An Investigation Into Exploitation of the Mexican Female Body along the U.S.-Mexico Border

An Investigation into Exploitation of the Mexican Female Body along the U.S.-Mexico Border


Olivia Wood



 Year 3 Single Honours American and Canadian Studies


This dissertation studies Mexican women’s lives in the U.S.-Mexico frontier; demonstrating the ways in which women are exploited – economically, physically, psychologically, and sexually – and investigating the causes of such oppression.  It reveals that the colonial relationship between the United States and Mexico enables structural exploitation of poor Mexican women in the border region.  Ultimately I argue that women’s bodies, physically abused by powerful men, symbolically represent the unequal transnational relationship between these two nations.

In the Introduction I provide an economic-historical context for the contemporary oppression of Mexican women; showing how Mexicans were historically conquered, negatively racialized, and exploited as labourers by U.S. business, government, and the public.  I explain how the U.S. established imperial rule over Mexico, by the twentieth- century  culminating  in  a  hegemonic  neoliberal  economic  empire  of  domination.    I suggest that the conditions and precedents set by past injustices have facilitated the ongoing abuse of Mexican women.

In Chapter One I provide a case study of women’s exploitation within U.S.-owned manufacturing plants, or “maquiladoras”.  Using personal testimony from workers and various scholars’ ethnographic research projects, I provide insight into real women’s experiences of economic and physical abuse by U.S. corporate power; framed around a discussion of the U.S.’s economic-political policies, which caused this oppression.

In Chapter Two I focus on the city of Ciudad Juárez, bordering El Paso, Texas. Here the most violent manifestation of exploitation has occurred:  hundreds of Mexican women since the 1990s have been murdered, many of them raped and their bodies mutilated.   Primarily using documentary film, I analyse the causes of the violent, misogynist atmosphere in the city and hypothesize about who is to blame; implicating both the U.S. and Mexico in the epidemic.

In Chapter Three I examine the border-crossing experience of female Mexican migrants, during which systematic abuses by U.S. personnel frequently occur.   Using recent human rights publications I provide first-hand accounts of rape by Border Patrol officers and discuss the circumstances that have cultivated a climate conducive to sexual abuse at the border.





CONTENTS                                                                                      PAGE NUMBER










Introduction                                                                                                   1





1. Economic and Physical Exploitation of the                                        14



Female Body in Mexico’s Maquiladoras




2. Rape, Murder, and Mutilation in Ciudad                                           32

Juárez: The Mexican Female Body as a

Site of Conflict and Disposability




of Militarization, Nativism, and Patriarchy

3. Border Patrol Rape: The Sexual Violation                                       47 of Mexican Women’s Bodies as a consequence




Conclusion                                                                                                   60




Bibliography                                                                                                 65





The primary purpose of this thesis is to investigate various ways in which the Mexican female body has become a site of exploitation in the U.S.-Mexico border region. My particular interest is in the physical manifestations of exploitation, such as rape, sexual harassment, and even murder, as I propose that Mexican women have become sexualized and racialized objects at the mercy of powerful men.  Beneath this physical abuse lies an institutionally-embedded and historically-rooted transnational economic system, which adds a further dimension to women’s oppression and provides the key to understanding the premise behind such gendered and racialized exploitation.   The economic system to which I refer is global capitalism.  This thesis will show that it is not only this type of economy which is to blame for the economic and physical injustices that Mexican women face, but also the historical relationship between the United States and Mexico, which created and maintains an unequal colonial relationship between these First World and Third World nations.  My central argument is that Mexican women have become the prime, and all too often ignored, victims of U.S. imperial domination:  their abused  bodies  symbolically  represent  the  U.S.’s  continuing  economic  and  political abuses of power against Mexico.

There are countless examples of U.S. imperial domination over Mexican peoples, dating at least to their 1848 conquest and annexation of Mexican territory, creating what is now the U.S. Southwest.   Against an enormous background of exploitation, over history and across both countries, I have chosen to focus on the exploitation of women, primarily over the last thirty years, and in the border specifically.  There are a number of ways in which Mexican women are exploited at that interface, in border cities and whilst crossing the border itself.  I shall concentrate on three specific sites of exploitation: maquiladoras  (U.S.-owned  manufacturing  plants  in  Mexican  border  cities),  where


women are economically abused and sexually-objectified by U.S. corporate power; Ciudad Juárez (bordering El Paso, Texas), where women have been mysteriously disappearing since 1993, their mutilated, raped, and murdered bodies often found discarded  in  the  desert;  and  border  crossing-points,  where  Mexican  women  are frequently raped by U.S. personnel. This approach facilitates an in-depth examination of the systems of exploitation at the border, and, using personal testimony, I shall offer insight into women’s first-hand experiences of injustice, violence, and oppression.




The Border and the Body


I focus on the border because it is here where the U.S. and Mexico most intimately converge.  This two-thousand-mile long artificial line is where the First World meets the Third, often violently.  Although the border has historically been a region of conflict, the violent manifestation of this transnational relationship on women’s bodies, to the scale witnessed today, is a contemporary phenomenon.  This makes my study highly relevant to ongoing events and conditions.  All three chapters demonstrate that women are victimized  because  of  their  particular  vulnerability  to  the  U.S.’s  relatively  recent neoliberal economic policies in Mexico, and their politics of immigration, intensified in recent decades.  Through the feminization of labour in maquiladoras, women have been specifically targeted as an exploitable workforce, while simultaneously the border itself has been masculinized through militarization policy:   both have had dire effects on women’s lives.

The  body,  particularly  female,  can  symbolize  conflict,  especially  at  a  nation’s borders, where the social system is most fragile:   “the boundaries of . . . bodies sometimes become the limits of the social per se, limits that are prone to symbolic and


factual pollution in border situations.”1   The Mexican female body at the border provides a poignant example, as Pablo Vila explains:



. . . the vulnerability of Mexican society at its margins, specifically at its northern border . . . is resignified in terms of the vulnerability of the margins of . . . female bodies at the U.S.-Mexico frontier.2




Sylvanna M. Falcón describes the Mexican female body as symbolic of the nation: “Their bodies represent a country over which the United States has maintained long- term colonial rule resulting in a symbolic connection between women’s bodies and territory.”3   Thus the Mexican woman’s body socially and territorially symbolizes a nation (Mexico) over which the U.S. exerts imperial control.  The male body personifies power (U.S.), and the female body, vulnerability (Mexico).




Background to Contemporary Exploitation: Establishing Empire




The contemporary U.S. is an imperialist power, an empire built on domination of poor countries and economic and military supremacy across the globe.4



To understand the exploitation of women in the frontier today it is necessary to contextualize this within the history of U.S. imperial domination over Mexico.  The most useful text supporting my thesis is Gilbert G. Gonzalez and Raul A. Fernandez’s A Century of Chicano History (2003), as it offers an economic-historical framework for


1 Pablo Vila, Border Identifications: Narratives of Religion, Gender, and Class on the U.S.-Mexico Border (USA: University of Texas Press, 2005), p. 114.  Also theorized by Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 131; and Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: an analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, (London:  Routledge, 1966), p. 115.

2 Vila, p. 114.

3 Sylvanna M. Falcon, ‘Rape as a Weapon of War: Militarized Rape at the U.S.-Mexico Border’ in Denise A. Segura and Patricia Zavella (eds.) Women and Migration in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (Durham; London:

Duke University Press, 2007), p. 204.

4 Gilbert G. Gonzalez et al, Labor Versus Empire: Race, Gender, and Migration (New York; London: Routledge, 2004), introduction, xiv.


understanding the contemporary subjugation of Chicanos in the U.S., and explains the continuing migratory flow of Mexicans towards el norte on U.S. economic policies.5   The scholars date U.S. imperialism as we know it today to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when “a new kind of American empire” was born:  a “U.S. hegemonic empire characterized by a neo-colonial style of indirect economic domination over Mexico as well as other countries.”6     This is differentiated from European empires as it is characterized primarily by economic rather than military domination.

U.S.-Mexican adversarial history dates back further, however, to the military imposition of U.S. empire in 1848 (if not before).   Rodolfo Ac?na asserts that the conquest of northern Mexico initiated colonial rule, beginning in the traditional sense as the  implementation  of  political  control  by  a  foreign  nation  through  military  force, rendering Mexicans subjects of empire.7    Many scholars, including Ac?na, believe this makes the Chicano population unique as colonization was “internal” – initiated “within the country”.8     However, Gonzalez and Fernandez dispute that their experience has been vastly different from other minorities’, especially as huge numbers of twentieth- century migrants overwhelmed the original “conquered” population, and place greater emphasis on the U.S.’ economic manipulation of Mexico over the last hundred years, rather than this military incursion.9      They assert that the U.S.’s financial intrusions in Mexico caused “economic and social dislocations” – unemployment, land loss, and poverty – which “are at the root of the mass migration of Mexicans to the United






5 Gilbert G. Gonzalez and Raul A. Fernandez, A Century of Chicano History:  Empire, Nations, and

Migration (New York; London: Routledge, 2003).

6 Ibid., introduction, xii.

7 Rodolfo Ac?na, ‘Occupied America: The Chicano’s Struggle Toward Liberation’ in Richard Delgado and

Jean Stefanic (eds), The Latino/a Condition: A Critical Reader (New York; London: New York University

Press, 1998), p. 172.

8 Ibid.

9 Gonzalez and Fernandez, p. 13.


States”.10   By emphasizing the uniqueness of the twentieth-century Chicano experience, and rooting their analysis in “macro networks”11 of economic domination, these scholars frame their notion of empire around the emergence of global capitalism.12   This is useful as it is the late twentieth and twenty-first century context of the globalized neo-liberal

economy, which frames my investigation.


Nevertheless, I feel it is important to understand nineteenth-century history, as the precedents  set  by  U.S.  territorial  expansion  in  Mexico  and  the  ideologies  that surrounded  these  incursions,  have  influenced  and  helped  justify  the  economic domination that continues today.  Also, as Grosfoguel and Georas assert, this history helped forge racist attitudes towards Mexican populations in the U.S. and the border region:   “there are still important continuities with the colonial past given that Euroamericans remain at the top of the hierarchy and people of color remain at the bottom.”13    These scholars believe that a history of U.S. imperial rule determines a group’s relationship with U.S. power and society today:  previously colonized minorities are racialized as “colonial/racial subjects” in the hegemonic imaginary.14    While formal administrations and laws of colonial times have long ceased to exist, they have been supplanted by  “cultural  and  political  processes  that  reproduce  a  colonial  situation” today.15     Therefore, these scholars envisage continuity between past and present Mexican populations’ experiences of subjugation based on historical precedents of racialization and economic subordination, established during colonization.  I agree, and






10 Ibid., intro, xi.

11 Ibid., intro, xii

12 Ibid., p. 29.

13 Ramón Grosfogel and Chloé S. Georas, ‘Latino Caribbean Diasporas in New York,’ in Agustín Laó- Montes and Arlene Dávila, Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York (New York: Columbia University

Press, 2001), p. 101.

14 Ibid., p. 98.

15 Ibid., p. 102.


contend that this history has helped cultivate the present climate of misogyny and violence at the border.

Mainstream U.S. historical narratives tend either to ignore, or to mask, the U.S.’s imperialist involvement, in Chicano history.16     There exists a pattern of denial in mainstream discourse that seeks to portray the U.S. as “inherently anti-imperialist”.17  An obvious incentive to deny empire is linked with two ideologies that have resonated in American political and academic rhetoric since the seventeenth-century, and remain

embedded in the psychology of the nation:   “American exceptionalism” and “Manifest Destiny”.  The Puritans set the precedent for these ideologies, rooted in the belief in the U.S.’s divinely-ordained destiny as a “chosen nation” – an example to the world of an ideal protestant and democratic society.   The notion of Americans as “exceptional” served to elevate the Anglo-Saxon race above all others, thus maintaining white supremacy.18  American exceptionalism’s eighteenth-century version, “Manifest Destiny”, was then used to justify Anglo-Americans’ displacement of land and peoples (Native Americans and Mexicans), in their expansion towards the Pacific coast:  “Their mission, their destiny manifest, was to spread the principles of democracy and Christianity to the unfortunates of the hemisphere.”19

Manifest Destiny is important for understanding U.S. imperialism over Mexico as it


was used to assure the public that the 1848 attack was a destined component of their mission as “custodians of democracy”.20    Ac?na traces U.S. expansionist interests in Mexico back even further, pointing to Benjamin Franklin’s expressed interest in Mexico



16 Edna Acosta-Belen and Carlos E. Santiago, ‘Merging Borders: The Remapping of America’ in Antonia Darder and Rodolfo D. Torres (eds) The Latino Studies Reader: Culture, Economy and Society (USA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), p. 33; and Gonzalez and Fernandez, p. 176.

