Pink crosses mark a Juarez field

MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)–In late March, Irma Monreal Jaime was given proof that her daughter Esmeralda had been killed in the wave of mysterious and notorious slayings that have claimed hundreds of women since 1993 in the border city of Juarez.

Monreal received an analysis of dental records by state authorities, identifying Esmeralda’s body as one of eight that were dumped in a former cotton field in a busy area of Juarez in 2001.

"I’m a bit more tranquil, a bit more at peace," says Monreal.

But she is not yet fully accepting that the remains are that of her daughter. Once she does that, the investigation of the remains will be closed, and she wants to be certain.

Like a number of other families who don’t entirely trust the Mexican identification process, she is waiting until May, when results are due from DNA tests being conducted by a team of Argentine forensic experts.

The team–which gained fame by using advanced DNA-study techniques to identify people killed in Argentina’s "dirty war" of the 1970s–is studying the remains of about 60 women, including those believed to be of Esmeralda, for either first-time identification or to verify previous identifications by state authorities.

As many as 400 women in Ciudad Juarez–just across the border from El Paso, Texas–have been slain since 1993, and their deaths are considered unsolved murder cases. More than 100 have been found dumped in the desert with signs of sexual torture.

Esther Chavez Cano

Esther Chavez, founder and head of Casa Amiga, a Juarez center for abused women, also hopes that positive identifications could give victims’ families the ammunition to keep pushing for prosecution of the authorities who haven’t found any credible suspects.

If the identifications of the bodies from the cotton field, which are among those being studied, turn out to be different from what the Chihuahua state authorities initially said they were, there’s a chance that these cases could be started from scratch as new cases, says Chavez.

"We have to keep insisting that the authorities be prosecuted," Chavez says. "With this we could demand the punishment of the authorities, because now after so many years, it’s very difficult."

The Murders Continue

The murders have continued. Twenty-two females, including an infant, were killed in 2005, according to Amigos de las Mujeres de Juarez (Friends of the Women of Juarez), a Las Cruces, N.M., advocacy group for victims’ families that was formed in 2001. So have killings of people involved in the cases.

In January, a prominent human rights lawyer, Sergio Dante Almaraz, was shot to death in broad daylight in downtown Juarez. Dante had defended two bus drivers who claimed they were tortured into confessing to the murders of the eight women found in the cotton field, which today is marked by eight pink crosses bearing the names of those found there. The attorney’s murder remains unsolved.

For years Chavez, victims’ families and other advocates have been fighting to get the cases investigated, accusing the investigating authorities of complicity in the crimes when nothing was done.

Pressure from international human-rights organizations such as New-York-based V-Day, which works against gender-based violence, and London-based human-rights advocate Amnesty International, spurred the appointment of a special prosecutor in 2004 who reviewed police files and found no evidence of serial murder.

U.S. officials have also become involved; in 2003 four members of the House of Representatives visited Juarez and today a resolution calling for action is making its way through Congress.

In February, a report by the Mexican government enraged relatives and advocates hoping for something approaching an explanation.

"We didn’t think it would be such an insubstantial report. It’s an embarrassment," Chavez says. "They didn’t want to do anything more than issue reports to appease the international organizations."

Culture of Violence Blamed

The report attributed the Juarez slayings to cultural and social violence against women throughout the country; Juarez ranks fourth among Mexican cities in the number of women murdered, the report noted. After three government reports over the past two years failed to generate action, victims’ families and advocates had not held out much hope that this one would break new ground. But they were enraged at the complete dismissal of what they say is the central issue: a lack of regard by the authorities for the victims and the potential for a cover-up.

"It’s not a competition," says Monreal, referring to the report’s remarks about the number of female homicides being even higher in other parts of Mexico. She says victims’ families are more concerned about the failure of investigations and high-level appointees to get to the bottom of murders that have generated allegations of complicity among the investigators’ ranks. "There is no justice, there is nothing."

"For years the officials in Chihuahua and Mexico have been trying to minimize and manipulate numbers," says Sally Meisenhelder, a co-founder of Amigos de las Mujeres de Juarez.

What gets lost in the report, says Laurie Freeman, Mexico specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank in the U.S. capital, is "the possibility that there’s some kind of organized element behind some of the killings–not all of the killings–and that the perpetrators may have links to and be protected by state officials. There is something different about Juarez."

State and federal authorities say that years of suspicion and inaction have led people to draw this conclusion but insist that the underlying problem is no different than the violence committed against women elsewhere.

Special Prosecutor Investigated

Two years ago the Mexican government appointed a special prosecutor, Maria Lopez Urbina, to revisit the investigations of 380 women who have been murdered.

Those investigations found everything from gross negligence to corruption and abuse among dozens of officials involved in the case, and Lopez recommended that charges be filed against dozens of state investigators, police and other authorities. But only a handful has gone before a judge and no one has yet been punished.

Given that much of the evidence is long since lost or compromised, the hope of actually solving the murders is growing dim. Most of the cases have passed the statute of limitations and can no longer be prosecuted.

Even as the Mexican government is accused of downplaying the numbers and what may be behind them, Hollywood is shining a new spotlight on the story. Two movies about the killings have been filmed and may be ready for distribution later this year.

"The Virgin of Juarez," starring Minnie Driver and the Mexican actress Ana Claudia Talancon, is the story of a journalist who gets involved with a victim who survives her attack and starts manifesting stigmata. In "Bordertown," Jennifer Lopez plays a newspaper reporter investigating the murders who falls into danger herself.

Although the films could raise awareness abroad, Chavez says, she doesn’t believe they will help at home. "I don’t believe the movies will help get the murders solved, because there has already been so much attention, and the authorities are not interested in getting to the bottom of it," she says. "It’s not important to them."

Theresa Braine is a journalist based in Mexico City.

For more information:

Amigos de las Mujeres de Juarez:

Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis, A.C.: