Activist’s murder reopens old wounds in border city traumatized by legacy of ‘feminicides’

JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — A painter, clothing designer and mother of a young child, Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre still found time to speak up for women victims of crime and sexual violence.

The 26-year-old participated in The Observatory, a project that tracks crimes against women in Juarez, and in various collaboratives on women’s rights, culture and democracy. “She was an enterprising young woman, an artist and an activist who fervently believed our kind has a right to a life free of violence,” said Imelda Marrufo, leader of Red Mesa de Mujeres, the group that sponsors The Observatory.

Casillas was shot to death early Saturday while riding her bicycle home in Downtown Juarez. Her death has shocked a community that in 2019 buried nearly 180 female homicide victims. Hundreds of mourners marched on Sunday to a memorial ceremony at Juarez Monument Park. Dozens more attended a private funeral on Monday.

Chihuahua state police on Monday said Cabanillas was shot in the back of the head near the corner of Madero and Ochoa streets — less than half a mile away from the U.S. border. Police found two spent bullet casings and her bicycle next to the body.

Authorities haven’t established a motive for the murder, but activists say Casillas’ death runs counter to the police narrative that most killings of women in Juarez are drug-related. They say witnesses last saw her leaving a gathering of friends in Downtown Juarez just before 3 a.m., heading home.

“We don’t question that some victims were (involved) with criminals, but 180 murders are too many. We cannot minimize the violence that exists against women because this will generate impunity. We need prevention,” Marrufo said. “And if they say ‘nothing will happen to you if you’re not into organized crime,’ now we know that’s not true.”

Such frustration permeated the funeral on Monday and the march on Sunday.

“This shows we cannot walk the streets at any hour of the day. It’s not the way we dress, it’s not the places we find ourselves in. It’s the violence that is everywhere,” added Isabel Aguilera, another member of the Red Mesa de Mujeres. “She was a young woman who had a son. She was an activist who defended the rights of women. It’s unfair. You feel much pain and impotence.”

The activists say they have asked the Mexican government to issue a state of emergency because of the violence against women in Juarez. They’re asking local, state and federal authorities to step up prevention efforts and bring murderers to justice.

Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral issued a statement vowing a thorough investigation. “I condemn the murder of artist and activist Isabel Cabanillas in the most energetic of terms. Justice will be done and this cowardly crime will not go unpunished,” he said.

Juarez is still trying to shed its image of the mid-1990s and early 2000s as a place where women fall prey to serial killers, police fabricate culprits through torture and most murders remain unsolved.

“Every time we see another woman murdered in Juarez old wounds reopen in the hearts of mothers and families who lost a loved one (in the past),” Marrufo said.

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