Esther Chávez, 76

Mexican activist brought to light killings, rapes of women

Esther Chávez attends a ceremony in honor of the women killed in Ciudad Juárez. Most were poor workers in U.S.-owned plants.
Esther Chávez attends a ceremony in honor of the women killed in Ciudad Juárez. Most were poor workers in U.S.-owned plants. (Photo By Jose Luis Magana For The Los Angeles Times)
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By Tracy Wilkinson
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- Esther Chávez, 76, a vocal champion of human rights who against enormous odds drew attention to the killings and rapes of hundreds of women in the violent border city of Ciudad Juárez, died Dec. 25 of cancer, her hometown newspaper El Diario reported Saturday on its Web site.

Ms. Chávez is widely acknowledged as a pioneer, the first activist to document and decry the 1990s killings of several hundred women. Most were young, poor workers in U.S.-owned assembly plants in the Mexican city whose deaths were largely ignored by authorities.

A former accountant for an American food-processing company, Ms. Chávez began compiling files in 1993 on women whose bloodied, battered bodies kept turning up in the harsh desert surrounding Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Tex. She badgered officials, pressured police, comforted victims' families, led street demonstrations and, in 1999, founded the first rape-crisis center in the region.

Juárez politicians were dismissive; they didn't want to do anything that might damage business with the assembly plants, clustered mainly along the border, and their U.S. and Japanese owners. Police, notoriously corrupt, were uninterested. Most of the dead women were migrants from other parts of Mexico, so they had no local family to advocate on their behalf. They had only Ms. Chávez.

Early in her activism, Ms. Chávez speculated that the tendency of the plants to hire women (smaller hands were better for the assembly work, it was argued by the companies) might have contributed to a macho backlash that explains some of the killings.

"Women are occupying the space of men in a culture of absolute dominance of men over women," Ms. Chávez told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. "This has to provoke misogyny." For years, it seemed in Ciudad Juárez that men could snatch young women from the streets with impunity, rape and kill them, and suffer no consequence. The phenomenon came to be known as "femicide" -- woman-killing. Thanks largely to Ms. Chávez and a few other activists, a handful of arrests were made over the years. But the killing never really stopped, and most cases went unsolved.

Petite and persistent, Ms. Chávez opened Casa Amiga in 1999 for rape victims, and it later developed into a center for women suffering from domestic abuse. She remained highly critical of the complicity or inefficiency of police and other authorities.

In 2008, she won Mexico's National Human Rights Award, and just a few months ago she criticized the decision of President Felipe Calderón to name Arturo Chávez Chávez as national attorney general. Chávez Chávez had served as state prosecutor overseeing Ciudad Juárez at the height of the killings.

Early this month, in what might have felt like vindication for Ms. Chávez, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Mexico violated human rights conventions by failing to investigate adequately the slayings of three women in Ciudad Juárez in 2001. The court ordered Mexico to pay more than $200,000 to each of the victims' families.

Lydia Cacho, a journalist and activist who has gained fame denouncing pedophile and human-trafficking rings, said Ms. Chávez was a "nurturing and loving mother" for a generation of human rights defenders, and an "international beacon" shedding light on the brutalities of Ciudad Juárez.

"She was the one who showed us the way," Cacho wrote Saturday in the El Universal newspaper. "It was Esther who intuited that the symbolic sewers (of Mexico) were not underground, under the streets, but were the institutions of the Mexican state -- men capable of murdering for pleasure and for power."

Ms. Chávez was the model for a character in "El Traspatio," a movie about the killings of women in Juárez that is Mexico's Academy Award entry this year. In the movie, a middle-aged social worker hounds the city police, showing up periodically with boxes full of photos of dead women and meticulous reports on their lives and deaths.

Ms. Chávez was born in 1933 in the city of Chihuahua, in the state of Chihuahua where Ciudad Juárez is located. She moved to Juárez in the 1980s. On the Casa Amiga Web site, Ms. Chávez wrote about her decision to fight on behalf of women.

"The voice of the woman is a reflection of her condition on Earth," she wrote. "Air echoes in a chest that is smaller, vibrates vocal cords that are smaller and that produce a higher, thinner sound. It requires twice the energy, twice the intensity of a man's voice" to be heard.

"This is why I learned to shout for those who couldn't . . . and to cry so many times for and with so many women, girls and boys whose voices and whose lives have been crushed by the impunity of our state and our nation."

-- Los Angeles Times

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