Feb 11, 2007

Book review

A horrifying harvest Journalist finds startling answers
to murders of women in Juarez
Review by Todd G. Dickson

The Las Cruces Bulletin
Jan. 27, 2007

When journalist Diana Washington Valdez relays in the opening pages of “Harvest of Women” savage details from cases of young women killed in Juarez, the imagina­tion first conjures up some kind of supernatural creature or force at work.As their stories are recounted, they become too similar. Young women and girls simply disappear from the streets of downtown Juarez, often in broad daylight within walk­ing distance of where tourists cross into the border city from El Paso. Later, their raped bodies are found in the harsh desert on the Mexican city’s outskirts, often with their breasts severed, or literally chewed off, or both – and frequently with a triangle carved into their backs.The reason the mind first reaches for the fantastic is the inhuman scope of the killings. For the years from 1993 to 2005, the tallies of brutally slain women and girls in Juarez range from the official government count of 379 to 470 or more by journalists, scholars and civil rights groups.In a methodical chronicling of the cases, investigations and the social-political effects of the murders, Valdez in her book slowly helps the reader see the “phenomena” for its all-too-human face born out of caste indifference and grotesque corruption.Valdez does this by first telling us about the lives of their victims and the heartache their deaths bring to families. Many of her chapters start with a brief descrip­tion of their often modest lives and often commonplace last known actions. Then comes the anguish of the fam­ily searching for missing loved ones, followed by the soul­crushing discov­ery of the rav­aged, discarded bodies. Another pattern also emerges, one of a lack of inter­est by authori­ties or shoddy investigations.Through this kind of detailed and layered reporting, Val­dez leads her readers past too-easy conclusions that the lack of interest by authorities can be chalked up to inept Third World policing. While she acknowledges the Mexi­can cultural “machismo” as a force, it only is a contribut­ing factor, but not a cause.If only the Juarez killing spree and mass deposito­ries of bodies could be explained by too much machismo crammed into a backward city of 2 million people policed by stereotypically lazy authorities.But too many patterns emerge and when the Juarez police can no longer slander the dead women as prosti­tutes, they arrest token suspects or dissidents, under­mining what little credibility is left in Mexico’s criminal justice system.Likewise, Valdez does an admirable job of helping readers to understand how this other country is different than the United States, making theories based on para­digms from this side of the border insufficient to explain the killings.The similarities in the slayings prompt someone from the United States to automatically think of finding a single serial killer with possible copycats. The gruesome nature of the deaths also spring to mind the idea of satanic cults.Knowledge of the prevalence of drug smuggling and gangs along the border inspires the thinking that this could be some kind of initiation or even “collateral” casu­alties of warfare between gangs.But the body count is too large and the targets too seemingly random to give any of these theories enough weight to fully explain a growing “femicide” in Juarez, though all of these theories can be contributing factors. Valdez tells how a University of Texas at El Paso soci­ologist’s review of Mexican death certificates found that the murder rate for women in Juarez was considerably higher than for Tijuana and Matamoros.Anyone who has taken a hard look at the Juarez murders ends up at this place — searching for a singu­lar answer to something that should not have one, but calls for such an answer because of the inescap­able similarities in the deaths.When Valdez originally wrote this book and had it published in Spanish, that answer was just out of reach. What makes this just-released English ver­sion of the book remarkable, was that its Spanish predecessor gave her — and us readers — that answer. The earlier edition of the book prompted a former Mexi­can official to tell her about a secret meeting he witnessed where the elite of his country acknowledged they had in essence sold the state of Chihauhua to a Columbian drug cartel, making certain people “untouchables,” many of whom have been implicated in the murders. With Colum­bian drug dealers’ penchant for superstition and belief in human sacrifice, Valdez makes the case that this has provided the breeding ground for a virus of homicide.Valdez writes that she has been able to confirm the story of this meeting with other U.S. and Mexico officials. This brings the scope of corruption far beyond sundry bribery. When sovereignty and the lives of citizens can be simply sold by their government, it destroys any faith in the rule of law and the desire for justice.If this is what’s truly happening to Mexico, then what’s happening in Juarez is the most visible symptom of a cancer that threatens the security of every country in the Americas.By the end of “Harvest of Women,” the imagination no longer conjures up the supernatural, but instead realizes a far too real-world threat all too close to our back doors.