Double Jeopardy: Femicide and Disappearances at the Border

Double Jeopardy: Femicide and Disappearances at the Border

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Editor’s Note:
Historically, women in Mexico inhabit opposing extremes in the minds of most males. A Mexicana may be idealized as a queen, a virgin and even a saint. Or she is the whore, a bitch--a worthless entity that can be obliterated at will. She is the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, or she is La Malinche, the whore-lover of Cortes, who betrayed the Aztecs.

JUAREZ, Chih., Mex. -- Photocopies bearing the logo of the state attorney general’s office are everywhere in this nightmare border town. They are taped under the counters of neighborhood grocery stores; stuck on shopping center walls and electricity poles; and posted on walls, in buses or on the sheets distributed by anonymous hands on street corners.

This is what people usually see: a black-and-white photo of a young woman or teenager. She is calm in the photo. Or she is smiling in better times. Now she has vanished.

There are so many women who have disappeared in Mexico, governmental bureaucracies have lost accurate count. According to numbers compiled by one agency, Unidad de Personas Ausentes y Extraviadas (Lost and Absent Persons Office), in just the first four months of this year, a total of 177 women have disappeared—without a trace--in Ciudad Juarez.

Most of the women who have disappeared are teenagers from low-income families. Some left behind small children.

Lately, local authorities have gone to great lengths to tie some disappearances to organized crime, although often without offering any proof.

Statewide, during the first five months of 2011, in addition to the women who have disappeared, there have been163 women murdered. That’s an 11 percent increase from the same period last year.

By all accounts, Ciudad Juarez leads the count with 88 homicides, nearly two-thirds of the total. If this trend continues--despite the presence of thousands of federal agents and soldiers in charge of public safety—the city will easily break last year’s record 466 killings.

A National Trend

Violence against women, particularly femicides in Mexico, are not new. Neither are they restricted to a particular area or city, such as Ciudad Juarez. Other Mexican states have registered higher incidences of violence against women. The state of Mexico, according to its attorney general’s office, reports that in the past year and a half has seen 4,773 reports of attacks against women. In the last five years, 922 women have been murdered.

The fact that more than 60 percent of the homicides remain unsolved, and the widespread perception that these types of crimes are not even investigated by police have angered women rights organizations throughout Mexico.

“Most family members of the victims need to do their own search for the perpetrator, if they want to see the cases of their loved ones move forward,” said Imelda Marrufo, a local lawyer and head of the nonprofit Red de Defensoras Comunitarias (Community Defense Network).

“The worst part is that we have many cases where families of victims, using their own resources, were able to identify, locate the perpetrator and present solid evidence to support their charge, but the authorities had done nothing,” added Marrufo.

Some cases have garnered national and international attention, such as the murder of Ruby Marisol Freyre, a young woman bludgeoned to death by her boyfriend in 2009.

Marisela Escobedo, the victim's mother, used her own resources to track the killer down and bring him to trial. The suspect was eventually released by a three-judge panel, even though he made incriminating statements that revealed the site where the body was dumped.

The decision of the judges generated such a political firestorm the panel later pronounced a 50 year sentence against Sergio Barraza, the identified killer. Barraza remains free and Escobedo was gunned down six months ago--a few days after she began to hold a protest in front of the state capitol in Chihuahua. She decried the incompetence of the government to bring her daughter’s killer to justice.

Escobedo’s case is only one of many. Dozens of mothers seeking justice have paid dearly by being beaten or murdered.

“I was beaten by federal agents for my insistence to have my (daughter's) case solved,” said Evangelina Arce, a mother in her late 70s who lost her daughter 13 years ago.

Irma Guadalupe Casas Franco stated, “I … with my own means investigated the case and found out who might have been responsible, but the authorities did nothing.”

The authorities “just give you the run around and claim they are investigating. The fact is that most of the time they just repeat to you the same information you previously gave them. It’s a farce,” said Elvira Gonzalez, mother of another young woman who disappeared.