After Six Executions, Family Flees Juarez—But Is Anywhere Safe?

After Six Executions, Family Flees Juarez—But Is Anywhere Safe?

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JUAREZ, Chihuahua, Mexico—One threatening phone call was more than enough. After the anonymous caller hung up, the 23 surviving members of the Reyes Salazar family decided earlier this month to follow in the footsteps of some 200,000 other families that have abandoned this city over the past four years amid an ever-darkening cloud of violence and death.

Just a few days earlier, three more relatives had been buried—slain, it is widely believed, for protesting the recent deaths and disappearances of several other family members.

The latest victims—Elias Reyes Salazar, his wife Luisa Ornelas, and his sister Malena—had been abducted at gunpoint in early February alongside an empty highway, in an area heavily guarded by federal soldiers. Their bloodied bodies were discovered nearly three weeks later, dumped in plain sight on a busy road less than a mile away from what used to be their home. Two of the bodies were defiled with scrawled messages mocking the activists’ demands for justice and threatening the survivors. Authorities claimed these messages were left by drug gangs—“proof” that the victims had ties to organized crime.

At least six members of the Reyes Salazar family have been murdered in the last couple of years, including Josefina Reyes, the sister of Elias and Malena and a well-known human rights activist in the Valle de Juarez (shown in photo above, left). Josefina’s son Julio was executed last year and another son, Miguel, has been arrested on charges (unproven) of being part of a drug cartel operating in the area.

Meanwhile, the humble home of Sara Salazar (above right), the 76-year-old mother of Elias and Malena, who was with her children when they were kidnapped, was burned down as she protested on the steps of the state Justice Department in Juarez. The family business, a bakery, has also been ransacked, leaving the relatives with few options for earning a living.

Late last week, the family left for Mexico City to continue their protests and apply for political asylum in the United States.

“There is no way we can continue living in this country under these circumstances,” said Marisela Reyes Salazar, a sister of Elias, Malena, and Josefina who has herself been targeted with ugly threats. “We have already paid a very high price as a family for being outspoken about the incompetence of this government.”

“We believe the perpetrators are working closely with authorities to promote the idea that all the victims of the war against the drug cartels are somehow involved with organized crime,” added Claudia Reyes, Marisela’s surviving sister. She spent two weeks on a hunger strike last month to demand that government authorities find what happened to her relatives.

A number of the younger members of the Reyes Salazar family are U.S. citizens by birth and can flee over the border. But older relatives, including Claudia and Marisela, must apply for political asylum if they want to enter the United States legally. Their chances are not good; the U.S. government denies more than 95 percent of political-asylum requests by Mexicans.

A recent university study revealed that the atmosphere of violence has led more than 200,000 families like the Reyes Salazars to flee the Juarez area. Those with money crossed “El Rio Grande” and took up residence in the safety of El Paso, Texas. Those with less means but a willingness to work left for their ancestral villages and cities in the interior of Mexico.

A History of Opposing the Government

Like thousands of other families, the Reyes Salazars can’t pinpoint their relentless enemy with any certainty. But their main suspect is the government, which they’ve been battling since the 1990s, when they began to organize the residents of Guadalupe, a small town on the U.S.-Mexico border halfway between Juarez and the even smaller town of Sierra Blanca, Texas.

The purpose of their protests was to stop the construction of a nuclear waste dump planned by the U.S. government at Sierra Blanca, which they argued would endanger the region’s limited underground water resources.

The activists won that battle, and the storage site for about 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste was moved to the Yucca Mountains, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas, in 1992. But the Reyes Salazar family continued their fight, this time against the inconsistencies and incompetence of the Mexican government.

“They were the first ones who began to question the federal government and aligned themselves with the opposition [Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD],” said Alberto Dominguez, a longtime local activist and critic of the Mexican government. Josefina Reyes Salazar, in particular, was well known for her activism against the wave of femicides in the area and other issues, and she was elected to several local positions.

Her protests against the government became more heated after the Mexican military and police launched “Operation Chihuahua” against drug traffickers in 2008, occupying the area around Guadalupe. After receiving a number of threats for her work highlighting military abuses, Josefina was murdered on Jan. 3, 2010.

“We are all committed to keep up the fight and demand authorities at every level do what they must –which is to provide justice to the citizens of this country,” her sister, Claudia Reyes Salazar, said last week. She said the family will continue with their activism and demands to find the killers of their relatives “wherever they are.”

Human rights organizations have called on the Mexican government to protect the Reyes Salazar family from more violence and reprisals, but those calls have fallen on deaf ears.

“We can’t give up," said Gero Fong, an activist who spent several weeks protesting on behalf of the Reyes Salazar family. "We have to tell the people of Juarez, and this country, that the main problem (with) Mexico is the incompetence of the government at all levels. If we keep quiet and do not protest, we are all in danger of extinction."