As Juarez Family Loses Five Members, Protesters Cry “Enough!”

As Juarez Family Loses Five Members, Protesters Cry “Enough!”

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JUAREZ, Chihuahua, Mexico—It’s a cold night in mid-February and a group of about 30 activists are huddled around a fire inside a steel drum. The goal of their protests is to find out what happened to the Reyes Salazar family—Elias, Malena, and Luisa. Two weeks ago, the three relatives were kidnapped alongside an empty highway, in an area heavily guarded by federal soldiers.

Elias was partially paralyzed due to a recent stroke; his wife Luisa suffered from arthritis that prevented her from moving quickly. Malena seemed to be in good health, but like Elias, was in danger because she was the sister of Josefina Reyes, a longtime activist in an area known as Valle de Juarez who was killed at the beginning of last year.

Last summer, Ruben, another member of the family, was also executed. Then the police detained Miguel, the brother of Marisela Salazar, an activist killed in January of last year, on charges of being part of a drug cartel operating in the area where they all had lived.

All told, the Reyes Salazar family has suffered the loss of at least five members, plus the ransacking of the family business, a bakery. Earlier this month, their home was set on fire while they were setting camp in front of the state’s Justice Department, demanding a response on the whereabouts of their loved ones.

A Routine Explanation

Those members of the Reyes Salazar family still alive deny any connections with the drug cartels and claim that authorities so far have presented no proof in their allegations against Miguel.

Many of the activists attending the neighborhood meeting believe that the arrest is just part of a strategy for legitimacy by a government that has failed in its campaign against the drug cartels. Some believe it is a kind of “Machiavellian plan” orchestrated by the U.S. government to prepare a possible invasion Mexico.

“The government is doing everything possible to link the reform activists with the narcos and the drug cartels. The worst criminals are not working the streets executing people, the worst criminals are behind those (government) walls,” says Julian Contreras Alvarez, a 29-year-old literature teacher at a local high school. He has been on a hunger strike on the steps of the state’s Justice Department in Juarez, along with two members of the Reyes Salazar family who have declared themselves willing to die in their protest. They say they will end their fast only when their family members are “released or found.”

Contreras Alvarez, like most of the activists in this protest, believes that the killings and disappearances in the Reyes Salazar family are part of a strategy to intimidate those who challenge the government.

While federal, state and local officials decline requests from journalists for interviews, they have also declined to meet face to face with Contreras Alvarez and the other hunger strikers.

“All [the government officials] have done is to send out a spokesman who says that they have 12 agents investigating the case,” declares Adrian Fuentes Lujan, a 26-year-old with a degree in graphic design who has taken on the role of spokesman for the Reyes Salazar family.

Where the Chips May Fall

“We will protest the lack of justice we are all suffering, but we need to be prepared in case of arrest,” says Zulma Mendez, a longtime activist and education teacher at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Yes, we want to protest the disappearances of the three members of the Reyes Salazar family, but we must also let people know that any family could be victimized, and thousands already are.”

On this February evening, the group discusses the risks of their actions and the need to have legal representation in case of arrest. Like many protesters in the Middle East and elsewhere, most of the activists of Juarez are educated but they decided, some time ago, to give up their careers in the fight for a better country.

“The government and the media frequently disseminate the rumor that we are being financed by the drug cartels. But we operate within our own means,” says Alberto Dominguez Rodriguez, a paraplegic who has been politically active since the late 1960s.

“We all do this because we still believe that Mexico is a great country with great people,” he says. “The tragedy is that we have not been led by great leaders. There is no honesty at all in our government; people in government just fight for their piece of the pie.”

“I am aware of who I am and what I am doing. I know that anytime, any day I could be made to disappear, or tortured, and killed. But I want to make sure the government will pay a high price for my life,” says Julian Contreras Alvarez, clearly weary after six days of fasting.

“None of us are looking to be heroes,” adds Fuentes Lujan, as a blast of wind stirs the fire in the drum. “We would like that the rest of the city would join the movement and pressure to change things in Juarez and the rest of the country. This is not just a problem for Juarez, it is a problem for Mexico. If I get killed in the struggle, I believe it will be because I am doing the right thing.”