Mother’s Day in Ciudad Juarez


No contemporary human rights crisis in Mexico has moved world public opinion more than the rapes and murders of young women in Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua. Mass protests stretching from the U.S.-Mexico border to Europe and to India have demanded justice. Even Hollywood took up the theme, when it recently filmed a major drama about the Juarez crimes starring Antonio Banderas, Jennifer Lopez, and Martin Sheen, called Bordertown. The multi-million dollar film was withheld from release on the big screen in the United States for unexplained reasons.

For more than a decade now, investigators from the United Nations, Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, Amnesty International, International Human Rights Federation, Washington Office on Latin America, and even the Mexico government’s own National Human Rights Commission have visited the border and issued reports that harshly criticize law enforcement’s responses to the brutal killings.

The European Parliament, U.S. Congress, New Mexico State Senate, and other entities have passed resolutions condemning the femicides. A police hotline to receive anonymous tips was established across the border from Ciudad Juarez in El Paso, Texas.

Despite the international outcry, scores—perhaps hundreds—of murders and disappearances of young women remain unsolved. Refusing to let the memories of their loved ones die, mothers of femicide victims and their supporters are once again taking to the streets. On International Women’s Day 2008, protestors from both sides of the border filed past the familiar cross monument in honor of murdered women that guards one of the entrances to Ciudad Juarez from El Paso at the foot of the Santa Fe Bridge.

“There is not much to celebrate this day, because there is a common objective and that’s to end this climate of impunity and the inefficient response of the authorities,” Imelda Marrufo, director of Ciudad Juarez’s Women’s Organizations Network, told the press.

“There continues to be a lack of real political will to confront the problem in a serious way,” agreed Humberto Guerrero, case manager for the non-governmental Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH).

A recent CMDPDH report, Femicides in Chihuahua, helps shed additional light on the impunity that persists in Ciudad Juarez and other parts of Mexico. The report contains an exhaustive analysis of Mexico’s obligations under numerous international human rights agreements and detailed reviews of recommendations made by a long parade of international and national investigators.

While recognizing official, multi-agency efforts to at least acknowledge the murders and disappearances of women, the Mexico City-based CMDPDH concludes that victims’ relatives are still locked out of the justice system.

In an interview, Guerrero questioned contentions by Chihuahua State Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez and other Mexican officials that most of the Ciudad Juarez murders have been cleared up and successfully processed by the justice system. Gonzalez’s office, the PGJE, has long been responsible under Mexican law for investigating and prosecuting the femicides.

In a June 2007 presentation to the European Parliament, Gonzalez reported that of 413 murder cases in Ciudad Juarez opened by the PGJE from Jan. 21, 1993 to May 18, 2007, eight were ruled suicides, 264 were resolved, and 139 were still being investigated.

“To begin with, there are doubts about the numbers of women reported murdered,” Guerrero contended, “but we think it is deceptive to enter into a numbers game since it diverts attention away from the principal problem in these cases, which is access to the justice system as well as impunity. Besides that, we don’t think the lives of 50 women are worth more or worth less than the lives of 500 or 1,000.”

Other researchers, including El Paso author Diana Washington Valdez, who documented murders from 1993 to 2005 (including 120-130 sex-related crimes) for her book Harvest of Women, have reported far more murders than the 413 recognized by Gonzalez. If killings from the last three years are added to Washington’s figures, the toll of women murdered for all motives in Ciudad Juarez exceeds 500 since 1993.

What Ciudad Juarez sociologist Dr. Julia Monarrez calls “organized serial killings,” in which as many as eight bodies were recovered at once from a single location, and other murders highly suspected of involving organized crime, stand out as unpunished crimes to this day. Drug traffickers, gang members, individual serial killers, businessmen, and even officers from the same agency tasked with investigating the crimes have been implicated in different press accounts.

