August 17, 2005
Amnesty International revisits Mexican mass
By Kent Paterson
Editor, Frontera NorteSur
Two years after the release of its landmark report
"Intolerable Deaths," Amnesty International was back in Mexico in early August to revisit the murders of girls and women in
Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City. The international human rights organization's 2003 report blasted Mexican officials for
generally ignoring the wave of femicide which tore apart the soul of Chihuahua in recent years while fabricating scapegoats
of the crimes under torture.
Since the "Intolerable Deaths" report two years ago,
about 50 women and girls have been murdered in Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua. The causes of the murders vary —
domestic violence, suspected narco-executions, gang shootings, and sexual assaults. And several of the murders seem to follow
the long-pattern of young women who suddenly disappear and are later found raped and murdered.
Former Chihuahua Governor Patricio Martinez claimed
the serial rape murders had ended under his administration.
Unlike the chilly reception encountered two
years ago, when Gov. Martinez shunned Amnesty International and lambasted "Intolerable Deaths" as "that damn report," AI found
open doors in the administration of Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza. Rupert Knox, AI's investigator for Mexico, gauged
the current atmosphere as positive but still requiring much room for improvement. "A lot more needs to be done, and talking
to the families there is a great deal of dissatisfaction," Knox told Frontera NorteSur.
CASES OLD AND NEW
Investigators and officials from the 1.8 million-member
international human rights organization met with victims' family members and government officials, spoke with the press and
urged political parties gearing up for next year's presidential election to adopt a human rights platform with the right of
women to be free from gender violence a key provision.
AI staffers from Mexico, the U.S., Holland, Belgium,
and Switzerland traveled to Chihuahua City, where Irene Kahn, the international secretary of the organizations, joined them
for talks with Gov. Reyes and Chihuahua State Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez, who oversees the state investigations of
the femicides. The human rights group detected progress on several fronts, including a willingness on the part of authorities
to actually investigate crimes. In the high-profile murder of 7-year-old Airis Estrella Enriquez Pando in Ciudad Juarez last
May for instance, Chihuahua state law enforcement officials arrested several suspects. And for the first time, state and federal
law enforcement appear to take seriously reports of missing women and girls.
AI praised the work of Guadalupe Morfin, President
Vicente Fox's commissioner for violence against women in Ciudad Juarez, for working with victims' families and promoting social
programs in marginalized areas of Ciudad Juarez, but urged that Morfin's scope of responsibility be extended to Chihuahua
City as well. Compared to two years ago, other advances were noted, not the least
of which is the arrival of a team of Argentine forensic specialists who are working with the state government of Chihuahua
to identify long-vaulted corpses and the suspect bodies of previously identified victims. AI urged the government to build
on its progress by making sure that victims' families don't suffer harassment, and called for a review of all cases tainted
Since Reyes took office several suspects who
claimed they were tortured into making false murder confessions were released from prison. They include the couple Cynthia
Kiecker and Ulises Perzabal, released last December after a judge found them innocent of the 2003 murder of Viviana Rayas
in Chihuahua City, and Victor "El Cerrillo" Garcia Uribe, a bus driver convicted in the murders of eight women found in a
Ciudad Juarez cotton field in 2001, who recently won a reversal of his conviction.
Shortly after his release from prison last July,
Garcia reiterated his innocence on Juarez television. Interviewed by Channel 44 host Armando Cabada, Garcia said he wasn't
afraid to show his face in public after gaining notoriety from the well-known case. "I didn't commit any crime. I have nothing
to hide," Garcia said.
The overjoyed bus driver was accompanied by his lawyer,
Sergio Dante Almaraz, who recounted many of the irregularities in an arrest and conviction that was widely condemned by Amnesty
International and other groups. The Juarez attorney mentioned the baseball bat and car allegedly used in the killings which
were never produced by authorities, the van that was suddenly substituted as the death wagon when officials realized the first
crime vehicle did not exist, and the tale of a drug-crazed Garcia on a mad murder spree — an account that was contradicted
by negative anti-doping tests of Garcia on record with transportation authorities.
