LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The murder of a young female artist and activist in the Mexican border city of Juarez has reopened old wounds in a city with a gruesome history of violence against women. Twenty-six-year-old Isabel Cabanillas was shot dead while riding her bike home on January 18. Protesters gathered Saturday in the historic city center to demand justice. Monica Ortiz Uribe reports that the motive behind Isabel's death is still unknown.
MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: Isabel Cabanillas spent her last Friday night with friends at an unassuming bar in downtown Juarez. It was past midnight when she said her goodbyes and mounted her worn three-speed road bike. She'd pedaled less than three blocks when a bullet struck her head. Maria Robles, who lives in the neighborhood, heard the gunfire but didn't dare go out.
MARIA ROBLES: (Through interpreter) I heard the shots, followed by screams. I knew right away someone had been killed. That's what happens here.
ORTIZ URIBE: In the first three weeks of 2020, there have been more murders in Juarez than days in the new year - more than double, in fact. As of yesterday, an online tally by a local newspaper counted 64 murders since January 1. Such bloodshed is par for the course in a city ruled by warring drug lords eager to profit off America's drug addiction.
Jorge Perez is a lifelong Juarez resident and friend of Isabel.
JORGE PEREZ: (Through interpreter) The way that Isabel was killed is the way thousands of others have been killed in this city.
ORTIZ URIBE: While hit-and-run-style homicide is common here, so is gender-based crime directed at women. It even has a name - femicide. In the last three decades, hundreds of women have been brutally murdered here, some raped, tortured and trafficked. Many of their cases remain unsolved. Police have yet to classify Isabel's murder as a femicide. Her case is still under investigation.
On Saturday, protesters had a message for the authorities - don't let this crime go unpunished.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).
ORTIZ URIBE: Women fashioned black T-shirts into ski masks, mascara and red lipstick peeking through the torn-out holes. They chanted, not one more, as they marched from the heart of downtown to the top of the international bridge that connects Mexico with the U.S. They united with a small group of protesters from neighboring El Paso. Car traffic on the busy border crossing was halted for several hours.
Marisol Ramirez joined the marchers, holding her young daughter by the hand. She and Isabel were part of the same social circle.
MARISOL RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
ORTIZ URIBE: "Isabel had a very warm smile," Ramirez says. "She was empathetic and quick to laughter."
RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
ORTIZ URIBE: Isabel was also an artist, best known for her hand-painted clothing. Eyes were a common theme in her work. She painted constellations of eyes on murals and sweatshirts. The last tattoo she got was a cross with two eyes at its center. She was also part of a vocal feminist group that defended women, immigrants and the environment.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I know Isabel felt like she was being watched.
ORTIZ URIBE: That's a close friend of Isabel, who asked not to be named out of fear. She's among those who question whether Isabel was targeted for her activism. She wouldn't be the first. Others, particularly those who speak up against femicide, have fled Juarez and sought asylum in the U.S. In 2011, a feminist poet named Susana Chavez was strangled. Her killers cut off her left hand.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Isabel carried with her a baton for self-defense.
ORTIZ URIBE: It's a weapon whose Spanish nickname is bone-crusher. In the end, it proved useless for Isabel. Police found her crumpled body on the sidewalk next to her bike. She leaves behind a son, who just days before her death celebrated his fourth birthday.
For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in Ciudad Juarez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.