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Resisting Femicide: Ciudad Juarez’s Woman of Steel

Created: 01 October, 2010
Updated: 26 July, 2022
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9 min read

Editor’s Note: The following piece is the first of two articles on resisting gender violence in the borderlands and the Americas.

Frontera NorteSur

    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 sarcasm.

    “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.”

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    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.

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    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 turn-ed 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 IACHR.

   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 traffickers.

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   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 case.

   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 web-site, 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.

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   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 her.”

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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