17 Acosta-Belen and Santiago, p. 33.

18 For an excellent explanation of the origins and consequences of American exceptionalism, see Deborah

L. Madsen, American exceptionalism (Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 1998).

19 Ac?na, Occupied America, 2nd ed. (New York:  Harper and Row Publishers, 1981), p. 13.

20 Ibid., p 12.


in 1767, expeditions planned in the late eighteenth century by “filibusters”21 and the 1803


Louisiana Purchase, which “stimulated U.S. ambitions in the Southwest”.22    Similar rhetoric has since been used repeatedly by politicians to reassure the public of the noble, just premises of American wars and shield the government from accusations of imperialism.  Therefore, even as the U.S. continually expands its empire, it has secured in the national mind the belief that imperialism is “an affliction of other countries.”23

These ideologies “obscure the entire history of the past and its links to the present.”24


The attack of 1848 was in reality a brutal act of violence against Mexican people. Whilst, for the U.S., this new territory “expanded its possibilities of becoming a great and powerful nation”, the event for Mexico is “remembered by its people as one of the most critical junctures in the country’s history.”25     This issue of scarred memory, to which Oscar J. Martínez alludes, merits emphasis. For although the twentieth-century Chicano population is distinct from their nineteenth-century “colonized” ancestors in terms of their economic and social environments, there remains a psychological attachment to the original generation and a sense of loss resonating from that humiliating appropriation of land and sovereignty.   The nineteenth-century was from then marred by violence (including lynching), racism, and oppression for the Chicano community.26    Tomás Almaguer explains that Mexicans were considered “half-civilized” and thus negatively racialized by U.S. society.27     However, structural forces also enabled Mexicans’ subjugation:   “racializing discourses and practices served as mechanisms to create,



21 Ac?na defines “filibuster” as “an adventurer who engages in insurrectionist or revolutionary activity in a foreign country,” p. 11.

22 Ibid.

23 Ac?na, The Latino/a Condition, p. 172.

24 Acosta-Belen and Santiago, p. 33.

25 Oscar J. Martínez (ed.), U.S.-Mexico Borderlands: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (USA: Jaguar Books, 1996), p. 1.

26 Martínez, ‘Filibustering and Racism in the Borderlands’ in Martínez (ed.), U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, p. 48.

27 Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines:  The Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 8.


extend, or preserve . . . [Americans’] social position in the period during which white supremacy was being systematically institutionalized.”28

The U.S. government was implicated in these processes of racialization and subjugation, as they systematically subordinated the Mexican population, beginning with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which failed to protect their land grants. Mexicans  were  treated  as  second-class citizens, often  disenfranchised, and marginalized economically.  The government also revealed its continuing expansionist desires when disputes erupted in the 1850s over the demarcation of the border: “Washington took advantage of political instability”29 in Mexico, and, threatening military

action, bullied her into ceding more land.30      Martínez also describes how Manifest


Destiny-inspired literature promoted filibustering to “power-hungry” men, which the government  failed  to  prevent,  implying  their  “tacit  approval  of  the  incursions”.31

Furthermore, Martínez highlights the financial motivations of these attacks, showing how far back the U.S.’s economic exploitation of Mexico dates.  Almaguer agrees that both structural and  ideological racialization emerged in  the  “context  of  capitalist transformation of the region.”32

Having considered the U.S.’s nineteenth-century imperial motives in Mexico and the


treatment of her people, it is clear that this history involved complex interaction of economic, political, ideological, and racial exploitation.  One of the most useful ways to trace twentieth-century U.S. domination over Mexico, as a nation and a people, is by examining their exploitation of Mexican labour.  This is also extremely relevant to my thesis, as female labour exploitation within maquiladoras is best understood within a



28 Ibid., p 3.

29 Martínez, p. 10.

30 Angela Moyano Pahissa, ‘The Mesilla Treaty, or Gadsden Purchase’ in Martínez (ed.), U.S.-Mexico

Borderlands, pp. 11-12.

31 Martínez, ‘Filibustering and Racism in the Borderlands,p. 47.

32 Almaguer, p. 3.


historical framework.  This also reveals the symbiotic relationship between structural capitalist exploitation and processes of racialization in fostering an unequal relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.   As Gonzalez and Fernandez state, “economic factors…are crucial in shaping social and cultural forms.”33




Mexican Labourers as Disposable Commodities: Setting the Precedent




Mexican laborers have . . . become the United States’ disposable labor force, brought in when needed, only to fulfil their use and be unceremoniously discarded, a trend that has been recurring for over 150 years.34


Migration is not a random phenomenon.  Rather, migratory flows are the consequence of specific structural, economic, political and ideological conditions . . .35




Capitalist interests have encouraged the use of (cheap) Mexican labour in the U.S. since the late nineteenth-century.36    In times of need (labour shortage), American business has actively recruited migrants from the south, for example during both World Wars, usually in collaboration with the government.37     During the Bracero Program (1946-64)38  “the U.S. government fully co-operated with growers, allocating insufficient funds to the border patrol, insuring a constant supply of undocumented labourers.”39



33 Gonzalez and Fernandez, p. 2.

34 Gilbert Paul Carrasco, ‘Latinos in the United States: Invitation and Exile,’ The Latino/a Condition, p. 78.

35 María Patricia Fernández-Kelly, For We Are Sold, I and My People: Women and Industry in Mexico’s

Frontier, (New York: State University of New York Press, Albany, 1983), p. 69.

36 This began during the Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth-century when men were recruited to work in mines, railroads, and farms (Carrasco, p. 78).

37 Ac?na, Occupied America, p. 128.

38 Bracero was a temporary-worker program, conceived in the light of labour shortages during World War

Two, whereby Mexican men were recruited to work in American agricultural industry for a set time period. This was established through discussion between the U.S. and Mexican governments, and was supposed to guarantee certain protections for workers.   However these terms were largely ignored by employers and the U.S. government (Carrasco, p. 81).

39Ac?na, p. 146.


This also strengthened U.S. control over Mexico, as the constant flow of labour north since the mid-nineteenth-century had weakened Mexico’s agricultural infrastructure, rendering her “dependent on the money brought back by workers.”40  Therefore, the U.S. held the bargaining power over the terms of this, and subsequent, labour contracts41 with her incapacitated neighbour.

Inconsistent with this desire for cheap labour, Mexican workers also faced a nativist backlash from mainstream society and the media who were alarmed by the influx of foreigners, blaming them for problems in society (particularly undocumented immigrants).42   This was most heated during the 1930s economic crisis and again in the

1950s.  Newspapers began “calling for their exclusion, and arousing antialien sentiment:


undocumented workers were portrayed as dangerous, malicious, and subversive”, explains Ac?na.43   Therefore, whilst they were valued by U.S. business, simultaneously Mexicans were negatively racialized in the hegemonic imagination and became victims of racist and discriminatory attacks.44

During economic crises Mexican labour was consequently abused in the opposite way; as its value as a commodity ceased it was forcefully discarded.  During the 1930s Depression in particular, “Mexicans became the scapegoats for the failure of the U.S. economy”,45 and as Americans were forced into the jobs they never before wanted, Mexicans found themselves unemployed and forced to leave.   Moreover, during government “repatriation” drives, Mexicans’ civil liberties were frequently abused as police raids, often violent, rounded them up by the thousands, and, “without the benefit





40 Ibid.

41 Discussed in Chapter One.

42 Ac?na, p. 156.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid., p. 149.

45 Ibid., p 130.


of counsel,” deported them (including U.S. citizens).46   This was witnessed again during “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, another time of concurrent vehement nativism and forced repatriation:  aided by the McCarren-Walter Act, Immigration and Naturalization Service agents “indiscriminately searched and rounded up Mexican-looking people.”47

These past examples demonstrate how Mexicans have been viewed as disposable


commodities by the U.S. public and government and that this process is highly systematic.  They also reveal how derogatory and racist stereotyping, internalized in the American psyche, sensationalized by the media, and institutionalized by power, helped justify and foster support for discriminatory and dehumanizing policies towards Mexico and her people. Furthermore, this process is ongoing, as Chapter One will demonstrate. The key difference is in the gendered nature of labour today:  both in maquiladoras (the site of my investigation), and the domestic and service industries in the U.S.,48  women make up a significant majority of the workforce (whereas the examples above pertained to men).

In Chapter One I discuss post-1960 U.S. policies, particularly NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), and the Border Industrialization Program, which first brought maquiladoras to Mexico.   These have continued the processes of labour exploitation and imperial domination; this time south of the border.  I show that past and present U.S. policies have been intricately involved in reducing thousands of women across Mexico’s northern frontier to disposable commodities; their bodies exploited as racialized and sexualized objects.

Chapter Two investigates the mysterious disappearances and murders of Mexican women in Ciudad Juárez since 1993, framed around a discussion of globalization, U.S.


46 Ibid., pp. 139-142.

47 Ibid., p 162.

48 The employment of Mexican women as maids and in the service industry is another interesting site of investigation into their contemporary exploitation.  Zaragosa Vargas offers insight in ‘Rank and File:

Historical Perspectives on Latino/a Workers in the US’ in Darder and Torres (eds.) pp. 243-256.


imperialism, and Mexican machismo culture, in order to understand why these violent, misogynist attacks are happening. I reveal the U.S.’s integral role in this epidemic.

Chapter Three focuses on the border-crossing experience, during which Mexican women are often raped by U.S. personnel.  I highlight the factors which have created a climate inductive to rape in the region, including U.S. immigration and militarization policies, which fuel nativism and violence and violence against Mexican women.





Chapter One



Economic and Physical Exploitation of the Female Body in Mexico’s Maquiladoras




Maquiladoras are the nation’s largest employers of labor, numbering over a million, for the production of goods consumed in the U.S., however, the workers, the majority of them women, are guaranteed poverty…49




This chapter is the first of three case studies into specific sites of exploitation of the female body along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Its focus is the maquiladoras in the Mexican frontier where hundreds of thousands of women toil in sweatshop conditions within predominantly U.S.-owned manufacturing plants.  Working long, gruelling hours for the minimum wage (or below), often in dangerous and unhealthy conditions, and usually without social or healthcare benefits, or union support, these women are today’s prime victims of the globalized neoliberal economy.  This exploitative capitalist system will be examined in the context of the continuing imperial relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.   Moreover, the consequences of U.S. imperial domination and economic exploitation of Mexico will be explored, as manifested on the bodies of maquiladora workers in the form of economic, physical, and sexual abuse.  This will require both an



49 Gonzalez et al., introduction, xxx.


economic-political contextualization, and discussion of gendered and racial theories, to understand how the racialized female body has become a site in itself of the discourses and practices of unequal power between these two nations.  I also give voice to women for whom exploitation is part of their daily lives by providing documented oral testimony from female maquiladora workers.

I should note that there have been some formidable challenges by women against exploitation.  However, as my primary concern in this thesis is to expose the systems of power that created and maintain structural exploitation, it is not possible to provide fully the other side of this story; of resistance and survival.  However, I recommend Melissa W. Wright’s Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism, and Devon Peña’s The Terror of the Machine,50    for insight into the ways women have organized

against and resisted the injustices they face in maquiladoras.51





Background to the Maquiladora Industry


1965 marks the birth of the maquiladora industry in Mexico when the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) was established through bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments. This program illustrated poignantly for the first time that “the utilization of Mexican labor as an integral component of the U.S. economy goes beyond  the  political  borders  of  the  nation.”52       However,  far  earlier  initiatives  had



50 Melissa W. Wright, Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism (New York; London: Routledge, 2006); Devon G. Peña, The Terror of the Machine: Technology, Work, Gender, and Ecology on the U.S.-Mexico Border (Texas: University of Texas, Austin, 1998).  Peña describes daily methods of resistance, such as sabotaging machinery, as well as more organized rebellions through strikes and workers’ coalitions (pp. 8-9).

51 Since NAFTA maquiladora activism has grown, according to Rachael Kamel and Anya Hoffman (eds.),

The Maquiladora Reader: Cross-Border Organizing Since NAFTA (USA: American Friends Service Committee, 1999). This is another excellent resource telling the story of resistance from workers themselves, including the formation of cross-border alliances and grass-roots organizations, such as the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.   I also recommend the Women on the Border website – – for up-to-date information on maquiladora organizing.

52 Gonzalez and Fernandez, introduction, xiv.


facilitated the U.S.’s financial infiltration into Mexico, including the 1876 Zona Libre that created a free-trade zone in the border.53     This policy, proposed by the Mexican government to encourage U.S. trade and capital investment in the region, exemplifies Mexico’s economic dependence on her northern neighbour.

Moreover, as Gonzalez and Fernandez assert, the seeds of empire were being sown by the 1870s when American companies invested in railroads, mining, and farming in Mexico, aided by “governmental threat of military intervention”.54    Therefore, as discussed earlier, U.S. economic imperialism is historically-rooted.  These early trade concessions also helped “magnetize the border”,55 in Acúna’s words, over the twentieth century – spurring inmigration from interior Mexico, and trade and tourism from the U.S.56      Thus the border was developing into a region of intense cultural and financial “interdependence”57 long before 1965.

The BIP, which systematically incorporated a Mexican workforce into the U.S. economy, demonstrates the continuance of American empire in the twentieth century and today.  The program consisted of a “system of concessions vis-à-vis Mexico that . . . [allowed] maquilas to be located in border towns in Northern Mexico and to export their products  directly  to  the  United  States”.58       Concessions  included  tax  breaks  and

exemptions from “labor and environmental regulations”.59    Mexico was experiencing a


severe economic crisis and high unemployment, especially near the border, due to the demise of Bracero in 1964, which had “served as a crutch during the postwar period”.60


53 Martínez, introduction, xvi.

54 Gonzalez and Fernandez, p. 31.

55 Acúna, Occupied America, p. 167.

56 Martínez, introduction, xiii.

57 Ibid.

58 Carrasco, p. 84.

59 Ibid.  Immunity from Mexican labour laws was crucial in enabling exploitation within maquiladoras. Another negative consequence of the industry made possible by these concessions is environmental

degradation, alarmingly associated with anencephalic births in the region:  Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City (London: Verso, 2001), p. 34.

