Editor’s Note: The following article grew out of a series on cross-border violence against women funded in part by the New Mexico Humanities Council. Today’s piece compares the disappearances and serial killings of women in Ciudad Juarez with cases in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Readers can see the earlier articles at Frontera NorteSur’s website (http://fnsnews.nmsu.edu/) under the Features and Human Rights/Women’s sections. The other titles include “The Waitress Who Shook New Mexico,” “The Mothers’ Long Road to Justice” and “20 Years of Border Femicide.”
Crimes against Humanity Don’t Disappear
Ana Maria Alarcon did not witness the winter holiday celebrations of 2013. Nor did she live to see justice in the 2003 murder of her 16-year-old daughter, Esmeralda, in Ciudad Juarez. A lively woman with a determined look and prideful words about her studious daughter, Alarcon passed away this fall from a terminal disease, her friend Vicky Caraveo said.
“It hit me very hard,” said Caraveo, the coordinator of Ciudad Juarez’s Mothers in Search of Justice, a non-governmental organization of mothers and relatives of murdered women and girls. “It was a very big blow for all the mothers,” Caraveo said of Alarcon’s death at the age of 45. “I did promise her I would fight for justice for Esmeralda and all the girls.”
2013 was a trying year for the mothers, many of whom cope with illness amid ongoing emotional trauma, Caraveo said. And if psychological and physical problems weren’t enough, the financially-strapped mothers struggled with keeping student scholarships for their murdered daughters’ children and basic necessities for their families.
Even the scanty financial support the mothers receive from the state was jeopardized, Caraveo said, when news arrived that Mexico’s new tax reform would take a 16 percent cut from the $75 payments.
Grappling with pain and poverty, members of Caraveo’s group have spent decades fighting for justice in unresolved murder cases.
“For 21 years, we’ve seen people come from all over the world, from Europe, South America, from everywhere. Everything is the same or worse,” the former director of the official Chihuahua Women’s Institute said.
In downtown Juarez, another group of relatives recently painted fresh pink crosses that are symbolic of the femicides. Posters of disappeared young women and girls have all but become a permanent fixture of the congested and gritty zone. Renewed calls for justice marked November and December of 2013, with events held in Juarez, Chihuahua City, Mexico City, and El Paso. Activists and victims’ relatives picketed, postered and paraded for an end to impunity.
Gatherings were held in memory of Marisela Escobedo, the Ciudad Juarez mother assassinated near Chihuahua state government offices while demanding justice for her murdered daughter in December 2010, and Hester Van Nierop, a Dutch tourist brutally murdered in a Ciudad Juarez hotel in 1998. Van Nierop’s slaying spurred the involvement of the European Parliament in the border femicides.
The fall of 2013 marked another important anniversary. Four years ago, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights delivered a historic judgment that held the Mexican State responsible for a climate of gender violence and law enforcement irregularities which preceded and followed the discovery of the bodies of eight murdered women at a Ciudad Juarez site known as the Cotton Field.
The Costa Rica-based court ordered a series of justice system reforms and other measures to uphold the human rights of women and justice for victims’ relatives.
Charged with investigating crimes against women, the Office of the Chihuahua State Prosecutor (FGE), has bolstered the unit tasked with investigating and punishing gender crimes, increased the training of personnel, conducted searches for disappeared women, and enhanced its evidence-gathering capabilities.
Regularly, the FGE publicizes the successful locating of women or girls reported missing, and announces prison sentences against men accused of crimes against women. Recently, the FGE has conducted a media campaign warning women of the dangers lurking in cyber-space and the employment world.
In both Juarez and neighboring El Paso, Texas, two recent prosecutions have linked the false advertising of jobs to the trafficking of women for drug and prostitution purposes. According to El Paso journalist Diana Washington Valdez, the El Paso case involved a man who lured women from Juarez to work in prostitution in El Paso and New Mexico.
Complying with an Inter-American Court order to publicize missing woman and girls on the Internet, the FGE’s website contains the names and/or photos of 102 females missing in Ciudad Juarez from 1987 to late 2013. Non-governmental organizations, however, affirm the number of disappeared is higher.
As for the cotton field case, only one of the eight murders was ever prosecuted to a highly questioned conclusion, while officials accused of committing human rights, administrative and criminal violations in the investigations were not punished. Consequently, attempts by the Mexican government to have the Inter-American Court declare the sentence fulfilled have been rebuffed, according to the Cimacnoticias women’s news service.
As a forensic official with the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office in 2001, Oscar Maynez oversaw the examinations of the bodies recovered from the Cotton Field. Maynez soon resigned after police asked him to plant evidence on two bus drivers who were picked up for the crimes and tortured into making confessions.
Maynez holds that justice was cheated a second time when Edgar Alvarez Cruz, a Mexican national who was living in the Denver, Colorado area, was later convicted of murdering one of the Cotton Field victims: 17-year-old Mayra Juliana Reyes Solis.
