EL PASO -- THIS IS ONE of those stories, like drought, that happens quietly over a long period, so no one quite notices how horrible it is - except those directly affected. Those who pay attention to the Texas-Mexican border have known for years now about the murder of women in Juarez.
Mexican and American feminists have tried to draw attention to what at first seemed just an extraordinary case, or series of cases. There was one arrest that looked good (and a bunch of cases of guys who confessed after the cops beat the crap out of them - this has now become a standard claim), and for a time it seemed the police might have the right guy in custody. But the killing continued.
The newspaper Norte of Juarez bannered the story again last week under the headline ''State justice fails.'' Above it on the front page were the numbers: ''More than 250 women murdered, 19 arrests, no one sentenced.'' The bodies of 274 women who fit the pattern have been found since 1993.
The state police claim that only 76 are the victims of serial killers and that they have solved one-third of those cases. It's hard to find anyone who believes them. According to Diana Washington Valdez of the El Paso Times, who has covered the story for two years, the actual number of murders is probably 325, counting 40 as-yet unidentified bodies, with an additional 40 to 60 young women missing.
Those familiar with the cases have come to a stunning conclusion: Though no one actually knows, they now suspect there is no serial killer or even more than one serial killer, nor is this a matter of a copycat killer or two. What has happened is that an entire class of predatory men has learned it can get away with this.
Torture is a frequent accompaniment to the pattern of rape and murder. Since the killings began, the repetition in the description of the victims has become mind-numbingly familiar: young, slim, long hair, worked in a ''maquiladora.''
The maquiladoras are American-owned factories, plunked on the other side of the border so they don't have to pay minimum wage or meet safety or environmental laws. The work force in the 340 American-owned factories located here is about 70 percent young and female - tens of thousands of women who are usually reported to earn about $55 a week. (I suspect that's high because it was $24 in 1997.) The victims are normally picked off on their way to or from work as they wait for buses in the predawn hours or as they walk home alone after a late shift.
The brave Mexican women who have organized, protested, marched, and demonstrated about the murders in Juarez need help. The women in El Paso who have joined them can make contacts and translate. You can reach the Coalition Against Violence Toward Women and Families on the border by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is this our fight? More so, I believe, than was even the case with the women of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Until our country's policies changed so radically after Sept. 11, the ability of American women to change anything in Afghanistan was painfully limited. In this case, we have clout.
Look at the names on the maquiladoras - Ford, Alcoa, General Motors, DuPont, Contico. According to an excellent update by Evelyn Nieves in the current issue of Mother Jones: ''Though the companies have vowed to improve security in the city's industrial areas, there has been no coordinated campaign to protect the young women workers - even though the eight bodies found in November were discovered in a field directly across the road for the office of the foreign companies' trade association.
Nor have the plants changed policies that may be endangering their employees. Workers are still turned away at many factories if they are as little as three minutes late, leaving them to return home alone and vulnerable - as was the case of several of the women who were found dead late. Workers still begin and end their late-night shifts with no police or security patrols in sight.
Bet you even money if there were even a whiff of a terrorist plan to sabotage those factories, there'd be security patrols all over.
The incompetence of the Juarez and Chihuahua police has been thoroughly demonstrated - Juarez is a notorious center for ''narcotraficantes.'' Just last November the Mexican attorney general's office announced that it would not take over the investigation despite appeals from women's groups.
The groups are now pushing Congress for a binational effort on the case. We know how to do this: Call, write, and ''resolute up a storm,'' as they say in the Texas Legislature. It works.
Molly Ivins is a syndicated columnist.
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