60 Acúna, p. 165.


She was also heavily in debt and reliant on U.S. loans.  Thus the Mexican government hoped that the BIP would attract capital and increase employment opportunities for impoverished Mexicans.61  Soon thousands of U.S. companies headed south “in quest of cheap labor”.62    Low wages, “high levels of productivity,” and “the panoply of benefits which accrue to U.S. business as a result of its proximity to the Mexican border,” were all impetuses for moving to the region, says Fernandez-Kelly.63

Although maquiladoras created many jobs (exploitative, unstable, and underpaid64


nevertheless), high unemployment continued, especially for men, as the industry preferred female labour.65   Moreover, the Mexican economy did not benefit as these are in essence export factories – the products and capital from which flow directly back to the United States.66    Instead, Mexico became even more dependent on the U.S., both economically, as the maquiladora industry became her “largest source of foreign exchange”,67 and politically, as the government lost autonomy over its industrial sector. (The adoption of the BIP has been described as “the most overt form of national economic servitude yet accepted by Mexico.”68)   Altha Cravey blames this loss of autonomy on the transition of Mexico’s economy “from an ambitious state-led import substitution [ISI] emphasis to a neoliberal export-orientation based on transnational investment.”69     Whereas prior to 1976 the Mexican state under the ISI system had relative control over a centralized, “well-paid, stable, and male unionized work force,”

61 Fernandez-Kelly, pp. 26-27.

62Acúna, p. 167.

63 Fernandez-Kelly, p. 28.

64 Wages were substandard from the BIP’s inception; furthermore the devaluation of the peso in 1994 caused another decline in wages by almost fifty percent, to around $25 to $50 a week:  Kamel and Hoffman

(eds.), p. 2.

65 Norma Iglesias Prieto, Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora (1985), translated by Michael Stone with

Gabrielle Winkler (Texas: University of Texas Press, Austin, 1997), p. 37.

66 Acúna, p. 163.  The BIP also spurred a decline in Mexico’s interior manufacturing industry, which could not compete with the subsidized foreign-export plants (Davis, p. 29).

67 Altha J. Cravey, Women and Work in Mexico’s Maquiladoras (USA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,

1998), p. 2.

68 Fernandez-Kelly, p. 36.

69 Cravey, p. 1.


during the 1970s “a range of policies were reversed to encourage internationalization, liberalization, and privatization of the economy,” creating a “new factory regime based on a less organized, lower-paid, female workforce.”70

This shift symbolized Mexico’s surrender to pressure from the U.S. government and


international financial agencies to liberalize her economy as part of a move by key developed nations towards creating a globalized neoliberal economic system.  This included the relocation of productive processes to the Third World under “the new international division of labour.”71     The result was highly detrimental to both Mexican national autonomy and her workers’ livelihoods, as the new system weakened trade unions, lowered wages, and grossly reduced welfare support.72    The 1970s and 1980s were thus crucial decades in crystallizing the U.S.’ economic conquest of Mexico.

Further strengthening U.S. power was NAFTA in 1994.  Described by Gonzalez and Fernandez  as  a  “tool  of  U.S.  imperial  domination”,73    this  pact  brought  Mexico permanently into the globalized economy, contributing to her further economic and political downfall.   As Fernandez et al. assert, “globalization” was promoted to Third World  nations  assuring  democracy  and  prosperity;  however,  it  was  in  reality  a mechanism  of  power  and  control  for  affluent  nations,  which  increased  disparities between the world’s richest and poorest nations.74   Henry Selby comments on NAFTA’s impact:  “Responsibility for the Mexican economic and political process is now squarely in the hands of the gringos, and the Mexicans can do nothing.”75





70 Ibid., p. 11.

71 Ibid., p. 37.

72 Ibid., pp. 45-46.

73 Gonzalez and Fernandez, introduction, xiv.

74 Gonzalez et al., introduction, xii.

75 Henry A. Selby, ‘Foreword’ in Prieto, xi.  NAFTA and its predecessor GATT (the General Agreement on

Tariffs and Trade) helped destroy local industry in Mexico, increased unemployment, and entrenched

Mexico’s dependency on U.S. capital through governmental loans and foreign investment.


The Feminization of Labour


Negotiated in response to the plight of thousands of Mexican men left unemployed after the demise of Bracero in 1964, the BIP ironically had the converse effect of creating a predominantly female workforce along the border:76


There is general agreement [among scholars] that the preferred labor force in . . . [maquiladoras] is female, very young, and with little or no previous work experience.’77




The question I pose is:   why is this workforce predominantly young and female? This will be answered through an investigation into the exploitation of maquiladora workers by various mechanisms and discourses of power.  In conducting my research I used a number of sociological and ethnographic studies by border scholars published over the last thirty years.  Workers’ testimony was drawn from Norma Iglesias Prieto’s Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora (1985), a study of Tijuana’s maquiladoras from

1972 to 1982.78          Although this work is over twenty years old, most of the conditions


described by the workers prevail today and remain relevant to the continuing exploitation of women.




76 Until 1985 maquiladoras were eighty-to-ninety percent female (Prieto, introduction, xxiv).  However, after the devaluation of the peso, more men entered maquiladoras:  Lisa M. Catanzarite and Myra H. Strober,

‘The Gender Recomposition of the Maquiladora Workforce in Ciudad Juárez,’ Industrial Relations 32. 1 (1993):  133.  These scholars explain “gender recomposition” as a consequence of economic need, which made factory work “relatively more attractive” to men (pp. 134-5), suggesting that workers, rather than managers, determine the workforce. This is disputed by others, however (with whom I agree), who assert that management has always preferred and purposefully maintains a majority female workforce:  Wright, p.

82; Gonzalez and Fernandez, p. 114.  For example, one factory actively recruited women from outside agricultural regions during the 1980s, bussing them into Ciudad Juárez:  Leslie Salzinger, ‘Manufacturing Sexual Subjects: “Harassment,” Desire, and Discipline on a Maquiladora Shopfloor,’ in Segura and Zavella (eds.), p. 168.  Moreover, women today “are still in the majority, constituting up to 70 percent of the workforce in light assembly industries and 57 percent overall”:  ‘Women in the Maquiladora,’ American Friends Service Committee,, (13 March


77 Cravey, p. 6.

78 Also useful were Fernandez-Kelly (1983), an investigation of Ciudad Juárez’s maquiladoras from 1978-79;

and Melissa Wright (2006), a more recent ethnographic project in the same city.


The  transference  of  women  from  the  home  to  the  factory  in  the  mid-1960s, described by Cravey as “female proletarianization,”79 must not be mistaken as an inevitable or natural consequence of “modernization” or “globalization” in Mexico.  Nor should factory managers be believed when they claim women are simply more “suitable” to the work than men, “based upon presumed anatomical and animical features,” such as dexterity or “nimble fingers” and patience.80  As Prieto astutely asserts:


The characteristics of the maquiladora workforce are not accidental; they result from  a  careful hiring policy in  which the  firms  seek  to  maintain effective control of labor and a high level of worker exploitation.81




Thus women were specifically hired by U.S. firms on the premise that they are a more productive and controllable workforce.82   Women were employed because of their particular vulnerability to the capitalist forces of exploitation.  This vulnerability stemmed from their inexperience in the workplace, having grown up in a patriarchal society in which women are traditionally confined to the domestic sphere.  Most were also rural migrants with only primary-level schooling, with no knowledge of “wage labor and collective bargaining.”83  Furthermore, the recent decline of trade unions limited women’s

bargaining-power and formal protections as workers. 84   All these factors made women a


more malleable and exploitable workforce than men, as one factory manager openly articulates:





79 Cravey, p. 45.  “Proletarianization” is a Marxist term describing the process whereby capitalism creates a working-class dependent upon wage labour, governed by a small elite. This notion has been historically applied to men, but the maquiladora industry reveals how women are being proletarianized today.

80 Fernandez-Kelly, p. 66.

81 Prieto, p. 36.

82 “Advertising for Señoritas and Damitas throughout the border areas made clear – only young women need apply”:  Leslie Salzinger, ‘From High Heels to Swathed Bodies: Gendered Meanings under Production in

Mexico’s Export-Processing Industry,’ Feminist Studies 23.3 (1997):   550.

83 Cravey, p. 46.

84 Ibid., p. 47.


We prefer to hire women who are unspoiled, that is, those who come to us without preconceptions about what industrial work is.  Women such as these are easier to shape to our own requirements.85



Moreover, women’s biological and social functions as mothers leaves them more vulnerable  to  labour  exploitation.     This  is  articulated  by  Alma,  one  of  Prieto’s interviewees:

Many  maquiladora  workers  are  single  mothers  and  women  whose husbands have abandoned them.  It’s not so easy for them to walk away from a job.  This is an advantage for the owners because the girls have to provide for their children.86


Therefore, the motives for hiring a predominantly female workforce cannot adequately be understood as simply “the result of inherent feminine or masculine psychological and physical attributes,” but rather is “explained by the economic and political position of men and women vis-à-vis international capitalism.”87   U.S. business

capitalized on women’s “absence of a culture of unionization”,88 tractability, and duties


as mothers. Alma comments:


No woman in the maquiladora stands up for her rights.  . . . That’s why the owners prefer to hire women.89




Ideologies and Mechanisms of Control



Powerful racial and gendered ideologies have aided the economic exploitation of women and rendered their bodies, racialized and sexualized objects.  Three ideologies in particular are utilized by U.S. factory owners to control Mexican workers.   First is the patriarchal gendered ideology embedded in Mexican culture, which, through the gendered division of labour, is used to suppress female workers below male superiors


85 Fernandez-Kelly, p. 117.

86 Prieto, p. 32.

87 Fernandez-Kelly, p. 66.

88 Gonzalez and Fernandez, p. 113.

89 Prieto, p. 16.


(American and Mexican).  Second is a racist and nationalist ideology that views Mexico (and her people) as culturally and economically inferior to the United States; used to justify U.S. corporate management’s power over Mexican workers.   Third is a moral ideology concerning the “proper place” of Mexican women in society regarding their sexuality, which has led to the objectification of women under the male gaze.  Below I will discuss various ways in which these ideologies manifest themselves in daily discourses and practices within maquiladoras, and the consequences on women’s lives:


The ideological control mechanisms that prevail inside the maquiladoras are profoundly sexist.  Attitudes of male superiority embrace all spheres of productive life and the social relations in the factory.90




One of the most effective ways in which U.S. bosses control Mexican female labour is by utilizing the existing hierarchical gendered relationship between men and women entrenched in their culture.  In general terms the patriarchal tradition of male authority over subservient women helps “sanction their submission on the job” as it does in the home.91   One particular technique employed in many factories, “which takes advantage of existing gender hierarchies, is the use of male floor managers alongside female line workers.”92   Maquiladora bosses can rely on the existing male-female power relationship to mirror itself inside the factory walls.  Mexican values of femininity (“submission, self- denial, and resignation . . . modesty, patience, and reserve”), which are “transmitted through family life, schooling, and society”, are exploited “to maximize production”.93

The hiring of predominantly young, primary-school educated girls also helps, as it is


within the school and home that patriarchal tradition is strictly taught, Prieto explains.94





90 Ibid., p. 75.

91 Fernandez-Kelly, p. 72.

92 Cravey, p. 7; Wright, p. 47.

93 Prieto, p. 33.

94 Ibid, p. 44


Managers also use cultural norms to promote the maquiladora as a “kind of . . . family in which muchachas do well to mind their betters, just as they minded their fathers and brothers.”95

Wright explains that managers propagate discourses that “construct the Mexican


woman as essentially and inflexibly untrainable”,96  supported by Mexico’s “culture of


‘machismo’”,  assuming  she  is   happy  to   be   stationed  below  men.97         This  is complemented by another discourse that proposes women are “blind” to the labour process – incapable of understanding the factory system as a whole – thus denigrating their intellectual capabilities and deeming them most suited to unskilled and male- supervised work.98      A  practical  means  of  reinforcing this  discourse is  through the

physical positioning of men and women:  men stand; women sit.99   Male supervisors are


visibly placed in a position of power, overlooking seated female line-workers; visually enforcing the gendered division of labour.

Relegating women to the bottom of the labour market within a patriarchal organizational structure has both physical and psychological consequences.  Forced to perform the most repetitive, tiring, and dangerous work, women frequently suffer illness, injury, fatigue and depression.100   Gabriela, another of Prieto’s interviewees, comments on the hazards of working in a Tijuanan electronics factory:







95 Selby, xii.

96 Scholars explain that assembly work is actually quite complicated, requiring precision, speed and coordination, and seamstresses undoubtedly perform skilled work; therefore undermining the notion that

women are untrainable (Fernandez-Kelly, p. 113; Prieto, p. 15).

97 Wright, p. 55.

98 Ibid, p. 59.

99 Ibid, p. 60; Peña, p. 173.

100 Prieto says health hazards, including substandard protective clothing and poor ventilation, have led to:

“nausea, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and coughing; irritation, pain, and inflammation of the eyes; dryness, itching, rashes and general skin irritation; shortness of breath; irregular menstrual cycles, irritability, and insomnia”, and on-the-job accidents (p. 22).


. . . I had to make chemical mixtures, and it was quite dangerous because we did not have all the necessary laboratory safety and ventilation equipment

. . . often ventilation was poor, and I would get sick to my stomach.101

A seamstress, María Luisa, also expresses the physical strain of factory work:




The worst drawback of maquiladora work is all the damage we do to our health.

