Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Ciudad Juarez:The Serial Killer's Playground

Dead Line

Ciudad Juarez & El Paso skyline
Ciudad Juarez & El Paso skyline

Most Americans outside west Texas know Ciudad Juarez--if they know it at all--from fictional portrayals in dramas such as the recent NBC-TV miniseries Kingpin. These tales are replete with sex, drug-dealing, gunplay and intriguesall of which exist in Ciudad Juarez. As is always true with television, these depictions are only glimpses into the citys history.

No one is sure how many people live in Ciudad Juarez. A Rand McNally atlas published in 1999 claims an impossibly precise 789,522 residents, while media estimates from 2000 onward range as high as 2 million. Many are street people, living hand-to-mouth and day-to-day, while others are simply in transit, passing through the city en route to the border and the promised land of the U.S.

The exodus is driven by need. Wealth rarely trickles down from top-rank politicians, manufacturers and narco-traffickers to everyone else. British author Simon Whitechapel, in his book Crossing to Kill (2000), describes Ciudad Juarez as a kind of contact sore, a purulent wound ground out on the border by the rubbing together of American plutocracy and Mexican poverty, of American desire and Mexican desperation.

Young women in Ciudad Juarez
Young women in Ciudad Juarez

Those who stay behind often work in maquiladoras--sweat-shop factories producing goods for sale abroad--at wages averaging five U.S. dollars per day. Thousands of those workers are young women from outlying towns and villages, collectively described by adding an l to the name of their workplace: maquilladoras. They come hoping for the best, but often find the worst. Squalid work conditions and sexual harassment can become mere annoyances in a city where life is cheap.

Machismo is an element of the problem. It exalts men over women to the detriment of both. Spanish-language dictionaries define it as behavior of the man who believes himself superior to women, and it manifests itself in forms ranging from casual insults to, according to some, ritualistic murder. Corruption plays its part, too. The legal system thoroughly corrupted by drug money. Police earn so little that bribery (mordida) is an accepted practice. Any crime can be overlooked for a price.

Still, there is clearly something else at work in Ciudad Juarez. Otherwise, every border town from Tijuana to Matamoros would share in the rising toll of raped and murdered women.