Photo: Clayton Conn

Photo: Clayton Conn

Undeterred by mounting death threats and intimidation, a group of mothers whose daughters have disappeared from Ciudad Juarez, traveled to Mexico City to mark International Women’s Day with demands for justice for their missing loved ones and to mourn the mounting epidemic of violence toward women in Mexico.

The group known as the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Disappeared Daughters has been a deep thorn in the side of Chihuahua State officials. The mothers hold them responsible for the fact that 98.5% of crimes in the state go unsolved and often uninvestigated, prolonging their uncertainty and their anguish.

The group has been demanding that authorities of the State Attorney General’s Office identify and return the forensic remains of nearly 200 victims of femicides that have been piled up in the Ciudad Juarez morgue – many for several years. Within the past 3 years, authorities have delivered the remains of only 6 victims to their families.

Walk for Life and Justice

Beatriz Alejandra Hernández Trejo, 20 years old, went missing in 2010 from downtown Ciudad Juarez. Two years later her remains were recovered in the desert sands of the Juarez Valley desert – a popular dumping ground for the victims of femicides. It would be another whole year until the authorities finally contacted her mother, Ana Trejo, and return what was left of her daughter –two bone fragments.

Karla Castañeda a member of the committee, a friend of Trejo and mother of Cinthia Jocabeth Alvarado Castañeda, who disappeared in 2009, said in an interview with the Juarez newspaper, El Diario,

“The only thing they could turn over were two little pieces of bone–that’s all  there is…there are no investigation results, nothing, they don’t know anything. They had Alejandra for so many months and just now they are informing us that it is her…why, why?!”

The indignation and offense taken by the mothers for the government’s indifference when it comes to the cases of their disappeared daughters, compelled them to march nearly 240 miles from Ciudad Juarez to the state capital, Chihuahua City. They demanded a meeting with Governor César Duarte to guarantee the state’s commitment to investigating disappearances and to speed up the process of identifying the victims of femicides.

The high-profile march – called the “Walk for Life and Justice” – began on Jan. 15 with little over two-dozen mothers and family members of the disappeared. They march of mostly women crossed the cold Chihuahua desert, which has seen more than 10,000 murders in the past 5 years, by foot. The mothers arrived in the state capital 7 days later to find that the Governor had left the state. The group had to return to Juarez.

“We left. It cost us a lot to get there and he wasn’t even there. We had to return to Juarez because we’d been away from home for too much time in our search for justice for our daughters.” explained Castañeda.

Days later the governor and local officials agreed to meet with the group. In a heated meeting in Juarez on Feb. 2, the mothers presented a six-point list of demands that requires the authorities to immediately hand over all  information on the cases of their daughters, to make investigations transparent, and for investigations into the cases of the disappeared to be considered  a priority and expedited.

At one point during the meeting, Ciudad Juarez Municipal President, Héctor Murguía Lardizábal, lost control and showed exactly the kind of attitude the mothers were complaining about. “Fucking mothers! Let me speak!” he yelled, as the mothers pointedly expressed their grief and frustration to the officials.

Repression of Voices, Rejection of Justice

The Feb. 2 meeting ended with Governor Duarte publically pledging to fulfill the demands within 30 days. He also agreed to dismiss the State’s Attorney General, Rosa María Sandoval Sánchez, within 10 days. In 2011 Sánchez was accused of directing death threats toward Manuel Garcia – the former driver of slain anti-femicide activist, Marisela Escobedo – for refusing to falsely incriminate Escobedo as a member of the Sinaloa drug cartel.

Yet impunity and a rejection of justice seem to be the only commitment being made by authorities. According to the legal representative of the Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared, Francisca Galvan, Duarte has failed to fulfill his promises. Sandoval Sanchez will reportedly remain in office as Attorney General and the group was only given a partial report with information related to the cases of their missing daughters, which—according to Galvan–“adds nothing to current investigations”..

In fact, authorities allegedly are going beyond rejecting justice to attempting to silence the voices of the anti-femicide mothers and activists. On Feb. 10, the committee of mothers released a public statement, denouncing death threats, intimidation, harassment and surveillance by local and state police. They believe this is the authority’s “real response” to their Walk for Life and their very public demands for justice and accountability.

Several of the mothers and their families have sought political asylum and exile in the United States, fearing for their safety and their lives. This includes Karla Castañeda, and another of the main organizers of the Walk for Life. After Castañeda received threatening phone calls and suffering several incidents of surveillance by local police, on Feb. 9 state police and agents of the prosecutor’s office raided her home and temporarily detained her mother-in-law, stating that Castañeda “had dug too deep in the investigation of her daughter.” She has been granted an asylum hearing in the United States.