. . . from sitting in front of the sewing machine, in no time you can hardly stand the pain in your back and kidneys.102




There is a practical (and disturbing) impetus for making this work backbreaking from a U.S. business perspective:  the harsh conditions and long hours ensure a high labour turnover thus maximizing productivity.  The optimum labour turnover rate (the average length of time each employee remains in a factory) is two to three years for electronics plants (longer in garment factories).103     Wright explains the motives for this most effectively:

The desire for a two-year labor turnover rate reveals the belief that unskilled workers operate on a trajectory of diminishing returns.  [After this time] the replacement of these workers is regarded as more valuable to the company than their continued employment.104


Wright explains the value of labour in Marxist terms:  “The greater the variation between workers’ value and the value of their labor, the greater the profit.”105    This is partly achieved by high turnover, which prevents women climbing the job-ladder (in skills, benefits and wages) as they do not remain in the same company for long enough. The daily physical and psychological strain on workers, making them more tired and prone to illness, decreases women’s productivity over time, anticipating which factory





101 Ibid., p. 11.

102 Ibid., p. 21.

103 Wright, p. 28; Cravey, p. 7.

104 Wright, p. 28.

105 Ibid., pp. 28-29.


managers seek their replacement.106  Wright has conceptualized the female maquiladora worker, based on her diminishing use-value as a labourer over time, as the “disposable third  world  woman  worker.”107       This  explains  how  women  are  invaluable  to  U.S. business, ironically because of their diminishing value, and subsequent disposability. This in turn illustrates how the Mexican female body within the maquiladora has been reduced to little more than a machine, viewed in terms of output, functionality and productivity.

The oppressive factory environment often itself ensures high turnover, as many cannot endure the work for long and leave voluntarily.108   Elena, for example, resigned because of the intense physical pain she experienced from repetitive assembly work:

My hands hurt so much that when I got home I couldn’t do the housework; I

couldn’t even change my son’s diapers.109



When required, however, managers and supervisors employ other tactics to “persuade”  women  to   leave  by   fostering  an   “environment  of   intimidation  and insecurity”110 within the factory. Prieto highlights the frequent occurrences of blacklisting, unfair dismissal, and an environment of fear maintained through constant surveillance: “It is well known . . . that most factories openly maintain an effectively extralegal system of surveillance and sanctions against employees.”111    Mike Davis asserts that workers

face “dismissal, arrest [and] beating” if they protest conditions.112   Many are also scared


to speak out because, as María Luisa explains:


…if you stir up a lot of trouble you get blacklisted, and you don’t get hired anywhere.




106 Fernandez-Kelly, pp. 67-68.

107 Wright, p. 29.

108 Fernandez-Kelly, p. 68.

109 Prieto, p. 9.

110 Cravey, p. 73.

111 Prieto, p. 24.

112 Davis, p. 35.


The truth is that a lot of us don’t act as we should because we don’t know our rights and we’re scared of the owners.  That’s how they can walk all over us and no one says a thing. 113

Alma also acknowledges the intimidating atmosphere and absence of worker solidarity: They have us by the neck!  . . . those of us who resist are dismissed as

malcontents and troublemakers, and the other workers repudiate us.  That

way there can never be any kind of worker alliance.114


The control mechanisms employed in maquiladoras are also linked to U.S. racist ideology,  particularly  apparent  in  the  use  of  surveillance.    Wright  explains  how  a “panoptic gaze” is fostered through “the spatial organization of the facility”, whereby managers are located on the second floor, able to look down upon both Mexican male supervisors and female line-workers.115    Like the placement of Mexican men standing over seated women, this arrangement further demarcates the power hierarchy within the factory, this time on national/racial lines. This is an extremely powerful method of control over male and female workers, as they experience the ever-constant pressure of being watched from above for mistakes, idleness, or misconduct.   Wright explains that this facilitates the subjugation of the Mexican worker “as a ‘subject-to-be-watched’”.116   As a

result, all workers have been reduced to “ethnic bodies”117 within the factory – robbed of


their intellectual and bodily autonomy, under the control of U.S. managers.


This discourse of Mexican inferiority (economic, political, and cultural) can be linked to the historical ideologies of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism, which have long been used to justify the U.S.’s economic-political subordination of Mexico.  As Fernandez et  al.  pronounce:    “It  is  as  if  the  ‘white  man’s  burden’ of  19th   century






113 Prieto, p. 25.

114 Ibid., p. 25.

115 Wright, p. 64.

116 Ibid.

117 Ibid.


colonialism has been transformed into a 21st  century American empire.”118    Cultural supremacy is evident in the comments made by a U.S. manager:

They way I figure, these plants are good for Mexico because they . . . offer the young women a chance to be something better.


It provides solutions to a lot of problems and brings superior skills to

Mexico’s labor force.119


The manager’s first statement also feeds into another controlling discourse – of Mexican women’s sexual morality.  This asserts that women are better off working in maquiladoras within a “nurturing” paternalistic environment than elsewhere; partially based on the debasing assumption that work outside factories equates to prostitution.120

Peña  sarcastically remarks:    “Our  presumed street  urchins and  whores should  be


thankful that the maquilas are there to save them from the Mexican border’s immoral excesses…”121   It is also inspired by patriarchal culture, which dictates not only women’s economic and intellectual, but also sexual, subordination to men.  Managers deliberately cultivate a highly-sexualized environment within maquiladoras, played out between “macho” men and female “señoritas” on the shopfloor, which functions as another systematic control mechanism utilizing existing gendered and sexualized roles.122

The panoptic structure of the factory helps facilitate a sexually-charged atmosphere


and constructs women as sexual objects by fostering a male gaze from above: “Monitoring becomes the gaze of sexual objectification as soon as it locks on the women”123 says Salzinger.  Both managers and supervisors are encouraged by this discourse to prey on women within a “flirtatious and titillating”124 environment, which has



118 Gonzalez et al., introduction, xvii.

119 Peña, p. 14.

120 Pablo Vila explains the “city of vice” narrative depicts the Mexican border as “a site of violence, drugs, and prostitution” in Border Identifications, p. 113.  This is discussed fully in Chapter Two.

121 Peña, p. 15.

122 Salzinger, From High Heels to Swathed Bodies, p. 554.

123 Salzinger, Manufacturing Sexual Subjects, p. 173.

124 Ibid., p. 174.


led,  unsurprisingly,  to  sexual  harassment  and  promises  of  job  security  for  sexual favours.125  Ángela speaks from personal experience:

Abuses result when the bosses consort with the girls. . . . That boss we had was a very coarse person, quick to paw you with his hands.126



As women are assessed not only on productivity, but by their beauty and sexuality, many feel forced to forsake their moral and personal integrity for job security.  It also fosters competition between girls, seeking to be the supervisor or manager’s “favourite”

– by flirting and sexualizing their appearance, wearing “lipstick”, “high heels” and “miniskirts”127 – further increasing production and reducing worker solidarity.128    The discourse is even more powerful as women become active participants in sexual game- playing as their livelihoods depend upon it:  “femininity is defined and anointed by male supervisors and managers.  Women have little to offer each other in comparison to the pleasures of that achievement and the perils of its loss.”129     This environment both

objectifies Mexican women and emasculates men, 130 as U.S. managers remain firmly at


the top of the hierarchy, reinforcing American exceptionalism.


Women often become sexual objects before they step inside maquiladoras as some firms stipulate a specific desire for attractive women in the hiring process.131    Elena confirms this:

What they wanted was pretty young things who dressed nicely.  …they looked us up and down.  If they thought you were pretty, you got a job; if not, no way.”132


Furthermore, women’s sexuality is  grossly exploited through reproductive monitoring.   Nearly all maquiladoras explicitly state a preference for single, childless

125 Fernandez-Kelly, p. 140; Prieto, p. 77.

126 Prieto, p. 77.

127 Salzinger, From High Heels to Swathed Bodies, p. 554.

128 Salzinger, Manufacturing Sexual Subjects, p. 178.

129 Ibid.

130 Ibid., p. 173.

131 Ibid., p. 169; Fernandez-Kelly, p. 129.

132 Prieto, p. 37.


women,  and  many  use  pregnancy-testing in  the  interview  stage.133      Moreover,  as reported by Human Rights Watch, “if a woman becomes pregnant soon after gaining employment . . . she may be mistreated or forced to resign.”134   Prieto experienced the required medical exam when she applied for factory work in Tijuana as part of her research.  She recalls being asked “if I were a ‘senorita’ – that is, a virgin – if I had frequent sexual relations, the date of my last menstrual period . . . [Then he] palpated my abdomen to make sure I was not pregnant.”135   Sometimes more invasive examinations are required:  “pregnancy tests . . . often include not only ‘surprise’ urine testing but also examination of menstrual pads to prove that a young worker isn’t pregnant.”136    Such practices are clearly a violation of women’s human rights.







This chapter has revealed the harsh physical and psychological conditions within maquiladoras for a predominantly female workforce, maintained through systematic exploitation based upon political, gendered, and racial ideologies of power.  Ultimately, it has exposed the strength of U.S. imperialism today, which when combined with Mexican patriarchal culture, has powerfully oppressed women economically, physically, psychologically, and sexually.   Because of an exploitative political-economic system women’s  bodies  are  viewed  as  machines,  valued  only  for  their  productivity;  while simultaneously, through racist, sexist discourse that justifies women’s sexual subordination to men, they are objectified.





133 Prieto, p. 39.

134 Human Rights Watch, ‘No Guarantees: Sex Discrimination in Mexico’s Maquiladora Sector’ (April 1996),

The Maquiladora Reader, p. 31.

135 Prieto, pp. 39-40.

136 Elvia Arriola, ‘Where the Borders of Class, Race, Age and Sexuality Meet,’ Women on the Border website,, (9 March 2008).


In Chapter Two I investigate the horrific murders of Mexican women in Ciudad Juárez, during which I revisit the theory discussed above.  It is possible, for example, to link Wright’s notion of the disposable female worker with the more shocking literal disposability of the murdered women.  Wright states that the “disposable third world woman” is a product of power; constructed by global firms.  Her disposability is a “myth” propagated to rationalize high turnover by virtue of women’s “natural” and “inevitable” physical and mental degeneration over time,137  thus blaming women themselves and

Mexican culture, for their subjugation.138










































137 Wright., p. 2.

138 Ibid., p. 17.  Managers blame high turnover on Mexican female traits “such as lack of ambition, overactive wombs, and flagging job loyalty,” assuming patriarchal culture and women themselves determine their

untrainability and temporary employment (p. 86).


Chapter Two


Rape, Murder, and Mutilation in Ciudad Juárez: The Mexican Female Body as a


Site of Conflict and Disposability





Ciudad Juárez . . . [is] one of the most violent cities, especially for women, in the Western Hemisphere.139





All  the  murders have  in  common  a  total  disregard for  women’s lives. They’re kidnapped, tortured, raped and their bodies abandoned like they had no value. 140


This chapter investigates the most horrific phenomenon of oppression against women in the border region today:  the “Juárez murders.”  Since 1993 Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua,  the  largest  Mexican  border  city  of  over  1.3  million  residents,141   has witnessed an unprecedented spree of violent and often sexually-motivated murders of poor, mostly young, women.  It is estimated that nearly five-hundred women have been murdered over the past fifteen years,142 although numbers are uncertain due to the ineffective investigation by Mexican officials into the crimes.


I attempt to demystify the murders and the atmosphere of violence and hate towards women in Juárez generally by investigating the systematic corruption and exploitative policies which have allowed the physical subjugation of women’s bodies. This will reveal collusion between Mexican and U.S. power networks, which use exploitative discourses and practices to oppress women, and justify or mask their actions.  As in maquiladoras,

139 Wright, p. 72.


140 Lucha Castro (co-founder of organization, May Our Women Return Home), speaking in On the Edge: The Femicide in Ciudad Juárez, documentary by Steev Hise (Illegal Art, 2006).


141 Juarez: The City where Women are Disposable, documentary by Alex Flores and Lorena Vassolo

(Toronto, Canada: Las Perlas Del Mar Films, 2007).


142 Ibid.


the rhetoric of power combines controlling Mexican patriarchal ideology with a global capitalism and U.S. imperialism-infused doctrine.   Thus it is reasonable to draw comparisons between the ideologies cultivated within maquiladoras, which utilize traditionally inscribed gendered roles to delineate the boundaries of Mexican women’s femininity and sexuality (as objects), and their (economic) value, ultimately cultivating a myth of their disposability as workers (and human beings).143    Ciudad Juárez, a city of crime, poverty and violence, is where the most shocking and gruesome effects of globalization, U.S. imperialism, and Mexican machismo are manifested, most poignantly on the racialized, sexualized bodies of poor Mexican women.


In investigating who is to blame for these murders (and who gains from their cover- up), I highlight the ways in which the U.S. is specifically implicated, examining the effects of their economic policies in Mexico (the maquiladora industry and NAFTA), as well as addressing Mexican culpability.  Reliable information is hard to find in official discourse; therefore I rely predominantly on the knowledge of grassroots activists and journalists and  victims’  mothers,  who  voice  their  highly  personal  experiences  of  the  crimes. Evidence is drawn from two recent documentaries:   On the Edge:   The Femicide in Ciudad Juárez (2006) and Juarez:   The City where Women are Disposable (2007), which  incorporate  expert  discussion  of  the  epidemic  with  personal  accounts  from affected families.   (I  acknowledge the  risk of  using potentially biased reports from grieving relatives; however I believe their voices should duly be heard, within a balanced analysis of evidence from various sources.144)  The most useful texts on the issue are

Diana Washington Valdez’s The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women (2006) 145  (Valdez is




143 See Chapter One.


144 I have consulted books, journal and newspaper articles, and interest-group publications on the topic.


145 Diana Washington Valdez, The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women (USA: Peace at the Border, 2006).


an El Paso Times reporter), and Charles Bowden’s Juárez: the Laboratory of our Future


(1998)146 (Bowden is an American author and journalist).






