It is difficult to extract anything positive from the carnage that is the recent history of the Mexican border state of Chihuahua and its city Juárez, but “La Lucha: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico” attempts to do just that. It does so by focusing on the bravery and resilience of a few determined Mexican women — some living, some dead — who refused, in the words of the eponymous Lucha Castro, “to cooperate further with a patriarchal and unjust system.”
Review: “La Lucha: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico,” by Jon Sack, Edited by Adam Shapiro, Verso, 2015
It is difficult to extract anything positive from the carnage that is the recent history of the Mexican border state of Chihuahua and its city Juárez, but “La Lucha: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico” attempts to do just that.
It does so by focusing on the bravery and resilience of a few determined Mexican women — some living, some dead — who refused, in the words of the eponymous Lucha Castro, “to cooperate further with a patriarchal and unjust system.” These women, coming from diverse backgrounds, confronting a variety of horrifying situations, rise up “through acts of love and justice,” and proclaim, ya basta!, enough is enough. And thus, as Lucha eloquently describes, “they offered their hands, arms, lap, voice […] so that other women could learn that another world is possible, another world without violence.”
Writer and illustrator Jon Sack relates their stories through the bold medium of the graphic novel. The words may read like a human rights fact-finding report but the images are lucid and dramatic. There are no fictional super-heroes in this comic book, only very real, humble and fragile humans coping with unimaginable horror. “Our voices are sometimes lost or silenced,” says Lucha. “The strength in our legs sometimes falters, and fear can paralyze us.” But have no doubt, these women are very heroic.
The Failed War on Drugs
Cuidad Juárez (and the surrounding valley of Juárez) came to international attention in the late 1990s/early 2000s as “the capital of murdered women” as hundreds of women were disappeared and murdered – many of them young migrant workers drawn to the cities’ grim maquiladoras. This veritable femicide gave way to increased levels of violence in the late 2000s as drug cartels, army and police factions fought over local drug markets and smuggling routes to the U.S. In 2008, Mexican president Felipe Calderón sent thousands of soldiers onto the streets, effectively militarizing the situation, creating a state of siege, and leading to an increase in the general level of violence. As Lucha Castro points out, “under Calderón’s ‘War on Drugs,’ at least 100,000 people were killed, 20,000 disappeared, and over 200,000 fled their homes.”
In a zone where “there are more murders annually than in war torn Afghanistan,” described rather luridly as the most violent place on earth, we learn that due to a culture of impunity, “over 97 percent of killings in Juárez go unsolved.” In one town alone in the Juárez valley, Guadalupe, we are told that 75 percent of the population has fled, been killed or disappeared, leaving the town practically in ruins.
Despite the wanton destruction and massive suffering, there is nothing familiar about this form of carnage. “We are in the middle of a ‘war’, which is a war and isn’t,” explains Alma, another embedded activist. “We don’t know what the warzones are or who the enemy is …” This adds another level of terror to the Juárez theater – the war is itinerant, de-territorialized and below the surface. The battlefield, then, is everywhere, all the time.
A Collective Voice of Resistance
How to be human, or to defend human rights in such terrible scenario? Lucha Castro is an activist lawyer working to identify the killers and their official enablers through the Chihuahua Women’s Human Rights Center. The Center provides legal and support services for families and communities affected by the violence. Her work is, without doubt, vital, but despite the title of the book, this is not about just one individual. Lucha’s story is the gateway to introducing a series of vignettes about extraordinary women and their families caught up in the violence. Thus La Lucha is a collective testimony, like a memory of a movement of people who resist.
Each of the vignettes repudiates the official narrative — embraced by the mainstream media — that the problem is inter-cartel violence, a turf war between highly armed drug criminal gangs. The reality is much more complicated, and insidious: the business of illegal drugs permeates every level of society involving police, military, government officials, the justice system, and banks, all hellbent on getting a slice of that hugely lucrative trades’ cake.
And so we learn the heart-breaking story of Marisela Escobedo who in her attempts to bring the killer of her daughter Rubi to justice, is in turn murdered as she protested outside the capitol building in Chihuahua. Complicit in her murder are both crime lords and local security forces, as well as the justice system that protected the perpetrators. We learn about the death of the prominent social activist Josefina Reyes, murdered outside a restaurant on her way to work in a military-style ambush. Her masked killers were heard taunting Josefina as they shot her, “You think you are so cool because you belong to the [human rights] organizations?,” sending a chilling threat to other activists. Josefina’s extended family, the Reyes-Salazar, have been virtually annihilated due to their involvement in the social movement. Targeted because of their work in organizing the community against the violence, and exposing official collusion with crime, the few remaining members of the family took refuge in El Paso, where they refuse to remain silent about the ongoing campaign against their family.
Another vignette tells of Norma Ledesma, founder of Justice for Our Daughters, whose 15-year-old daughter Paloma was disappeared and murdered in 2002. Her attempts to work with authorities to find justice for her daughter have led her to conclude that “from the experiences I have had, there really are negligent, corrupt people [in authority] who are working with the drug gangs.”
Lucha Castro shares this analysis: “Human rights defenders have always faced up to political and economic powers. However, there is a new player that has increased the risks: namely organized crime working hand in hand with the police and military to implement mega-projects, with no qualms about threatening, torturing or murdering activists.”
In effect, under the auspices of the Mexican government’s War on Drugs, Juárez has been militarized and social organizations, humans rights groups and activists who get in the way of business are targeted and eliminated by paramilitary forces colluding with law enforcement agencies and military, operating with complete impunity.
Front Line Human Rights Defenders
With nowhere left to turn, human rights activists like Lucha Castro look further afield for some kind of support. This brought her into contact with the Front Line Defenders, a globally-focused organization based in Ireland. Raising awareness and providing practical support for human rights workers in the firing line, they campaign to increase their visibility and recognition. This book came from that collaboration, with the support of the publisher, Verso.
Although its focus is on human rights and its defenders, Front Line Defenders don’t — as evidenced from this graphic novel — shy from the political issues underlying the human rights abuses, or refrain from pointing fingers at the rich and powerful enablers behind the violence. La Lucha promises to be the first in a series of graphic novels focusing on human rights defenders around the world. As a tool for raising consciousness, the graphic novel as a form certainly makes the information very accessible, and perhaps opens up the field to a new kind of readership. The series is off to a deft start with the publication of “La Lucha: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico.”