How Many More Esmeraldas Must Die?

Perla Reyes had no news about her daughter. At the age of 13, Jocelyn Calderon Reyes disappeared in downtown Ciudad Juarez in December 2012. Since then, the saddened mother has tirelessly but unsuccessfully pressured the justice system to locate her daughter.

“This says a lot about the efficiency of the authorities,” Reyes told Frontera NorteSur. To draw attention to Jocelyn’s disappearance, Reyes once organized an event that was even unprecedented in the decades-old struggle of the Juarez mothers of disappeared and murdered girls and women.

Last May, following a mass held at the Juarez Cathedral in honor of Jocelyn, Reyes and friends held a public celebration of the teen’s 15th birthday, or quinceanera. Staged in Juarez’s downtown historic plaza, the birthday party featured a cake and a mannequin attired in a quinceanera dress to represent Jocelyn.

“Many people help us, “Reyes said, stressing that the mothers generate public sympathy but need to keep their movement visible so the public will know that “we keep struggling.”

In this spirit, Reyes and dozens of other relatives of victims of murder and disappearance turned out for a loud and emotion-packed protest on International Women’s Day 2015.

Commencing at the Benito Juarez Monument, the Mothers and Relatives Committee of Disappeared Daughters and their supporters wound through the downtown streets. “They were taken alive, and we want them back alive,” the protesters chanted. “This day is not a holiday, but a day of struggle.”

Victims’ families were joined by teachers, left activists, feminists, university students, and human rights defenders from different organizations.

As a rainbow of flags fluttered above marchers, placards variously proclaimed “Look for them,” “We don’t want flowers, we want rights,” and “Ayotizinapa, feminicides, State Crime.” A news drone reportedly deployed by one of the Juarez news media outlets hovered overhead. Defying a new city policy prohibiting the display of missing persons posters on downtown streets, an energetic squad of youthful activists plastered fresh posters of disappeared women along the protesters’ route.

Halting at the new downtown plaza, the marchers formed a human circle. One by one, the names of disappeared young women were read from a large photo-filled banner. After the name of each woman was read, the crowd roared “Present!”

In allusion to widespread charges that women’s disappearances are related to human trafficking with a U.S. connection, protesters shouted, “They are our daughters, not merchandise!” Surging forward up Avenida Juarez, the march halted at the foot of the Santa Fe Bridge leading into neighboring El Paso, Texas.  Erected by women’s activists years ago, a cross of nails with the names of feminicide victims still stands on the Juarez side. After briefly blockading traffic in front of the cross, the marchers heard words from relatives and their allies.

Behind the names and photos displayed on the streets March 8 are the stories, sorrows and struggles of many Juarez families. Maricela Gonzalez disappeared after visiting a Juarez prison one spring day in 2011, becoming her four children’s second parent to vanish.  The father, said sister Irma Gonzalez, was murdered in 2010. “They are orphans,” Gonzalez said, adding that is she is raising  the kids without government assistance and with the help of other family members, all of whom pitch in.

Maria Gomez is in the same predicament. Daughter Claudia Antonia Nunez walked out the door one day eight years ago and never returned, leaving behind two young children for Maria to take care of in mom’s absence. Like many other young girls, 14-year-old Esmeralda Castillo went missing in downtown Juarez in 2009.  “I feel bad because I don’t have my cousin,” said 12-year-old Ricardo, describing how he and Esmeralda were once playmates.

Recently, Chihuahua state authorities identified Esmeralda Castillo as one of multiple, female homicide victims recovered from a secret, mass graveyard in the Navajo Arroyo of the Juarez Valley.  But Jose Luis Castillo, Esmeralda’s father, said the family is still not convinced that the remains in question belong to his daughter.

“We’ll ask the citizenry for help if it’s necessary to do a third DNA test,” Castillo said.

Cinthia Jocabeth Castaneda vanished the year before Esmeralda, during a trip to buy shoes downtown.  “It is not known the exact place where she could have been kidnapped, only that it was downtown,” said Cinthia’s grandmother, Ernestina Alvarado.

