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Whispers in the Desert
by Henry Howard

When the blood-red sun sinks at last
Behind the factories of Ciudad Juarez,
The night wind carries cool drafts that bring relief
To the muscles of weary men,
And chills to the spines of women and girls.

Hundreds of them have been murdered or disappeared here,
And no one officially knows why.
Once and for all, how many? 100, 200, 300, 400?
Supposedly no one knows that, either.
No one even knows how many people really live here, let alone die.

Meanwhile, each victim is a single number marking a life that was,
With a face and a name,
Easier to relate to,
Yet still the women and the girls keep dying.

The explanations for the murders
Are as varied as the victims themselves.
Some say the police are involved,
Protected by the politicians.
Others say it is the politicians and the sons of the wealthy,
Protected by the police.
Still others opine that the slayings are the work of drug dealers,
Or Satanic cults,
Or merely a cult of serial killers.

Still others point to the torn dresses,
Mutilated breasts,
And savagely violated young bodies
To suggest that such violence mainly happens
To women who dress or act “indecently.”
After all, nice girls don’t die like that.

And some whose sole job it is to study such things
Point to a male culture of violence at work here.
The maquiladora factories are staffed more and more
With young women,
Whose slender fingers sew and stitch for 50 cents an hour
The garments sold for 50 dollars in the great American malls
Across the Rio Grande.

Times are changing in a city where a job,
However meager,
Is still the measure of a man,
But women are bringing home more pesos.
The heckling and the fighting starts,
Then the drinking, then the hitting.
Fists crack against bone,
A bullet cracks between the eyes,
And another body turns up unclaimed
In a vacant lot or the burning desert.

Politicians rise and fall over who is killing the women,
Crosses sprout where the desert yields another corpse,
People on both sides of the border march tirelessly for justice,
Yet still the women and girls keep dying.

They have names like Maria, Claudia,
Esmeralda, Guadalupe,
Barbara, Veronica, Laura and Mayra.
They are 14, 15, 16, 17, 20.  One was only six.
In whose depraved mind does a little girl deserve to die?

These figures carry extra heartache, for they are the ages
That number the days of lives barely lived.
Here is another number to haunt the mind: 1993.
It has been twelve years since the first young bodies turned up,
And still the women and the girls keep dying.

There are many whispers in the desert here:
There are the whispers of the maquiladora girls,
Leaving work in the shadows of factory chimneys
That point the way home like warning fingers.
There are the whispers of bus drivers worried about robberies,
Or sharing secret longings towards their prettier fares.

There are the whispers of politicians and police and judges
Who dare not speak too loudly,
And of men who whisper to each other in secret codes
“The killings will begin tonight.”

Mostly there are the whispers of the desert wind itself,
Patient with its secrets,
Eternal in its truths,
Cruelly withholding its answers,
Yet generous with its warning:
“Beware! Sleep tight in Ciudad Juarez.”


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