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In Juarez murders, progress but few answers

Probe into hundreds of cases enters second decade

By Emanuella Grinberg
Court TV

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(Court TV) -- Rebeca Contreras' body was found March 10, raped and strangled, in a desolate waste lot on the outskirts of Mexican border town Ciudad Juarez. As gruesome as it was, there was an aspect of this discovery that one government official found positive.

"For the first time, the crime scene was preserved," says Maria Guadalupe Morfin Otero, a human rights lawyer recently appointed to coordinate the disparate investigations into a decade of slayings of women in Ciudad Juarez.

"The difference from earlier cases is that local authorities, with the presence of federal authorities, took care from the first moment to preserve the scene and do a careful handling of the evidence," explained Morfin Otero in Spanish on the phone from her office in Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.2 million separated from El Paso, Texas, by a mere bridge over the Rio Bravo.

As the investigation into the abductions of more than 400 women -- plus some 80 more still missing -- in Ciudad Juarez and neighboring city Chihuahua enters its second decade, the careful handling of evidence is a small turn for the better. Despite some new coordination efforts and the appointment of a special prosecutor, bodies continue to turn up. And many feel that investigators are not much closer to solving the cases.

The abduction-murders are part of a wider web of lawlessness and corruption in Ciudad Juarez, where there is a rampant drug trade and known police complicity, according to human rights organizations. Advocates such as Morfin Otero insist the source of the problem must be stamped out before authorities can begin to properly investigate the murders.

"There are serious institutional defects in the division of power in our state. The state government of Chihuahua lacks an ethical system of checks and balances," said Morfin Otero. "We need better coordination of federal authorities and to strengthen the lines of cooperation with civilian society and local authority."

A handful of arrests have been made in connection with the murders, although no official information is made available concerning how many or the status of detainees.

In 1999, Abdel Latif Sharif, a convicted rapist in the U.S., was sentenced to 30 years for the 1995 murder of 17-year-old Elizabeth Castro Garcia. But the murders persisted even after he was taken into custody in 1995.

At least eight former police officers have also been arrested in connection with the murders, all of whom were released from custody or escaped.

Other detainees, as well as human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, claim that confessions have been coerced through torture.

The only thing certain in the case seems to be the victim profile. The majority of the victims are under 18, a handful between the ages of one and four. Two-thirds are students, domestic or factory workers from poor backgrounds. Often they are employees of the maquiladoras, the foreign-owned factories in Ciudad Juarez to which a number of Mexicans flock each year in search of steady work.

Another common factor is that many of the young women were kidnapped and subjected to brutal sexual violence before being killed. Amnesty International estimates that at least 139 of the more than 400 of the victims were sexually assaulted, often "beyond the act of rape."

The injuries include bite-marks, stab wounds, and other types of mutilation and beatings. The cause of death in more than 70 percent was either asphyxia resulting from strangulation or injuries caused by blows.

The injuries often make them difficult to identify, and many of the bodies are too decomposed to be identified.

In some cases, there is the concern that victims are misidentified altogether, since DNA technology is rarely used to identify remains. In the case of 16-year-old Gloria Rivas Martinez, her skeletal remains were not identified until months after they were discovered in October 2002.

Another girl murdered

The lack of careful investigation, and seeming indifference, is a clear problem in many of the investigations, such as that into the case of Lilia Alejandra Garcia.

"When we found her, my daughter's body told of everything that had been done to her," is the often-quoted remark of Norma Andrade, the mother of Lilia Alejandra Garcia, spoken at a forum held by the Association for Women's Rights and Development in 2002.

According to reports culled by Amnesty International, on the night of Feb. 19, 2001, at 10:15, people living near a factory waste dump called municipal police to report that a naked young woman was being beaten and raped by two men in a car.

No patrol car was dispatched until a second call was placed. By the time it arrived at 11:25 p.m., the car had left.

Four days earlier, the mother of Lilia Alejandra García had reported her 17-year-old daughter, a mother of two, missing. She was last seen by her co-workers walking toward an unlit waste dump near the factory to catch the bus home.

On February 21, the body of a young woman was found near where the emergency call had been made. It was wrapped in a blanket and showed signs of physical and sexual violence.

The cause of death was asphyxia resulting from strangulation. Lilia Alejandra's parents identified the body as that of their daughter. The forensic report concluded that she had died a day and a half earlier and that she had spent at least five days in captivity before her death.

The identity of the woman attacked on Feb. 19 was never established, and authorities never investigated the lack of response by emergency services in Ciudad Juárez. No attempt was made to investigate whether there was a connection between the incident and the abduction of Lilia Alejandra or any other case.

A renewed effort

The work of Amnesty International and scores of Mexican civil groups, who recently united under the coalition Alto a la Impunidad (Stop Impunity), has been most influential in putting pressure on local and federal authorities by drawing international attention to the last decade of slayings.

As the only advocates for the victims and their families, the groups have long said the situation in Ciudad Juarez, which has also spread to neighboring Chihuahua, is emblematic of the general violence against women that undermines human rights protection throughout Mexico.

