Marisela Escobedo’s life changed forever in August 2008 when her 16-year-old daughter Rubi failed to come home. What was left of Rubi’s body was found months later in a dump — 39 pieces of charred bone.

Rubi became one more macabre statistic in Ciudad Juarez’s nearly two-decade history of femicide. The murder of young women, often raped and tortured, brought international infamy to the city long before it became the epicenter of the Calderon drug war and took on the added title of murder capital of the world.

But Rubi never became a statistic for her mother. Marisela knew that a former boyfriend, Sergio Barraza, had murdered her daughter. As authorities showed no interest in investigating the case, she began a one-woman crusade across two states to bring the murderer to justice. The Mexican magazine Proceso recently obtained the file on her case. Marisela’s odyssey tracks a murderer, but it also tracks a system of sexism, corruption, and impunity.

It’s an odyssey that ends with Marisela–the mother–getting her brains blown out on December 16, 2010 as she continued to protest the lack of justice in her daughter’s murder two years earlier.

Trail of Impunity

Marisela Escobedo eventually tracked down Barraza. She had him arrested and brought to trial, and finally saw a chance for the hard-sought justice that could at least allow her to move on with her life.

But in Ciudad Juarez, the term “justice” is a bad joke, especially if you’re a woman. Despite the fact that Barraza confessed at the trial and led authorities to the body, three Chihuahua state judges released him. Marisela watched as the confessed assassin of her daughter left the courtroom absolved of all charges due to “lack of evidence.”

As pressure from women’s and human rights organizations mounted, a new trial was called and Barraza was condemned to 50 years in prison. But by that time, he was long gone and still has not been apprehended, despite Marisela’s success in discovering his whereabouts and providing key information to police and prosecutors.

The story doesn’t end there. Every day, Marisela fought for justice for her daughter and sought out the killer. She received multiple death threats. She responded saying, “If they’re going to kill me, they should do it right in front of the government building so they feel ashamed.”

And they did. Marisela took her demands for justice from the border to the state capital where a hit man approached her in broad daylight, chased her down, then shot her in the head.

A family’s story had come full circle. By all accounts, Rubi’s death came at the hands of an abusive boyfriend. Marisela’s death, however, was caused by an abusive system that sought to protect itself from her determination to expose its injustice. The gunman’s identity is unknown, but responsibility clearly lies with members of a state at best incapable of defending women and at worst culpable of complicity in killing them.

Gender Violence and Drug Violence

Ciudad Juarez in recent years has been described as a no-man’s Land, where legal institutions have lost control to the armed force of drug cartels. The femicides show us, though, that the causal chain is really the reverse.

Seventeen years ago, Ciudad Juarez began to register an alarming number of cases of women tortured, murdered, or disappeared. Over the decades, national and international feminist organizations pressed the government for justice. The government in turn formed commissions that changed directors and initials with each new governor. They all shared one distinct feature: never getting anywhere on solving the crimes of gender violence, much less preventing them. Recommendations to the Mexican government piled up alongside the bodies: missions from the United Nations and the Organization of American States provided over 200 recommendations on protecting women’s rights, with fifty for Ciudad Juarez alone.

Marisela’s murder marked a year since the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a ruling calling the Mexican government negligent in the murders of young women. The ruling on the “Cotton Field” case–named after the lot where the bodies of three women were found on Nov. 21, 2001– includes a list of measures and reparations, most of which have been rejected or ignored.

Since the cases analyzed in the Court ruling, the drug war in Ciudad Juarez waged by the Mexican government with the support of the U.S. Merida Initiative has led to a record number of 15,273 homicides in 2010 (with a total of  34,612 over the four years since Calderon launched the offensive). The strategy has focused on violently confronting drug cartels to interdict shipments and capture drug lords. It relies on the militarization of the city, which has brought more violence to the region than anyone imagined.