"There was stupidity after stupidity in this
investigation," said Dante, who credited a hands-off policy of the new governor for allowing the legal system to run its normal
course, impartially examine the evidence — or the lack thereof — and acquit his client.
Garcia attributed public pressure on authorities
to solve the cotton field case for his unjust detention, but thanked the many people who supported him. "Thanks to God the
sentence went well for me and here we are," said Garcia. Not appearing with Garcia on television however, was his co-defendant
Gustavo Gonzalez, who died under suspicious circumstances in prison while awaiting trial. Nor was Gonzalez's attorney, Mario
Escobedo Jr., who was shot to death by Chihuahua state policemen led by the same commander who arrested the two bus drivers.
A Chihuahua judge later cleared the policemen of any criminal conduct in Escobedo's death.
COVER UPS SUSPECTED
Still, in its assessment, AI noted a continued lack
of progress in investigating cases predating the Reyes administration. "The principal challenge for the federal and state
authorities is to put into practice a more complete strategy and to improve their coordination for taking charge of the hundreds
of known cases up to now. Until they confront these challenges, the women and girls of Chihuahua will continue living under
a constant threat," said AI in a statement.
A similar note was sounded days later by Guadalupe
Morfin, who according to the Mexico City news agency Cimacnoticias denounced the virtual failure of the joint federal-state
security program launched with much fanfare in 2003, the blocking of investigations and the probable cover-up of sexual predators
with powerful connections.
Overall, since the late 1980s approximately 500 women
have been murdered in Chihuahua state. Scores more remain disappeared. About one-third of the slayings involved sexual assaults,
many of them bearing the characteristics of serial murders. Although no one knows exactly how many women have been murdered,
the estimate comes from a compilation of different sources: reports by AI and the Washington Office on Latin America, news
accounts, witness and family testimonies, academic studies from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte of Ciudad Juarez, and the
book Harvest of Women, by El Paso
journalist Diana Washington Valdez.
In an interview with the Ciudad Juarez newspaper
Norte, Chihuahua state government secretary Fernando Rodriguez Moreno said the Reyes administration would take into
account the commentaries of both Morfin and Kahn, but the state government was moving ahead with its public security plan.
"We receive any criticism that they or the citizens make, and they will guide our daily work for improving all the areas —
especially public security," Rodriguez said.
Marisela Ortiz, the director of the Ciudad
Juarez non-government group Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Return Our Daughters Home), concurred with much of AI's analysis
in an interview with Frontera NorteSur.
"Reyes is a good politician," Ortiz said. While agreeing
there has been progress in new cases, Ortiz contended older ones that involve family members of her organization and others
are being swept under the rug.
"We've lost hope that many of these cases will be
resolved," Ortiz said. "There is a policy of simulation."
The Ciudad Juarez activist said her group is counting
on a growing international movement to keep up the pressure, and it is planning to file four new cases against the Mexican
government for human rights violations surrounding the Juarez murders at the next session of the Inter-American Commission
on Human Rights. Ortiz and other Ciudad Juarez activists have previously reported being harassed for speaking out against
the femicides, and receiving intimidating phone calls and other threats.
Viewed as test cases for both the state and federal
governments, Amnesty International and other activists are monitoring authorities' actions in punishing former and current
government officials identified as engaging in negligent and even criminal behavior in previous murder investigations. So
far, none of the 130 Chihuahua state authorities deemed negligent in reports by former federal prosecutor Maria Lopez Urbina
have been punished. Several of the officials argued they were just following orders, but no known investigation of their superiors
Earlier this year the Chihuahua State Human
Rights Commission issued a recommendation to Gov. Reyes and Attorney General Rodriguez, that several former top and mid-level
state law enforcement officials be investigated for torturing David Meza. Currently Meza is being held in a Chihuahua City
prison for supposedly murdering his cousin, Neyra Azucena Cervantes, in 2003. Meza's supporters say he is innocent and, like
the Juarez bus drivers and Cynthia Kiecker and Ulises Perzabal, was tortured into making a false confession.