The grandmother has taken up the local torch for Cinthia, whose own mother,  Karla Castaneda, fled to the U.S. in search of political asylum in 2013 amid threats Castaneda blamed on activism on behalf of missing girls and women.  Now living in the U.S, Alvarardo’s  daughter helped organize a demonstration for the Juarez women in Los Angeles this past weekend, according to Alvarado.   “Karla has inspired the solidarity over there,” she said.

Backed by the Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, a local non-governmental organization, the International Women’s Day protest included the participation of relatives of disappeared men from the state of Chihuahua. Hilda Avila spoke to FNS about her missing brother, 42-year-old Cesar Avila, who was forcibly disappeared while visiting an uncle in the state of Zacatecas in 2011.

According to Avila, men with covered faces and dressed in the uniforms of soldiers and judicial police and snatched Cesar after asking him about a car with Chihuahua license plates.  Despite legal complaints over the abduction filed with four separate government agencies, nothing is known about Cesar’s fate, Avila said. “They have an obligation to do an investigation, but haven’t done anything,” she insisted.

The March 8 demonstration was the second time in 48 hours that victims’ families hit the streets. On Friday, March 6, activists and family members marched to Mayor Enrique Serrano’s office angered by comments Serrano made in the Mexican Senate last month, alleging that his city was burdened by the “black legend” of feminicide.

A tale was being spun by “businessmen and foreign promoters to throw dirt on this municipality, with the goal of preventing companies from coming to a city that was competing favorably in the installation world businesses…,” Serrano was quoted in the Mexican daily La Jornada. “The majority of the (murder) investigations have been resolved, the investigations concluded, and the guilty party found. There are still many cases to resolve, but the great majority are resolved. The group that demands justice, with all its rights, has been reduced.”

Family members were also ticked off  by a new policy unveiled by the Urban Development department banning the placing of missing persons posters on downtown streets, a zone undergoing revitalization as part of push to attract new business investment and tourism.

“It’s not a legend, it’s a reality,” mother Susana Montes later said in response to Mayor Serrano’s Mexico City remarks. “All the mothers are living with it. That’s why we are in the struggle.”

“They want to cover up that disappearances of women happen in Juarez,” Perla Reyes added. “I think it is not convenient to the government for people to realize there are still disappearances of women.”

Juarez academic Alfredo Limas, who assists victims’ mothers, framed Serrano’s speech as conforming to the line followed by political leaders of all stripes during the past decades.  “It’s the perspective all the mayors have had since the middle of the 1990s.” Limas told FNS. “No mayor has shown solidarity with family members.”

The continued urgency of the gender violence issue was once again dramatized early on March 7, the day prior to International Women’s Day, when the body of a young woman murder victim that showed signs of sexual denigration was found tossed on a street in the Barrio Alto section of the city, according to El Diario newspaper and other local media outlets.

Fulfilling an agreement reached at the end of the March 6 protest, Serrano met with victim’s relatives and supporters on Monday, March 9.  In a press release following the meeting, Serrano’s office announced several joint agreements including the placement of new billboards containing information about the disappeared at three heavily-transited points of the city; the circulation of pertinent information in all the city’s police stations as well as in nightclubs; permitting the mothers to display posters of their missing loved ones on urban infrastructure; and greater attention on security and vigilance in the downtown area specifically.

“We will check with the prosecutor’s office and if needed we will seek additional resources to increase the number of cameras,” Serrano said.

The previous day, on March 8, Juarez relatives and activists extended their protest from the Santa Fe Bridge by traveling in an auto caravan to a very symbolic  place in their city’s history: El Campo Algodonero, or The Cotton Field.

Situated several miles from downtown at the intersection of Ejercito Nacional and Paseo de la Victoria in the city’s so-called Golden Zone, the old farm plot was the place where the bodies of eight murdered young women were discovered in November 2001.

