A search of a remote area of the Mexico-U.S. border region by civil society groups has resulted in the discovery of suspected human remains.
Conducted the weekend of September 16-18 by scores of volunteers, the search concentrated on the hot and rugged desert terrain of the Navajo Arroyo near Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. Located in the rural Juarez Valley municipality of Praxedis G. Guerrero, the Navajo Arroyo was first uncovered in 2011 as a secret dumping ground for young female murder victims from Juarez.
According to the Juarez daily Norte, 19 young women have been identified from the previous sets of remains found at the Navajo Arroyo.
Escorted by state and federal police, members of the Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, Grupo Vida, the Paso del Norte Regional Popular Assembly and other groups embarked on their first search of the site early on Friday, September 16.
Capping off hours of intense probing, searchers came across dozens of suspected human bones and fragments. Officials who were on hand then dispatched the finds to the Juarez morgue so forensic specialists from the Office of the Chihuahua State Prosecutor (FGE) could determine whether in fact the remains belong to humans.
Arturo Sandoval, FGE spokesman, said if a human origin of a piece is confirmed state officials will identify the sex, estimate the time of death and see if the remains match previous sets found in the same zone. More suspected human remains were also recovered on Saturday, September 17. Jose Luis Castillo, father of a 14-year-old girl who went missing in Juarez back in May 2009 and an organizer of the search, said articles of women’s clothing with possible blood stains were likewise found.
The search did not come off without controversy. Carla Palacios, Paso del Norte Human Rights Center member, disputed a report that police deployed at the Navajo Arroyo prior to the first search were ambushed by gunmen. Palacios insisted that civilian searchers were also present but witnessed nothing of the sort. During the preceding days, the upcoming search was widely publicized on the Internet.
Volunteers said they had been previously promised official protection and were granted such the first day of the search, but later were stunned to learn they would be on their own the second day.
“I can’t believe it,” said Silvia Ortiz, member of Grupo Vida. Based in Coahuila, another Mexican border state with a large number of disappeared persons, Grupo Vida lent its expertise to the Navajo Arroyo search.
Ortiz, whose 17-year old daughter Silvia Stephanie Sanchez went missing in 2004, said authorities in Coahuila have always provided security for Grupo Vida, whose searches have yielded thousands of fragments of human remains.
Quoted in the Juarez press, Castillo said FGE personnel argued they could not guarantee their participation in Saturday’s activity because it wasn’t a specific responsibility and they had another operation to attend. Despite the lack of official protection, civilian searchers returned to the Navajo Arroyo anyway.
The Navajo Arroyo is situated in a violence-torn area of the Juarez Valley favored by smugglers and the object of ongoing violence between criminal groups. During the last three decades, clandestine graves containing the remains of both women and men have been uncovered in the strip of land bordering Texas.
Even as the weekend search proceeded, two more murders in the Juarez Valley were reported. The latest victims, both killed by gunshots in the same apparent incident in Praxedis G. Guerrero, were identified by the FGE as 53-year-old Rafael Robles Chavarria and his 25-year-old daughter Lluvia Iveth Robles.
The use of the Juarez Valley as a dumping ground of murdered women from the city long predates the Navajo Arroyo discovery. For instance, in 1998 disappeared maquiladora worker Sagrario Gonzalez Flores’ body was reportedly recovered near the community of Loma Blanca. Later, in 2005, 22-year-old schoolteacher Edith Aranda Longoria went missing after heading to downtown Juarez for a job interview. Recovered from Loma Blanca on January 6, 2008, the young educator’s remains were eventually identified in 2009.
Like Edith Aranda, as well as other young women and underage girls who earlier disappeared during the 1990s and were later found murdered at various body dumping grounds, many of the Navajo Arroyo victims reportedly vanished in downtown Juarez while on job searches and other business.
The Navajo Arroyo victims mainly disappeared during 2008-2010, when Juarez was engulfed in extreme violence and access to the valley was controlled by armed bands of criminals or police and military contingents. The Paso del Norte Human Rights Center estimates nearly 500 men are missing in Juarez-more than double a 1999 list developed by El Paso accountant Jaime Hervella and his group of relatives of disappeared persons. Several of the people from the 1999 list were from El Paso. The FGE’s website, meanwhile, lists slightly more than 100 women and girls still missing from Juarez and dating back to 1993
Norte has identified the Navajo Arroyo victims as Idaly Juache Laguna, Maria Guadalupe Perez Montes, Marisela Avila Hernandez, Yanira Fraire Jaquez, Brenda Berenice Castillo, Jessica Terrazas Ortega, Jessica Leticia Pena Garcia, Lizbeth Aviles Garcia, Virginia Elizabeth Dominguez, Andrea Guerrero Venzor, Deysi Ramirez Munoz, Beatriz Alejandra Hernandez Trejo, Perla Ivonne Aguirre Gonzalez, Jazmin Tailen Celis Murrillo, Monica Janeth Alanis Esparza, Lidia Ramos Mancha, Lilia Berenice Esquina Ortiz, and Esmeralda Castillo Rincon. A 19th victim remains unidentified.