Guadalupe Morfin, President Fox’s former femicide commissioner for Ciudad Juarez and the current special federal prosecutor for crimes against women and human trafficking, acknowledged the possible involvement of PGJE personnel in the femicides in a report she delivered in Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, in June 2004. Earlier, in November 2003, representatives of Ciudad Juarez mothers personally delivered a list of possible murder suspects to President Fox in Mexico City. Not one was ever arrested.

According to Guerrero, the CMDPDH gave members of the administration of Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza a chance to offer their own comments for Femicides in Chihuahua before it was published, but the officials did not respond. In 2007, the human rights attorney met with then-Ciudad Juarez Mayor Hector “Teto” Murguia and his former public safety chief Marco Antonio Torres. The two officials were defensive, Guerrero said, demanding to know why Ciudad Juarez was being singled out.

Torres’ second-in-command and partner in the radio business, Saulo Reyes, was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso for allegedly smuggling half a ton of marijuana into the United States in January of this year. Earlier, Torres’ department was recognized for its anti-crime efforts at a ceremony attended by U.S. law enforcement representatives. Since Reyes’ arrest, scores of Ciudad Juarez policemen have died in gangland-style shootings, have quit the force before investigations could reach them, or have been arrested for drug dealing.

The State’s Response

Starting in the mid-1990s, the response to the femicides from Chihuahua state and Mexican federal law enforcement officials and elected officials might be summed up as a multi-layered exercise in denial, delay, delusion, dollars, and diversion. Numerous “investigations” were characterized by the lack of investigation, the loss or theft of key evidence and files, the mistreatment of victims’ relatives, and even the hiding of bodies from loved ones.

Reacting to national and international outrage, the federal administration of President Fox and the state administration of Chihuahua Governor Patricio Martinez created new institutions, commissions, and bureaucracies to address the femicide issue. Beginning in 2003, they spent millions of dollars to counsel relatives, compensate survivors, and build them new homes, hold anti-violence workshops, and conduct publicity campaigns warning women not to become victims.

The Femicides in Chihuahua report cites government figures that the Federal Preventive Police conducted 79,857 revisions of maquiladora labor transport buses and interviewed 50,133 women about security measures from May 2005 to August 2006. Considering subsequent scandals over widespread irregularities in the bus transport system, the statistic cited is a curious one.

Many Commissions, Few Answers

At the federal level, the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women in Ciudad Juarez was established with recognized human rights advocate Guadalupe Morfin as its head. Her mission was to coordinate the work of myriad government agencies. Viewing the femicides as part of a bigger breakdown of the rule of law and the social fabric in Ciudad Juarez, Morfin and other government officials promoted increased services for vulnerable, working-class neighborhoods. At one time, rehabilitation of the city’s Acequia Madre, or main irrigation ditch, was identified as a priority. In the view of Guerrero and other CMDPDH staff, the programs promoted by Morfin’s commission and other government agencies have not been systematically evaluated for reform or follow-up.

Almost in tandem with Morfin’s commission, Fox created the Special Prosecutor for Women’s Homicides in Ciudad Juarez as a special unit of the Office of the Federal Attorney General (PGR). A career PGR lawyer, Maria Lopez Urbina, was named as the chief investigator. Previously working in Coahuila, a state where sex-related women’s murders also began escalating in the late 1990s, Lopez Urbina should have been familiar with the femicide issue.

Victims’ relatives were disillusioned when it became clear that Lopez was not conducting any actual murder investigations but instead limiting her work to identifying PGJE employees responsible for botching “investigations” and obstructing justice. Before she was transferred from her post in 2005, Lopez Urbina identified 170 such officials, according to Guerrero, and then turned over their names for prosecution to the PGJE—the very agency which Lopez Urbina had acknowledged as dropping the ball in the first place.

“The federal authority recognizes that the local authority incurred in crimes and had failures,” Guerrero says, “and simply decides to return the majority of investigations to the same local authority that is in charge of investigating these functionaries and, in theory, of cleaning up these investigations.”