Azucena's corpse was discovered next to the
murdered body of another victim, Minerva Torres, outside Chihuahua City, a critical fact that was never mentioned in Meza's
court proceedings. Chihuahua state authorities even hid the body of Torres for two years, prompting her parents, Francisco
Torres and Martina Albeldano, to file legal charges for moral damage last July against former Gov. Martinez and other officials
from his administration.
MEXICO CITY MEETINGS
After their Chihuahua City visit with Gov. Reyes
and Attorney General Rodriguez, AI General Secretary Kahn and other staff members flew to Mexico City for meetings with top
officials of the Fox administration, political party leaders and human rights activists. They met with Foreign Minister Luis
Derbez, Interior Minister Carlos Abascal, and Defense Minister General Clemente Vega Garcia.
In addition to the Chihuahua state femicides,
AI raised the issue of indigenous women allegedly raped by Mexican soldiers. The non-governmental Guerrero-based Tlachinollan
Human Rights Center charges that seven indigenous women from the states of Chiapas and Guerrero were raped by Mexican soldiers
from 1994 to 2002, but none of the accused perpetrators were punished.
AI also brought up the case of one of the group's
prisoners of conscience, Felipe Arreaga Sanchez, a longtime Guerrero environmental activist jailed since last November on
what his supporters say are trumped-up murder charges. Arreaga, his wife Celsa Valdovinos and fellow activist Alberto Peņaloza
were honored with the Chico Mendes Award by the Sierra Club this month for their struggle to protect Guerrero's forests.
In Mexico City, Kahn participated in a forum
with leaders of the PRD, PAN and PRI political parties. Organized at a time when Mexico's 2006 presidential campaign is kicking
off, Kahn considered the event strategic. "Mexico is at an intersection," she said. "The democratic transition is at the point
of moving to a new phase with the 2006 elections, but with respect to human rights — (this) central part of the democratic
aspirations of all Mexicans is absent from the political agenda, or only is present in words without content. Political leaders
should move from rhetoric to concrete actions if they hope to see Mexico experiencing a new era in human rights."
In her presentation, Kahn appealed to the political
parties and their candidates to adopt an eight-point human rights platform addressing gender violence, constitutional and
legal reforms, restructuring of law enforcement, protecting indigenous rights, and addressing socio-economic problems with
a human rights perspective. Kahn reminded the political leaders that AI sent a memorandum to the Mexican Congress in 2004
proposing such reforms but never received a response.
Similar to AI's proposals, the United Nations High
Commissioner for Human Rights delivered a series of recommendations to the Mexican government in 2003.
Referring to the border femicides, Kahn criticized
the Mexican political and justice systems for drowning in legalisms while allowing grave human rights violations to continue.
Even though Mexican law permits federal intervention
in cases of organized crime and social disruption, Fox administration officials have argued against a wholesale federal take-over
of the women's murder investigations as demanded by many non-governmental groups on the grounds that most of the homicides
fall under Chihuahua state jurisdiction.
To this Kahn said, "With too much frequency, legal
and constitutional arguments are employed not to guarantee accountability but to justify and maintain impunity and inaction,
as is the case with disappeared and murdered women in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua. To overcome these obstacles is a challenge
that all elements of the state and political parties must confront with urgency."
According to Kahn, the border femicides are emblematic
of wider injustices and inequalities that persist in Mexico.
"Violence against women is endemic in Mexico,"
argued Kahn. "Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua are known examples of the profound deficiencies of the justice and security apparatuses,
which combined with discrimination and socio-economic differences produce fertile ground for gender violence."
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
(Reprinted with authorization from Frontera
NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source. FNS can be found at http://frontera.nmsu.edu/)