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Justice in Juarez

Marisela Ortiz Rivera
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005
    In the city of Juarez, Mexico, to be a young, economically disadvantaged woman is to be in a position of great risk. The risk of being kidnapped, gang raped, brutally beaten, tortured, strangled and to have one’s body thrown onto the street, a vacant lot, or into the desert is very real. The atrocities continue without the authorities taking the trouble to investigate and find out who committed them. The authorities do, however, take the trouble to defame the victims and their families by claiming that the women are killed because of their involvement in prostitution or with drug traffickers. In this manner, these terrible crimes go unpunished, leaving the victims’ families with feelings of sadness, outrage and impotence, as they are subject to harassment, intimidation, and death threats by the authorities if they dare fight for justice.

This seemingly incredible situation has become the most globally prominent case of violence against women. These horrendous crimes are acts aimed at the systematic extermination of women and thus are acts of femicide—a crime against humanity. The response of different levels of government and agencies responsible for administering justice to these crimes has been one of indifference, errors of omission, ineptitude, passivity, and negligence. Contrary to the claims made by authorities, the femicides have not ended and many cases are still unresolved.

For years, the Chihuahua State government (where Juarez is located) under Governor Patricio Martinez, used systematic repression to silence families of the victims. This was carried to the point of death threats against mothers of the disappeared and human rights activists, beatings, and the murder of the attorney of a man whom the authorities tortured to confess in an attempt to scapegoat him for the crimes. There were also attempts to discredit any journalist honest enough to write anything opposed to the government’s policies or publish quotes exposing the incompetence of the authorities.

International pressure

After years of absent, ineffective, and corrupt investigations, it became clear that an organized social force was necessary to stop the crimes. In February 2001, Lilia Alejandra Garcia Andrade was kidnapped and tortured to death, sparking a series of protests. Out of these protests and a sense of powerlessness, pain and outrage, a group of family members and close friends of the disappeared formed Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (May Our Daughters Return Home). While protests are met with indifference from the authorities, they have succeeded in drawing in more and more families who are appalled by the lack of proper investigation and who seek support and justice for their daughters.

The inaction of Mexican authorities has made it necessary to bring heavy international pressure into play. One of the goals of Nuestras Hijas is to spread information about the situation throughout various countries, in order to induce their governments to demand that the Mexican government offer a solution. Together with other human rights and community organizations, Nuestras Hijas helped form a local, state, national and international network to bring this situation to the attention of the world.

At the same time, they have also ensured that international bodies charged with promoting human rights and fighting discrimination are well-informed about the femicides in Juarez. It has been a priority to see to it that information on the Juarez killings is included in every human rights report—a strategy that has lead to an enormous amount of attention to the violation of women’s human rights and the failure of the authorities to stop the wholesale killing.

While they differ on the numbers, the reports of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, the Organization of American States and the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico, all show that there is a persistent state of impunity for these crimes, which may be due to possible complicity of the authorities involving police collaboration in the murders and torture. All of these reports are based on investigations and testimonies by the affected families and others actively seeking a solution. Yet the government’s initial response to the reports was to dismiss them in the most aberrant of terms—referring to them as “partial, slanted, and distorted.”

Community reliance

However as international pressure grew, President Vicente Fox created the Special Federal Prosecutor’s Office to prevent and investigate the murders and the Mexican Senate formed a commission to oversee investigations. Fox appointed Guadalupe Morfin as Special Federal Commissioner to coordinate a series of programs known as the “Forty Point Plan” to prevent the violence against women. Maria Lopez Urbina was named as Special Federal Prosecutor to review all cases of murdered women and make suggestions for investigation to the state authorities. José Reyes Baeza, the new Chihuahua state governor, then hired Patricia Gonzalez as State Attorney General to investigate the crimes on a local level.

Despite this systematic pretense of action, little progress has been made, and many cases have not been investigated for years. Rather it seems that the “Forty Point Program” is a sugarcoated public relations campaign that covers up the all-to-familiar indifference and inaction. President Fox and the new Chihuahua governor José Reyes Baeza spend vast amounts of money to publicize their actions and interest in solving the problem—acting only to protect their images. Additionally, the current authorities only investigate crimes that have occurred during Governor Baeza’s administration; therefore no resources are being put toward investigating crimes that occurred before October 2004. Actions to stop the femicides have only been taken to repair the image of a state government whose justice system is obsolete and inoperative, and of a country where a lack of respect for human rights is the norm.