The strategy to repress anti-femicide activists is nothing new. The most notable case is that of Marisela Escobedo Ortiz. In 2008 Escobedo’s 16-year old daughter, Rubí Escobedo was murdered by her boyfriend, Sergio Barraza. Although Barranza confessed and directed authorities to where he buried the body, he was acquitted of charges and set free. Escobedo held the authorities responsible for the clear case of impunity and began to organize against femicides and for justice for her daughter. On Dec. 16, 2010, while holding a peaceful vigil with her organization, “Justice for our Daughters”, in the square in front of the Chihuahua State Governor’s Office, a gunman approached Escobedo, chased her and shot her in the head on the steps of the Government building.

Another case is that of Norma Andrade and her daughter Malú Garcia. Both are founding members of another organization, Bring Our Daughters Home. In 2001 Andrade’s daughter, Lilia Alejandra García Andrade was the victim of an unsolved femicide. Similar to Escobedo, Andrade and her other daughter, Malú Garcia, began to organize against femicides, violence against women, and the widespread impunity that has allowed the phenomenon to grip many parts of the country. In the winter of 2011 Andrade and Garcia survived assassination attempts for their activism. Andrade survived a gunman’s attack, resulting in 5 bullet wounds and Garcia suffered an arsonist attack, resulting in the destruction of her home. Later in 2012, after seeking protection and relocating to Mexico City, Andrade survived another attempt on her life when a man entered her home and tried to stab her.

Demanding Light at the Bottom of a Growing Abyss

It was 1993 when family members of victims and activists first began to ring the alarm bells of femicide in Ciudad Juárez. Now 20 years on, the crisis has spread virally throughout the country. In recent years it has spread to the states of Guerrero, Baja California, Veracruz, Mexico City and most profoundly to Mexico State, which now sees numbers higher than that of the embattled state of Chihuahua.

Although the crisis is expanding, the voices of the families of victims and their allies are not remaining silent. Instead, the demands for justice are multiplying and echoing louder.

Often mothers and other family members who have suffered a disappearance or femicide are treated and portrayed solely as victims by authorities and the media. However, many of these “victims” are now assuming the roles of anti-femicide activists and human rights defenders, becoming leaders of social movements and campaigns for justice.

“The state of Chihuahua is the most organized,” stated Norma Andrade, “but the mothers of Mexico State are seeking our support to help organize them the way we organized in Chihuahua”. She went on to explain that her organization Bring Our Daughters Home among other groups are seeking to strengthen networks with new groups that are beginning to emerge in other states, and to help develop organizing skills among their members.

“The Norma now is not the Norma from 20 years ago…I had to learn how to be well-organized, speak in public, and to be a consultant–things I never knew how to do before. And so these other mothers are now in that process.” she continued.

Andrade asserts that the solutions will only emerge from the bottom up, as the institutions have repeatedly failed in reducing or even controlling the current levels of violence toward women.

It was the work and struggle of mothers in Juarez that enabled some of the current institutional measures to be implemented, although most have proved to be ineffective, under-funded or corrupt. This includes the National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence against Women, founded by presidential decree in 2009, and the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes of Violence Against Women and Human Trafficking. Both government institutions were set up to specifically develop measures and protocols for law enforcement to deal with gender-based crimes.

However, according to a 2012 report by the NGO, “Justice for Our Daughters”, the creation of these institutions has “not led to better strategies to reduce violence against women or improve access to justice for victims of these crimes. The scant diffusion of these institutions’ objectives and the lack of control mechanisms implemented to evaluate their performance and effectiveness is of great concern.”

Thus many of these grassroots organizations, have to constantly go back to the drawing board, – or better said – to the streets, in their demand for justice.

The March 8 International Women’s Day march led by the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Disappeared Daughters was not just a march of mourning, but a gathering  of a growing network of activists and victims-turned organizers who vow to keep up protests until they are silenced or justice is served.

Andrade hopes that participation and support for the protests will grow faster than the epidemic of femicide.

“I hope that people won’t have to end up in my shoes for them to be involved and supportive of this struggle.”

Clayton Conn is a photo/ multimedia freelance journalist and contributes regularly to the CIP Americas Program and Desinformémonos. You can see more of his work at www.claytonconnmedia.com.