None of the PGJE officials named by Lopez Urbina served jail time because of statutes of limitations, other assorted legal loopholes, and suspected cronyism. In a glaring omission, Lopez Urbina did not name any high-ranking Chihuahua law enforcement or elected officials who held authority over their lower-ranking employees.

Maintaining a position that all authorities must be held accountable, the parents of Minerva Torres, an 18-year-old Chihuahua City resident who went missing in 2001 and was later found murdered, filed legal charges with the PGJE against former Governor Martinez and other former high officials for allegedly concealing their daughter’s body in a state facility for almost two years. First opened in 2005, the legal case is “practically paralyzed,” according to Lucha Castro, an attorney with the Chihuahua City-based Women’s Human Rights Center who is working with the Torres family.

Though Lopez Urbina did not solve a single Ciudad Juarez murder, the Fox administration decided to expand the scope of her office to include diverse crimes of violence against women across Mexico. Renamed the Special Prosecutor for Violent Crimes against Women (FEVIM) it was headed by Maria Elena Perez Duarte, another noted women’s advocate.

But it wasn’t long before Perez Duarte’s office was under fire from women’s activists for issuing lengthy reports but failing to obtain justice in crimes like the mass rapes of women prisoners by Federal Preventive Police and Mexico State policemen in the town of San Salvador Atenco in 2006. Of 21 Mexico State policemen arrested for the Atenco attacks, 15 were exonerated and six released on bail. No federal officers were brought to justice, despite victims’ testimonies. In April 2008, the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center of Mexico City took the cases of 11 Atenco victims to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) in Washington, DC. Victims, meanwhile, have reported receiving anonymous threats.

In 2006, current Federal Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora was the director of the federal agency responsible for dispatching federal policemen to Atenco—the Public Safety Ministry.

The FEVIM distributed a poster of 35 missing young girls and women—including some vanished persons from outside Ciudad Juarez—for posting in National Human Rights Commission offices and other public places, but the poster did not include many cases from Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City and has not been updated.

Seeking answers about Ciudad Juarez, Atenco, and other cases, the CMDPDH and other groups pressed for Duarte and Medina to testify in front of the Mexican Congress. The activists’ petition, however, was short-circuited when Duarte resigned in protest of the Mexican Supreme Court’s decision last December that absolved Puebla state officials of any wrong-doing related to the highly irregular 2005 arrest of journalist Lydia Cacho. Detained in Cancun, Cacho was whisked across Mexico incommunicado and threatened with rape and death after she published a book that exposed a pedophile ring of prominent Mexican and U.S. businessmen with important political ties.

Since Duarte’s resignation, the FEVIM has been expanded once again. Renamed the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Women and of Human Trafficking under the Calderon administration, its mission now includes investigating the trafficking of women and children. Salvaged from the political recycle bin, Morfin was recently appointed to oversee the new agency. Like Lopez Urbina and Duarte before her, Morfin has no real prosecutorial powers and can only refer cases to other divisions of the PGR for investigation and criminal sanction. Meanwhile, amid the criticism of women’s activists, Morfin’s old Ciudad Juarez commission has been quietly folded into the National Women’s Institute.

On the legislative front, both the Chihuahua State Legislature and Mexican Congress, which passed a recent law against gender violence, also jumped on the increasingly notorious femicide cases. Since the late 1990s, several femicide commissions, their life span determined by Mexico’s frequent election schedule, have been established, dissolved, and reestablished. A commission in the Mexican Chamber of Deputies headed by feminist Congresswoman Marcela Lagarde issued a long 2006 report that was cast in the Mexican media as downplaying the Ciudad Juarez killings while emphasizing a larger femicide phenomenon afflicting the entire country.

In 2008, the Chihuahua State Legislature launched yet another femicide commission after victims’ mothers publicly pressure lawmakers to act. Human rights lawyer Castro said justice advocates will expect the new commission to hold hearings, review Chihuahua’s compliance with national and international recommendations, and monitor the performance of law enforcement officials.

