In September 1998, the van Nierop family of Holland was enjoying a family vacation in the mountains of northern Mexico. Oldest daughter Hester had just graduated with a degree in architecture and was on her way to the United States to seek employment or an internship.
Studying a map, the family determined that the easiest way to cross the border from their vantage point in Chihuahua state’s Sierra Tarahumara would be a “little” place named Ciudad Juarez.
Bidding good bye to Hester, parents Arsene and Roeland van Nierop then headed to Mexico City for the flight back to the Netherlands. But Hester never made it to the United States or fulfilled her dream of becoming a professional architect.
On September 20, 1998, four days before celebrating her 28th birthday, the Dutch national’s body was found stuffed underneath the bed of Room 121 in the Hotel Plaza, an old lodging on a seedy street in downtown Juarez. According to Mexican police, the victim had been sexually assaulted and strangled the previous evening,
Until an unlikely tragedy struck a close-knit family, the van Nierops had not heard about the women’s murders terrorizing Juarez since the early 1990s.
“Had we known, we would have never recommended that our daughter cross the border near Juarez,” Arsene told a gathering at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces this month. “Until then, I had just thought Hester was in a bad place at a bad moment.”
The mother’s talk at the Center for Latin American and Border Studies was part of a U.S.-Mexico tour to distribute the new Spanish-language translation of Arsene’s book “Un grito de socorro desde Juarez: Cronica de un asesinato impune/A Cry for Help from Juarez: Chronicle of an Unpunished Murder” (Grijalbo, 2014).
“I wrote my book to tell people in Holland how it is when your daughter is murdered and to show them you can go on living,” Arsene explained. “I’m really sorry it’s not translated into English.”
A piercing photo of Hester adorns the book’s cover, with the young woman seemingly peering directly into the reader’s eyes and asking: “And you? What will you do next?”
Slight in physical stature but huge on smiles that easily win over strangers, Arsene van Nierop recounted to the Las Cruces audience her experiences with the Mexican justice system, a devastated family’s attempts to cope with the unexpected loss of a loved one, meetings with Mexican mothers sharing the same pain, and a tenacious struggle that crossed oceans and borders to gain justice for a deeply missed daughter.
“The book was easy to write but hard to read,” the 67-year-old author told FNS.
In a both profoundly personal and transcendentally political story, Hester comes back to life as an energetic, adventurous and somewhat unconventional woman who envisioned ambitious building projects.
Readers learn that the sunflower was Hester’s favorite flower, and that as a child she defended two friends assailed by two older males. Shortly before her murder the young college graduate helped sister Melisse hatch and protect turtles born into this world on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Hester’s truncated aspirations recall the cruelly extinguished dreams of Mexican victims of the Juarez murders like 17-year-old Sagrario Gonzalez, who had a knack for music and working with children, or 16-year-old Esmeralda Juarez, who excelled in computers and business management at a young age.
Initially, the van Nierops assumed that the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office and the state judicial police would labor diligently to find their daughter’s killer.
“In the beginning, I was sure that the Mexican police was doing everything possible to find the murderer,” Arsene said.
Yet similar to the killings of Mexican women, the investigation of Hester van Nierop’s murder became, in the parlance of Mexico, “archivado,” or filed away in cold storage.
As the years dragged on, the van Nierops dealt with a succession of Mexican state and federal prosecutors-Manuel Esparza, Suly Ponce, Angela Talavaera and Maria Lopez Urbina among them-all with the same result: impunity persisted in their daughter’s murder.
Consequently, like the families of Mexican victims, the van Nierops embarked on their own long quest for justice.
Arsene credits Mexican journalist and author Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, who wrote the forward to her book, for prompting the family to take Hester’s case to a qualitatively different level. A very important step was made when Arsene contacted Amnesty International, which cited Hester’s murder in the human rights group’s landmark 2003 report on femicides in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City.
Once leading quiet lives revolving around work, family and friends, the van Nierops, and especially Arsene, were transformed into global activists.
In 2004, Arsene and Roeland made a difficult journey to Juarez for the first time. In the border city, the couple met Esther Chavez Cano, the legendary founder of Casa Amiga, Ciudad Juarez’s rape crisis center.
Quickly befriending Arsene, Chavez urged the Dutch citizen to find a Mexican lawyer who could navigate a cavernous legal system.
The bereaved mother from across the Atlantic was introduced to women on the Rio Grande who hailed from a different social class but were nevertheless in the same shoes as their new colleague from Holland.
“They had the same sadness and emotions,” Arsene recalled of her meetings with murder victims’ mothers. “It wasn’t necessary to speak about your experiences. You knew: you had the same experiences.”
The van Nierop family’s activism played a crucial role in convincing the European Parliament to pass a historic 2007 resolution taking governments to task for human rights violations connected to the murders of women in Mexico and Central America.
Together with Juarez mothers, Arsene and Roeland attended the 2007 screening of “Bordertown” at the Berlin International Film Festival, where the couple met starring actors Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas. Supported by loans from the administration of then-Governor Bill Richardson, the Gregory Nava film was largely shot in New Mexico.
In 2011, with the assistance of the Dutch government and the Chihuahua City-based Center for Women’s Human Rights, a complaint over the investigation of Hester Van Nierop’s murder was submitted against the Mexican government in the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; the case is still pending.