The Juárez murders are often referred to as acts of “femicide,” (“the killing of a female”),147 implying a gender-motivated attack.   In other words these women are murdered specifically because they are women.   There are other features too, which characterize the cases as Fregoso explains:


. . .  all of the murdered women are poor, most are dark, and many have been tortured and sexually violated:  raped, strangled or gagged, mutilated

. . . or penetrated with objects.148


To understand why women (specifically poor, dark and young) in Juárez are the targets of male hate and violence, and henceforth, hypothesize about who is to blame, I will discuss below various discourses that are propagated to explain, and often conceal, the phenomenon.  It will be revealed that men, Mexican and American – in government, the police, the media, and the workplace – control the discourses that construct and propagate images of Mexican women’s femininity and morality, consequently delineating the real-life terms of their existence.


Morality Discourse: “Blame the Victim”



The most common discourse circulated by Mexican officials blames the violence against women on their own alleged deplorable sexual morality and corrupted femininity.



146 Charles Bowden, Juárez: the Laboratory of our Future (Hong Kong: Aperture Foundations, Inc., 1998).


147 ‘Femicide,’ Webster’s New Millennium™ Dictionary of English, Preview Edition (v 0.9.7),

Lexico Publishing Group, LLC,  (19 March, 2008).


148 Rosa Linda Fregoso, ‘Voices Without Echo: The Global Gendered Apartheid,’ Emergences 10. 1 (2000):



Whilst encouraging “hyperfemininity” and “hypersexuality”149 within maquiladoras, women’s   sexuality   outside   is   debasingly   associated   with   cultural   and   moral degeneration, and ultimately prostitution.150    This presents a paradox whereby women are encouraged to flaunt their sexualized bodies to ensure job security within the factory (and are similarly sexually-objectified at home), but are demonized for such behaviour elsewhere.   Moreover, as the boundary between discourse and reality ever blurs, maquiladora workers, and young women in border towns more generally, are often synonymously associated with prostitutes or sexually-promiscuous “liberal” women in the popular imagination.151      Women today shoulder the blame for the supposed degeneration of  Mexican  culture,  as  they  personify  the  loss  of  “traditional”  values through their new financial independence as workers and alleged sexual liberalization – influenced by U.S. popular culture.152    Fregoso calls this the “morality discourse,” “the subtext underneath . . . [which] is one of nostalgia:  a lament for an earlier era of traditional, strong-arm masculinity.”153


Vila explains why Mexican women, particularly in Juárez, personify sexual and moral degradation in the Mexican imagination, linking the contemporary imagined construction of the “Libertine Juarense” with the mythical character of “Malintzín,” the betrayer of the ancient Mexican race.154     He states:   “Malintzín is resignified by the


149 Ibid., p. 141.


150 Vila, p. 112.


151 Ibid.  This is particularly true of the Juarense woman, who is “by default . . . suspected of having loose morals and values” (p. 123).  There are some maquiladora workers (and others) who work as prostitutes to supplement their income – many are forced to as they cannot survive on factory wages alone (p. 124). However the discourse grossly exaggerates this reality.


152 Wright, p. 75.


153 Fregoso, p. 139.


154 Vila, p. 115. Malintzín is likened to the Mexican version of Eve.


prostitutes and female workers-as-prostitutes who supposedly, in one way or another, open their bodies to Americans.”155    Women are accused of “ethnic and national treachery”156  – shamed as betrayers of their race for imitating U.S. culture and having sex with gringo men, just as Malintzín did.157   This illustrates the power of patriarchy and myth in Mexican culture, which historically and today scapegoats its women for the ills of

society.   Vila also explains the power of the “Libertine Juarense” by its symbiotic association with another popular discourse that has historically portrayed “the border as a  site of violence, drugs, and prostitution”:  the “city of vice” narrative.158    The stigma attached to the border, and Juárez in particular,159  is ultimately blamed on women (as

prostitutes), according to Vila’s research.160



Alarmingly, this morality discourse has led to a Mexican media and governmental rhetoric that blames women themselves for the sexual violence they face in Juárez, as their alleged promiscuity places them in a vulnerable position (by frequenting bars and clubs at night, dressing provocatively, and courting male attention).  The implication is that women are asking for trouble.  Debbie Nathan explains:  “many people in Juarez assume that women who work in maquilas, or women who frequent clubs, or women who dress in sexy clothes — that they’re all whores. And whores in Juarez deserve what






155 Ibid. The border represents the boundary of the Mexican social system and thus it is here where the body is susceptible to “pollution” from the U.S.  See my Introduction, p. 3.


156 Ibid., p. 132.


157 Vila explains that Malintzín was a “vendida” – a “sell-out” to the white race, accused of miscegenation

(sex with white men), p. 115.


158 Ibid., p. 113.


159 Juárez and Tijuana are the most notorious “cities of vice.”  This narrative will be explored again later.


160 Vila, p. 120.  Vila found evidence of this narrative in interviews with both men and women in Juárez.


they get.”161    Women are often accused “of leading a ‘doble vida’/‘double life,’ that is respectable work by day and casual sex work by night”162 says Fregoso.  Marisela Ortiz (grassroots activist) comments:


We knew that the femicide existed but there was a lot of misinformation about it, both from the authorities and from the media.   They said that women were being murdered because they were prostitutes, because they were involved with drug dealers, because they were out at night in the streets . . .163


This “blame the victim” narrative is linked with what Wright terms “death by culture,”164    which  explains  the  violence  and  death  in  Juárez  as  an  inevitable consequence of women’s sexual immorality, symptomatic of Mexico’s cultural decline. The restoration of “Mexican values” is placed above the need to find the perpetrators, as the victims are deemed unworthy:  “They represent cultural value in decline and in consequence are possibly not valuable enough in death to warrant much concern.”165

Wright  explains  “death  by  culture”  as  applicable  to  both  the  “corporate  death”


maquiladora workers experience through high turnover, and the literal death in Ciudad


Juárez.166  The “myth of female disposability”167 is thus extended outside the factory:



At the heart of these seemingly disparate story lines is the crafting of the

Mexican  woman  as  a  figure  whose  value  can  be  extracted  from  her,






161 Debbie Nathan, ‘Missing the Story,’ The Texas Observer, 30 August 2002, p. 4  (22 March 2008).


162 Fregoso, p. 138.


163 Marisela Ortiz (co-founder, May Our Daughters Return Home), Juarez.


164 Wright, p. 76.


165 Ibid.


166 Ibid., p. 87.


167 Ibid., p. 2


whether . . . in the form of her virtue, her organs, or her efficiency on the production floor.168


Vila agrees that there is a definite link between the disposability discourse and the murders.   Interestingly, he acknowledged this narrative before the murders received public attention in 1996, and consequently “was not surprised by what was going on”:169


My hypothesis was that, since this discourse was so prominent, perhaps the murderers saw the women they were killing only as prostitutes (women whose  lives  are  less  valued  in  many  male  discourses)  instead  of  as workers (like themselves) or plain women (like their mothers and sisters) whose lives are more valued . . .170


The consequences of “blame the victim”/”death by culture” are catastrophic.  First, by categorizing the victims as prostitutes (hence attracting, even deserving, sexual predation and violence) the Mexican authorities absolve themselves from blame for the crimes and divert public sympathy from the victims.171   The government and media are

involved in a “campaign . . . to deny the whole femicide,”172  asserts Lorena Vassolo,


Assistant Director of Juarez, which has had terrible repercussions. Ortiz says:



. . . [It] actually generated more crimes because if you ask the mothers if they thought at any point that their daughters would be murdered they say absolutely not, because they know [they] weren’t prostitutes, they didn’t go out at night, or dress provocatively . . . so they weren’t believed to be at risk.173








168 Ibid., p. 87.


169 Vila, p. 12.


170 Ibid., pp. 12-13.


171 Ortiz, Juarez.


172 Lorena Vassolo, Juarez.


173 Ibid.


Some mothers have challenged the discourse, such as Elba Mancha Moreno, who says of victim Rebeca:   “She was a very good daughter.”174    Josefina González also remembers her daughter as a hard-worker and good mother:   “She worked in the morning because Claudia would come home and take care of her daughters in the afternoon.”175   However this has had little avail as the debasing official rhetoric remains. Moreover, scholars, activists, and journalists agree that the Mexican authorities are involved in the murders, not least for granting impunity to the killers and the networks of power  which  protect  them.176      Valdez  asserts:    “The  state  has  more  power  than organized crime, but they don’t use it.  They don’t want to use it because they are involved.”177 Alex Flores agrees:


The Mexican authorities are either the least efficient in [the] world, or are involved . . .  How else can one explain 450 sexually brutal murders, over an extended period of time . . . without finding a suspect?178


One means of obscuring justice has been to place blame on various scapegoats, often victims’ family members, and usually without tangible evidence.179    Bill Conroy states:  “The Mexican police find a scapegoat, torture a confession out of them, then start the count over.”180   One scapegoat case was that of David Meza, charged with the





174 Elba Mancha Moreno, Juarez.


175 Josefina González, On the Edge.


176 This opinion is voiced in Juarez by Flores and Vassolo, Oscar Mainez (Chief of Forensic Services in Juárez, 1993-2001), Regina Orozco and Jesusa Rodriguez (social activists).  Also in On The Edge by Bill Conroy (correspondent, Narco News Bulletin) and Jessica Marques (grassroots coordinator, Mexico Solidarity Network).  See also Valdez, Chapter 31 and Bowden, p. 101.


177 Valdez, Juarez.


178 Flores, Juarez.


179 Ortiz, On the Edge.


180 Conroy, On the Edge.


rape and murder of his cousin, Neyra.181    Speaking of his torture he said:  “I felt like I was dying . . . So I told them I would sign anything they wanted.”182    Having secured Meza’s false confession, the police stopped investigating Neyra’s murder, and thus justice has never been delivered.183   The state government has also tried to divert public scrutiny by blaming the murders on a single serial killer, such as Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif in 1995, described by Valdez as “the state’s trophy suspect.”184   However, each time a man was charged, the murders continued,185 undermining the government’s claims that the  attacks  are  by  lone  madmen  (most  likely  foreigners).186        According  to  the professional  opinions  I  have  encountered,  this  is  clearly  the  work  of  systematic, organized crime.187


Furthermore,  “investigations  by  the  United  Nations,  the  Inter-American  Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, members of the U.S. Congress and other groups have repeatedly shown that local police have mishandled or fabricated evidence and failed to follow logical leads.”188    For example, a 1998 report by the U.S. National Commission for Human Rights charged “gross irregularities and general negligence in state investigations including, the mis-identification of  corpses; .  .  .  [and] failure to


181 Kevin Sullivan, ‘In Mexico, a Question of Guilt by Protestation,’ Washington Post Foreign Service, 10

October 2004, ‘The Washington Office on Latin America’ (WOLA) website, (3 March 2008).


182 Ibid.


183 Ibid.


184 Valdez, p. 139.  Sharif was an Egyptian chemist with a U.S. sex-offense record, convicted for raping

Blanca Estela and jailed until his death in 2006 (p. 141).


185 Fregoso, p. 137.


186 Valdez, Juarez.


187 Ortiz; Castro; Jason Wallach (coordinator, Portland Central America Solidarity Committee); Bowden; and

Marques: On the Edge.


188 Sullivan, ‘In Mexico, a Question of Guilt by Protestation.’


conduct autopsies or obtain semen analysis . . .”189    Norma Andrade, mother of victim


Lilia, claims “the government . . . in some cases, burned the garments it found.”190


Moreno recounts her personal experience of corruption and injustice:



They found the murderers but they let them go.  They paid the authorities off and now they are free . . .191


When explaining official collusion and cover-up, the experts have concluded that it boils down to power and money.192    Valdez states:  “there is a lot of money involved,” from which the authorities gain (through bribes), thus they choose “to look the other way, not to investigate and not to put the responsible criminals in prison.”193   Bowden blames poverty for the corruption, expressed when he crudely asks:   “. . . what do you think happens in a society that is poor and somebody shows up with a dump-truck full of money?”194    Many, including Bowden, also blame the drug trade, which has saturated Juárez since the signing of NAFTA.195    They suggest that “narco-traffickers . . . pretty

much run the state . . . [and] the economy,”196 thus are instrumental in corrupting the “the


police force, and the judicial system, and politicians.”197    Nathan asserts:  “Juarez law enforcement authorities are low-paid, barely professionalized, and thoroughly prone to corruption by narco-traffickers.”198   Within this environment of impunity, it is easy for rich



189 Fregoso, p. 138.


190 Norma Andrade, On the Edge.


191 Moreno, Juarez.


192 Conroy, On the Edge.


193 Valdez, Juarez.


194 Bowden, On the Edge.


195 The rise of drug-trafficking is intricately linked to globalization, discussed later.


196 Marques, On the Edge.


197 Martinez, On the Edge.


men,  whether drug-traffickers, foreign businessmen, “snuff film-makers”199  or  serial- killers, to act without consequences:


If . . . you have money and power in Ciudad Juarez, what can stop you from carrying out your fantasy? Nothing.200


Some experts also implicate the federal government, particularly for allowing the impunity to continue.   Carmen Huete states:   “The PAN party201 has given their permission for this to happen. . . . [because they] haven’t gotten involved in investigating any of these crimes.”202    Many still believe the right-wing PAN party, to which current President Felipe Calderón is affiliated, condones the continuing violence and oppression against women.203


This impunity has also increased domestic violence in Juárez as ordinary men abuse the situation.   Jessica Marques reports that the ‘Casa Amiga’ domestic violence shelter increasingly hears women’s claims that:


. . . when their husbands are beating them, one of the threats . . . [they] are using is the femicides . . . saying ‘look around you.   I could kill you and dump your body and nobody is going to do a thing to stop me’ . . . 204






198 Nathan, p. 5.


199 One theory is that women are targets of the “snuff” film industry (their rapes and murders filmed for viewers’ sexual pleasure), which could explain why many victims are raped and strangled (and young and attractive).


