Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, has made national headlines for violent power struggles between dominant drug cartels and corrupt authorities. These conflicts have crippled the city into a “lawless and horrifying territory,” according to Prof. Jane Juffer, English.
Veronica Leyva, a Mexican community organizer, spoke passionately on the violence and drug-ridden state of her former residence Ciudad Juarez in a discussion before 30 students in the Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium Thursday.
While the issue has recently come into view of the public eye, according to Leyva most do not know of the extensive history behind the matter.
For Leyva and her community organization, The Maquila Solidarity Network, discussions like the one held on Thursday are an answer to this problem. “By speaking freely like this to you, we can get the truth out and hopefully open things up for real change,” Leyva said, through her interpreter.
Leyva worked for seven years in maquiladoras, which are Mexican factories run by foreign companies who export labor-intensive manufacturing.
American-based companies comprise a great deal of these outsourced factories, which produce everything from televisions to cars.
Leyva believes these maquiladoras are chiefly responsible for the widespread violence and poverty rampant in Ciudad Juarez.
According to Leyva, Ciudad Juarez’s current situation can be traced back to World War II, when the Bracero Program was created, allowing farmhands from Mexico to migrate to the United States to fill labor needs. Until its end in 1964, the program displaced many Mexicans who ended up staying around the border in cities like Ciudad Juarez.
This influx of people led to Mexican government initiatives for job creation, includingan industrial program to attract foreign investment. Maquiladoras began rising up around border cities and exploiting the unemployed Mexicans with low wages and 48 hour work weeks. According to Leyva, 85 percent of employees were women, under the belief that they were easier to control.
With no other option, Mexicans began vying for these jobs and large numbers of citizens began migrating to the central regions of the country. The rush of people overwhelmed the government and led to a lack of basic services, namely health and education.
According to Leyva, this disheveled state made it easy for drugs and violence to infest Ciudad Juarez. “There were no opportunities for education or employment, so drug trafficking became promising,” said Leyva.
Approximately 10,000 Mexican Army troops occupy Ciudad Juarez today, with numerous American troops stationed just across the border in El Paso, Texas. The city remains in a disordered state with the drug trafficking still unrestrained and mass of women-targeted killings.
Prof. Juffer, English — once a journalist — extensively reported on issues concerning border cities like Ciudad Juarez.
She attested to Leyva’s description of border cities and the prevalence of cruel acts in the region. While reporting on a story in Ciudad Juarez, Juffer witnessed the extreme lack of basic necessities that Leyva described. Juffer vividly recalled local drinking water stored in unsanitized chemical vats for a lack of a better place to be kept.
“It’s just as bad as any other place in the world where people are poor and desperate,” she said.
According to Juffer, Leyva’s talk is important for students who want and need the whole picture of the story.
“People hear about border issues and the first thing they think about is the building of fences and border patrol.” Juffer said, “What they don’t think about is the people that live there and the violence and suffering they face everyday.”
Organizations such as the Maquila Solidarity Network are using a grass-roots community based effort to bring about change and answer this problem. “We need to organize together as a people and set out what we need,” Leyva said.
Juffer believes an approach like this may be the answer, but said change in legislation will also be an important factor.
According to Juffer, current legislation such as the North American Free Trade Agreement benefits the United States and other countries which stand to make huge profits by producing in border cities and shipping abroad without any tax.
Juffer believes that for there to be any significant change, a tightening of these laws must occur. “If we stop thinking about the goods and start thinking about the people,” she said, “then we can really help.”