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International Court Holds Mexico Accountable for Femicides

Frontera NorteSur

In a ruling that could reverberate across the Americas, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has taken the Mexican government to task for the murders of three young women in Ciudad Juarez. In a historic decision published this month, the justices found the government incurred in violations of the American Convention on Human Rights and the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belem Do Para Convention) by failing to prevent the slayings and properly investigate the crimes.

“States are obligated to establish general policies of public order that protect the population from criminal violence,” wrote court Justice Diego Garcia-Sayan. “This obligation has progressive and decisive priority given the context of rising criminality in the majority of countries of the region.”

The case heard by the Costa Rica-based court involved three young women who were found slain along with five other female victims in a Ciudad Juarez cotton field located across the street from the headquarters of the Maquiladora Association in November 2001.

After finding no justice in the Mexican legal system, the mothers of Esmeralda Herrera Monreal, Claudia Ivette Gonzalez and Laura Berenice Ramos pursued human rights complaints in first the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and later in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Both institutions are affiliates of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Herrera and Ramos were minors at the time of their deaths, and the court ruled that the teens’ slayings constituted violations of the human rights of children.

In a Ciudad Juarez press conference last week, Josefina Gonzalez, mother of Claudia Ivette Gonzalez, said she that did not expect the murderers of her daughter to face justice. Nearly a decade after the cotton field case came to public light, no one is behind bars for the murders of Claudia Gonzalez and six of the other cotton field victims. Still, Gonzalez voiced satisfaction with the court’s action.

“It’s been 8 years since we have suffered and nothing has been achieved until now,” Gonzalez said, adding that the verdict was a victory for all the cotton field mothers and their supporters.

The court’s 167-page sentence lays out remedies the Mexican government must follow to assure justice for victims’ families and curb future acts of violence against women in Ciudad Juarez and Mexico. As an adherent to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Mexico is obligated to comply
with the ruling and cannot appeal.

In addition to conducting a serious murder investigation and investigating law enforcement officials responsible for obstructing the cotton field case, which included the fabrication of scapegoats under torture, within one year the Mexican government must hold a public ceremony in Ciudad Juarez to apologize for the crimes; build a monument to the three murdered women in the border city; publish the sentence in the official government record and in newspapers; expand gender sensitivity and human rights training for police; step-up and coordinate efforts to find missing women; permanently publicize the cases of disappeared women on the Internet; and investigate reported death threats and harassment against members of the families of Esmeralda Herrera and Laura Ramos.

Three members of Ramos’ family, including her outspoken mother Benita Monarrez, were granted political asylum in the US in 2009. According to testimony presented in the femicide trial, pressure on Ramos’ relatives intensified after the OAS court accepted the case in 2007. Finally, the Mexican government was ordered to compensate victims’ families and their legal representatives to the tune of more than $800,000 for damages and expenses.

By the time of the cotton field murders, the court found, a well-established pattern of gender violence in Ciudad Juarez should have prompted authorities to adopt serious measures to prevent violence against women. Among the mountains of evidence, the court cited the 1998 recommendations issued by the Mexican government’s National Human Rights Commission which called for investigating and sanctioning numerous irregularities and deficiencies in women’s murder probes during the 1990s.

The Convoluted Cotton Field Case

If anything, however, the highly questionable circumstances in which investigations into the disappearances and murders of women were conducted reached new heights in the cotton field case.

In a phone interview with Frontera NorteSur, an Argentine forensic specialist who has worked on identifying the remains of the cotton field and other femicide victims recounted numerous irregularities in the official handling of the November 2001 murder investigation, including misidentified victims, mysteriously switched autopsy reports, mismatched clothing served up as evidence, and even missing body parts.

Mercedes Doretti, lead anthropologist for the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), supported the findings of the first autopsy report on the eight cotton field victims that the cause of death was not
determinable, because of the advanced state of decomposition of most of the bodies.

But in 2002, Doretti said, officials from Chihuahua City substituted the first autopsy report for a new one that listed asphyxiation as the cause of the women’s deaths, an explanation which conveniently jibed with the State of Chihuahua’s case against the two bus drivers accused at the time of strangling victims to death. That conclusion, Doretti told Frontera Norte, was “absolutely not valid” and without basis. “There was no scientific evidence whatsoever,” Doretti said.