200 Mainez, Juarez.


201 Partido Accíon Nacional/The National Action Party.


202 Carmen Huete (actor), Juarez.


203 Ofelia Media (activist); Rodriguez; Orozco; Huete; and Valdez: Juarez.  Nathan, however, is wary of pointing blame at institutions higher than the local police, believing there is an element of “conspiracy thinking” to such claims (p. 6).


204 Marques, On the Edge.


Substantiating such threats, many cases are indeed domestic violence-related. Nathan actually believes the majority of the killings fit into this category, rather than those “raped and murdered in the desert by unknown assailants” – the most popular theory.205    Either way, it is clear that there is a complex web of assailants involved, including some “ordinary” Mexican men targeting their own wives or other close acquaintances.   Undoubtedly, therefore, the morality discourse is a farce – a tool to conceal systematic corruption.  This has amplified the climate of violence and misogyny in Juárez by painting women as saboteurs of patriarchy.206   Thus the murders could be understood as an extreme retaliation by macho Mexican men against changing gender roles – this conflict symbolically and physically manifesting on women’s raped and mutilated bodies.


How is the United States Implicated?



As this male backlash is correlated in the Mexican imaginary with U.S. cultural and economic “pollution” in Juárez (manifesting on women’s bodies),207 the U.S. is partially involved in cultivating a discourse which oppresses Mexican women.  Pheona Donohoe agrees:    “America is  partially to  blame  for  the  moral  chaos  across the  border.”208

Moreover, the very cause of male unemployment and disproportionate female employment, fuelling men’s anger, was the U.S.’s economic intrusion in the border through the maquiladora industry and the myth of female disposability is cultivated within U.S.-owned factories.    This  discourse  has  also  extended  north:    the  killings  went

205 Nathan, p. 2.  Nathan, for example, critiques Lourdes Portillo’s 2001 documentary Senorita Extraviada for overplaying the conspiracy of the desert murders, in-so-doing, veering “into pop-culture paranoia” (p. 5).


206 Fregoso, p. 139.


207 Vila, p. 114.


208 Pheona Donohoe, Director of Women of Juarez documentary, Citizen Shift website, (10 January 2008).


unreported in the U.S. for years, and only recently have they received high-profile attention.209    Ralph Armbruster Sandoval blames media disinterest on the disposability discourse:  “These women’s lives don’t count,” therefore “it’s no wonder why [American] people don’t know that poor, Mexican women, 4/500 of them, are killed – the media just don’t take that into account . . .”210


“Blame the Culture”



The U.S. media bought into the “blame the victim” discourse for many years, verified by its prolonged silence.  This can be partly explained by a U.S. narrative that blames Mexico itself for its “cultural deficiencies” (used also within maquiladoras).211     In this case, the narrative frames the situation as a “Mexican problem”:  of Mexican men raping and murdering Mexican women, blamed on their “culture of machismo.”  This absolves the U.S. of responsibility and diverts media attention and governmental involvement. This is also linked to the “city of vice” narrative, which has also long been part of the American popular imaginary.212    I believe the narrative, when promoted in the U.S., demonstrates the continuance of American exceptionalism today.  That the U.S. public still accept this image is proven by the continuing U.S. tourist trade to border cities, especially Tijuana and Juárez, fuelled by the “exotic” allure of drinking, gambling, and “loose women.”   The U.S. media also degrades Juárez’s image:   for example, the


209 Only after human rights organizations’ campaigning and local reporting, particularly by Valdez, did the crimes receive (limited) national attention in 1996. In 2006 two Hollywood films were based on the murders. However, the severity of the situation remains obscured, and the crimes, underreported.


210 Ralph Armbruster Sandoval (Professor of Chicano Studies), On the Edge.


211 Wright, p. 87.


212 The narrative developed during World War One when U.S. military facilities were based in El Paso and San Diego, making Juárez and Tijuana attractive “providers of ‘leisure’ (alcohol and prostitution) for the predominantly single, male population” (Vila, pp. 113-4).  Martínez also traces the discourse to the Prohibition Era, when Americans flocked to border cities in search of liquor and other “sins” (Martínez, pp.



“recent NBC-TV miniseries ‘Kingpin’” is “replete with sex, drug-dealing, gunplay and intrigues.”213





The most convincing narrative explaining the murders and revealing the U.S.’s role links the climate of violence in Juárez to globalization, particularly the signing of NAFTA. The deaths in fact began in 1993, “one year after NAFTA was signed by executive agreement in August of 1992,”214 which Marques asserts is no coincidence.215   One key effect of NAFTA (discussed in Chapter One) was the destruction of Mexican agricultural industry – “depopulating the Mexican countryside, [and] launching millions . . . onto the highways of migration.”216 Overpopulation at the border, particularly male, was worsened by maquiladoras’ female-hiring bias.   Furthermore, evidence suggests that there is a strong corollary between NAFTA and the escalating drug trade along the border, particularly Juárez.   Nathan says NAFTA re-routed the U.S.’s South American drug trade, which in the 1980s primarily entered “through the Caribbean and South Florida,” but in the 1990s “shifted to Mexican border cities like Juarez.”217   As free trade worsened poverty in Juárez, more men became enticed by the industry.  Marques explains the link between NAFTA, male unemployment, and drug-trafficking:


. . . people in Mexico are not able to support themselves farming traditional agricultural products anymore like corn and coffee, so . . . are faced with





213 Michael Newton, ‘Ciudad Juarez: The Serial Killer’s Playground,’ p. 2, Crime Library website,,  (2 April 2008).


214 Fregoso, p. 140.


215 Marques, On the Edge.


216 Gonzalez and Fernandez, introduction, xiv.


217 Nathan, p. 2.


the hard choice of migrating [to the U.S.], or cultivating a product that can actually be sold on the market at a profitable rate [drugs].218


Violence, lawlessness, and corruption increased simultaneously with drug-crime.219


Thus it is clear that the U.S.’s neo-liberal policies have increased poverty and unemployment in Juárez, leading to narco-trafficking and violent crime, fostering a systemic network of corruption between drug barons, police officers and government bodies.220   This has led proponents of the “globalization discourse” to implicate the U.S. in the murders.   Bowden sarcastically asserts:   “our brilliant NAFTA and our brilliant governments produced this.”221   Martinez agrees:  “I believe that Americans have played

a direct role in what has happened there.”222    This reveals the disparity between the


official rhetoric of “globalization” and the reality.  As Bowden says, “the benefit . . . from globalization is a long time coming.”223   Furthermore, Bowden pessimistically concludes that the horror of Juárez is in fact, “the laboratory of our future.”224









Unfortunately it is impossible to draw accurate conclusions about the identity of the killers.  Michael Newton asserts:  “Despite all the suspects, all the conspiracies, all the reassuring  words  from  public  officials,  it  is  clear  that  the  case  is  nowhere  near



218 Marques, On the Edge.


219 Martinez, On the Edge.


220 Ibid.


221 Bowden, On the Edge.


222 Martinez, On the Edge.


223 Bowden, On the Edge.


224 Bowden, p. 117.


resolution.”225    What is plain, though, is that both countries are responsible for the corruption and impunity that allows the murders to continue.   While Mexican officials’ culpability is undeniable, the U.S. is also guilty of contributing to the violent, misogynist climate in Juárez – through their exploitative neoliberal policies and their cultural supremacist attitude towards Mexico.   Mexican cultural nationalist ideology is also instrumental as it has been shown that women’s abused and discarded bodies physically represent the transnational conflict between U.S.














































225 Newton, p. 10.


Chapter Three


Border Patrol Rape:

The Sexual Violation of Mexican Women’s Bodies as a consequence of

Militarization, Nativism, and Patriarchy




Daily, attacks against border crossers occur in the form of brutal beatings, assaults (including rape), and harassment by state and federal officials as well as by regional vigilantes.  Like all militarized endeavors, the state is ultimately accountable for this violence.226




The final way in which this thesis investigates exploitation of the female body along the U.S.-Mexico border focuses on the border-crossing experience itself.   While traversing  the   border,  Mexican  women  frequently  face   violent  and   oppressive encounters with American personnel, particularly Border Patrol officers,227 and many are raped.  This chapter will provide two case studies exemplifying Border Patrol rape, and discuss the circumstances that have cultivated a violent atmosphere in the region and allow violations to continue.  Evidence is drawn primarily from three investigative reports by reputable human rights organizations:   Border Action Network (2007),228  Amnesty

International (1998),229 and Human Rights Watch (1995).230



226 Falcón, p. 203.


227 The Border Patrol is the law enforcement branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), under jurisdiction of the United States Department of Homeland Security.


228 Border Action Network is a grassroots organization in southern Arizona.  This recent report investigates the ongoing human rights violations in the Arizona-Sonora area; data collected through interviews with local people and analyzed by legal/constitutional experts:  Human and Civil Rights Violations Uncovered:  A Report from the Arizona/Sonora Border,  Border Action Network (2007),, (27 March 2008).

229 Amnesty International is a globally-renowned human rights organization.  This report focuses on Border

Patrol offences from San Diego, California, 3000 miles east to Brownsville, Texas; interviews conducted with human rights monitors and lawyers, and Border Patrol and INS staff: Human Rights Concerns in the Border Region with Mexico, Amnesty International/USA (20 May 1998),, (28 March 2008).


230 Human Rights Watch is an international non-governmental organization.  This report is the third in a series of fact-finding investigative trips to southern California and Arizona; data collected from government officials, human rights organizations, lawyers, INS officials, and victims themselves: Crossing the Line: Human Rights Abuses Along the U.S. Border with Mexico Persist Amid Climate of Impunity, Human Rights




Militarization of the Border


Before World War One Mexicans could cross the border legally and easily. 231


Then, after the Great Depression, immigration became a contentious issue.  In 1924 the Border Patrol was created under the Immigration Bureau and by 1950 it was based predominantly at the southern border to tackle illegal immigration.232  Its size and powers have grown steadily in correlation with rising anti-immigration fervour in the U.S., particularly post-1965, in response to increasing numbers of Latin American and Asian arrivals, including a “second wave” of Mexican migrants.  A diminished need for cheap labour combined with nativist fears of newcomers233 resulted in the reversal of previous “open door” policies that had welcomed Mexican labourers (such as Bracero).  An increasingly belligerent attitude towards immigration resounded in American public, media, and governmental discourse.234      Particularly contentious was escalating undocumented Mexican migration, because, as Jonathan Xavier Inda explains, the U.S. public tends to blame “immigrants, primarily the undocumented, for . . . the socioeconomic ills of the United States:   unemployment, crime, deteriorating schools, deficiencies in social services, and so forth.”235        The issue was addressed through




Watch/Americas (April 1995),, (21 March 2008).  My case studies are partially drawn from this report.


231 Amnesty International, p.2.  Also see my Introduction for background on labour exploitation.


232 Ibid.


233 For a fuller discussion of nativism in response to “new immigration” see George Sánchez, ‘Face the Nation: Race, Immigration, and the Rise of Nativism in Late Twentieth-Century America,’ International Migration Review 31.4 (1997):  1009-30.


234 Public vigilante campaigns for example surfaced in border regions, such as ‘Light up the Border,’ (San Diego, 1989):  John F. Dulles, Federal Immigration Law Enforcement in the Southwest: Civil Rights Impacts on Border Communities (Los Angeles:  Diane Publishing, 1997), p. 37.


235 Jonathon Xavier Inda, ‘The Value of Immigrant Life,’ in Segura and Zavella (eds.), p. 134.


federal legislation (the 1986 Immigration and Control Act), but this failed to stem the flow.




During  the  1990s  the  government  reassessed  the  “undocumented  problem,” devising a strategy to tackle the issue head-on:   border militarization.   Following substantial budget increases, new technologies and resources such as “new lighting, fencing, ground sensors, mobile infra-red night scope cameras, more vehicles and computerized systems”236  helped the Border Patrol apprehend illegal immigrants. Operations including ‘Hold the Line’ in El Paso (September 1993) and ‘Operation Gatekeeper’ in San Diego (October 1994), were a “show of force” in these particularly porous areas.237     The presence of high steel fences and numerous law-enforcement

personnel have made border residents feel they are living in “an occupied territory.”238


But the effect on migrants, especially the undocumented, is even more threatening. Mexicans attempting to travel north illegally have been forced to risk their lives by journeying “across the desert, over the mountains, and through rural areas where the physical dangers are considerable.”239   Thus, contrary to the official line that boasts the “immediate success” of such operations, producing a “drastic reduction in apprehensions,”240 it is widely reported that “these measures have failed to reduce the total  number  of  migrants”;  but  rather  “redirected  the  flow  to  the  deserts  and





236 Amnesty International, p. 3.


237 ‘Border Patrol History,’ U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website, 15 July 2003,, (28 March 2008).


238 Padre Robert Carney (resident of Douglas, Arizona), speaking in Border Crossings, documentary by

Heather Lares (USA: Pan Left Productions, 2001).


239 Amnesty International, p. 3.


240 ‘Border Patrol History,’ CBP website.


mountains”.241   The consequences are deadly: for example “between 1993 and 1996, it is estimated that at least 1,185 migrants died in the attempt to cross the border.”242




Open or Closed?