Nearly 14 years later, the field barely resembles the spot that became internationally notorious as ground zero for feminicides.  A hotel and cafe occupy one part of a barren field, and an irrigation ditch where the bodies of five of the victims were found is now covered with dirt.

Sacred ground to many Juarenses, a spacious monument to the murder victims guards one section of the field. Inside, a visitor will find a plaque and pink crosses in honor of the eight victims, as well as the names and photos of other women who suffered similar fates at other times and places in the border city. A large sculpture of a woman rising to the sky looms over the monument, which was constructed by the Mexican government in compliance with a 2009 sentence issued by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR).

On International Women’s Day 2015, the monument came alive with speeches, poetry, music and folkloric dances. “We aren’t a list, or statistics,” read a message draped on one of the walls. “We are women full of memories.” Hugs, handshakes and tears flowed, as droplets of rain trickled from the last clouds of winter on a land thirsting for justice.

Susana Montes, mother of 17-year-old murder victim Maria Guadalupe Perez, found herself on the grounds of one old clandestine burial ground while trying to figure out how her daughter ended up in a new one many years later. Disappeared during a shopping excursion for shoes in downtown Juarez in 2009, Perez was later identified as one of numerous female homicide victims found in the Navajo Arroyo in 2012.

Located about an hour’s drive from the city, the Navajo Arroyo is a very remote place accessible only by 4-wheel drive vehicles, according to Montes.

“We don’t understand how the victims got there,” Montes said. “You have to have a special vehicle.”

Between the time of Maria Perez’s disappearance and the Navajo Arroyo discoveries, access to the Juarez Valley was variously controlled or monitored by federal police, soldiers and underworld gunmen.

In contrast to the Campo Algodonero victims, the remains from the Navajo Arroyo were even more decomposed, with the parents getting back “our daughters in pieces,” Montes said.

Montes is tracking the court case of a dozen suspects accused of crimes in connection to the Navajo Arroyo.  The men were arrested by the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office in 2013, charged with abducting the Navajo Arroyo victims for sex trafficking and drug dealing ends.

Despite incriminatory evidence, the judicial proceedings are hampered by the legal maneuvers of defendants’ attorneys, Montes asserted. “There is a lot of slowness,” she added. “We hope they sentence them.”

On International Women’s Day 2015, the Campo Algodonero was the scene of an encounter between the parents of two girls with the same first names who were only teenagers when they separately vanished.

Jose Luis Castillo, father of Esmeralda Castillo, and Irma Monreal, mother of Esmeralda Herrera, shared an emotional moment on a late winter’s day.

Herrera was the first victim found in the old cotton field back in 2001, less than 10 days after she disappeared. For Monreal, visiting the field was a bittersweet experience.  “I feel bad in spite of the passage of 14 years,” the Juarez mother said. “My pain is present. It can’t be overcome…. .”

Together with two other mothers of Campo Algodonero victims, Monreal sued the Mexican government in the IACHR. In 2009, the Organization of American States’ court rendered a historic judgment that found the Mexican state accountable for human rights violations not only in the Campo Algodonero episode, but in a broader pattern of violence against women in Juarez and the state of Chihuahua as well.

Monreal maintained that the government has not complied with key parts of the sentence that require punishing the killers and sanctioning the officials responsible for obstructing justice.  She criticized the elimination of her daughter’s case file from a review by United Nations legal experts in 2012, and questioned the case against a suspect in Esmeralda’s death, a possible casual acquaintance by the name of Eduardo Chavez.

Monreal noted that Edgar Alvarez, a suspect in the murder of another Campo Algodonero victim, has been in custody for years, but that the existence of disconnected killers defies logic. “It can’t be that eight victims each had a separate murderer,” Monreal said.

The activist mother posed another question, “How many more Esmeraldas must die before the government does justice, and avoids having so many young women die?”

Grabbing a microphone, Monreal delivered a short speech to sympathizers.  She then carried a fresh wreath to the plaque that bears the name of her daughter Esmeralda and the other young women found in the Campo Algodonero so many turbulent falls ago.

Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur and the Americas Program.

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.