The Femicide Myth

A recent publication by Robert Andrew Powell titled The Dead Women of Juarez (Kindle Single, examines the numbers of women killed in Ciudad Juarez from the early 1990s to the present. What Powell finds is that the murder rate for women in Juarez is no higher than that of Philadelphia. This raises many questions. Here are but a few: 1) Why don’t places with extremely high murder rates for females get more attention? 2) How did Juarez get this reputation in the first place? 3) How come the cold, hard facts have been ignored in Juarez while the myth of the femicides persists?

Death in Ciudad Juarez

by Matt Bucher

We’ve mentioned this on the site before, but the situation in Ciudad Juarez, and across Mexico, has escalated significantly. The Drug War is separate from the femicides, but there is no coincidence in the fact that a region so accustomed to reports of murder and violence has seen the number of murders increase dramatically.

Paradoxically, Juarez is still a growing city. The history and entrenchment of the maquiladoras provide the steady allure of (unskilled and low-wage, but supposedly plentiful) employment. The fact is now that this is a mirage. Many of the assembly plants have closed in recent years due to competition with China. For many who cannot find legitimate work, they quickly turn to the dark life of prostitution, border smuggling, and the cartel business. “Hitman” is high on the list of preferred occupations.

The Drug War in Mexico is on the brink of tearing apart the country. Since December 2006, more than 19,000 people have died in battles across Mexico. Even to call it a “drug war” or a “war” does it a disservice. In many ways, what we see in Juarez (and Mexico) now is a new way of human beings interacting and fighting and killing each other. I suspect Roberto Bolaño knew there was something unique about this attitude towards death pre-2003.

One point I’d like to make is that the system that primarily fails Juarez (and Santa Teresa) is the civic system. It turns out to be a system that feeds on human bodies and deposits them in waste dumps outside the city limits. The religious system has failed (more on the Penitent later), the social system has failed, the federal political system is nonexistent, but the civic system is particularly accountable for the enforcement of local laws and the complete failure to maintain any sense of human dignity. One of the great secrets of the Part About the Crimes is that it is not just a litany of murders. There are other characters populating the storylines—but most of these characters hold civil offices: they are city police officers, investigators, contractors, employees of the city sanitarium. The economics of the city seem designed to rely on the availability of young, unskilled women to perform the tasks of the maquiladoras, and yet their relatively short lifespans mean that the true source of employment comes from the investigation of those murders, the enforcement of seemingly meaningless laws. And yet who has any idea how to stop the murders?

When I first read 2666, my least favorite part was The Part About Fate. I felt like it was just in the way of getting me closer to the Part About the Crimes. I didn’t really get it. Now, (this is my second read of the novel) it’s my favorite part. It’s the part that rings the most true to me as representing “the future” and what’s happening right now in Juarez. And I say this is someone who hasn’t really experienced Juarez. Someone who doesn’t really speak Spanish, but yet as someone who feels invested in what is happening there right now. To me, The Part About Fate and its dreamlike tale of inhabiting death and fear ring the most true. Maybe it’s because I’m an outsider, like Fate, looking at Juarez and knowing there is a galactic story there, but that I will probably have to return to the US without it, no matter how long I stay there or what I see. The critics can’t see the murders—they can barely hear anything outside of their small academic bubble. Amalfitano is also an outsider and he seems to be unable to pinpoint the danger facing his daughter. In a way, he lives in the past, part of the old systems and the old ideas (implicitly: of Europe). Amalfitano is oblivious to the routine murder and death (and big black cars) outside his windows. Fate is not oblivious, but he can’t make sense of it; he can’t grasp it. This is how I feel. I know that the nature of death and the way humans feel about it is changing here, but I can’t make sense of it. It is too new, even now (and at this point, I am referring to the hybrid of reality in 2010 Juarez and the world of 2666). How are the femicides allowed to continue? In what other city would this be possible? The “city” here seems key. Bolaño pays special attention to what Colonias the women live in and in what parts of the city their bodies are discovered. The fact that many are discovered in the city dump is symbolic of their status as both a fuel and a waste product of the city.

