Women and youth a top focus of Kamala Harris' first visit to Mexico as vice president

·7 min read

Karla Rosales, a factory worker in Juárez, Mexico, has followed the same morning routine almost every weekday for the past 15 years.

Rosales wakes at 4 a.m. and hurries to catch the bus to work before sunup, sometimes doing her makeup on the bumpy half-hour ride. Her shift begins at 6 a.m. For nine hours straight she’s on her feet assembling water heaters to be shipped primarily to the U.S., permitting thousands upon thousands of American households to enjoy a hot shower.

By Friday, her take home pay for the week, after deductions for her home mortgage, savings and taxes, is the equivalent of $50.

“The pay is not very good in the factories,” she said. “You learn to make do.”

Karla Rosales isn't the worker's real name. The El Paso Times is choosing to use a pseudonym since she isn't authorized by her work to speak to the press.

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Vice President Kamala Harris is in Guatemala today, her first diplomatic visit abroad since assuming her current post. Her next stop is Mexico, where she’ll meet with President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador. The record number of migrants currently arriving at the U.S./Mexico border is likely to dominate their conversation on Tuesday. But Harris’ agenda also includes discussing vulnerable populations, namely women and children. Among the issues that plague the most vulnerable in Mexico, are low-wages and crime. Both issues are especially prominent in Juárez and all along Mexico’s northern border.

Vice President Kamala Harris is escorted by Guatemalan Minister of Foreign Affairs Pedro Brolo upon her arrival to Guatemala City on June 6, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris is escorted by Guatemalan Minister of Foreign Affairs Pedro Brolo upon her arrival to Guatemala City on June 6, 2021.

For more than half a century, economic development in Juárez has been dominated by the maquiladora industry — foreign-owned factories that manufacture everything from seat belts to printer cartridges to snowmobiles. Rosales is one of Juárez’s 300,000 plus “maquila” workers. She said her factory can churn out up to 1,700 water heaters a day. The appliances range in size and are bought and sold by U.S. companies like Whirlpool and AO Smith.

“Our water heaters end up in people’s homes, in hospitals, hotels,” Rosales said.

Higher-level employees of Mexico’s maquiladoras might be able to afford a middle-class lifestyle and even send their kids to U.S. universities. But assembly-line workers are more likely to live in government-subsidized housing built in outlying neighborhoods, where poverty and violence are high.

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Violence is high in poor neighborhoods

Rosales lives in the southeastern edge of Juárez, where drug-violence is a daily peril. Two women were found dead in her neighborhood just two weeks ago. Their heads were wrapped in plastic and their bodies were left covered by blankets on the street. One of the women was a sister to a friend of Rosales' daughter. A month earlier, a nephew of Rosales’ husband was discovered hanging from the side of a building in central Juárez. He had been strangled to death.

“The violence is intense here in Juárez, and our government offers us little support,” Rosales said. “We’re always afraid that something will happen to us when we go out. We live in a state of constant alert.”

May was the deadliest month of the year thus far in Juárez with 144 homicides. Twenty of those deaths were women. Last year, 1,646 people were murdered in El Paso’s sister city. The murder rate is steadily approaching the record setting years of 2008-2011, which together left a death toll of more than 10,000 people.

Extreme drug violence in Juárez dates back to the early ‘90s when the infamous drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes took over the local cartel. Nicknamed “Lord of the Skies,” Carrillo Fuentes flew never-before-seen amounts of narcotics to Mexico’s northern border in 747 cargo planes. He then used commuter and commercial transport to sneak his product into the U.S., the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs.

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Drug cartels recruit poor young men

Young people — especially young men — make up the majority of Mexico’s drug-related victims. Poor young men are especially vulnerable to being recruited by drug cartels.

Linabel Sarlat, founder of a nonprofit called Las Hormigas, works in neighborhoods where crime is prevalent.