[The border] has never been intended to stop labor from migrating ‘al otro lado’ [to the other side].243   On the contrary, it functions like a dam, creating a reservoir of labor-power on the Mexican side of the border that can be tapped on demand via the secret aqueduct managed by . . .  ‘coyotes’ [people smugglers] . . . for the farms of south Texas, the hotels of Las Vegas and the sweatshops of Los Angeles.’244

Davis’ statement suggests the use of Mexican labour in the U.S. widely continues despite the contradictory rhetoric of immigration law and border militarization:  “The paradox of US-Mexico integration is that a barricaded border and a borderless economy are being constructed simultaneously.”245  This illustrates the hypocrisy of these policies, which ideologically demonize immigrants in the popular imagination, blamed for stealing American jobs and draining public services, while conversely many industries depend on undocumented Mexicans and exploit their labour:  “Cheap labor means lower prices for goods and services – a benefit for all Americans.”246

The  border, therefore, is  deliberately porous –  open or  closed on  U.S. terms.


Mexican labour is still valued as a (disposable) commodity by U.S. business and families




241 Rudy Adler et al., Border Film Project: Photos by Migrants & Minutemen on the U.S.-Mexico Border (New

York: Abrams, 2007).


242 Amnesty International, p. 3.


243 Ac?na says that during Bracero, “while the press condemned migration from Mexico . . . the border patrol looked the other way when growers asked” (Occupied America, p. 156).  Thus the U.S. has a history of manipulating the border’s defences to suit their labour needs.


244 Davis, p. 27.


245 Ibid.


246 Adler et al.


who hire Mexican maids, even as racism and nativism scar migrants’ lives within the U.S., and govern their encounters with border personnel.  Moreover, the very impetuses for  migration  north  (poverty,  unemployment,  land  displacement)  have  been predominantly an outcome of U.S. economic policy in Mexico, particularly NAFTA.247

There are many reasons why Mexicans cross the border illegally, including “severe


financial need, inability to obtain the requisite papers (passport or border crossing card), and . . . to reunite with family members . . . in the USA.”248   For most, el norte represents hope and opportunity for financial progress: Mexicans are fleeing the dire economic and social conditions within Mexico, which ironically, the U.S. helped foster.   Although migrants were once predominantly male, women today “are crossing the border alone in greater numbers.”249




“Threat to National Security”


For  those  who  choose  not  to  risk  their  lives  travelling  perilous  desert  terrain, crossing instead through fences or at checkpoints themselves, the journey may nevertheless be dangerous.   Daily, men, women, and children face violent and oppressive confrontations with U.S. officials.  The prime targets are the undocumented, although abuses are also reported against document-holders, and even U.S. citizens.250

From this it can be reasoned that attacks are racially-motivated.  Amnesty International


reports that “people of Latin American descent have reportedly been ill-treated, detained, interrogated, searched and harassed on account of their ethnic origin.”251


247 See pp. 18 and 43 of this thesis.


248 Amnesty International, p. 15.


249 Falcón, p. 207.


250 Amnesty International, p. 2.


251 Ibid.


Abusive and unlawful treatment of migrants is not new, but has likely increased due to militarization, says Falcón.252     She believes that militarization has amplified a confrontational, aggressive environment at the border, as the policy “violently reinforces the territory of the United States.”253    One of the key effects has been to support the perception of Mexican immigrants as a “national enemy” – a threat to national security. Such fears were invigorated following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001: “in the aftermath of 9/11 a complete shutdown of the U.S.-Mexico border occurred . . . contributing to the classification of the border as an area for national security.”254    The US Customs and Border Patrol department itself makes the point:  “The priority mission of the Border Patrol is preventing terrorists and terrorists’ weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States.”255  This has cultivated a hostile attitude towards immigrants as they are portrayed in official rhetoric as (racialized) enemies of the state.

Another factor creating an antagonistic environment was the militarization of border personnel; through both the integration of armed forces, and “the modification of the Border Patrol to resemble the armed forces via its equipment, structure, and tactics”,256 explains Falcón.  Military personnel have been regularly deployed in the region since the

1980s in response to the rising “threat to national security” and the U.S.’s “War on


Drugs”,257 while the Immigration Act of 1990 increased the Border Patrol’s “arrest powers



252 Falcón, p. 207.


253 Ibid., p. 203.


254 Ibid., p. 205-6.


255 ‘Border Patrol mission statement,’ CBP website,, (28 March 2008).

256 Falcón, p. 204.


257 Amnesty International, p. 3.  This was made possible in 1981 when President Reagan circumvented “the historic Posse Comitatus Act of 1879,” allowing military personnel “to assist civilian law enforcement agencies” for the first time (p. 19).


. . . as part of the federal government’s efforts to interdict narcotics entering the country.”258    Ideologically, the department has also been militarized:   “transferring the INS from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice in 1940” (and later to the Department of Homeland Security) “altered the classification of immigration as an issue of  labor  to  one  of  national  security.”259       These  endeavours  have  contributed  to intensifying Border Patrol hostility towards immigrants, subsequently increasing “the risk that human rights violations may occur.”260



Effect on Women’s Bodies: “Rape as a weapon of War”261


Falcón and others have likened border militarization to “low-intensity-conflict (LIC)” military doctrine, which involves using non-military bodies adopting military tactics, targeted at civilian populations,262  and is “typically accompanied with a lack of government accountability.”263   One effect has been to justify the use of violence when

apprehending or detaining immigrants as a necessary tactic of war.264     Furthermore,


Falcón suggests that “the execution of LIC doctrine can create a climate conducive to rape.”265    This is because, inspired by a discourse and policy that constructs Mexican migrants as a threat to national security, the Border Patrol espouses an “‘us versus





258 HRW, p. 2.


259 Falcón, p. 204.


260 Amnesty International, p. 2.


261 Falcón, p. 203.


262 Ibid., p. 204.


263 Border Action Network, p. 6.


264 Falcón, p. 205.


265 Ibid.


them’ philosophy” 266 that infuses their encounters with migrants with hostility.  Moreover, this “contributes to the construction of a racialized enemy” (the immigrant) that has particularly become associated “with women’s bodies, which symbolize a nation” (Mexico).267     Thus, although men too frequently encounter violence with border personnel, women’s bodies in particular represent conflict between the U.S. and Mexico. Rape powerfully symbolizes their unequal colonial relationship, as male bodies (American) are used to conquer (physically and symbolically) sexualized and racialized female bodies (Mexican).  Falcón concludes therefore that “rape is a weapon of war”:  a “hegemonic tool” employed by the U.S. to wield “power and control” over Mexico.268

This practice is “systematic”, as cases are “not random or isolated”, but often planned


and “institutionally supported”.269


A final factor contributing to Border Patrol rape is the climate of hyper-masculinity within the organization fostered by militarization.  This is due to the overwhelming male dominance of  INS  personnel  and  the  masculinized nature  of  military  doctrine  and practice traditionally.270    Violence takes on a gendered dimension when male officers target the weakest, most exploitable group (women).   By raping women, men demonstrate the power of the nation through physical domination, while simultaneously reaffirming their masculinity, gratifying their sexual desires by abusing Mexican women’s bodies.   Thus patriarchy, hyper-masculinity, nativism, and colonialism have all helped induce an environment conducive to rape at the Mexican border.




266 Ibid., p. 207.


267 Ibid.


268 Ibid., p. 214.


269 Ibid., p. 206.


270Falcón, p. 206.


Case Studies


Below I provide two examples of Border Patrol rape to show how the U.S.’s politics of immigration affects the lives of real women traversing the border.




Juanita Gómez:


On 3 September 1993, twenty-two-year-old Juanita Gómez and her female cousin, Ana, crossed through a hole in the fence between Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona.271   After meeting two male friends at a McDonald’s on the U.S. side, the group was apprehended by Border Patrol agent, Larry Dean Selders.  The officer detained the two women in his vehicle, where he “asked them if they had papers,” which they did not.272   He then threatened to take them to the station “for processing and deportation to

Mexico”  if  they  would  not  have  sex  with  him.273       The  women  declined  Selders’


proposition, following which he allegedly “instructed Ana to get out of the truck, and . . . drove away with Juanita,” subsequently raping her.274    Afterwards, Juanita went to the Mexican Consulate, where Ana had already reported her kidnapping.  Both women identified Selders in a photo lineup; however, the detectives “did not believe either of the women’s statements.”275    They also assert that one detective inquired if they were prostitutes and threatened them with imprisonment.276  Juanita recalls: “They treated me

as if I were guilty of something, not a victim.”277




271 Ibid., p. 208.


272 HRW, p. 9.


273 Falcón, p. 208.


274 HRW, p. 10.


275 Falcón, p. 208.


276 Ibid.


277 HRW, p. 10.


Human  Rights  Watch  reports  that  “from  the  beginning,  the  handling  and investigation of the case indicated incompetence and bias.”278   Important evidence was lost, such as Selders’ clothes, as police incompetence meant he was “not picked up for questioning until after 6 P.M., more than three hours after Juanita reported her rape.”279

Also, “police reportedly seized the wrong Border Patrol vehicle, and held it for a week and a half before they realized their mistake, thereby ensuring that all meaningful evidence was destroyed.”280    Selders remained employed with the agency until he negotiated a “no-contest plea” of the “lowest class of felony available,” sentenced to only one year in prison, and paroled after six months.281   The case remained under review by federal prosecutors however and Selders later pleaded guilty to charges of civil rights violations.282    His sentence was only fourteen months imprisonment and he “received credit for time served” (awaiting trial).283






Maria was stopped by Border Patrol officer, Luis Esteves in Calexico, California, on


16 December 1989.284   Esteves asked to see her papers and then invited her on a date that evening, which she cautiously accepted.  Maria reports that shortly after picking her up that evening, Esteves lured her to his home so he could “change his clothes,” soon





278 Ibid.


279 Ibid.


280 Ibid.


281 Ibid.


282 Falcón, p. 209.


283 Ibid.


284 Ibid., p. 212.


after which he “told her she had to have sex with him.”285   “Fearful for her life” as Esteves had “positioned a gun on each side of the bed,” Maria complied.286   She later recounted that Esteves “forced an object into her vagina, placed his hands into various parts of her body, orally copulated her and forced her to have intercourse with him.”287    However Maria did not show up to the preliminary hearing and consequently the charges were dropped.288   Esteves resumed “active duty as an agent”289 until he was arrested in 1992 after allegedly raping another woman, “found guilty on three counts of felonious sexual misconduct, and sentenced to twenty-four years in prison.”290   However he appealed and was “acquitted on all charged in December 1994.”291   Esteves actually had a history of violence against women, with past domestic violence allegations and a reputation of “problematic behavior toward women early in his career.”292   Falcón asserts that the INS is partially to blame for allowing Esteves “to commit multiple acts of violence against women” by failing to conduct a thorough background check before hiring him.293






The  case  studies  illustrate  many  elements  of  Border  Patrol  rape.     First,  they highlight the systematic nature of abuses, as both demonstrated an element of planning.



285 Ibid.


286 Ibid.


287 James Cavallaro, Frontier Injustice (USA: HRW/Americas, 1993), p. 9.


288 Falcón, p. 212.


289 Ibid.


290 HRW (1995), p. 4.


291 Ibid.


292 Falcón, p. 215.


293 Ibid.


Juanita, for example, claimed Selders had seen the girls crossing through the fence initially, but waited until later to apprehend them.294    Second, they reveal that rape is institutionally supported: in Juanita’s case as police incompetence and indifference both hindered the investigation and undermined the integrity of her story.  The disturbingly short sentences served by both men, and the fact they continued working as agents until their convictions, also raises alarming questions regarding the conduct of justice. Furthermore, all three reports which I have consulted denounce the INS for inadequate prevention and redress of abuses against border-crossers.  Particular issues of concern are:   the substandard complaints system for reporting abuses;295  poor training of new

officers;296   lack  of  an  independent  review  staff;297   an  environment  of  intimidation,


discouraging victims from coming forward;298 and a “code of silence” within the agency, deterring officers from testifying against one another.299

Third, both men exploited their power as law-enforcement officers and the women’s converse vulnerability as (potentially) undocumented migrants (although Maria did have papers), in Juanita’s case, threatening her with deportation. This shows the discourse of U.S.  imperialism  in  practice;  the  American  male  in  power  exploiting  the  Mexican woman’s inferior legal status through the sexual degradation of her body.  Lastly, it is also interesting that a detective in Juanita’s case invoked the morality (prostitution) discourse; used as a tool of power both within maquiladoras to objectify women, and in the official rhetoric surrounding the murders in Ciudad Juárez to justify the crimes.  This


294 HRW, p. 9.


295 Amnesty International, p. 5.


296 Ibid., p. 6.


297 Ibid., p. 2.


298 Border Action Network, p. 6; HRW, p. 17.


299 HRW, p. 19.


shows  that  U.S.  personnel  have  also  been  influenced  by  the  discourse,  which propagates a degraded moral image of Mexican women in the border, and justifies the violence and sexual oppression they face.

It is clear, therefore, that the INS and Border Patrol are in need of serious reform to address the corruption and impunity that continues to permit violence against women and abuses against people of Latin origin in general at the border.  Despite taking some steps towards reform in response to pressure from human rights organizations, for example forming a “Citizens Advisory Panel”,300 many of the suggested initiatives have

not been implemented and the abuses continue.301    Thus it is doubtful that the Border


Patrol is living up to the standards it has proclaimed:  “professionalism, honor, integrity, [and] respect for human life.”302


Moreover, as militarization continues to be the U.S. government strategy to tackle undocumented immigration,303 and is ideologically associated with both national security and the War on Drugs,304 border-crossers will continue to face a nativist and xenophobic backlash from the public in the form of vigilante violence, and abuse from immigration officials  at  the  border.    The  most  recent  report  concludes:    “Such  brutal  policing

practices, wielded predominantly against people of a single ethnicity, contradict both the law and the intent of responsible criminal justice practice.   In addition, they promote





300 Amnesty International, p. 1.  The CAP’s 1997 report acknowledged the inadequacy of the INS complaints process and the lack of professionalism within the organization.