The Chihuahua initiative is headed by Mexican Green Party legislator Maria Avila Serna, who also served on Lagarde’s commission when she was a federal congresswoman several years ago. As a younger woman, Avila worked in the office of the PGJE that was responsible for investigating the Ciudad Juarez femicides in the 1995-96 period; human rights activists widely blame the office for fabricating scapegoats in the murders and employing torture against some suspects. In more recent years, Avila lost two male partners in gangland-style shootings.

In the state of Chihuahua current law makes it possible to commit a femicide and walk away unscathed. A 14-year statute of limitations means that many of the earliest femicides cannot be successfully prosecuted in state courts that still have jurisdiction over the cases. The statute of limitations has been a concern to justice advocates for years, but Chihuahua lawmakers have yet to remedy it. Loss of critical time is clearly worrying victims’ relatives and their supporters. Chihuahua City activist Norma Ledesma, whose daughter Paloma Angelica Escobar was raped and slain in 2002, said important leads were lost within the first day of multiple disappearances including her daughter’s. A 16-year-old computer school student, Paloma’s body was located not far from Chihuahua state police headquarters.

The coordinator of the NGO Justice for Our Daughters, Ledesma has noted patterns in the way many investigations were botched. In an interview, she blamed institutional indifference for the reign of impunity. “They’re not fools, they’re not stupid,” Ledesma said. “They didn’t do anything because it didn’t interest them.” Although the PGJE has created a special investigative unit headed by Jesus Manuel Fernandez to probe the Chihuahua slayings, Ledesma said there was no meaningful progress to report in the 26 cases handled by her organization.

A similar situation—or worse—prevails on the federal level. Ignoring widespread evidence to the contrary, the PGR does not officially recognize the presence of organized serial killings in the Ciudad Juarez murders, instead harping on the domestic violence or “crimes of passion” theme often mentioned by Chihuahua authorities. Since 2006, two PGR reports have glossed over the question of serial femicide. The PGR’s stance meshes with ongoing campaigns by some Chihuahua business, media, and political leaders to portray their city and state as the victim of a “black legend” concocted by free-trade hating international union activists, unrepentant communists, and other cranks out to harm the reputation of a growing, international business center.

It should be noted that miscarriages of justice similar to the ones registered in Chihuahua have occurred elsewhere in Mexico. Two relevant examples are the cases of computer school student Olga Lidia Osorio in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, who was savagely raped and murdered in 2003, and 15-year-old Sara Benazir, a Tijuana high school student who was thrown from a moving vehicle in Tijuana in 2005 and run over by another car. Like many of the Chihuahua crimes, a suspect in the Benazir crime was quickly identified but managed to elude justice; the young man in question is a relative of two individuals employed by the Baja California justice system.

Predictable Consequences

At its extreme, mass impunity could be sowing conditions in which outsiders are drawn to Ciudad Juarez simply because of its reputation as a killer’s paradise. Last December, for example, a U.S. resident allegedly killed a young woman near Ruidoso, New Mexico, and then drove her across the border to Ciudad Juarez where he lit the victim’s body on fire. The woman’s two-year-old son remained in the back seat of the vehicle, and was later abandoned by the alleged killer to wander alone the late night streets of the border city.

Although Chihuahua and federal authorities claim the femicides are a chapter from the past, recent disappearances and killings fit a familiar, sordid pattern. In e-mails, Marisela Ortiz, the spokeswomen for Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, another group of relatives of femicide victims, alerted the public to the disappearance of three teenagers in Ciudad Juarez during January and February of this year. One of the missing young women, 15-year-old Adriana Sarmiento Enriquez, disappeared from a downtown high school also attended by at least three other femicide victims in previous years.

On March 10, 2008, two days after International Women’s Day and a day after seven people were killed in a gun battle between Mexican soldiers and suspected drug cartel gunmen, a teenager from Chihuahua City, Paulina Elizabeth Lujan, disappeared and was later found raped and murdered in the same manner as more than two dozen other young women from the state capital between 1999 and 2007, according to media reports and non-governmental organizations.

