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Feature 081705 FNS

August 17, 2005


Amnesty International revisits Mexican mass femicide


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.




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 by torture.


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.     




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 is underway.


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. 




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." 



Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
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/)