In an interview, Maynez criticized the prosecution of Alvarado for a single murder when physical evidence strongly indicated that all eight slayings were connected; further, he added, evidence exists that Alvarado was in Colorado at the time Reyes was abducted and killed.
Maynez feared that another miscarriage of justice was unfolding in the case of modeling agency and media company owner Camilo del Real Buendia and a dozen other individuals accused of killing an equal number of women from Ciudad Juarez and dumping most of the bodies in the Juarez Valley between 2010 and 2012.
“This is monstrous-people systematically kidnapping people and bodies appearing on the outskirts of the city.” Maynez said.
Though no allegations of torture surfaced in the arrests, Maynez said legal authorities have not presented physical evidence against the suspects, basing their prosecution on the testimony of a teenage boy who is a protected witness; most recently, the FGE presented a second protected witness, according to Juarez news accounts.
The unidentified woman claimed one of the defendants threatened to kill the victims, but was not quoted explaining where, when and how the actual murders took place.
At best the Juarez Valley case is based on circumstantial evidence, in Maynez’s judgment. “There is no proof. The only proof is that the missing girls had contact with the suspects.” The legal case against del Real Buendia and other defendants is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, north of Juarez, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, another tragic anniversary approaches. February 2, 2014, will mark the fifth anniversary of the discovery of the so-called West Mesa Murders, in which the bodies of 11 murdered women and girls were found buried on the same plot of land on the city’s southwestern edge.
On a recent day, Jayne Perea, mother of 15-year-old West Mesa victim Jamie Barela, arrived to an interview wearing a black t-shirt with a big picture of the teen emblazoned with the words “In Loving Memory.” Perea’s daughter “loved butterflies,” the Albuquerque mother said, as she showed off a photo of the girl who idolized the murdered Tejana singer Selena.
Voicing frustration with law enforcement, Perea said she had not been contacted by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) in about three years; any information the grieving mother had about the possible reasons for Jamie’s murder came from non-official sources, she added.
“If (police) were really on the ball, these girls would be alive,” Perea contended.
According to the Albuquerque resident, problems began soon after Jaime’s 2004 disappearance with cousin Evelyn Salazar, who also turned up at the West Mesa burial ground.
Perea recalled posting missing flyers of Jamie in southeast Albuquerque, but said she eventually quit after nobody could help her. To add insult to injury, the posters were vandalized, with the section that urged readers with information to contact police burned, she said. The distraught mother said she trooped into a local television station but was ignored.
“Liz (Jaime’s sister) is devastated. My sons are devastated in their own way,” Perea continued, describing the legacy of Jamie’s murder. “Nobody knows the pain I’m going through.”
The West Mesa victims, working-class Latinas and an African-American teenager, disappeared in systematic fashion between 2003 and 2005.
“Everybody kind of knew that women were disappearing, but it wasn’t necessarily formulated into an idea until the bodies were found,” said Christine Barber, executive director of Safe Sex Work, an Albuquerque non-profit that works with the city’s sex workers.
While women were vanishing, the APD became embroiled in a scandal over the disappearance of drugs, money and other property from the department’s evidence room. A leadership shake-up ensured, but nobody was ever prosecuted for the thefts.
“Holy F…! Somebody dropped the ball on it!” was the reaction among the police department’s rank-and-file when the West Mesa graves were uncovered, said Cassandra Morrison, an ex-APD officer who retired from the force earlier this year after 20 years of service. “I think it was a huge black eye.”
A former APD sergeant and field detective, Morrison said West Mesa prompted changes to APD policies and procedures for investigating complaints of missing persons.
Prior to West Mesa, such reports were routinely treated in a “non-chalant” way and often passed up the bureaucratic pipeline where they might gather dust as the days passed, the retired officer said.
After West Mesa, the APD chain of command ordered that missing persons reports be quickly entered into the NCIC data base, and came up with a new “silver alert” to rapidly investigate certain cases of disappeared persons, Morrison added.
“Could we have prevented?” she pondered. “I don’t think we could have prevented the entire thing, but probably one. Would that have made a difference? Well, somebody’s child would be alive.”
West Mesa produced some changes in the way law enforcement treats crimes of violence against women living on the edge, but more concerted efforts are urgently needed, Barber said. The APD hierarchy, she said, is now sensitive to criticism that the police department doesn’t care about a socially marginalized population.
“They get very hurt, like personally hurt that you would think that,” Barber said. “I think that probably wouldn’t have been the case before West Mesa. I do believe that they are trying to help… I just think they need to try harder.”
Safe Sex Work distributes a “bad date” bulletin. A recent issue detailed dozens of rapes, attempted rapes, death threats, and beatings of women working the streets. The two-page bulletin included physical descriptions of male aggressors and color photos of the type of vehicles used to commit crimes.
Barber said she gets three reports a week of men trying to kill women.
“Something’s wrong, something is very broken and we are allowing this,” the women’s advocate added. “We need to look at why we are allowing this both as a society and as individuals.”
Race, class and lifestyle emerged as issues in the West Mesa crimes. Since many of the victims had local police records for drug or prostitution charges, their mug shots were splashed all over the media. Some postings on the Internet even suggested that the victims had it coming.
