In 2008, as military operations in Ciudad Juárez surged, Josefina Reyes Salazar, an outspoken critic of pervasive violence against women, summoned her courage and determinedly denounced the militarization in her home state of Chihuahua. Not long after, her son Miguel Ángel was kidnapped by the military and her other son, Julio César, was brutally murdered. Josefina openly blamed the army for the slaying of her son and, despite persistent death threats, tirelessly voiced her demands for justice. In early 2010, Josefina herself was coldly executed by armed gunman on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez.
One by one, members of the Reyes Salazar family have condemned abuses by the Mexican military and demanded justice for their loved ones. And one by one, they have been silenced by death. All in all, six members of the family have been murdered in the past three years.
Since 2006 when a newly inaugurated Felipe Calderón deployed thousands of soldiers across the country in an effort to pursue drug cartels, soaring reports of human rights abuses committed by security forces have been paired with growing threats against defenders throughout Mexico. Disturbingly, authorities too frequently shrug off such patterns of violence by defaming these defenders, alleging that they were only targeted because of their own involvement with organized crime.
A particularly brutal wave of attacks against rights defenders struck Chihuahua this past February when three more members of the Reyes Salazar family— Elias Salazar (Josefina’s brother), his wife Luisa Ornelas and his sister Magdalena Reyes Salazar—were kidnapped and later found shot to death alongside a road between Ciudad Juárez and their home town of Guadalupe. As Sara Salazar, the family’s matriarch, staged a hunger strike to demand justice for the crimes against her children, her home and the home of María Luisa García, a fellow rights activist who had joined the protest, were torched by arsonists.
The tragedy of the Reyes Salazar family is far from unique, representing a broader trend of violence targeting human rights defenders throughout Chihuahua and northern Mexico. In early January of this year rights defender and poet Susan Chavez was murdered in Ciudad Juárez and on December 16, 2010 human rights defender Marisela Escobedo Ortiz was killed in Chihuahua City, where she had been demanding justice in the case of her murdered daughter. At least eight well-known rights activists have been murdered throughout Chihuahua since 2008 and, like the vast majority of crimes and human rights violations in Mexico, their cases remain in impunity.
There’s no doubt that full, fair, and effective investigations and prosecutions for crimes are a critical element to ending the climate of lawlessness in which violence thrives in Mexico. However, the Mexican government doesn’t have to wait for slow-moving judicial reforms to take root to meaningfully protect rights defenders. A federal system to protect human rights defenders could save lives now. The human rights community has been pushing for such a protection mechanism in recent years, but the Mexican government has shamefully walked away from the discussion table, a glaring example of the upward climb that rights defenders face to be heard and respected by the state.
In June 2008 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted protection measures to Garcia, Sara Salazar, and other staff of the Chihuahua-based organizations Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (May our Daughters Return Home) and the Centro de Derechos Humanos de las Mujeres (Women’s Human Rights Center), but both federal and state authorities failed to provide requested protection measures.
With their lives on the line, some surviving members of the Reyes Salazar family have left Chihuahua and have stated that they are seeking asylum in the United States. However, their exile doesn’t solve the problem. “How many more [rights activists] must be threatened, abducted or killed before the government takes the steps necessary to keep them safe?” asks Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch’s director for the Americas. If concrete and decisive action isn’t taken soon to protect those who dedicate their lives to protecting others, human rights organizations fear it will be many more.