Las Hormigas works in Anapra, the community farthest west in Juárez, across from Sunland Park, New Mexico. The organization, now a decade old, works primarily with youth supplementing the education they receive in school with additional lessons in literacy, math and other subjects. Las Hormigas also provides psychotherapy. The group regularly sees young children suffering from severe trauma.

A young boy peers through the border fence from the Anapra area of Juarez Saturday, Nov. 3.
A young boy peers through the border fence from the Anapra area of Juarez Saturday, Nov. 3.

The majority of people who live in Anapra work in maquilas, Sarlat said. To survive, both parents have to work, she said, sometimes staying longer hours to earn overtime pay.

Criminal groups often take advantage of kids who are unsupervised or neglected and offer those kids jobs and a sense of belonging. The money organized crime offers new recruits can be multiple times what their parents bring home.

When asked about Harris’ visit to Mexico, Sarlat said she’d like to see the U.S. be a more conscientious neighbor.

“I’d like to see the U.S. assume its responsibility (in Mexico’s problems) instead of acting like a judge and pointing its finger at Mexicans. I’d like to see us share in the responsibility amicably.”

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Femicide in Mexico is on the rise

Women in Mexico also bear the brunt of organized crime and the violence it brings. Femicide, the most extreme form of violence against women, is on the rise. The crime is a murder that’s sexually motivated and often involves torture or mutilation of the victim.

Federal crime statistics show there were 948 femicides nationwide in 2020, a figure that’s more than doubled since 2015. Estado de Mexico, the Mexican state just north of Mexico City, has the highest number of femicides with 48 in 2020. In the past two years, large scale protests have erupted nationwide calling for government action against femicide.

People gather in front of the Museum of the Revolution in Juarez for a protest march demanding justice for the murdered Juarez artist and activist Isabel Cabanillas Saturday, Jan. 25, near the Paso Del Norte Bridge.
People gather in front of the Museum of the Revolution in Juarez for a protest march demanding justice for the murdered Juarez artist and activist Isabel Cabanillas Saturday, Jan. 25, near the Paso Del Norte Bridge.

Juárez and Chihuahua state have a horrific history of femicide with hundreds of victims since the early ‘90s. Most of the cases remain unsolved and have direct ties to organized crime. Others are cases of extreme domestic violence. Chihuahua has recorded 15 cases of femicide statewide from January to May of this year; seven of those cases happened in Juárez.

Veronica Corchado, director of the Women's Municipal Institute in Juárez, said combating the most egregious forms of violence against women must begin by targeting more common everyday violence. The Juárez City Council passed an ordinance last September that makes sexual harassment in public spaces a civil offense punishable by a fine, community service, or up to 36 hours in jail.

Corchado wants to see the U.S. and Mexico partner more directly on cases of binational domestic violence. These are cases where an abusive partner crosses north or south of the border to evade law enforcement or legal responsibilities. Sometimes the cases involve a parent or relative taking children across the border without the other parent's consent. Corchado estimates her agency has seen 50 such cases in the last 18 months, with many more likely going unreported.

"We often can't resolve these cases because the aggressor lives in El Paso," Corchado says. "This is a shared responsibility between two cities, where families are spread across both sides of the border."

Lopéz Obrador's administration cut federal funding for programs aimed at preventing violence against women as part of the president's COVID-19 austerity measures. Advocates such as Corchado loudly criticized the move because it coincided with a rise in domestic violence cases at the beginning of the pandemic. She estimates their workload at the Juárez women's institute increased by 25 to 30% in the past year.

The U.S. imposed travel restrictions on Mexicans entering the U.S. via land border crossings is yet another burden on families, both Corchado and Sarlat, with Las Hormigas, said.

“Simply put, it divides families,” Corchado said.

Karla Rosales, the maquiladora worker, calls the travel restrictions — now going on 15 months — a double standard.

“Americans, they can travel to Mexico freely without a visa,” she said. “They can come here very comfortably. But us? We can’t go over there. That’s not fair.”

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Vice President Kamala Harris visit to Mexico faces social issues