The Force of Witness/Contra Feminicide

by Rosa-Linda Fregoso, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press

Reviewed by Deborah Eade

The Force of Witness/Contra Feminicide builds on an earlier edited volume,1 but here Rosa-Linda Fregoso focuses on Mexico, specifically the northern region of this vast and multicultural country, based on ‘a series of essays on the topic of feminicide along the Mexico–US border’ (p. 1) written over a decade. The concept of feminicide ‘transcends the victim–perpetrator relation for an account of how systemic and structural conditions enable violence against women’ (p. 73); and violence is rooted in ‘power relations based on gender, specific to sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexualism’ (p. 74).

Witness is context-specific and multi-layered – ranging from the ‘first-hand’ reports of the journalist, researcher, or human rights worker, to formal testimony – and encompasses ‘law and religion, history and psychoanalysis, conscious and unconscious processes’ (p. 2); as well as artists’ power both to witness and to ‘incite the imagination and inspire creative participation’ in spectator-witnesses (p. 98). For the victims of feminicide, who are overwhelmingly ‘poor, mestiza, Indigenous, Afro-descendant and trans people’ (p. 4), bearing collective witness is a refusal to accept their erasure first by their murderers and then by the state.

Six chapters are interspersed with three interludes, and framed by a prelude and a postlude. Currently Professor Emerita of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California and previously, a radio journalist, Rosa-Linda Fregoso uses both skills to brilliant effect: she is investigative and analytical, urgent and reflective; it is also a deeply personal narrative. She compels us to read and – vicariously – witness unspeakable pain and fear, including her own terrifying experience of the sanitised term ‘intimate partner violence’. She reveals institutionalised misogyny, and police indifference to – if not complicity in – male violence against women.

The border city of Ciudad Juárez, where young women work in some 350 assembly plants or maquilas, began experiencing a spate of murders from the early 1990s, and the numbers have continued to rise. Between 1993 and 1999, 162 girls and women were killed, tortured, and raped, and often literally ‘disappeared’ by incinerating or dissolving their bodies with acid (p. 14). By August 2018, the number had risen to 1,850; nationwide, women also made up 25 per cent of all 87,885 persons disappeared between 2006 and mid-2021, over half of whom were adolescents (p. 68). Feminicide lies at the most extreme end of a spectrum from fear of male violence to actual cruelties inflicted by men on feminised bodies. Fregoso summons this collective fear by piecing together piercing emotions and experiences. A poor young migrant woman putting in 50 hours a week in low-paid, non-unionised factory work has not only experienced structural and probably male violence in her short life, but this also makes her ‘disposable and killable’ (p. 15). As a grieving mother said, ‘they treat us like dirt’ (p. 39), because they lack the money and power to protect their rights and obtain justice. These adolescent girls and women are killed because they are marginalised – not, as the police and local authorities suggest, because they double up as sex workers, dressed to the nines to go out, drink, dance, or hang out in gay and lesbian venues, so they had only themselves to blame (p. 19). In response to the insistence of activist-mothers and others, gang members, bus drivers, and other sundry men were rounded up and they confessed under duress to having murdered a few young women – but since the killings continued while these men were in custody, many believed that ‘the accused had been scapegoated to protect the actual killers’ (p. 30).

The Ni Una Más (Not One More) campaign for justice empowered women to talk about their daughters or sisters, share cherished memories and pledge to put an end to these killings. But activism also exposed them to such sustained intimidation that whole families fled the country. Others were gunned down in the street. Passers-by who witnessed one such assassination acted as if they had seen nothing (pp. 35–6). Terror is, after all, intended to paralyse action and silence voices. A growing number of female (and male) journalists and feminist activists have been assassinated, sometimes their half-naked or beheaded bodies displayed as a gruesome warning (pp. 85–90). ‘Of 3,892 female homicides for 2012 and 2013, only 613 were investigated, and of these, only 1.6 percent led to sentencing’ (p. 56), despite the 2007 General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free from Violence. In 2003, a government official told an Amnesty International delegation that it would be hard to stop male violence against women because ‘machismo’ (i.e. toxic masculinity) is ‘an essential element of Mexican culture’ (p. 69). By portraying ‘culture’ as monolithic, static, and fundamentally machista, it follows that it is ‘natural’ for men to abuse women.2

The interlude, ‘Re-Memory’, describes Diane Kahlo’s Wall of Memories: Las Desaparecidas exhibition, dedicated to the women who have been murdered and disappeared in Ciudad Juárez. It included 150 portraits – ‘little memories of the way a mother would want to remember her daughter’ (p. 59). Chapter 3, ‘The Artist and Witness’, pursues the relationship between ‘the literal, explanatory mode’ of conventional film documentary, where people chat among themselves or speak direct to camera (or in silhouette and their voice disguised if they need to remain anonymous). Clearly, the terrified and terrorised families and friends of women who had been and continue to be brutally murdered cannot speak freely, especially with SUVs with blacked-out windows prowling around. This raises ethical questions. How to avoid endangering people? How to convey atrocities without further traumatising their families and dehumanising the victims? As Lourdes Portillo, the film-maker of the award-winning Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) says: ‘If you are going to talk about human rights, you can’t be didactic. You have to be compassionate, you have to be humane, and you have to be emotional … But if you show it and you see it and you feel it, then you become a part of it and it becomes a part of you’ (cited on p. 114). Another interlude describes the arts project, ReDressing Injustice, in which Irene Simmons involved local residents in New Mexico in creating elaborate dresses and participating in public events, such as a candlelit vigil at which the names of 800 victims of feminicide in Ciudad Juárez were read out in an act of ‘naming and redressing’.3