For her efforts on behalf of victims, Arsene was awarded knighthood by the Queen of the Netherlands.
Translated by Radio Netherlands veteran Ingrid Therese de Vries, Arsene’s book helps fill an important gap in the literature on the Juarez women’s murders. While U.S. support for the struggle of the Juarez mothers declined after 2004, Arsene documents how solidarity efforts increased in Europe in the following years.
The book, wrote Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, is “an invocation of life and a resistance to barbarity.” The saga of the van Nierops, Gonzalez continued, represents a “broad testimony of human quality that invites understanding, solidarity and the rejection of all violence, especially against women.”
In honor of Hester’s memory and to assist Mexican victims of sex-related violence, the van Nierops established the Hester Foundation. “They are crucial,” Irma Casas, Casa Amiga’s director, said about the Hester Foundation’s support for her center. “The Hester Foundation is the only one that gives us consistent, permanent support.”
In comments to FNS, Casas detailed how Casa Amiga’s services are needed now more than ever. Since 2009, the depths of the so-called narco war, the number of people- primarily women and children- seeking help from Casa Amiga has jumped by 40 percent, Casas said.
Currently, the non-profit institution serves 1,000-1,100 people per month, she calculated. Recently, the perverse savagery of sex-related violence- ranging from abused to children to mutilated female murder victims- has only worsened, according to the women’s advocate.
Following her Las Cruces presentation, Arsene returned to Juarez, where she placed Hester’s name on the Monument for Murdered Women, which was constructed as the result of an order from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as part of the Costa Rica-based court’s historic 2009 judgment against the Mexican state for tolerating extreme gender violence in Ciudad Juarez.
The monument is located at the old cotton field where the bodies of eight young homicide victims were discovered in 2001.
Later in the day, Arsene joined Casas and other local activists for a panel discussion at a local college.
“The first ones who should read (Arsene’s book) are the authorities,” commanded Irma Marrufo, coordinator for the Red Mesa de Mujeres de Ciudad Juarez.
Maruffo compared the van Nierop family’s odyssey into the labyrinth of the Mexican justice system with an Alfonso Cuaron film of two parallel, converging realities- in this instance, the murders of Mexican women and the murder of a Dutch woman who takes a fateful detour.
Maruffo insisted that Arsene’s book should cause anti-gender violence activists “to pay more attention to the mothers and family members of murdered and disappeared women.”
In the public comment period after the panel presentation, which was briefly disrupted by a strange man flailing his arms while questioning feminism and “discrimination against men,” another long-mourning mother addressed the crowd. She was Irma Perez, the mother of Olga Alicia Carrillo, whose 1995 murder was considered one of the first in successive waves of serial crimes.
Nearly two decades later, Olga Alicia’s murder is “forgotten, hanging in the air,” Perez contended, adding that the authorities and others have bandied about the names of possible killers without firm evidence ever presented. “I want proof,” she demanded.
Perez asked Arsene if the recent arrest of a suspect in Hester van Nierop’s killing, Ramiro Adame Lopez (aka Roberto Flores) was believable in the eyes of the mother.
Arsene replied that she didn’t give much credence to the arrest at first, since it coincided with the imminent publication of her Spanish-language book and suspected the detention could have been a public relations ploy, but that a Dutch policewoman whom she respected reviewed the case and judged that it was “95 percent certain” that Adame was the killer being sought for Hester’s slaying.
Perez wished Arsene the best but reminded the Juarez audience of other cases still lingering in impunity.
“Let’s hope the suspect in the murder is the right one,” she said. “But the murderer of mine..?”
Arsene’s opinion of Adame’s probable guilt was shared by her attorney, longtime Chihuahua human rights defender Luz “Lucha” Castro, who was present for the Juarez event.
Adame, who was eventually located serving time in a Mississippi prison on an unrelated charge, was identified with the assistance of the FBI because of unique tattoos noticed by witnesses on the man’s body, according to Castro and Arsene. In a modern twist to homicide investigations, the Mexican authorities tracked Adame through social media, Arsene said.
“They found him on Facebook! Facebook! That couldn’t give me more happiness,” she added.
Castro said Adame is fighting the homicide charge by soliciting legal shielding from prosecution, arguing there is no real evidence against him and that he was nowhere near the scene of the crime in 1998.
A decision on Adame’s legal pleading should come within the next month, Castro told FNS.
What’s more, the murderer of Hester van Nierop was identified as a serial killer by an international expert working with Arsene’s team, which will seek to have several old homicide cases in which women’s bodies were found stuffed under beds in Juarez hotel rooms dusted off and investigated, Castro added.
“We want to look at those cases that were forgotten because (victims) were poor women,” she said.
In both Las Cruces and Ciudad Juarez, Arsene van Nierop began and ended her talks with a poem by Vaclav Havel, the Czech intellectual who later became his nation’s president. A few lines from the poem “Hope” read:
Deep in ourselves there is hope,
If not, life is hopeless
Hope is a dimension of the soul
And it’s not essentially dependent
on some particular observation of the world
or estimate of the situation…
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out
A short Spanish-language video with English subtitles on the Hester van Nierop story as well as the background to violence in Ciudad Juarez can be viewed at:
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
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