Which brings us back to the Penitent, the church desecrator. Clearly, he is bringing in gallons of urine and just dumping it in the churches. But, why? It goes without saying that Catholicism in northern Mexico has no point of comparison. It is as deep a part of the social fabric as any institution; more so than any sense of obligation to the city, state, or nation. To desecrate the church is to desecrate humanity and mortality. To do so with a waste product is a true offense. The massive amount of urine spent by the Penitent is on par with the massive amount of blood spent by the killers of women (and now the killers of anyone) who value nothing above violence and chaos.

Women are still being murdered in Juarez. Children are still being murdered in Juarez. I challenge you to set up Google alert for Juarez and read the news stories that are posted every day. I challenge you to read the Juarez section of the El Paso Times and count the number of deaths reported each day. Read the pundits speculate on how the US should or should not get involved. Raise the awareness that a new kind of horror is on the horizon. It’s on our borders and it appears to be unstoppable. War in the future will not look like Iraq; it will not look like governments; it will look like boredom: a list of names, years old, posted on a blog.


Week 7: Big Black Car

by Maria Bustillos

There’s a feeling of having arrived at a destination when the book begins to describe the crimes.  I’d somehow gotten the impression, having read about 2666 off and on before I tried it myself, that this section was an even drier kind of catalogue, almost without narrative.  It’s not really like that.  There is a catalogue of murders here, and it’s as numbing as advertised, but here’s the thing. The layering-up and rewriting and twisted, doubled-over reportage mirrors Bolaño’s treatment of other phenomena like books and authors (some of the victims described being real ones, and others, I think, fictional, though I have not looked up every single victim, and perhaps all their names wouldn’t appear on the Internet? I should welcome intelligence on this point, if we’ve got any.) In any case, it appears that some of what is being described is real, and some not. The nature of 2666 invites us to investigate these things for ourselves, gets us thinking about how much of what we’re being told in other writings, other media, is likewise being distorted, exaggerated, invented or just left out completely.

Clearly, we’re meant to be numbed here before we are shocked into consciousness. The clinical nature of these multiple accounts deadens the attention, too, and deliberately so. This mirrors the way we are numbed and deadened by all the other real horrors we hear about every day, in faraway places we’ve never been like Baghdad and Mosul and Kabul, or even in places we may have been, like Washington D.C. or Fort Hood or New Orleans.

We might become so numb that we even miss the elusive patterns in the flood of similar horrors described in this novel; many but not all of the victims are tall, are young, have been multiply violated and strangled—but some have been stabbed, or not raped, and sometimes the perpetrator is caught, and turns out to have been involved with the victim for a long time. There is an evil truth underneath all these incoherent, jumbled accounts, however. A mass murderer who drives or is driven in a black Peregrino—I’ve never heard of such a make, and Google offers no enlightenment—but I guess it is the same one waiting outside Amalfitano’s house when Fate and Rosa make their escape.

I never met Lily Burk, the 17-year-old girl who was abducted and killed last summer here in Los Angeles, but she was an acquaintance of my daughter’s. This murder was more along the lines of a botched robbery; the murderer was a recently paroled drug addict who was found just a few hours after killing Lily, high as a kite, we heard, and in possession of her keys and other effects.  Practically everyone I know has some connection with the Burk family through temple, school or work, and for many months we were all laser-focused on this disaster, talked about it constantly, read about it in the papers, learned everything we didn’t already know about the victim and her family. This is just one lovely child who was killed, the tenderly-raised daughter of a professional family, raised in an atmosphere where all the moms are very concerned together about such things as planning school fundraising events, and we also know how each kid is doing, because we’ve known them all since they were little, and we also have firm ideas about what the “in” appetizer is to bring to a party, and where the best Pilates studio is, and where to buy good dessert wine.  All of which seems simply obscene, or crazy, or both, in the face of the unbelievable shit that goes on.