The PGJE has charged two men with the Lujan crime, but the mother of one of the suspects was recently quoted in the Chihuahua press as claiming her son had been physically forced into rendering a confession, an all-too familiar practice in several other past femicide cases in which scapegoats were fabricated.

In two other recent episodes, female remains were recovered in the Juarez Valley in early May 2008, while another possibly murdered woman was discovered outside Chihuahua City only days earlier and not far from the spot where 2003 murder victim Diana Jazmin Garcia was found. Murders and disappearances of young women, whether in 1993-96, 2001-2003, or 2008, coincided with violent upheavals within the ranks of organized crime. In both Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City, the geography of clandestine graveyards for both male murder victims of organized crime and sexually assaulted women is frequently the same.

The Training and Reform Game

Chihuahua and Mexican federal officials frequently blame the pitiful state of previous femicide investigations on an early lack of resources, sloppy management, poor training, and the absence of modern technology like state-of-the-art DNA equipment.

In response, several U.S. law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have assisted the PGJE and other Mexican law enforcement agencies with crime-scene training, media advising, and technical assistance in individual murder cases. Among other contributors is the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, which has signed agreements with the PGJE to provide training and technical aid and to collaborate in a cross-border anti-human trafficking program.

Asked earlier this year on New Mexico public radio station KUNM if the New Mexico-Chihuahua collaboration would encompass the women’s murders, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King replied with a flat no. According to King, Patricia Gonzalez told him that the femicides were more a matter of domestic violence than of human trafficking.

Arguably, the centerpiece of U.S. aid to the PGJE is a $5 million dollar program sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Designed to assist the State of Chihuahua in the reform of its legal codes, the USAID initiative was outsourced to Management Systems International, a private Washington, DC foreign aid contractor that runs programs in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

“The Chihuahua state government has embraced the principles of transparency in its vision of a safer community bound by freedom and democracy,” said U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza, while lauding the legal reform process in early 2006.

Guerrero and other human rights activists cautiously greeted the initiative, which included changes such as oral trials for the first time.

“We didn’t see it as a negative thing at the beginning,” Guerrero said, “but the problem is that all this money, all this investment hasn’t benefited all the instances of cases that suffered irregularities, corruption on the part of functionaries. (USAID) has not impacted those cases.”

The biggest accomplishment of the program was its assistance in helping the world-renowned Argentine Anthropological Forensic Team identify at least 27 bodies of unidentified victims in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City. However, release of the team’s long-awaited final report, which is expected to be critical of some Chihuahua state officials, has been delayed.

Surveying the landscape, human rights activists stress a disconnect between the stated reform goals of the Reyes-Gonzalez administration and the impunity in numerous femicides. Regarding the PGJE incapable of conducting genuine investigations, many relatives and justice advocates call for its removal from the field. Ciudad Juarez’s Nuestras Hijas group urges the contracting of professional, outside investigators, possibly including foreigners, to find missing women. Guerrero stressed that the Mexican federal government needs to take full charge of the femicide investigations, a step it has long balked at doing due to sensibilities over states’ rights and Mexican “federalism.”

Dirty War Parallels

After years of femicides, it is possible to compare the Mexican state’s response with the Fox administration’s probe of the 1960s and 1970s Dirty War against suspected guerrillas and dissidents. Managed by Igancio Carrillo Prieto, the four-year Dirty War investigation identified military, police, and elected officials who were responsible for disappearing and probably executing hundreds of individuals.

High on the list was former President Luis Echeverria, who faced charges filed by Carrillo Prieto for massacring students in Mexico City. The Dirty War prosecutor also pursued cases against several other former officials for assorted crimes, but Echeverria and company managed to escape serious jail time. In the interim, a key witness was murdered, files were stolen, and probable culprits were reported deceased before they could face the legal music. Similar events have marred the femicide saga.

