Sep 30, 2010

FNS: Woman of Steel Resisting Femicide in Juarez, Mexico

(FNS Editor’s Note: The following piece is the first of two articles on

resisting gender violence in the borderlands and the Americas.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news

Cnter for Latin American and Border Studies, New Mexico State University,
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September 30, 2010

Human Rights News

Resisting Femicide: Ciudad Juarez’s Woman of Steel

Evangelina Arce is a woman of steel. A first glance at the diminutive and
low-key woman might give a different impression, but don’t be fooled. For
more than 12 long years, Dona Eva has searched for her missing daughter,
Silvia Arce, who vanished in the urban jungle of Ciudad Juarez one night
back in March of 1998. A friend of Silvia’s, dancer Griselda Mares, also
fell from the face of the earth the same evening.

Since the disappearance of the 29-year-old mother of three, Dona Eva has
suffered the violent loss of a grandson and the murder of a son-in-law.
She has been physically assaulted and threatened. Death threats even
forced Dona Eva to abandon Ciudad Juarez for a spell. Yet like other
mothers of missing young women, Dona Eva perseveres in her search for the
truth about the fate of a loved one.

“It wasn’t a toy, it was a daughter we lost,” Dona Eva told a crowd
gathered at New Mexico State University this month. “We are going to
continue in the struggle.”

Dona Eva’s story begins in the late winter, the time of year in the
borderland when the wind howls dust and the days alternate between the
last bitter lashes of winter and the first warm hugs of spring. With three
children to support, Silvia Arce was earning an income selling jewelry and
cosmetics to the dancers working the old Pachangas nightclub.

One day, Silvia’s husband Octavio told Dona Eva that his wife had failed
to come home. Immediately, Dona Eva began knocking on doors and looking
for answers. Pounding the pavement, she went to the state police to report
the disappearance, pressed the employees of the Pachangas bar and scoured
the vast underworld of Ciudad Juarez.

By her own account, the police gave her the run-around, Silvia’s
co-workers clammed up out of fear for their lives and an odd cast of
characters befitting a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez film treated
the distraught mother with a mixture of indifference, helplessness and

“Pure garbage,” was how Dona Eva assessed the law enforcement response.
“There is no serious investigation, or an investigation that would lead to
a path in finding Silvia.”

Little by little, Dona Eva sniffed out a trail which led to at least three
men, including two presumed federal police officers. Although the
authorities know their identities, the suspects have not been called to
testify, Dona Eva told Frontera NorteSur. “I’ve suffered many threats,
because I’ve taken on the work the agents do,” she said.

Dona Eva’s saga was documented by Mexico’s National Human Rights
Commission many years ago.

Long suspicious of Octavio’s possible involvement in the disappearance of
his wife, Dona Eva said the man should be forced to testify. To this day,
the longtime resident of Ciudad Juarez carries around a picture of Silvia,
Octavio and Esmeralda, the couple’s oldest child, at the little girl’s
baptism. As Silvia’s big eyes gazed out from under a curly hairdo, the
camera captured Octavio giving a squinting and almost disdainful look to
his wife and child.

Dona Eva ended up with the kids. In 2006 Silvia’s son Angel, now 18 years
old, was gunned down in the mean streets of Ciudad Juarez. To Dona Eva,
Angel was like a son. Tears welled up in the grandmother’s eyes when she
mentioned the ill-fated young man during her New Mexico State talk. A few
months ago, another one of Dona Eva’s son-in-laws was likewise slain in
the carnage that’s suffocated Ciudad Juarez in a blanket of blood.

In 1998, Dona Eva helped found Voces sin Eco, or Voices without Echo, the
victims’ relatives group that plastered Ciudad Juarez with the now-iconic
pink and black crosses. Taking to the streets, the relatives and their
supporters tried to get a seemingly blind world to open its eyes. For
years, the face of Silvia Arce was a common one on the posters and
placards hoisted up during the many anti-femicide demonstrations that
broke out in Mexico and across the world during the latter half of the
1990s and early part of this decade.

Putting Mexico on the defensive in the court of world public opinion, the
mass movement peaked with a 2004 V-Day march that drew several thousand
people including Hollywood celebrities Jane Fonda and Sally Field into the
streets of Ciudad Juarez. Joining in the march was newly-appointed Mexican
special federal prosecutor Maria Lopez Urbina, who vowed to roll up her
sleeves and bring justice to Silvia Arce and so many others.

 A few months prior to the V-Day action, in December 2003, Evangelina Arce
and her Mexican lawyers filed a complaint against their government in the
Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C.