The forensics expert also said that there was no substance to a subsequent claim that victims were stabbed to death, an accusation made by the Chihuahua state attorney generals’ office against a later suspect, Edgar Alvarez Cruz, who was convicted of killing cotton field victim Mayra Reyes Solis but, oddly, none of the other victims found in the same field at the same time and under the same conditions.

After arriving in Ciudad Juarez in 2005 to identify unknown homicide victims, Doretti and team learned that three of the eight cotton field victims were not even the women Chihuahua state authorities purported them to be.

In a bizarre twist, one of the mistakenly identified cotton field victims later turned up as a skeleton recovered in a separate location in 2002. A young maquiladora industry worker like Gonzalez, the 2002 victim had a thorax and vertebral column missing and, even more weirdly, a femur bone with the type of specialized cut that is normally made to draw DNA samples, according to Doretti. Among other irregularities, she said, were missing homicide and autopsy reports.

Complicating her work in all cases, Doretti said, has been Mexico’s lack of a centralized system of DNA storage, medical and dental record tracking and other personal information of women reported missing. Many of the unidentified victims in Ciudad Juarez could be from elsewhere in the country, she affirmed.

Doretti disputed the notion that lost or hidden evidence, combined with tattered paper trails in the cotton field and possibly related cases, would make the road to justice virtually impossible to navigate. The Chihuahua state attorney general’s office is fully aware of the irregularities and the chain-of-command responsible for committing them, Doretti asserted. “It’s a matter of deciding (to investigate),” Doretti said. “If they want to do it, they can.”

Since 2005, the EAAF has identified the remains of 33 presumed homicide victims in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City, Doretti added. Currently, the team is working on establishing the identities of 50 additional victims. According to the EAAF’S chief investigator in Mexico, the team has examined the remains of unknown victims from 1993 to 2008. The EAAF’s work has been supported by private foundations, the US and other foreign governments and the Chihuahua state government.

Doretti, whose internationally-acclaimed organization grew out of the Argentine Dirty War scandals, submitted testimony in the cotton field trial. The Mexican state challenged the testimony, arguing it would expose “confidential information” and jeopardize ongoing murder investigations. Court justices, however, disagreed and accepted Doretti’s testimony. Mexico’s legal representatives also unsuccessfully attempted to suppress other expert witnesses, including Oscar Maynez, a former Chihuahua state forensic official who resigned after refusing to plant evidence on the two bus drivers initially accused of the cotton field slayings.

Other Responses to the Court’s Decision

In response to the court’s decision, Mexico’s federal Interior Ministry announced it would establish a sub-commission to supervise the country’s compliance with the sentence. Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz welcomed the court’s action, but insisted that the failings of previous murder investigations were a thing of the past and current authorities were on the right path in combating femicide.

The OAS’ court, however, found that many impediments to justice still exist. Although justices praised some aspects of Operation Alba, an inter-agency campaign which was established several years ago to locate missing women, they noted a website for disappeared women,, has not been updated since December 2006.

In fact, one of the missing women listed on the web page, Merlin Elizabeth Rodriguez Saenz, was previously identified by the EAAF as among the cotton field victims. Rodriguez reportedly disappeared in August 2000, long before many of the other cotton field victims vanished and about fifteen months before her remains were recovered.

Recent stories in the border and Mexican press have reported that at least 36 women and girls have gone missing in Ciudad Juarez in 2009. And murders of women- for all reasons- have reached unprecedented levels in Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua this year, claiming more than 185 victims- at least 144 of them in Ciudad Juarez-so far in 2009.

To monitor the Mexican government’s compliance with the court decision, lawyers for the victims’ mothers and members of non-governmental organizations announced in Mexico City late last week that they would form a commission of their own, with international participation, to ensure the sentence is carried out correctly.

In part, progress on the cotton field and other pending femicide cases will depend on Chihuahua State Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez, who is likely to leave office next year when the state governorship changes hands. According to Mercedes Doretti, Gonzalez still has a last chance to break "the circle of impunity” that envelops the cotton field case and so many others in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua.

Additional sources: Norte, December 12 and 13, 2009. Articles by Claudia Sanchez, Francisco Lujan and editorial staff. El Universal, December 12, 2009. Articles by Silvia Otero and Alberto Morales. El Paso Times, December 12, 2009. Article by Diana Washington Valdez and Aileen B. Flores. El Diario de Juarez, December 12, 2009. Article by Luz del Carmen Sosa. La Jornada, December 12, 2009. Article by Emir Olivares Alonso., December 12, 2009.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): 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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