301 Ibid., p. 6; Border Action Network, p. 7.


302 ‘Border Patrol History,’ CBP website.

303 Federal lawmakers insisted in 2007 that “border enforcement was sustained as the unquestioned basis

for any solution to the realities of immigration,” (Border Action Network, p. 7).


304 In 1986 “Operation Alliance” formally integrated the issues of “drugs, weapons, [and] aliens” crossing the border and the federal government continues to prioritize national defence and drug interdiction in its budget and manifesto (Ibid., p. 19).


forms of ethnic and regional inequality that US civil rights law and international human rights laws were designed to prevent.”305


























































305 Ibid., p. 27.





Having investigated three specific sites along the U.S.-Mexico frontier, I have demonstrated that the Mexican female body is exploited economically, physically, psychologically, and sexually; by U.S. corporate power, government policies, and personnel; and Mexican men.  Through critical analysis of a broad range of secondary material,  as  well  as  examining  primary  accounts  of  abuse,  I  have  revealed  the systematic nature of oppression; catalyzed by “globalization,” and supported by the historically-embedded colonial relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.   Each case study has revealed a different aspect of women’s exploitation:   physical and sexual abuse in maquiladoras; brutal and violent murder in Ciudad Juárez; and rape at border crossing-points.  However, common themes recur throughout:  (1) U.S. ideologies of power, (2) Mexican patriarchy, (3) imperialism, and (4) nativism and racism.  Through this powerful combination of exploitative discourses and policies, the Mexican female body has been racially and sexually objectified; viewed and treated as disposable.

As discussed in my Introduction, U.S. imperialism is discursively protected by American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny.  Used historically to justify territorial expansion, the subordination of minorities, and white supremacy, these ideologies continue to support the oppression of Mexicans today.  Chapter One has explained how maquiladora managers adhere to a racist and nationalist belief in Mexican inferiority, exhibited through the hierarchical factory structure – visually placing U.S. personnel above Mexican workers.  Factories also cultivate a degraded image of the Mexican woman (as untrainable and unintelligent), based on alleged inferior cultural traits. Manifest Destiny rhetoric echoes within maquiladoras: U.S. corporations’ belief that they are helping Mexicans by providing jobs in a supposedly nurturing environment is reminiscent of nineteenth-century claims of Americans as world-leaders in democracy


and civilization.   The “city of vice” narrative is also invoked by assuming women are


“better off” as workers than prostitutes.


Chapter Two further illustrated the U.S.’s cultural supremacist attitude, shown by the public and media’s prolonged disinterest in the Juárez murders, and their continuing acceptance of an outdated, degraded image of the border.  The U.S. willingly dismissed this cross-border issue as a “Mexican problem” because of their racist belief in the superiority of U.S. liberal democratic culture over Mexican machismo (“blame the culture”).  Chapter Three also demonstrated that U.S. personnel espouse a hierarchical view of U.S. and Mexican culture, as Border Patrol officers unapologetically and with impunity abuse Mexican migrants and the INS fails to protect their rights.

As my work progressed, it became clear that Mexican women are often dually- exploited: by U.S. imperialism and Mexican patriarchy.  Chapter One showed how maquiladora managers are able to manipulate the existing gendered relationships in Mexican culture to maximize production.    Women’s culturally-inscribed sexual subordination is also exploited to create a highly-sexualized environment on the shopfloor.   This reveals the strength of Mexican patriarchy today, providing U.S. corporations with a built-in mechanism of control, and implicating Mexican men in women’s exploitation as they participate in denigrating and objectifying female workers. Chapter Two then revealed the violent backlash by Mexican men against the perceived threat to patriarchal tradition outside the factory; because of women’s cultural and economic “liberalization”:  women are blamed for the loss of traditional Mexican values, Juárez’s negative image, and ultimately their own deaths.   Thus the Mexican female body is vulnerable to abuse by both American and Mexican men, as they personify the conflict between U.S. liberalism and Mexican cultural nationalism.

My dissertation has illustrated how U.S. imperialism is primarily economic, enforced through coercive political-economic policies in Mexico.  The introduction explained the


historical precedents enabling structural exploitation of Mexican labour and creating Mexico’s  financial  dependence  on  the  U.S.;  caused  by  continual  intrusions  in  the Mexican economy.   Labour contracts since the nineteenth-century initiated migration towards el norte, weakened Mexican agricultural industry, and worsened unemployment and poverty.  Economic empire was then secured by taking advantage of Mexico’s weakened economic-political status and reliance on American loans, trade, and tourism. The U.S. expanded its empire onto Mexican soil with the BIP in 1965, and has since exploited female labour economically, physically, psychologically, and sexually, as Chapter One illustrated.  This also accelerated migration, worsening overpopulation and male unemployment at the border.   Mexico was officially brought into the globalized neoliberal economy through NAFTA.  As Chapter One explained, BIP and NAFTA were negotiated on U.S. terms:  disastrous for the Mexican economy, national autonomy, and workers’ livelihoods.

In Chapter Two I suggested that U.S. imperialism played a part in the Juárez murders.  American cultural and economic invasion in the region fuelled a Mexican backlash against modernization and liberalism (targeted at women), aided by the disposability discourse cultivated in U.S.-owned factories. Moreover, the murders began almost simultaneously with the signing of NAFTA, suggesting a direct link between globalization, poverty, the drug trade, and the epidemic.   In Chapter Three I also discussed NAFTA’s effect on migration, showing how Mexicans ironically attempt to start their lives again in the very country that caused the socio-economic dislocations, which forced  them  to  leave  their  own.    I  also  highlighted the  connection between drug- trafficking and migration: as the U.S. ideologically associates illegal immigration with the “War on Drugs,” violence increases at the border.  (However they fail to admit the effect of their own neoliberal policies in creating both of these phenomenons.)  Moreover, the rape of Mexican women by Border Patrol officers shows U.S. imperialism in practice:


American men in power exploit Mexican women’s inferior legal status through the sexual degradation of their bodies.

Finally, my thesis has shown how nativism and racism continue to oppress Mexican women today. The historical racialization of Mexicans by the U.S. public and

government set the precedent for prevailing racist attitudes and the belief in Mexicans as disposable commodities. In Chapters One and Two I demonstrated the continuance of this degradation, as the Mexican woman is viewed as disposable, both as a worker, and a human being.

In Chapter Three I also revealed that the exploitation of labour through cycles of recruitment and repatriation continues today as the border is deliberately porous. Moreover, nativist fears of immigrants have steadily intensified, leading to anti- immigration campaigns and government policies, border militarization, and vigilante and Border Patrol violence against migrants. These conditions have contributed to institutionalized rape of Mexican women.

It is evident that a complex set of factors has led to women’s exploitation along the border; stemming from U.S. policies of colonialism, globalization, and militarization; and both Mexican and American cultural nationalist ideologies.  Ultimately, this dissertation has shown that the Mexican female body is where conflict between the United States and Mexico symbolically and physically manifests itself.  Mexican women, as workers, citizens, and migrants, are economically, physically, psychologically, and sexually exploited through an unequal colonial relationship; engraved on their mistreated, abused bodies, and symbolized by their economic and – even literal – disposability.









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Salzinger, Leslie. ‘Manufacturing Sexual Subjects: “Harassment,” Desire, and Discipline on a Maquiladora Shopfloor.’ Women and Migration in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Eds. Denise A. Segura and Patricia Zavella. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2007. 161-183.


Segura, Denise A. and Patricia Zavella, eds. Women and Migration in the U.S.-Mexico

Borderlands. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2007.



Selby, Henry A. ‘Foreword.’ Norma Iglesias Prieto. Beautiful Flowers of the

Maquiladora. Texas: University of Texas Press, Austin, 1997. ix-xii.


Schein, Richard H., ed. Landscape and Race in the United States. New York; Abingdon: Routledge, 2006.


Valdez, Diana Washington. The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women. USA: Peace at the

Border, 2006.


Vargas, Zaragosa. ‘Rank and File: Historical Perspectives on Latino/a Workers in the US.’ The Latino Studies Reader: Culture, Economy and Society. Eds. Antonia Darder and Rodolfo D. Torres. USA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. 243-256.


Vila, Pablo. Border Identifications: Narratives of Religion, Gender, and Class on the

U.S.-Mexico Border. USA: University of Texas Press, 2005.



——-. Ethnography at the Border. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota

Press, 2003.



Wright, Melissa W. Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism. New

York; London: Routledge, 2006.







Catanzarite, Lisa M. and Myra H. Strober. ‘The Gender Recomposition of the

Maquiladora Workforce in Ciudad Juárez.’ Industrial Relations 32. 1 (1993):




Falcon, Sylvanna M. ‘Rape as a Weapon of War: Advancing Human Rights for Women at the U.S.-Mexico Border.’ Social Justice 28.2 (2001): 31-50.




Fussel, Elizabeth. ‘Making Labor Flexible: The Recomposition of Tijuana’s Maquiladora

Female Labor Force.’ Feminist Economics 6.3 (2000): 59-79.


Fregoso, Rosa Linda. ‘Voices Without Echo: The Global Gendered Apartheid,’

Emergences 10. 1 (2000): 137-155.


Green, Nancy L. ‘Women and Immigrants in the Sweatshop: Categories of Labor Segmentation Revisited,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History 38.3 (1996): 411-433.


Kopinak, Kathryn. ‘Gender as a Vehicle for the Subordination of Women Maquiladora

Workers in Mexico,’ Latin American Perspectives 22.1 (1995): 30-48.



Sánchez, George. ‘Face the Nation: Race, Immigration, and the Rise of Nativism in Late

Twentieth-Century America,’ International Migration Review 31.4 (1997): 1009-




Salzinger, Leslie. ‘From High Heels to Swathed Bodies: Gendered Meanings under Production in Mexico’s Export-Processing Industry.’ Feminist Studies 23.3 (1997): 549-574.


Wright, Melissa. ‘Maquiladora Mestizas and a Feminist Border Politics: Revisiting

Anzaldúa.’  Hypatia 13.3 (1998): 114-131.




Websites (articles)



Arriola, Elvia. ‘Accountability for the Murder in the Maquiladoras.’ Women on the Border, February 2007.


(11 January 2008)



——-. ‘Becoming Leaders: The Women in the Maquiladoras of Piedras Negras, Coahuila.’ Women on the Border, October 2000. (3 January




——-. ‘Looking out from a Cardboard Box: Workers, their Families and the Maquiladora Industry in Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila.’ Women on the Border, December 2000. tm

(22 December 2007)



——-. ‘Where the Borders of Class, Race, Age and Sexuality Meet.’ Women on the

Border. (9 March




——-. ‘Voices from the Barbed Wires of Despair: Women in the Maquiladoras, Latina Critical Legal Theory and Gender at the U.S.-Mexico Border.’ Women on the Border, 2000.

(4 January 2008)



Baena, Raúl Ramírez. ‘Maquiladora Workers Can’t Meet Basic Needs on Plant Wages.’ Women on the Border, 6 July 2001.

(20 December 2007)



Clarke, Kevin. ‘Snapshots from the Edge: a report from the U.S./Mexico border.’ BorderLinks, 1997.

January 2008)


Hise, Steev. ‘Final Report on the International Caravan for Justice in Juarez and Chihuahua City.’ Portland Independent Media Center, 20 November 2004. (20 March 2008)


Morales, Gerard et al. ‘An Overview of the Maquiladora Program.’ U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of International Affairs, 1994. (4 February 2008)


Nathan, Debbie. ‘Missing the Story.’ The Texas Observer, 30 August 2002. Women on the Border. (22

March 2008)


Newton, Michael. ‘Ciudad Juarez: The Serial Killer’s Playground.’ Crime Library. (2

April 2008)



Sullivan, Kevin. ‘In Mexico, a Question of Guilt by Protestation.’ Washington Post Foreign Service, 10 October, 2004. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).


(3 March 2008)



‘Border Patrol History.’ U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), 15 July 2003. ory.xml

(28 March 2008)



‘Border Patrol mission statement.’ U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). (28 March 2008)


‘Developments as of September 2003.’ Amnesty International/Americas, 11 August

2003. MEX

(24 March 2008)



‘Femicide.’ Webster’s New Millennium™ Dictionary of English, Preview Edition (v 0.9.7), Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. (19 March 2008)


‘Women in the Maquiladora,’ American Friends Service Committee. (13 March





Websites (sites visited)


American Friends Service Committee.


Amnesty International.


Amigos De Las Mujeres De Juarez.


Border Action Network.




Capitol Films.


Casa Amiga.


Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.


El Paso Times.


Human Rights Watch.


Las Perlas del Mar Films.


The Films and Videos of Lourdes Portillo.


Maquila Solidarity Network.


May Our Women Return Home/Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa.


Mexico Solidarity Network.


Migration Information Source.


No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes.


Narco News Bulletin.


The Texas Observer.


Portland Central America Solidarity Committee.


Portland Independent Media Center.


Salt of the Earth.


The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).


U.S. Border Control.


U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).


U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of International Labor Affairs.


Women of Juarez.


Women on the Border.


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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