Diana Washington Valdez has covered the slayings of Juarez women since 1999 and was suspicious of official explanations from the beginning. Her book, coming out in English in September, offers a comprehensive theory for the murders.

Diana Washington Valdez

(WOMENSENEWS)–Diana Washington Valdez was not surprised that three men arrested in the United States last month on immigration charges are also suspected of playing a role in the unsolved murders of young women in the border city of Juarez, Mexico.

The 51-year-old reporter for the El Paso Times has been claiming for years that gang initiation rites and sport killings are the motive behind many of the murders, especially among the 100 or so women whose bodies, dumped in the desert outside Juarez as well as within the city, showed signs of sexual torture and abuse. More than 400 women have been murdered in the region since 1993.

Washington links the rest of the deaths to other sets of people–individual serial killers, low-level drug dealers, a group of prominent men, copycats–and ties them all together with a single characteristic: None has been charged or convicted, Washington told Women’s eNews in a telephone interview.

The English edition of her book "Harvest of Women: Safari in Mexico" is to be released on Sept. 27 by Peace at the Border. A documentary by Mexican American television journalist Lorena Mendez-Quiroga that is partly based on Washington’s work will be screened in Los Angeles around the time the book is released. Washington published the first version of the book in Spanish last year.

"There’s some new material that for me helps explain why these murders were allowed to go on for as long as they did and why nothing was done," Washington says. "It demonstrates the level of corruption that’s involved."

Unsolved Cases Quietly Closed

Under steady media and political pressure, Mexico has appointed a special investigator and a special prosecutor, released several reports on the Juarez murder cases and brought in forensics experts. But no convictions on the 100 torture killings have resulted from the probes, and most of the other murders remain unsolved.

An Argentine forensics team, whose members honed their skills identifying victims of that country’s "dirty war" of the 1970s, was brought in by the Mexican government earlier this year. In August they concluded that many of the bodies they studied had been misidentified.

"This is official acknowledgement," says Washington, "that errors were made back then. Mexican authorities have been criticized for charging people with murders of unidentified victims. How can you be charged for killing someone when you don’t even know who they are?"

Doubting that more than a few of the killers could be found now, Washington believes those who allowed the murders to go unsolved should be prosecuted. The government, she says, must be put "on trial for allowing these crimes to be committed. We’re talking about presidents and authorities . . . going all the way back to the early 1990s."

Just before Mexico’s July 2 election, the federal government quietly closed its investigation into some cases it had taken over in 2003, saying no evidence of a federal crime was found. In Mexico, murder is a state, not federal, crime unless links to organized crime or other federal crimes can be proven.

At the end of August, two of the three people arrested in the United States were still being held pending an extradition order or deportation hearings. Evidence against them was still being studied by Mexican investigators.

"One can only hope," says Washington, "that this truly does represent a major break in the investigations."

Covering Story Since 1999

Washington, who has spent most of her adult life in El Paso, has been covering the murders since 1999, when she became El Paso Times’ border reporter. She immediately smelled a rat.

"I could tell there was something going on just from the way the authorities were presenting the cases, the way they were responding to questions from the media," Washington says. "And their constant attempts to minimize the deaths, the way they attacked the representatives of the victims, the way they attacked the families and the activists when they tried to investigate, this environment of fear and intimidation. The way the women were being killed, and that there were many like that–the degree of brutality in killing these women–all of these things made me suspicious."

Since starting the border beat, Washington has written at least a hundred stories about the murders. Her 2002 series "Death Stalks the Border" won a Texas Associated Press Managing Editors award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Over the years, Washington’s coverage has brought international attention to the murders, spurring news stories in publications all over the world that eventually piqued the interest of human rights organizations such as London-based Amnesty International. Amnesty investigated and issued a 2003 report lambasting Mexican authorities for not solving the crimes.

A U.S. congressional delegation that visited Juarez in 2003 generated a congressional resolution passed earlier this year condemning the murders. Documentaries have been made, most notably "Senorita Extraviada" by Lourdes Portillo, as have two films: "Bordertown," starring Jennifer Lopez, and "The Virgin of Juarez," starring Minnie Driver.

Unwanted Attention

Washington says her work also has received unwanted attention.

FBI officials who attended a book-signing in El Paso for the first edition later disclosed to her that they’d had a tip that drug-cartel representatives might make trouble.

"They told me two weeks later that part of the reason they were there was because they had detected through their informants that the cartel had sent two people to the event and were supposed to confront me," Washington says.

Threats, she says, typically came over the phone.

"They played recordings, and one of the recordings was the sound of what sounded like an electric saw, and that went on for about six minutes with the sound of a news broadcast in the background," Washington says. "Another was the voice of a young child saying, ‘Mommy no, Mommy no.’ The calls were traced back to Mexico."

She says her sources, including a federal law officer, received the same calls. Because of the level of threats, Washington, a Mexican American, does not reveal where she lives or her family composition. She has changed her phone numbers several times.

About a year and a half ago, she was visited by someone who conveyed police threats warning her to stay out of Juarez. Since then she hasn’t been back. "I knew where the threats were coming from and I knew I had to take them seriously," she says.

Theresa Braine is a journalist based in Mexico City.

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