Still pending, the case accuses Mexico of violating the Inter-American
Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence
against Women, the Inter-American Convention on the Forced Disappearance
of Persons and the American Convention on Human Rights.

According to the IACHR complaint, Silvia’s disappearance followed by a
botched police investigation caused emotional and physical harm, family
break-up and constant harassment and threats.

Responding to the complaint, the administration of then-President Vicente
Fox contended the mass disappearance and murder of women in Ciudad Juarez
had complex sociological roots that could not be answered “merely by the
police investigation and the administration of justice.”

The Fox administration listed a number of actions which had been taken at
both the state and federal levels to tackle gender violence, including the
creation of the Chihuahua Women’s Institute and the establishment of the
Special Commission for the Prevention and Elimination of Violence against
Women in Ciudad Juarez headed by Guadalupe Morfin.

In its IACHR response, the Mexican government said it was reaching out to
the FBI for technical assistance, while the Chihuahua state government’s
own special prosecutor for women’s homicides was getting down to police
work and helping victims’ families. Government agencies, the Fox
administration insisted, had aided Dona Eva’s family with a two-month
“grocery allowance” and other financial help, and assisted with
psychological and medical support.

What’s more, Special Prosecutor Lopez Urbina had identified about 100
“dismissed” officials from the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office
who were facing legal sanctions for irregularities in investigating cases
of murdered and missing women.

Silvia Arce’s case was turned over to the federal attorney general’s elite
SIEDO anti-organized crime squad in 2004, because of the suspected
involvement of more than three suspects, the Fox government told the

The Mexican State’s response to Dona Eva’s IACHR complaint illustrates its
stance on other relatives’ cases in both the Washington commission and
the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica.

More than five years later, no official named by Lopez Urbina has been
punished. After the Fox administration left office, the old Morfin
Commission was dissolved into a national commission with a charge
extending far beyond Ciudad Juarez. Two years ago, the SIEDO unit charged
with resolving Silvia Arce’s disappearance was rocked by scandal when
dozens of officials were arrested or sacked for supposedly aiding drug

While Silvia Arce’s case awaits disposition in Washington, Dona Eva has
word the National Human Rights Commission, which makes non-binding
recommendations to Mexican authorities, wants to take another look at the

On September 12, 2010, the El Paso Times reported that 1,000 women had been
murdered in Ciudad Juarez between 1993 and September 6, 2010. Rapists,
robbers, domestic abusers, and narco death squad executioners all took
their toll.

Like Silvia Arce and Griselda Mares, scores- perhaps hundreds- of other
women remain missing, but it is not known for sure because no systematic
registry of disappeared women-or men-exists.

Nearly one year after the Inter-American Court ruled against Mexico in the
well-known Ciudad Juarez cotton field femicide case, the government still
has not fully complied with a court ruling to effectively publicize cases
of missing women on the Internet. The Office of the Chihuahua State
Attorney General does have some information on its website, but
the list is not complete and doesn’t include photos of all the 28 women
listed as missing since 1993.

According to the web page, the Chihuahua state law enforcement authorities
have resolved 32 reports of missing women. Of the cases solved, 16 women
were found alive and 16 later determined dead. The deceased women were
identified largely through the efforts of the Argentine Anthropological
Forensic Team brought in several years ago under pressure from victims’
relatives and women’s activists. It remains to be seen if the new state
administration that takes office in early October will expand or even keep
the current web page.

More than twelve years after Silvia Arce vanished into the depths of a
troubled border city, Ciudad Juarez is a place where the crackle of
gunshots, the rattle of roving firing squads, the boom of the occasional
car bomb and the whir of the ubiquitous ambulance strum the rhythm of
daily life. Amid it all, people get up every day to go to work or school
in a brave attempt to live some semblance of normalcy.

The city’s residents, Dona Eva said, must be very vigilant about where
they walk since flying bullets can bring about an unexpected end. “They
even enter homes and kill people,” she lamented.

Dona Eva and other members of Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for
Our Daughters), a group of relatives of femicide victims and missing young
women from Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez, continue searching for their
loved ones. Lately, they’ve enlisted the aid of specially-trained dogs to
search homes and properties where the remains of disappeared women might
be concealed. Since 1999, numerous mass graves containing both men and
women have been unearthed in and around Ciudad Juarez.

More than a decade after her life was turned upside down, the bereaved but
determined Dona Eva rolls on in her quest for the truth about Silvia. “I’m
not going to give up," she vowed. "I’m going to move ahead until I find

Additional Sources: El Paso Times, March 23 and September 12, 2010., June 22, 2010. Article by Gladis Torres.