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Activists Decry Femicides After Another Woman Is Killed In Juárez, Mexico

A week after the killing of a young female artist and activist, protesters in the Mexican border city of Juárez took to the streets with a message to authorities: Don't let this crime go unpunished like all the rest.

The slaying of 26-year-old Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre on Jan. 18 has reopened old wounds in a city with a gruesome history of violence against women.

On Saturday, women fashioned ski masks out of black T-shirts, with mascara and red lipstick peeking through torn-out holes. They chanted "Not one more" as they marched from the historic center of Juárez, down the under-construction main street, and to the top of the international bridge that connects Mexico to neighboring El Paso, Texas. Car traffic on the typically busy border crossing was halted for several hours. The demonstration was one in a series of protests and vigils that have spread nationwide demanding an end to gender-based violence.

The motive behind Cabanillas' death is still unknown. A spokeswoman for a specialized unit within the state police that focuses on crimes against women said the case is under investigation.

Cabanillas spent her last Friday night with friends at a bar in downtown Juárez. It was past midnight when she said her goodbyes and mounted her worn three-speed road bike. She'd pedaled less than three blocks when a bullet struck her head.

Maria Robles, who lives in the neighborhood, heard the gunfire, but didn't dare get out of bed.

"I heard the shots followed by screams," Robles said. "I knew right away someone had been killed. That's what happens here."

Protesters in Juárez demonstrated against femicide, the killing of women because of their gender. Hundreds of women have been brutally killed in the city in the last 30 years, with some raped, tortured and trafficked.
Paul Ratje / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Protesters in Juárez demonstrated against femicide, the killing of women because of their gender. Hundreds of women have been brutally killed in the city in the last 30 years, with some raped, tortured and trafficked.

In 2020 there have been more killings in Juárez than days in the new year. As of Saturday, an online tally by a local newspaper counted 64 homicides since Jan. 1. Juárez ended 2019 with nearly 1,500 killings, an average of four per day. Such bloodshed is par for the course in a city ruled by warring drug lords eager to profit off America's drug addiction.

"The way that Isabel was killed is the way thousands of others have been killed in this city," said Jorge Perez, a lifelong Juárez resident and a friend of Cabanillas.

While hit-and-run style homicide is routine in Juárez, so is gender-based crime directed at women. It even has a name: femicide. In the last three decades, hundreds of women have been brutally killed in this city, with some raped, tortured and trafficked. Many of their cases remain unsolved.

Marisol Ramirez joined the marchers on Saturday, holding her young daughter by the hand. She and Cabanillas were part of the same social circle.

"Isabel had a very warm smile," Ramirez said. "She was empathetic and quick to laughter."

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Isabel Cabanillas (@isabelcabanillas_mx) on Dec 26, 2019 at 5:00pm PST

Cabanillas was an artist, best known for her hand-painted clothing. Eyes were a common theme in her work. She painted constellations of them on murals and sweatshirts. The last tattoo she got was a cross with two eyes at its center. She was also part of a vocal feminist group that defended women, immigrants and the environment.

"I know Isabel felt like she was being watched," said a close friend of Cabanillas who asked to be named because she feared for her safety.

The friend is among those who question whether Cabanillas was targeted for her activism. She wouldn't be the first. Other activists, particularly those who speak up against femicide, have fled Juárez and sought asylum in the U.S. In 2011, a feminist poet named Susana Chavez was strangled. Her killers cut off her left hand.

"Isabel carried with her a baton for self-defense," her friend said.

In Spanish the nickname for such a weapon is "bone-crusher." In the end it proved useless for Cabanillas. Police found her crumpled body on the sidewalk where it fell, right next to her bike. She leaves behind a son, who just days before her death celebrated his 4th birthday.

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Mónica Ortiz Uribe