Divided States of the Americas

A recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border brought to mind the old saying that the more things change, the more they remain the same. I was traveling with a congressional delegation to look into the murders of nearly 400 young women in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua since 1993. The area was transformed by passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which proponents promised would be a “win-win” for Mexico and the United States—more jobs would bring increased wealth, which in turn would bring greater stability to the area and lessen migratory pressures.

Economic activity and cross-border trade did increase dramatically along the border as state-of-the-art assembly plants (“maquilas”) were built. But the slick NAFTA propaganda told only half the story. As we traveled from the modern offices of the city’s “maquila” association to the communities where workers live, the crushing poverty was unmistakable. Unpaved streets were caked with the thick, gritty accumulated dust and grime of the surrounding desert. Old shipping crates and scraps were carefully assembled into houses and perched precariously on a denuded hillside. Some lucky residents had running water and one electrical line to illuminate their house; no one had heat to protect against the chill of the howling desert winds.

Just over the hill on a distant range, the bodies of several young women were found, often showing signs of severe sexual torture. These murders are a vivid reminder that even in modern Mexico where trade and economic opportunities are growing, poor people, especially women, are vulnerable to violence and can expect very little from the authorities, who themselves are often implicated in the brutality.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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