Families of Missing Women Protest Police Inaction in Juarez

Families of Missing Women Protest Police Inaction in Juarez

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JUAREZ, Chihuahua, México—Monica Janeth Alanis Esparza was 17 years old the last time her mother, Olga Esparza, leaned over to give her a kiss in bed. “I told her I loved her very much and went out to run some errands.” That was almost two years ago. Monica has not been seen since.

Brenda Berenice Castillo was 17 when she left her one-month-old son in charge of her parents while she went to downtown Juarez to look for a job. Missing for exactly two years, it is as if she vanished into thin air.

Adriana Sarmiento was only 15 when she disappeared almost three years ago. Brenda Ivonne Ponce Saenz was 17 when she seemingly stepped off the face of the earth in July 2008. The list goes on and on.

According to Familias de Mujeres Desaparecidas (Families of Disappeared Women), a local NGO, at least 100 local women went missing in 2008 and another 70 in 2009.
There is still no official tally for 2010.

The scandal is not just the number of girls and women who have vanished, but the failure of law enforcement officials to search for them. Under Mexican law, the vast majority of the disappeared—especially those who are minors (under 18)—are classified as “absent” from home: loosely translated, “runaways.”

“There is no investigation, there is nothing. Authorities just give us the runaround,” Olga Esparza said minutes before she and dozens of other mothers of missing women protested the lack of action by invading the lobby of the local State’s Attorney General office and pasting photos of their daughters in the building’s front windows.

Violence Against Women and the Rule of Law

Outrage has been growing since the early 1990s, when Ciudad Juarez made international headlines for the large number of homicides among women—a much higher rate than in the rest of Mexico. Numbers are elusive and difficult to trust, but NGOs estimate that more than 500 women have been kidnapped, raped, mutilated, and murdered in the area in the past 20 years, with only a handful of the perpetrators brought to justice.

But there is a big difference in legal terms between those who are officially recognized as victims of murder and those who are classified only as disappeared— especially for the victims’ families.

According to the laws of most Mexican states, a murder requires an immediate investigation. But in cases where a person has “gone absent,” there is a 72-hour waiting period after a report has been filed before authorities can officially begin the search.

Yet according to family members, even after this waiting period has elapsed, investigations are rare.

“Brenda Berenice’s family approached authorities hours after concluding that she wasn’t answering her cell phone and something was not right,’’ said Malu Garcia, representing a coalition of organizations formed by families of women classified as either disappeared or murdered. “Today it’s been two years with no formal investigations,” she added, noting that most of the victims listed as “absent from home” are teenagers from families with no connections to organized crime.

“My daughter told me about a middle-aged man who began to approach her while she worked in a burger stand downtown in Juarez,’’ said Elvira Gonzalez, mother of 15-year-old Perla Ivonne Aguirre Gonzales, who vanished on July 21, 2009. “The only thing they [authorities] say to me is that they are investigating, but nothing happens.”

A City Overwhelmed by Murders

Local authorities declined to comment on any of the cases mentioned, other than to insist that “the claims are open” and that the investigations continue.

But the mothers—who maintain a near-constant protest in front of the State’s Attorney General office — believe authorities have little interest in investigating the disappearances, in part because they are overwhelmed by the huge number of homicides in the city (3,126 in 2010 alone). There is no political will from the state government to change the law and legally force the state’s prosecutor to investigate the reports of the missing persons.

“We had found through our own means that there are gangs involved in human trafficking in downtown Juarez and their specialty is to kidnap young girls for prostitution or other illegal activities and we are demanding an investigation,’’ said Malu Garcia. “We will be here every anniversary of the disappearance of each victim to remind them.”

“I have hopes that my girl is still alive, and that is the reason I am here,” said Olga Esparza, struggling to hold back her tears. “I want her to know that wherever she is, we are still looking for her.”