On its face, the Mexican federal government has been making efforts to combat the lawlessness of Ciudad Juarez.

Since President Vicente Fox Quesada came to power in 2000, as the first opposition candidate to wrestle the presidency from the party that has ruled for 71 years since the Mexican Revolution, the international community made note of some progress.

Even Amnesty International has acknowledged President Fox's various mobilizing policies since the release of its August 2003 report condemning the Mexican government for its overall indifference and corruption in the investigations.

The installation of Morfin Otero in October 2003 and the creation in February of her office, the Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence Against Women in Ciudad Juarez -- which coordinates the efforts of federal, state and local agencies -- is one of the accomplishments, and was recommended by Amnesty International in its report on the investigation.

In response to Amnesty International's call for federal intervention in the investigations, this past February, President Fox also named Maria Lopez Urbina as special prosecutor for the slayings of women in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua.

For the past 10 years, the investigations have been left to local and state authorities, who are widely known to be in the pockets of those controlling Ciudad Juarez's booming drug trade, which extends throughout the state of Chihuahua, the largest state in the republic, and across the frontier with the United States.

The designation of these two posts was intended, as President Fox stated in a February press conference following Lopez Urbina's appointment, "to clarify what has happened over the past 10 years and to work so that this painful experience doesn't repeat itself."

A spokesperson for Lopez Urbina told Court TV she would not comment "since the special prosecutor does not give interviews" and was too busy to answer e-mailed questions.

A press release from Lopez Urbina's office states the former lawyer and head of the Cohuila Justice Department intends to "investigate the cases where there is evidence of inefficiency, negligence or tolerance on the part of public servants so there is no more impunity for those who failed to fulfill their duty."

Lopez Urbina's first undertaking as special prosecutor was to create a DNA bank to store evidence from the crimes. In the past, Ciudad Juarez investigators have refused to use DNA testing in the investigations, citing lack of funds.

"If there was negligence ... we will be looking at each one of the particular cases and giving them corresponding attention," Lopez Urbina said in a statement.

Pressure from all sides

In addition to pressure from human rights organizations, the Mexican authorities are also facing lawsuits from the families of 15 of the victims, who are represented pro bono by the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.

Commission lawyer Adriana Carmona has been lobbying authorities since 1995 for more thorough investigations into the slayings. She says most families are afraid to come forward.

"They don't have confidence in the justice system. One mother told me, 'I'm scared because I have more daughters,'" she said.

There has been a tendency since early in the investigation to blame the victims, says Carmona, referring to public comments made by several members of the Chihuahua state police and to the general lack of protection for women who are victims of violence. It was only in 1997 that the Mexican government updated the civil and criminal code to bring penalties for crimes related to family violence and rape in line with international standards. Laws against domestic violence exist in only eight of the country's 31 states, among which there is no uniformity.

"Women who have a night life, go out late and come into contact with drinkers are at risk. It's hard to go out on the street when it's raining and not get wet," former Chihuahua State Public prosecutor, Arturo Gonzalez Rascon, told the national newspaper, El Diario, in February 1999.

Carmona is somewhat optimistic about recent developments, but acknowledges that the endemic corruption will take a long time to dismantle.

"I think there are many levels at which the police are participating. There are cases where we can say that they are covering up the offenders, but there are others in which we believe they themselves are the perpetrators," she said.

In particular she refers to the March 8 resignation of Chihuahua State Attorney General Jesus Jose Solis amid a scandal over the arrest of 13 of his agents in connection with a drug-trafficking ring.

The arrests at the end of January came after the bodies of 12 men were found buried in a Ciudad Juarez home. Some were shot, others had been suffocated with plastic bags, all of them had been doused in lime juice to hide the stench.

Solis resigned after the national newspaper, Progreso, reported that he too was under investigation by the federal attorney general's office for ties to drug trafficking. Mexican Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha has said he has no knowledge of an investigation concerning Solis.

His resignation was viewed as a victory for the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, among others who have long suspected Solis of generating the trickle-down effect of police corruption.

But the group was unable to prevent the former Ciudad Juarez police chief, Hector Lastra, from being released after he was detained earlier this month for allegedly attempting to coordinate an adolescent prostitution ring.

"There was the justification that he had only kidnapped two young girls, but didn't do anything to them," said Carmona.

As hopeless and dangerous as the struggle for human rights in Mexico can be, Carmona says it is a cause well worth it.

"We're not only fighting against corruption," Carmona says of her work. "We're fighting for justice for the young girls -- because if we don't do it, nothing will change."

Human rights activists aren't the only ones fighting. Even voices from Hollywood have come forward in protest.

On Valentine's Day this year, "Vagina Monologues" playwright Eve Ensler organized a march from El Paso across the bridge to Ciudad Juarez to demand an end to the murders. She was joined by actresses Jane Fonda and Sally Field and a crowd of 5,000 to 7,000 protesters.

Field told a reporter for the Web site, Women's eNews, that she was there to do what needs to be done. "How do you change anything, except stand in one place and scream and scream and scream and then make more people come and stand in that place and scream and scream and scream?"

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