In our March 9 Facebook Live podcast, Co-director Steven Dudley and Senior Investigator Deborah Bonello talked about how the media misses the bigger story when it covers violence against women. The text below is a transcript of the introduction to that conversation. A version of this was prepared for conference on the subject hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank in 2015. The full video of the podcast, which covered additional topics related to organized crime in Latin America, is embedded below
In April 2010, I went to Ciudad Juárez. Like most journalists, I was looking for the story about violence, disorder, chaos. I was reporting for various outlets at the time, among them the BBC, as well as my own fledgling organization, InSight Crime, which officially began that very month.
While I was there, three judges absolved a man named Sergio Barranza for the murder of his young live-in girlfriend, Rubí Marisol Frayre Escobedo.
The case caught my attention first because of the emotional outburst of the mother, Marisela Escobedo, who issued a memorable scream in the courtroom when the judges announced the decision, which I saw on the local news.
Secondly, because Barranza had confessed to authorities and even taken them to the place where he presumably deposited the body, which he had burned.
Marisela Escobedo began a public protest over the court ruling, first staking out an area at a parking lot in Juárez, then staging a walk to the capital city of Chihuahua, and eventually taking up residence in front of the governor’s office.
I found Marisela at the parking lot in Juárez while I was there and interviewed her. I then went to my editors and pitched a story about, what I termed, “the failure of the justice system.”
I am not sure why I steered clear of the “Juárez femicides” story. From a business perspective, it was a bad decision because my editor at the BBC was not interested in a justice system story.
I tell this story because I think it speaks to the larger issues we in the United States, and foreign media in general, have when it comes to stories about violence against women in the region. While our organization, InSight Crime, is based in Medellín, we write for an international audience, so I consider us part of the problem.
Our first problem is our warped narrative of places like Juárez. Those of us who don’t live in places like Juárez are the ones most often tasked with depicting Juárez for the international audience (something a friend of mine aptly calls “Google Journalism”). Both consciously and unconsciously, we have been taught that Juárez is a certain thing: barbarous, chaotic, drug-infused, nomadic are a few of the words that come to mind. We also have a sort of what Edward Said would call “orientalism” as it relates to the people: They are, in a word, uncivilized.
Before we even start the story, this idea pervades. It impacts what we read as we prepare, who we speak to (what those people tell us), and what we pitch our editors. Our story ideas usually have to conform to this idea.
When we arrive in a place like Juárez, we don’t seek to find the story, we seek to confirm what we already believed, what those who we consulted with told us, and what we told our editors we would do when we arrived.
How this plays out in practice is complex and not always uniform but stories about violence against women in Juárez usually, nearly always, adhere to the general narrative that conforms to our orientalist view of the place.
Step one: Set the scene as a place that no one can possibly understand — a place of “magical realism” or where “reality is crazier than fiction.”
Step two: Establish that the men are natural born predators, born to feed (quite literally from the flesh in this case), that they have no moral boundaries — these men, the stories subtly or overtly suggest, are brown, working class, from poorer neighborhoods.
Step three: Remove the agency of the women — they are young, teenagers mostly, who are lured into fake jobs and then preyed upon by these brown, lower-class predators.
Step four: Create cases that are impossible to resolve: theory 1 — these are serial killings (something that has never been established in Juárez); theory 2 — drug traffickers (surely a possibility, but these are often drug traffickers who are involved in initiation rites, also a possibility, but not as a way of explaining hundreds of killings); theory 3 — a satanic cult, again, never established but certainly something we could only believe as it related to the orientalist features of Mexicans.
Step five: Make it seem as if everyone is involved — it is ethnic, “esa gente” or “those people.” This is most often done via the depiction of state actors who are colluding with these mysterious killers. Again, this is true but not necessarily writ large. Of course it’s important to remember that these state actors are reflections of the society. But this also serves to support the larger orientalist narrative as it relates to murders of women in Juárez, not as a means of helping us understand murder in general in Juárez.
This is extremely important and gets me to my second point. This narrative obscures some very important points about murders of women in Juárez. They are not different than murders of women in general. I do not mean to diminish the deaths of women in Juárez, but the international media’s near singular focus on “Juárez’s murdered women,” and its obsession with looking for the mysterious single serial killer or the satanic cult behind it, means that we are not looking for the real answers behind these murders and the real reason: structural sexism that pervades the institutions.
Rubí Marisol’s case was emblematic of this. Her boyfriend, Sergio Barranza, felt that he could take matters into his own hands and murder her. He admitted as much, and the authorities inaction proved as much: At first, even though investigations pointed towards him, no one looked for him. It was her mother, Marisela Escobedo, who located him for authorities. He was then found not guilty by three judges, one of them a woman, who said that the prosecutors had given them very weak evidence. At every turn, this case is was one of structural sexism. There is no satanic cult, no serial killer. There was, however, a drug trafficking link. Barranza was eventually connected to the Zetas, which is what got most of the attention when he was killed in an army led operation in 2012. Unmentioned was the structural sexism that led to Rubí’s death and the absolution of her confessed killer.
Our conversation on Facebook Live about media coverage of violence against women, among other topics.
Esther Chávez Cano, the former accountant turned tireless human rights and women’s advocate in Juárez until her death in 2009, spent nearly 20 years documenting the murders of women in Juárez since it began garnering attention in 1992. Of the 400 cases she documented between 1990 and 2005, all but 100 of those cases were resolved. And about three-quarters of those cases pointed to an acquaintance, a domestic partner, or a relative of the victim as the perpetrator of the crime. This is structural sexism and structural violence, not the work of a mysterious, unknown cult or drug trafficking organization.
The media does not like structural violence. We like things that conform to our preconceived notions. As one friend who lived in Juárez and wrote a book about it told me, “Most people write the story before they even get on the airplane.”
Finally, the international media’s near singular focus on violence against women in Juárez means that we miss the macro story. As Molly Malloy, a librarian and professor at the University of New Mexico State has pointed out, the proportions of homicides against women in Juárez (about 10 percent of the murders) is actually lower than that of the United States (about 20 to 25 percent of the murders).
It also gives us license to ignore the rest of the region. Statistically speaking, Mexico is not where the most homicides against women occur in Latin America and the Caribbean. There are widespread problems in the region. As our own Mimi Yagoub wrote this week, every 29 hours a woman is killed because of her gender in Argentina; compare that with the 26 murders per year that Esther Chávez had documented in her work. Other countries, such as Guatemala and El Salvador, are also routinely ignored.
It’s almost as if Juárez has become shorthand for the larger story of violence against women in the region. But if that story is conforming to the distorted, warped, orientalist narrative, what does that say about the international press’ depiction of violence against women in the region as a whole?
The case Rubí Marisol had one more tragic turn left. In December 2010, Marisela Escobedo, was assassinated in front of the governor’s office in Chihuahua. Days later, the Wall Street Journal reported, the governor of the state suspended the judges who had released Rubí’s confessed killer; but lest we forget that this is land where reality trumps fiction, the reporter also noted that banners — allegedly placed by the Sinaloa Cartel — also offered condolences to the victim’s family and rewards for finding the killers. And within a month, Rubí Marisol’s story, and that of her mother, had been all but forgotten.