Some activists like former Ciudad Juarez resident Judith Galarza, current coordinator for FEDEFAM, a Caracas-based association of relatives of political prisoners and disappeared persons in Latin America, contend a direct link exists between the Dirty War and the femicides. On a recent border visit, Galarza reiterated how several former high-ranking Chihuahua state law enforcement officials implicated in organized crime began their careers as policemen active in the Dirty War. Galarza’s sister, Leticia, was disappeared by Mexican security forces in the late 1970s.

Institutionally, the PGR was the main federal agency involved in the femicide and Dirty War investigations. Answerable to politically-appointed bosses, the Dirty War and the women’s special prosecutors did not enjoy real independence. Indeed, prosecutors labored for an agency with a conflict of interest in the probes. In both the Ciudad Juarez femicides and the Dirty War, police employed by the PGR were implicated in human rights atrocities and crimes.

Decades later, thousands of relatives from both violent periods still have no real answers about why or what happened to their loved ones. Four generations of Mexicans have been physically, emotionally, or economically affected one way or another by the dual slaughters, including the grandparents, parents, and siblings of victims, the victims themselves, and the orphans left behind.

Mario Alberto Solorazano, CMDPDH legal director, said the long string of femicides in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City have “terrorized” society and subjected to citizens to “institutional violence.”

In a 2003 presentation in Mexico, internationally-known Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon termed impunity in the femicides a crime against humanity that was possible material for the International Criminal Court.

Last Chance for Justice?

As the murder case files that were not lost or lifted linger in Mexican law enforcement offices, victims’ relatives from both the Dirty War and femicide eras are turning to international human rights commissions and courts. Taking Mexico’s adherence to the 1994 Belem do Para Convention and other human rights agreements and treaties that protect women from violence as their cue, women’s rights advocates are trying to set precedents for national and international law.

Late last year, the Costa Rica Inter-American Court for Human Rights agreed to hear the cases of three young women murdered in 2001: Laura Berenice Ramos, Claudia Ivete Gonzalez, and Esmeralda Brenda Herrera. Together with five other victims, the three women were found brutally murdered in a Ciudad Juarez cotton field in November 2001. Part of the Organization of American States system, the court issues mandatory resolutions to member states including Mexico.

In Washington, the IACHR, which does not have the obligatory power of a court but is the first step before taking a case to Costa Rica, is wrapping up a six-year review of two cases represented by the CMDPDH: Paloma Escobar and a missing woman, Silvia Arce, whose 1998 disappearance in Ciudad Juarez was linked by her mother to PGR employees. In addition to the Escobar and Arce complaints, the IACHR is currently considering the case of Minerva Torres.

Solorzano characterized the advancement of the Escobar case, in particular, as an important development since human rights commissioners became interested in the commonalities between the Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City killings. In practice, Chihuahua state law enforcement has long treated the murders in the two cities as separate crimes, even though victims disappeared and were killed in the same way; some even attended different branches of the same privately-owned school.

According to Solorzano, the relatives of Escobar and Arce are seeking recommendations from the Washington commission to get Mexico City to comply with previous ones made by the United Nations: complete murder investigations so criminals are finally brought to justice; and truly investigate law enforcement officials responsible for the obstruction of justice. Solorzano is confident the OAS-affiliated institution’s actions will prod Mexico in the direction of respecting its international human rights commitments.

“The Mexican state, through its diplomatic corps, has a discourse that isn’t reflective of its actions,” Solorzano maintained. “That’s why when the resolutions are issued, we trust that it will no longer just be part of the Mexican government’s human rights foreign policy discourse, but that the implementation of these resolutions will become a reality to those persons signaled as victims in these cases.”

At the grassroots level, Norma Ledesma is one who still keeps the faith that a change of direction and of history is possible. Admitting she is often left feeling like she is up against a “monster,” Ledesma nevertheless insisted that she will keep fighting until she finds out the truth about Paloma’s killing. “God gave me this strength to continue. I owe it to my daughter,” she said. “We seek justice for our daughters—that’s all.”

KENT PATERSON is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America, and an analyst for the Americas Policy Program at








Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.