Vernacular forms of memorialisation, such as the enormous crucifix at the US border, with huge spikes for the (then) 268 murdered and disappeared women and girls, are an important expression of popular rituals. Activist-mothers established Voces Sin Eco (Voices Without an Echo) because nobody heard the victims’ screams; painted the ground pink under the hundreds of black crosses dotted around the city, creating a street altar with their daughters’ images and clothes. International accompaniment and solidarity-based witness are often requested as a form of protection to deter the most violent repression in such events. It also helps to attract media attention; e.g. the erection of a huge cross in a public park engraved with victims’ names. While the presence of foreign fellow-travellers can be questionable, what matters is that those with lived experience remain the protagonists of their own struggles, wherever these might lead.

Formal witness, or legal testimony, makes different demands. In the chapter ‘Witnesses to the Living Dead’, Fregoso describes serving as a judge for the Permanent People’s Tribunal’s (PPT) Hearing on Feminicide and Gender Violence, which heard cases from three northern states (Chihuahua, Cuahuila, and Nuevo León). The PPT was established in 1999 to investigate state crimes against humanity, and has held sessions in some 40 countries worldwide. This Tribunal heard of 27 cases, including those of 19 female bodies dumped in a creek; 17 were aged between 15 and 19, the others were just 20. Political disappearance was systematic during the military dictatorships in Latin America: Argentina (30,000), Chile (20,000), and Guatemala (40,000), among others. Under Mexico’s civilian government, 30,000 have disappeared since 2006 alone. Today, disappearance is used as a terror tactic by rival gangs and organised crime, and even committed by the security forces (such as the 43 young teachers killed in Ayotzonapa in 2014), clearly with a degree of state collusion. Not knowing the location of a disappeared person both renders redundant conventional procedures like habeas corpus, and deprives the relatives of any kind of closure. The PPT found the Mexican state and the media guilty of acts both of commission and of omission, ‘minimizing and silencing the crimes and egregious violations against women’ (p. 155).

The final chapter, ‘Stolen Lives and Fugitivity’, looks at why people migrate – which in Latin America is largely rooted in US political, economic, and military intervention. Such interventions, the War on Drugs and subsequently the War on Terror consolidated centuries of colonialism, dispossession, racism, and enslavement. Destination countries from the US to the European Union, India, and South Africa are busy erecting physical, maritime, or virtual borders, accompanied by strident discourse against asylum seekers and environmental refugees alike, in contravention of international conventions and natural justice. Separating babies and small children from their parents and putting them in cages caused worldwide revulsion; yet the US public largely close their eyes to ‘the transformation of places of refuge into necropolitical spaces (prisons, hieleras, perreras, military-style barracks, tent cities in isolated locales)’ (p. 177), which is, as Fregoso says, reminiscent of the fugitive slave laws. Yet even in the face of so much injustice, migrants, like the fugitives from enslavement, ‘enact an agency, a refusal and defiance against nightmarish lifeworlds’ (p. 180).

The Postlude recounts how in 1977 Rosa-Linda Fregoso and her daughter arrived at a refuge for women and their children who had fled violent lives. After years of abuse, ‘I could sense the possibility of a life free from violence. I could envision freedom’. Her harrowing experience is reflected in the empathy, rage, and profound commitment to justice for wronged and oppressed women that resonate throughout The Force of Witness/Contra Feminicide. And yet it inspires hope that despite structural gender violence, where men abuse, rape, and murder girls and women with impunity, women’s collective agency can ensure that, even if formal justice remains out of reach, nobody can erase their realities while they bear witness, and refuse to be silenced.


1. Fregoso, R.-L. and C. Bejarano (2010) Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Americas, Durham, NC: Duke University Press. I also reviewed this for Gender & Development, 19(1): 157–9.

2. I worked in Mexico for ten years and when I told a close male friend how offensive I found the casual groping, he said that most Mexican men, irrespective of education or social class, believe it is their ‘duty’ to show their appreciation for a young woman by cat-calling, blowing through their teeth, muttering obscenities into her ear, grabbing her breasts, pinching her bottom, even masturbating against her in a crowded bus. This latter was the limit. Getting angry would just inflame the lust of these would-be Casanovas. I hit on a way to pre-empt this ‘appreciation’ by wearing a capacious huipil, and pretending to be pregnant – rendering me untouchable as I ‘belonged’ to another man. Result!

3. Every 8 March, Jess Phillips, a British Labour MP, reads out the names of all the women in the UK killed by a man, or where a man is the main suspect, in the previous year. This does not include injuries, however frequent or serious. In 2023, it took over five minutes to read a list of 104 women (

© 2023 Deborah Eade