The newspaper has identified eight other young women found murdered in other places in the Juarez Valley, with preceding disappearances between 2008 and 2010 following the pattern of other victims. The eight victims include Hilda Gabriela Rivas Campos, Janeth Rivera Chavez, Adriana Sarmiento Enriquez, Monica Liliana Delgado Castillo, Yazmin Salazar Ponce, Yazmin Villa Esparza, Leonor Garcia Villa, and a victim identified simply as Fabiola.
Additionally, Fabiola Janeth Valenzuela Banda, whose burned body was discovered on the other side of Juarez in 2010, reportedly had a personal association with one of the Navajo Arroyo victims. Valenzuela’s remains were found near the Kilometer 29 marker of the Casas Grandes Highway leading out of Juarez, another zone popular for the gang-land style dumping of both male and female homicide victims until this day. In June, the body of a body and tortured woman was found at place called Moro Macho, not far from where Valenzuela’s charred remains were discovered six years earlier.
Five men accused of abducting Navajo Arroyo victims for prostitution and drug-dealing purposes were convicted of murder and other crimes and sentenced to historic prison terms in 2015. A sixth man was acquitted. The convictions and centuries-long prison sentences are touted on a slickly-produced video posted on the FGE’s website as a shining example of the hard work of Chihuahua state prosecutors.
A second trial of four defendants, three men and one woman, kicked into high gear last week. Esperanza Castillo Saldana, Eduardo Sanchez Hermosillo, Rafael Mena and Camilo del Real Buendia stand charged with aggravated homicide, human trafficking and organized crime. Tacked onto life sentences, prosecutors are seeking extra prison terms of more than 200 years for the accused.
On a related note, La Jornada daily reported in late July that the FGE’s special unit for gender crimes against women issued two arrest warrants for employees of Los Arbolitos bar, where Navajo Arroyo victims were allegedly sexually exploited. Los Arbolitos is located across the Rio Grande from Fabens, Texas, in the small Juarez Valley community of Caseta.
But some criticize the state investigations and trials for lacking physical evidence that ties the defendants to the crimes, or for falling short in pursuing a broader criminal network presumably behind the Navajo Arroyo/Juarez Valley femicides.
Criminologist and former Chihuahua state law enforcement official Oscar Maynez contends that the Navajo Arroyo episode has been marred by law enforcement shortcomings and irregularities. “Nobody accepted the results completely; (officials) were giving information drop-by-drop,” Maynez told FNS.
The fact that this past weekend’s victim search was promoted and led by citizens in a spot that had been known as a mass murder dumping ground since 2011 “means that the state didn’t do a thorough job,” Maynez said. “The case was tainted from the beginning. There were mothers who were told their daughters were found, and (officials) showed them bones….”
Maynez criticized the flimsy use of evidence against defendants, illustrated by the fate of an original suspect, Victor Chavira Garcia, who was arrested after supplying a video to the FGE that merely showed one of the missing girls inquiring about a job at the man’s leather goods store in downtown Juarez. The elderly man died in prison before the first Arroyo Navajo trial began. Mexican authorities claimed the suspect was an integral member of a criminal band dedicated to abducting, exploiting and finally slaughtering young females.
As the state official who oversaw the recovery and processing of the remains of eight young female murder victims from a cotton patch in a highly transited location in the middle of Ciudad Juarez in 2001, now known as the Campo Algodonero, Maynez added that the Arroyo Navajo- though the largest dumping ground of female murder victims exposed in the Juarez area to date- is far from an isolated instance.
“The case of Campo Algodonero hasn’t been solved yet…we are living with a much, much worse case of femicide, but the Campo Algodonero, an emblematic case, hasn’t been solved,” Maynez said. The same is true of other cases where multiple female homicide victims were recovered at a single place in or around the Mexican border city, he said, including Lote Bravo (1995), Lomas de Poleo (1996) and Cristo Negro (2003). “You can put all those cases under the unresolved category,” Maynez added.
Additional sources: Nortedigital.mx, September 17 and 18, 2016. Articles by Herika Martinez Prado and Juan Carlos Hernandez. El Diario de Juarez, September 14, 17 and 18, 2016. Arrobajuarez.com, September 17, 2016. La Jornada, September March 20, 2016; July 24, 2016 and September 17, 2016. Articles by Leopoldo Ramos, Ruben Villalpando, Javier Valdez and J.C. Partida. June 2, 2016. Lapolaka.com
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