Longtime anti-gender violence activist Dr. Cynthia Bejarano, professor of criminal justice at New Mexico State University, has worked with victims’ relatives and studied femicides in Mexico, the United States and other nations.
Bejarano detected similarities in the media depiction of victims from Juarez, southern New Mexico and Albuquerque. Popular interpretations of crimes and perceptions of the victims frame “the next steps that take place,” regardless of borders, she said.
According to Mexican criminologist and university instructor Oscar Maynez, a segment of Juarez society, including younger people, still clings to the double-life myth about femicide victims from 20 years ago, or consider themselves removed from the crimes because they hail from a different social strata than the low-income victims. Most of the victims in Juarez’s sex-related serial crimes were factory or retail workers, students, or young women seeking employment.
Bejarano said the lead detective in the West Mesa homicides told her that mug shots were disseminated because people who knew the women and had possible information about them were more likely to recognize the victims from recent pictures than say, quinceanera photos.
Perea agreed that it made sense to distribute more recent photos, but insisted that the pictures should have been accompanied by other images that showed the women in a different light.
“They should have put a mug shot and a really beautiful picture to see how they were. Jamie never hurt anyone,” Perea said.
West Mesa briefly cast attention on the broader but largely unspoken problem of disappeared women in New Mexico. Currently, at least 20 women from the greater Albuquerque area remain missing from 1988 to the present. Beatrice Cuberos Lopez, who vanished in September 1989, is among the older cases.
Taken from a passport photo, the picture on Cuberos Lopez’s missing poster portrays a woman with big rolling eyebrows and a broad smile, hinting at the high-spirited person described by sister Lupe Lopez-Haynes.
Like her friend Jayne Perea, Lopez-Haynes complains of neglect from the APD, saying she has not been contacted in the last couple of years.
For a time, West Mesa stirred New Mexico and got international attention, drawing reporters from “America’s Most Wanted” “Dateline,” Ciudad Juarez’s El Diario newspaper and other media outlets. In 2009 and 2010, vigils, protests, funerals, news stories, and political proclamations flowed in the Duke City.
In March 2009, the New Mexico Senate unanimously passed Senate Memorial 85.
Sponsored by then-state Sen. Linda Lopez, who is currently engaged in a 2014 gubernatorial bid, the non-binding legislative resolution noted the frustration of victims’ families with law enforcement; criticized the stereotyping of victims; and took note of the female poverty and domestic violence rates in New Mexico, which are among the highest in the nation.
The memorial called on the Mayor of Albuquerque and the Bernalillo County Commission to “ensure that these crimes are thoroughly investigated,” and that the resources of the FBI, APD and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department be utilized in the “most expeditious manner possible.” It also urged New Mexico to make drug prevention and treatment more available.
Although West Mesa, like the Cotton Field case in Ciudad Juarez to the south, prompted some changes in law enforcement policies and procedures, the actual murders linger in impunity.
Multiple theories and leads abound about the New Mexico killings: Truckers, violent pimps, bad cops, gang members, and the classic serial killer all are considered possible suspects by law enforcement or the public. And there is the version that at least some of the women were killed because they were suspected police informants. An official website called Helpuscatchakiller. com contains victims’ photos and a $100,000 reward for information.
After nearly five years, the West Mesa murder investigation has dragged on, talk of the crimes has dissipated in the halls of government and in the media; proposals to build a memorial for the murdered women at the mesa grave site have gone with the wind; and a home developer advertises plots for sale on the land where the bodies of Jamie Barela and her fellow victims were discovered.
Overall, the visibility of disappeared women, as well as men and children, is limited in New Mexico. Unlike in the neighboring state of Chihuahua, Mexico, there is no single website that attempts to post all the cases.
Instead, information is handled in a piece-meal fashion, with the New Mexico State Police, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department and independent websites like Missingin.org each publicizing some but not all of the cases.
And unlike Ciudad Juarez, no posters of missing persons are regularly displayed in the streets, on billboards, in public transportation centers, and at bus stops.
But Jayne Perea and Lupe Lopez-Haynes remember the faces. “They want to forget these girls, but we don’t,” Perea said.
After breaking into tears, Lopez-Haynes was consoled by her friend. The two women dialogued, in an exchange seemingly with each other but really with society.
Perea said the women working Albuquerque’s streets are “crying out for help,” but find none in the city. Lopez-Haynes said she can’t go it alone and needed “a thousand people” who will make noise for the victims.
“We’re the only ones who can speak for them,” she insisted.
New Mexico State’s Cynthia Bejarano is among the scholars who are expanding the definition of femicide to “feminicide.”
The West Mesa and Ciudad Juarez killings, she insisted, are “crimes against humanity.” Feminicide, Bejarano said, is “much more than just the act of killing women because they are women,” but encompasses systematic and structural issues in addition to the persistence of impunity.
“It isn’t something that’s just impacting the women or the girl who was killed. It’s much broader than that,” Bejarano continued. “It’s impacting the families. It’s impacting the community…”