Marginal Value: How Economic "Flexibilty" Feeds Drug War Violence Against Mexico's Women

Women in Mexico are paying a high price for the country’s twin exploitative economies, low wage assembly-line manufacturing and narcotics trafficking which treat their bodies and lives as disposable commodities.

January 2012, in a dried-up streambed running through desert scrubland forty kilometres southeast of the US-Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez the bodies of twenty-one women were found discarded. Kidnapped in broad daylight in the centre of town according to the Daily Beast, the women were mostly low-paid shop or factory workers.

Earlier this month five men were found guilty of kidnapping, forcibly prostituting, and murdering the eleven women among the twenty-one who could be identified reports Mexican newspaper El Universal. Affiliates of the gang Los Aztecas, the men are the first to be convicted of femicide in the state of Chihuahua for 20 years.

Mexico is a country in transition, and of transit. Both the country’s maquiladoras, assembly plants in special low-tax, low-regulation free trade zones, and organised crime; the trafficking of drugs, migrants, and sex workers rely on their proximity to the United States to cheaply import and export consumer goods north. Two economies, licit and illicit, existing in a symbiotic relationship, feeding into and reflecting each other’s structures and practices.

Consider these facts: almost all the cocaine in the world is produced in three Andean countries thousands of miles south of Mexico. It is wrapped, shipped, and trafficked across multiple state borders to consumer markets in the global North. Similarly, 97 percent of the raw materials for Mexico’s assembly plants come from outside the country according to journalist Sergio Gonzalez Rodrigues in The Femicide Machine. They are assembled and their final products, shipped to the United States and Europe, constitute half the country’s legal exports.

These seemingly jarring realities, the horrific personal violence meted out to twenty-one women and the economic flows, the enforced flexibility of Mexico’s low wage, high profit formal and informal economies, are intimately connected. The repetitive assembly line jobs held by a largely female workforce are compensated with minimal wages to keep Mexico competitive in a global race to the bottom. Martha Ojeda of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras told a Director of the Center for International Policy that ‘A woman can make more money as an informant than working full-time in a factory and sometimes there’s no other way to survive, there are no alternatives’.

Women are particularly vulnerable to being economically compelled into working in the drugs trade. Author and academic Corina Giacomello writes that ‘illegal work offers single mothers the flexibility they need in the face of gender discrimination and the marginalization of entrenched labor informality’.

Mexico is the only country in Latin America where the minimum wage is significantly below the poverty line.  At 66 percent of the poverty threshold as measured by the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, the minimum wage means survival but little more for the 13% of the population, around 6.5 million Mexicans, who survive on this subsistence pay according to the Wall Street Journal.

The expendability of women to the maquiladora system is not solely economic. A human resources officer in a Ciudad Juarez factory, recorded by Rodrigues in The Femicide Machine, recounts that ‘Female employees also suffer other types of abuse. I’ve seen men in high positions of authority “raffle off” the most attractive young female employees. Looking through tinted office windows they would choose the girls and then, in the best cases, sexually harass them’.

The bodies of the twenty-one women found discarded outside Ciudad Juarez’s limits testify to the violence wreaked by cartels. A violence that includes forced prostitution, abduction and rape. However the cartels also contribute to keeping women insecure and marginalized in a more subtle way. Their presence justifies the intervention of the state.

Far from acting as buffer between Mexico’s two economies, legal and illegal, federal power structures have collaborated in devaluing female lives through callous policy and violent actions. Female activists, including union organisers fighting for better working conditions, reported to the Nobel Women’s Initiative that 55 percent of all attacks against them including physical and sexual violence were perpetrated by local and state officials.

Criminalising responses to drug production and trafficking effect a stripping back of the state to a largely violent and punitive set of functions that ignore the needs of women until economic insecurity forces them into illegality. These state responses incorporate both the slow violences of poverty and marginalization, direct violence by state agents, and the escalation of gendered abuse following the 2006 militarisation of the drug war.

Militarism encourages a culture of impunity for soldiers and police officers. On the rare occasions that gender violence by military forces is even investigated, it is tried in military courts with predictably corrupt and unjust results. Furthermore as the Nobel Women’s Initiative discovered in their investigation into gender violence in Mexico that ‘Militarism spreads a culture of violence and creates more access to arms, driving up domestic violence against women… 81% of murders of women are committed with guns [in 2012], compared to just 55% in 2003.’ For women, the state is less a safety net than another machismo-fuelled obstacle in their search for justice, security and fundamental rights.

While economic and physical insecurity force women who remain in Mexico into illegal, low-level roles in illicit national economies, it is also a driving force behind the wave of migrants heading north to putative new lives across the border. Of the uncounted Mexican and Latin American women who take this third route an estimated 6 in 10 experience sexual assault at the hands of their traffickers according to a UN Taskforce on Drug Trafficking.

Trapped between different forms of poverty and violent disposability Mexican women, in particular already marginalized poor, transgender, and indigenous women, bear testimony to the way that globalising consumer demand has uprooted and forced people and communities in the global South into precarity.

When discussing gender violence in Mexico, commentators often describe misogyny as emanating from the country’s supposedly-indelible macho culture without recognising Mexico’s role in the world economy as a source of poorly-remunerated, feminized labour. The production of cheap consumer goods for wealthy nations keeps women economically marginalized and socially vulnerable. Similarly the drug war is presented as imposed by an unjust, international drugs interdiction regime without considering the fundamental way in which the trade is a national response to the deracinating effects of flexible labour and economic insecurity.

Mexico’s ongoing drug war violence does not exist in a vacuum. It is a response to historic inequalities and economic imbalances. Until these realities become the conceptual foundation for action, women will continue to suffer the most for the disposability with which Mexican life is treated under the country’s bipolar free trade/interdiction economies.