Collusion and torture

Off-camera and beyond publicity stunts, local authorities have ultimately conducted no serious investigation of these crimes. They continue to make defamatory accusations against the victims, their families, and human rights activists, using threats and intimidation. For example, Juarez community members Cynthia Keicker and Ulises Perzibal were kidnapped, tortured into confessing to the murder of Viviana Rayas, and incarcerated for a year and a half until they were declared innocent due to insubstantial evidence, including prosecutors’ witnesses who claimed they had been tortured into false testimonies. An outspoken family member of a femicide victim, David Mesa, is still in jail, accused of the murder of this own cousin. The authorities continue to fabricate evidence and culprits, and have released bodies to family members without first establishing their identities. Additionally, authorities have lied, altered numbers, and hidden information and even bodies.

They claim to be “doing all they can” and to “have every intention of solving the crimes,” however clandestine gravesites—that the police were allegedly involved in creating—have been found in private residences. There has also been a steady stream of accusations claiming that members of the Chihuahua State Attorney’s office have been involved in the kidnapping of young women and forcing them into prostitution. In addition, members of the Juarez police force have been accused of rape.

False hopes

Initially, the appointment of Special Federal Commissioner Guadalupe Morfín gave hope to many women who have stepped up in this search for justice and truth. The organizations and families fervently hoped her appointment would not constitute yet another failure, another lost hope, and another reason to distrust the government. Yet given the limited powers of her position and being that her office is government-funded, Morfín’s actions can only do so much.

Statements by the recently appointed Special Federal Prosecutor Mireille Roccati (who replaced Maria Lopez Urbina) echo the same evasive responses of local authorities and the government. Ultimately, rather than serving the Juarez community, the creation of these positions serve the Mexican government—giving them an easy out in the face of severe international criticism.

Despite pressure to punish the officials who have failed to carry out their duties, the main culprits remain untouched. The higher-ups—investigators and public prosecutors—are still holding office, have been promoted to higher positions, and are still failing to carry out their duties and slandering the victims and their families. They must be punished. This includes the State Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez and Governor José Reyes Baeza. If the authorities had done their job, many of our daughters would still be alive.

Reclaiming rights

This is why the families and the organizations have no confidence that the cases will be solved. This why we have taken on a search for justice through international action and are relying on the pressure of foreign governments and societies to move our own country’s institutions. We do this in order to reclaim our rights—rights we lost the very moment our daughters’ lives were torn from us. We organize for dignity and to eliminate the causes of so many absurd deaths. This hard struggle, undertaken in honor of the women kidnapped and murdered in Juarez, is fought to save any other mother from having to feel this pain. In a city where thousands of women have stayed home out of fear, are losing out on work and education, and whose development has been severely limited—we organize.

Currently, Nuestras Hijas is launching a new project to strengthen our community and to help build socio-cultural change that protects the lives of women. RadioFem “Break The Silence” in Ciudad Juarez is a community radio project operating for families of the disappeared and assassinated. Our project is still under construction, but we are creating programs that reeducate our traditionally “macho” community. Our programs place women at the center of attention and allow them to explore the history and development of feminism. As of now, the permit to operate our station in Ciudad Juarez is pending and we hope the Secretary of Communications will resolve the problem quickly. Until then, RadioFem will soon be available on the internet.

We are working to make our project a reality because we want a different Ciudad Juarez; one that is informed and just, with healthy relations between men and women. Only then will the violence stop.


Marisela Ortiz Rivera is the co-founder of Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, special education teacher, and former teacher of 17-year-old Lilia Alejandra Garcia Andrade who was assassinated in February, 2001. For more information, see Translation and compilation by Jennifer Miller of the Black Whole Collective, a feminist solidarity network, and Susan Marsh, a long-time housing activist in the San Francisco Bay Area.