MEXICO CITY, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)--U.S. lawmakers arrive in Mexico today for a meeting with President Vicente Fox that is sure to include a discussion of hundreds of unsolved murders of young women in Ciudad Juarez and its home state, Chihuahua.
Two of the lawmakers, Ciro Rodriguez, a Democrat from Texas and chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Hilda Solis,a Democrat from California and co-chair of theCongressional Caucus for Women's Issues, arevisiting the region for the second time this month to push authorities to renew their efforts in solving the cases.
Already these visits are paying off. Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, head of the organized crime unit in Mexico's attorney general's office, has now said that a new team of federal and state authorities is reviewing all 258 cases, including reopening 67 in which suspects were convicted and sentenced. And Fox last week appointed a commissioner--human-rights lawyer Maria Guadalupe Morfin--to coordinate the investigative efforts of federal, state and local agencies.
Since July of this year, the Mexican government has sent 1,000 federal police to this Mexican city across the border from El Paso, Texas, to help local authorities investigate the unsolved murders. U.S. and Mexican authorities believe that at least 90 of the victims bear the signs of serial murder.
During the past several years, the murder, rape and disappearance of close to 400 women in Ciudad Juarez since 1993 has been garnering increased international attention. The bodies of the women, mostly aged 15 to 25, have been turning up in the desert, many showing signs of extreme sexual and sadistic violence.
Recent visits from Amnesty International, the United Nations and a U.S. congressional delegation have put local authorities, who are accused of bungling the investigation or even covering for the perpetrators, on the spot. The attention is providing a glimmer of hope to bereaved families and their advocates, who have been toiling for years to get the killings solved and to prevent more.
The serial murders and the overall climate of violence in the city brought four U.S. legislators, six Mexican legislators and an assortment of human rights groups to Juarez from October 11-13 for a three-day tour of tragedy and death. They were accompanied by reporters from dozens of news outlets. Delegation members listened to victims' mothers and other family members. They visited the eight pink crosses that mark the spot in the city where the same
number of young women were found raped and strangled in November 2001.
"When you start hearing that testimony, it almost makes you cry," said Rodriguez. "Then, it also gets you angry that somehow they haven't come to grips with what's happening and it seems like it's a systemic problem."
Keeping Spotlight on Murders
The U.S. legislators said they plan to keep the international spotlight on this issue. They said they'll testify before Congress to bring more attention to the murders and see what more the United States can do to help (the FBI already provides training to police in crime-scene investigation), set up funds for a DNA bank that would examine remains and forensic evidence and help identify victims and approach both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Mexican President Vicente Fox about making it part of the bi-national agenda.
Esther Chavez Cano, founder and director of the Ciudad Juarez rape crisis center Casa Amiga and one of the first people to notice a killing pattern several years ago, said she "never imagined" the degree of media turnout and publicity that the lawmakers' visit would generate. "I think it caused a sensation . . . and it will help us in our fight," she told Women's eNews. Chavez, recognized this year as one of Women's eNews' 21 Leaders for the 21st Century, believes that the pressure exerted by the delegation and earlier visits by Amnesty International and the U.N. "is causing a very strong impact on the press and society in general."
Progress Is Slow
Despite the rising publicity and local avowals of official commitment to solving the murders, Chavez is still concerned by what she sees as the low value that law officials here ascribe to women. The day after the delegation departed, Micaela Felix Alvarado was found beaten to death in the street. Police said the 36-year-old was neither raped nor a victim of the apparent serial murders, which makes Chavez feel they're still missing the point.
"They dismissed (Felix) as a drunk, a drug addict, said her husband did it, and case closed," said Chavez, adding that Casa Amiga receives 40 new clients a day, mostly victims of domestic violence and, increasingly, incest. "They said it as though this minimizes the life of the woman."
Chavez should know. She has been prodding investigators since 1993, when she first noticed the pattern of slayings, and has been in the forefront of efforts to bring world attention to the inadequacies of the investigations. In the serial murders, as well as other violence toward women, Juarez municipal and Chihuahua state authorities have been accused of, at best, bungling the investigations and at worst, covering up for the perpetrators and blaming the victims.
Police also allegedly have harassed families or given them bodies that were not in fact those of their missing daughters. Authorities have admitted losing DNA samples that would have helped with identification of the "desconocidas," or unknowns. Although a number of people have been arrested, most suspects have claimed that their confessions were tortured out of them. Ten years after the first bodies started turning up, victims' families don't have a sense of closure and authorities believe the killer or killers are still on the loose.
In August, Amnesty International issued a scathing report criticizing Chihuahua state and Juarez municipal authorities' inaction on the killings, and in September a six-member team of United Nations investigators invited by the government to visit Ciudad Juarez found that a lack of financial and professional resources among federal and state investigators, plus inattention by government officials, had played a role in the failure to solve or stop the killings.
Dangerous Routines of Working Poor
Most of the victims worked in the "maquiladoras," or foreign-owned assembly plants, that sprouted after the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994. Others worked in small commercial businesses such as stores or attended school. They lived in poorer sections of the city, in shantytowns of dusty, unpaved streets. Many came to Ciudad Juarez from other Mexican states or countries to work in the factories.
Maquiladora workers have to walk unlit blocks in the dark hours of the morning or the middle of the night to make it to early-morning shifts. Others leave their shifts late at night.
Led by Solis, the delegation--all of whom are members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus--said this would not be their last visit to the area. Besides Solis and Rodriguez, the delegation included Luis V. Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, and Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat from El Paso, Texas.
Limits to U.S. Help
However, Solis and other U.S. officials noted that the United States or any other entity has to be officially asked by local authorities to step in and assist in solving the crimes. The U.S. has to be very careful of sovereignty issues, said Hardrick Crawford, Jr., the FBI special agent for El Paso, who is helping provide training and other assistance to Mexican investigators.
Since they can't simply intervene in the criminal-justice process, human rights activists say the best way to make sure the cases get properly investigated is to apply external pressure by keeping the international spotlight on Juarez and Chihuahua officials. And that was exactly the delegation's aim.
Increased visibility can't come too soon, advocates say. Similar cases have been surfacing in Chihuahua state's capital city of Chihuahua, where 16 young women have disappeared since 2000, seven of them found murdered in circumstances similar to those in Juarez.
Theresa Braine is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City.
For more information:
"Thousands in Mexico Protest 285 Unsolved Murders":
"Film on Deaths of Mexican Women Indicts Corruption":