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Shooting death of young woman activist returns spotlight to 'femicides' in Juarez and Mexico

"We will continue raising our voice for Isabel and all the women victims of femicide in Ciudad Juárez," a women's rights group says.

Before the shooting death of women's rights activist and artist Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, human rights attorneys and others already had noted several years of rising "femicides" in the border city.

The deaths and disappearances of women and girls in Juarez, which sits adjacent to El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and in other parts of Mexico had once dominated international headlines. But in recent years, attention had evaporated.

Angelita Baeyens, the program director, advocacy and litigation at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, had been trying to bring the issue back to the spotlight.

"This is certainly not the way we would hope to draw attention to violence against women and the epidemic of femicides in Mexico and the region," Baeyens said. Cabanillas' death is a blow to the "movement of courageous women activists, many of them mothers, sisters and friends of victims of femicides in Mexico."

Baeyens said it's another example of the "terrible pattern" that continues to happen in Mexico, especially in Ciudad Juarez, of women who disappear and are later found murdered.

"It exposes the danger in which women human rights defenders working to combat violence operate," she said.

Image: Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre
Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre.Mesa de Mujeres

Cabanillas’ death has been described by activists as a femicide, defined as the killing of a woman or a girl because of her gender. Mexican law enforcement authorities said in a news release the motive for Cabanillas' death was unclear.

But the arm of the federal government tasked with combating discrimination and violence against women, INMUJERES, and a similar state agency, the Chihuahuan Women's Institute, referred to her death as a femicide.

“The crime against Isabel represents an attack on activism, which for months has been harassed and assaulted by those who try to silence the legitimate right of women to demonstrate, to demand a life free of violence,” the National Institute of Women and the Chihuahuan Institute of Women said in a statement.

Cabanillas, who was passionate about clothing design, painting and social justice, worked on gender-based violence with the women’s network Mesa de Mujeres. She also had been a member of Hijas de su Maquilera Madre. The latter group’s name refers to daughters of mothers or family who work at the maquiladoras, but also to Juarez’s place as a capital of the manufacturing plants.

"Isabel's dreams and projects were truncated ... we will continue raising our voice for Isabel and all the women victims of femicide in Ciudad Juárez," Mesa de Mujeres said in a statement obtained by NBC News.

According to the El Paso Times, Cabanillas was reported missing by friends on social media Saturday after she failed to return home. She was found shot to death on a sidewalk next to a bicycle. The Special Prosecutor’s Office for Women stated that two bullet wounds were found on Cabanillas’ body.

Cabanillas' slaying set off protests in Juarez and Mexico City, the country’s capital, with activists demanding justice. Another larger protest was scheduled for Saturday in Mexico City. Demands for justice and an investigation into the motives for her slaying have been made by various groups, including by the Autonomous University of Juarez.

The university insisted "that justice be done in this and in the other pending cases of students who have died" because of the city's dangers.

Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral Jurado vowed to hold her killers accountable.

“We will do a very serious investigation, not to end the protests and media pressure, but to find those responsible and get justice for the cowardly aggression against Isabel Cabanillas, that has hurt all of us,” Corral said in a Twitter post.

An increase in femicides

Violence against women has plagued Mexico for years and the many killings of women drew international attention when they spiked in the 1990s, about the time of the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement and of an increase in Juarez of manufacturing plants known as maquiladoras. Some victims were women who worked at the plants or were killed as they went to or left jobs at the plants.

From 1985 to 2014, there were 47,178 women killed in Mexico due to their gender, according to data compiled by RFK Human Rights and Center for Women's Hollistic Development, known by it's acronym in Spanish, CEDIMAC, for a 2018 report.

In recent years, there has been a continued increase in femicides. In 2015, the number was 411 in Mexico. It increased to 601 in 2016, 742 in 2017 and 880 in 2018. From January to July of 2019, there were 540 femicides, Baeyens said.

Image; Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre
People gather around a makeshift memorial in honor of Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre.Mesa de Mujeres

Juarez often sees higher death tolls than other cities and was on track for more than 100 deaths of women in gender-based killings last year, she said.

Cabanillas' slaying follows a hearing on a femicide case Baeyens and others brought last September before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of six young women and girls between the ages of 6 and 20 who had disappeared and were killed — including the disappearance of a woman and her 24-day-old daughter — in Juarez between 1995 and 2003. The case is pending.

Baeyens told NBC News that she had visited Juarez in 2017 and met with mothers and government officials in charge of investigating cases. She and the mothers were told by a prosecutor's office they had about 7,000 cases of sexual violence and only about 10 investigators for those cases and that investigators constantly rotate.

Twenty years since Ciudad Juarez's wave of unresolved killings came to light, families still find they aren’t taken seriously when they report a young woman or girl missing, she found.

Often, families become the main investigators, looking for and interviewing witnesses and potential perpetrators, at great risk, Baeyens said.

Baeyens said mothers and families of victims have been painting murals for many years on walls around Juarez, depicting the faces of their loved ones or in some cases, moons, flowers or butterflies because those were things the victim liked.

They often carry messages of activism, “Femicide” for example or of the loved ones' pain: “I’m never going to stop looking for you.”

After Cabanillas' death, a wall was painted pink and scrawled with messages creating a makeshift mural just behind the spot where her body was found. Among the writings on the wall are "Pinto por las que ya no están (I paint for those that are no longer here" and "ISABEL CABANILLAS AQUÍ FUE ASESINADA ("Isabel Cabanillas was assassinated here.")

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