susana went with the boys of her own free will. Susana was an outgoing woman. She enjoyed talking to people she didn’t know, if they were older people who wanted to discuss politics and poetry. Why would she want to associate with teenagers who were high?
And they are lying if they say that she danced with them, because Susana never danced. Never! It’s also absurd to suggest that she had sex of her own free will. Susana was a lesbian and had no sexual interest in men. We can’t help wondering if the murder was pre-meditated. Were they looking for a woman to kill?”
It’s also absurd to suggest that she had sex of her own free will. Susana was a lesbian and had no sexual interest in men.
The morning after Susana’s murder, the news reaches Lucy, the crime reporter at the daily paper El Diario de Juárez. But the only thing she is told is that a woman has been found dead in the street. There is nothing unusual in that; ten people are murdered every day in Juarez, and for the most part, one of them is a woman.
Normally in cases like this she calls the police, the emergency service centre, and sometimes the Red Cross, to find out more. Then she usually rings round her colleagues at the other news rooms and they make arrangements to go to the scene of the crime together. It is safer for them all if the entire media flock arrives at the same time.
She often also receives email from the police and prosecution authority about new murder cases, and one arrives now, saying that a suspect has been arrested. The authority still insists that the woman who was found lying half-naked in the street is “an unidentified person”. However, the press are offered the chance to take photographs.
“I went there to see the guy,” says Lucy. “I didn’t know that the suspected killer was 17 years old and a minor, the police didn’t tell us that, they’re not usually very good on detail. So we published the picture of Brake-block, as he’s known.”
The police continue to send information out to the press. The first press release is neutral in tone, but the second causes Lucy to raise her eyebrows. It says that the murdered woman was drunk, that she was unemployed and that she had had sex with her killer.
“The way in which it was written implied that the victim was a prostitute,” says Lucy. “It was a strange press release, because the police rarely go to the trouble of describing the murder victim in any detail. But some of this appeared in other papers.”
Why do we only protest when the victim is well-known and has been raped?
It is not until the Sunday, three days later, that Lucy receives a tip-off that the murdered woman in the street is Susana, the city’s poet, well-known to many.
“It received a lot of coverage in the paper, because she was well-known for her protests against feminicide. I personally don’t really like to make distinctions between victims. There have been other cases where women have been mown down with machine guns and no-one cares. Why do we only protest when the victim is well-known and has been raped?”
Lucy talks to the family and asks for permission to cover the funeral. On the Tuesday, she visits Susana’s mother Lasara, who has rearranged the furniture in the living room, taken out the TV and placed the coffin in its place. The lid is half-open so that the visitors can say their farewells to Susana, who has been made-up with rouge and pink lipstick.
Inside the room it is freezing, as Susana has been dead for almost a week.
As far as the authorities in Juarez are concerned, Susana’s murder is not feminicide. It is true that one of the killers told the police that they raped Susana, but there is no mention of this in the forensic report. For that reason she appears in the office of the public prosecutor’s statistics as ‘simply’ murdered.
“Of course it is feminicide,” protests Teresa Inchaustegui, a sociologist and political scientist in Mexico City. “Even if Susana’s murder was not pre-meditated, and they didn’t even know each other, the act was an expression of hatred of women which is why I think it should be considered feminicide.”
Teresa is a sociologist and has been appointed by the government to head a commission which will monitor the way the authorities handle the murders of women. So we turn to her with our questions about the concept of feminicide.
We have heard a number of definitions of feminicide. What is yours?
Feminicide is an extreme act of violence intended to kill a woman, and a consequence of the discrimination of women. It is about the exercise of power; it is power which is exercised in a violent relationship and used, for example, when a woman wants to leave her husband. But human trafficking is also the exercise of power. Feminicide can also take the form of symbolic actions in war and between criminals which are intended to demonstrate power and manifest hatred.
Why is a special term such as feminicide necessary?
We have to give it a name to recognise that it exists. It is essential that we include this word in the text of the law because you cannot be punished for a crime that does not exist.
Is it not enough that murder is unlawful?
No. If a woman is murdered by a man who is close to her, if her body is defiled, dismembered and burned, the culpability must be higher. We also know that only one in a hundred reported women’s murders ends with a conviction in court.
Only one in a hundred reported women’s murders ends with a conviction in court.
Why are not all murders of women investigated?
Because only three per cent of the police force have the necessary knowledge of how to investigate murder. When rape, disappearance and murder are reported, the first suspect is the victim herself. The family has to start by proving that she was respectable, chaste and not involved in any criminal activities. Then they might open an investigation, but they have already lost the opportunity to make a proper investigation of the crime scene. Here in Mexico City, most of the police have received just a few months or weeks training – and they cannot support themselves on their salary.
What do the politicians say?
Politicians are concerned about their own power and are not interested in looking at things that ordinary people talk about. The macho culture is alive and kicking and never questioned! This is also true of the media, which I believe is more powerful than the politicians. But what television shows is a constant display of female subordination. Almost all journalists follow the agenda of the political elite and have no idea what ordinary people talk about at home. Only a small cultural elite watches the few programmes which are critical of society.
What exactly is machismo?
It is a primitive idea that the man is supreme and cannot establish power in relation to other men unless he has many women, abandons women and uses violence.
Is machismo worse in Mexico?
Machismo exists throughout South America, but is stronger in countries which were founded by the colonial powers. The pattern originated in the coloniser’s view that Indian women could be abused and enslaved. There is an opposing view, a view of women known as “marianismo”, in which the woman is a martyr and holy mother. Machismo and marianismo are two powers which balance and nourish each other. This is particularly evident in times of change, such as today.
The drugged teenage boys are what sociologists call 'ninis', third or fourth generation factory workers from broken families.
Susana’s friends believe that society is to blame for her death. The drugged teenage boys are what sociologists call “ninis”, third or fourth generation factory workers from broken families. When the large factories began gradually to reduce their workforce, it was the women who kept their jobs. They were, quite simply, more valued workers. The men disappeared to the US or became addicts. The young people grew up without any form of supervision, they neither work nor study, and they allow themselves to be recruited by the mafia.
Maurico, another of Susana’s friends, lives in the area and knew the boys. They were neighbours. They used to talk to each other.
“In four years they had become murderers,” he says. “These children. It hurts.”
The last entry in Susana’s blog is from July 2010. She wrote:
My fellow inhabitants of Juarez. I was in pain even before the violence which rages in the city of my birth, Juarez, made the situation worse for us who live here. But now I feel empty, abandoned and powerless, like so many others, I guess. Thinking that things could get better for me is still something new, but I still have hope because I am a woman with faith. Long live Juarez!
Her mother Lasara has been considering moving away, as it is dangerous to be publicly connected with the feminicides in Juarez. Some fool might get it into his head that she is an enemy. But she cannot decide, for how would she support herself, and what would become of her elderly mother?
“I can’t give in, I don’t have time to be depressed. What would happen then?”
Maternal deaths: 51 deaths per 100,000 births.
Number of children/woman: 2.3 (2010)
Abortion legislation: Varies greatly from state to state. In Mexico City, a woman has the right to abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy, while in the states of Guanajuato and Querétaro abortion is punishable by 30 years’ imprisonment. ****
Law against rape within marriage: Yes
Violence against women in close relationships: Every third woman in Mexico is, or has been, subjected to violence in a close relationship.