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Juarez Prison Celebrates International Women's Day With Lurid "Captive Beauty" Pageant

As women across the globe remembered the 500 victims of serial sex murder in Juarez, Mexico, the city's prison authorities used female prisoners to pander to male fantasies.
 
 
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If last week's celebration of International Women's Day was any indication, the 99 year-old holiday is going stronger than ever.

In New York City, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that world peace is not possible without women's full and equal participation in every social arena. Meanwhile, around the globe, symposia and conferences, performances and exhibitionss, rallies and marches and more celebrated women's contributions, acknowledged victories, defeats, and remaining fronts in their struggle against worldwide inequality, injustice, poverty, and violence.

Rarely in recent history has there been any focused attention on the continuing victimization of women in Ciudad Juarez, in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, where, since 1993, more than 500 women have been kidnapped, tortured, mutilated and murdered with impunity. Yet on International Women's Day, women artists in Los Angeles and Chicago mounted exhibitions to chronicle the ongoing femicide and commemorate its victims. In Sydney, Australia, women marched through the city to honor the women of Juarez.

But perhaps the most publicized event for this year's International Women's Day, in Juarez itself, was a march of a very different kind.

Belleza Cautiva (Captive Beauty) commemorated no one. A beauty pageant, it was planned, overseen, and judged by the authorities of Juarez's Cereso Prison, who selected 15 out of the 600 inmates of the over-crowded facility to compete for the crown, title, and some cash. A February story produced by Mexico City's large Millenia TV network showed the young women practicing for the big day: Wearing skin-tight jeans and T-shirts, they strike poses, produce provocative pouts, and wrap their bodies around poles, looking drained and scared, as if someone out of view holds a gun. The prison director, in a close-up, explains that these are not bad women, just women who made a bad mistake.

The real mistake was living in Ciudad Juarez, where drug trafficking, the crime for which most all of the women inmates have been convicted, is one of the few available jobs besides prostitution. The jobs at the maquiladoros, mostly U.S.-owned plants assembling clothes and electronics for U.S. consumers, are both dangerous -- the bodies of women continue to show up in fields and garbage dumps -- and dwindling. As the economy slows, corporations are moving on to other countries, where they can pay even lower wages than the prevailing $2 and change paid to women in Juarez. Time Magazine recently reported a 40 percent reduction in cargo trucked across the U.S. border in the past year, and the El Paso Times has reported that, in the last two years, some 11,000 Juarez businesses have closed and 116,000 houses -- a quarter of the city's housing -- have been abandoned.

In a country where prostitution is legal, 10- and 20-year sentences are not uncommon for women convicted of carrying drugs. The director of the Cereso Prison, Gerardo Ortiz Arellano, declared the goal of project Belleza Cautiva to be "Recapturing Women's Self-Esteem." But it's hard to see how strutting down a catwalk for the judgment of prison officials could do anything for the contestants (or the hundreds of other women prisoners lined up to watch). Millenia's coverage of the event revealed few proud smiles, but rather a line-up of sad women, forcing viewers to wonder whether the real goal of the pageant had more to do with recapturing the esteem and reputation of the prison administration, the prison, and the city. (Last March, the Juarez prison was the site of a riotous battle between two rival gangs, which left 20 dead. Director Ortiz Arellano, who some commentators refer to as "el Monstruo," was appointed last year while still under investigation for possible involvement in an assassination at the Chihuahua prison he'd directed.)

The winner of the Miss Captive Beauty crown was a 22-year-old named Cecilia Flores -- no likely relation to Maria Sagrario Gonzalez Flores, one of the earliest and most publicized victims of the Juarez femicide; but the pageant of Captive Beauties is not unrelated to dead young women. The cynical stunt didn't kill or dismember any women but it disremembered the murdered girls of Juarez and displaced the cruel and stark reality of young women's lives with the fantasies of men of position and power.

Both former President Vincente Fox and current President Felipe Calderon have claimed that the femicide in Juarez has been overblown. But it doesn't matter what they think any more. In December, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a long-awaited decision in a case brought against the Mexican government on behalf the family of three young women, whose tortured bodies were among eight found in a field near the Juarez maquiladoras in 2001. In addition to sanctioning Mexico for failure to investigate the systematic crimes against the women based on their class, gender, and age (two were minors), the Court ruling requires the Mexican government to publish the ruling in official records, publicly acknowledge responsibility (including responsibility for failing to protect the girls), build a memorial to the victims, properly investigate the slayings, and prosecute the culprits.

The Mexican government said it will comply -- it has to, since the rulings of the Court, a judicial unit of the Organization of the American States, are binding -- and the memorial is already under way. In a country ravaged by drug cartels, political corruption, and state and criminal violence, however, the government's agreement to recognize, publicize, and redress its role in the murders doesn't inspire any more confidence for improved security than Calderon's recent replacement of federal military forces with local police forces in the War on Drugs. As Diana Washington Valdez so brilliantly demonstrates in her 2006 book, The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women, an arrangement forged between drug cartels and people in high places (with the cartels giving officials vast quantities of money in exchange for the officials giving the cartels and their rich friends and associates free reign) allowed the heinous femicide to occur without governmental intervention to deter, investigate, or prosecute.

But in this month of women's celebration, let's look to the future. If women in Juarez and elsewhere bear the brunt of poverty, inequality and violence, they also carry the richer resources for solving problems locally and globally. Persistent and proliferating poverty, discrimination, environmental degradation, drugs, and violence, conflict, and war -- women around the world are tackling these problems with tools rarely brought to the larger arenas of business and government. Regional initiatives like the Observatorio de Transgresion Feminista and global organizations like JASS (Just Associates) and The Nobel Women's Initiative, are but a few of the growing enterprises with which women seek to transform and humanize social and economic relationships. When International Women's Day celebrates its 100th year next year, we can only imagine the conferences, exhibits, performances, proclamations, and chants, and who will be marching where and why.

 
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