Ironically, President Felipe Calderon says the goals of the drug war are to increase public safety and strengthen legal institutions. But the history of gender crimes and government response reveals the fundamental flaws of the current counter-narcotics efforts and of a system that practically guarantees impunity through a combination of institutional corruption, sexism, racism, incompetence, and indifference.

Given that background of institutionalized injustice, the drug war in Juarez short-circuited from the start. The logical sequence of investigation, arrest, prosecution and punishment simply does not exist in the absence of a functioning justice system. By destabilizing the drug cartels’ cross-border business and setting off turf wars, the government unleashed a storm of drug-related violence that can’t be dealt with by police and legal institutions because those institutions are dysfunctional. In the absence of supporting institutions or a coherent strategy, the resulting explosion from this direct confrontation with drug cartels could have been predicted. If the tragedy of the pink crosses erected in the desert to mark the unsolved cases of murdered women showed us anything, it was that the fundamental problem in Juarez traces back to the government itself. Until impunity ends, the region will continue to attract crime–common, organized, or just plain perverse.

In this environment, the femicides in Juarez have not only never been solved, they’ve risen dramatically — to nearly 300 in 2010 — alongside overall homicide rates. The government’s drug war has stimulated more gender violence instead of less. It shelters those who commit murder and other barbarities against women by making murder a normal part of daily life. It promotes an armed society where people too poor to move have no choice but to bunker down against all sides. Not only does Juarez shelter murderers, torturers, and rapists of women, it attracts them.

Women’s vulnerability increases. For years, impunity gave free rein to women-killers who found women workers at the maquiladoras to be particularly easy targets for torture, acts of sadism, rape and murder and other acts possibly related to snuff films and international crime rings, all covered up by government officials. Lately women human rights defenders have become the targets. Shortly after Marisela’s assassination, Susana Chavez was found murdered with her hand cut off. Chavez was a feminist poet who coined the phrase “Not One More Death!” — which became the slogan of the Juarez women’s movement. Women activists feel as though open season has been declared on them.

Civil Society Responds

The only ray of light has come from the response of Mexican civil society. Following Marisela’s murder, a former head of one of the government commissions, Alicia Duarte, wrote in an open letter to President Calderon:

Three years ago, when I quit my post as Special Prosecutor for Attention to Crimes Related to Acts of Violence Against Women of the Attorney General’s Office, I noted clearly that I did it out of the shame I felt for belonging to the corrupt system of justice of our country. Today that shame comes back and burns in my skin and conscience, so I must join in the indignation of all women in this country who, when they found out about the assassination of Marisela Escobedo Ortiz and the attacks on her family of the recent days, demand justice…

Women and men have demonstrated throughout the country to demand that Marisela’s and Rubi’s cases be solved, to call for an end to the impunity that protects murderers in hundreds of other cases, and to force the government to comply with recommendations to protect women and prevent more deaths. Their protests have united with a new nationwide citizens’ movement called “No More Blood” to reject the current drug-war strategy. A tipping point has finally been reached.

Marisela’s murder practically at the steps of the State Capitol symbolizes the relationship between gender violence in the private and the public spheres, between the lethal sexism of men who kill women and of governments who let them get away with it, between an out-of-control counter-narcotics war and the long-boiling situation of unpunished gender crimes.

No one in the Mexican government acknowledges these relationships. The same holds true for the U.S. government.  The last State Department report gave Mexico a pass on human rights to authorize more Merida Initiative support for the drug war. The current indignation over Marisela’s murder and the new “No More Blood” campaign demonstrate that the Mexican public has had enough excuses for the violence it has been forced to live with.

Until both governments turn their sights to the hypocrisy of their legal systems and policies, the downward spiral of violence will only continue. To honor Marisela and all the others who have dared to defend human rights and justice in Mexico, it is time for civil society on both sides of the border to demand an end to bloodshed.

Laura Carlsen (lecarlsen@gmail.com) is a FPIF Columnist and director of the CIP Americas Program.

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