It will be impossible for any of the victims in Santa Teresa to receive anything like the kind of attention accorded to the murder of Lily Burk (for what that’s worth, if anything,) or for the perpetrator to be caught and put away so quickly (which is worth something.)  The murder of a young girl doesn’t really shock anyone in Santa Teresa, because it happens once every few days. They’re even number than we are; they have to be. The community has no resources for preventing the next murder. At this stage of the novel, they haven’t really even figured out yet that there is a pattern; the police, even if they are willing, are operating in an absolute circus of disorder, corruption and mismanagement; they are powerless.

I am having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around the idea that this is a real thing, that it started in the early 90s, and that it’s still going on right this minute.

Week 3: Pages 102 – 159

This week brings us to the end of The Part About the Critics. I’ll be a little sad to see them go. We pick up with the end of El Cerdo’s story about meeting Archimboldi in the Mexico City hotel. Archimboldi tells El Cerdo that he’s flying to Hermosillo, Sonora, and going to Santa Teresa. The state of Sonora shares most of its US border with the state of Arizona. Even though we know that Santa Teresa is a fictionalized version of Ciudad Juarez, Bolano has relocated the city from the state of Chihuahua (just across the border from El Paso, Texas) to Sonora.

Ciudad Juarez / Santa Teresa is the location of the series of murders profiled later in The Part About the Crimes, but the real Juarez is still wracked by violence and death. Just this past weekend, the state government moved from the city of Chihuahua to Juarez to try to better combat the near-constant crime. Last fall, Juarez’s high murder rate gave it the distinction of being The Deadliest City in the World.

Morini decides not to make the trip to Mexico. He regularly travels around Europe, so his disability is not the issue. He compares his ill health to that of Marcel Schwob, who traveled to the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson in 1901. Schwob was a French writer who idolized the Scottish Stevenson. But:

When he got to Samoa, after many hardships, he didn’t visit Stevenson’s grave. Partly because he was too sick, and partly because what’s the point of visiting the grave of someone who hasn’t died? Stevenson—and Schwob owed this simple revelation to his trip—lived inside him.

Morini’s decision proves to be wise. Just as Schwob did not see Stevenson’s grave in Samoa, the critics do not see any trace of Archimboldi in Mexico. Morini has had this same revelation about Archimboldi without having to physically seek it out.

Shortly after the critics meet Amalfitano, they learn that he translated an Archimboldi novel (The Endless Rose) into Spanish for an Argentinian publisher in 1974 (p. 116). When the critics ask him what he was doing in Argentina in 1974, Amalfitano said it was “because of the coup in Chile, which had obliged him to choose the path of exile.” Bolano himself had been born in Chile, moved to Mexico as a teenager, and then moved back to Chile in 1973 to participate in Allende’s revolution. On September 11, 1973, Agosto Pinochet led a coup d’etat against Allende and the Chilean government. Almost all political dissidents, including Bolano, were rounded up and arrested. The coup of September 11 is the defining event of Roberto Bolano’s life. Like Amalfitano, he leads a life of exile from that time forward.

“Exile must be a terrible thing, said Norton sympathetically.
“Actually,” said Amalfitano, “now I see it as a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, or what is generally thought of as fate.”

Next week we discuss The Part About Amalfitano. The whole Part is one 65-page chunk so we’ll try to cover it all in one week. Thanks for sticking around this far.

old Salon article

New York Times by Jonathan Lethem

Boston Globe by Adam Mansbach

Boston Phoenix by Peter Keough

TIME by Lev Grossman

Newsweek by Malcolm Jones

The Buffalo News by Jeff Simon

The Oregonian by Richard Melo by Jeremy Garber

Rocky Mountain News by Lisa Bornstein

St. Petersburg Times by Vikas Turakhia

San Francisco Chronicle by Alexander Cuadros

Toronto Globe and Mail by J.S. Goldbach

Toronto Star by Derek Weiler


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In 2002, published a long article by Max Blumenthal on the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez. Articles like these are great background for reading 2666.

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