Justice Is Hard to Find for Mothers in Ciudad Juárez

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“How many years has this been going on? Why didn't they change the way they investigate everything?”  These are the questions that linger on the mind of Irma Monreal after nearly nine years of struggling to find a semblance of justice after her daughter, Esmeralda, was raped, tortured and murdered in Ciudad Juárez in 2001. 

Her resiliency and determination– along with that of the mothers of two other murdered young women – pushed their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This past December, in a ruling that marked a major milestone for those who have long-struggled to find justice for the families of feminicide victims in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, judges concluded that Mexican officials have violated the “rights [of their citizens] to life, personal integrity, and personal liberty” through their failure to adequately investigate and prosecute those responsible for the murders of these three women.

Irma’s story was featured in a timely and powerful piece published last week in the Houston Chronicle rightfully hailing the Inter-American Court’s landmark ruling as a step forward. But for each of these mothers who attain justice, there are still hundreds of families of murdered and disappeared women and girls, along with the families of the countless individuals – from students to small business owners to, yes, those who may have been directly or indirectly engaged in crime– killed in the crossfire of the ‘war on drugs,’ who may never see investigations begin for the cases of their lost loved ones.

Although few would doubt that some of the 23,000 slayings in Mexico can be attributed to cartels and gangs targeting and killing rivals, many feel betrayed by statements like the one made last week where President Calderón marginalized the murders of innocent civilians by stating that they only compose 10% of deaths, which forms “realmente los menos” – really a minority.

Worse yet, when questioned about reports of widespread human rights violations being committed by the Mexican military against civilians, Ciudad Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz followed a similar approach of brushing away the question stating, “most of those complaining are the parents of ‘hardcore’ criminals who kill for a living.”

These statements – and the attitudes of near indifference they represent in the face of rising violence, murders, and human rights violations simply because they are committed against individuals assumed to be engaged in criminal activity – are as dangerous as they are disrespectful.  As noted in the Houston Chronicle piece, “Ciudad Juarez is a warning of what is going to happen, what is already happening, all over Mexico… The corruption, the impunity, is what feeds the violence – not the other way around.” 

Unquestionably, authorities have an urgent responsibility to adopt proactive measures to eliminate gender violence, beginning with actively investigating and prosecuting murders of not only women and girls but of all violent crimes.  Creating a climate in which human and civil rights are respected and those who violate those rights and commit crimes are justly prosecuted, is essential to restoring civilian confidence and trust in local, state, and federal government agencies. To be effective in the long-term, this has to be the focus of both Mexico’s strategy in the so-called ‘war on drugs’ and all U.S. aid provided through Merida funding.

Speculating about the affiliations of victims or the circumstances of their disappearances or deaths is exactly that, speculation.  It’s unacceptable for key public figures like President Calderón to make statements that justify the failure of authorities to investigate and prosecute cases through a twisted blaming of the dead or disappeared who, of course, cannot speak for themselves. When Irma Monreal first approached the police around twenty-four hours after the disappearance of her daughter Esmeralda, it was this attitude that led officers to instruct Irma “to bring them evidence that something had happened to her. They told me she had probably gone off with a boy.”

This is the type of indifference that allows impunity to flourish, and forms the foundation of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ December ruling.  Now is the time for President Calderón and Mayor Reyes Ferriz to reconsider how they talk about the rising violence plaguing communities in Mexico.  Only then will leaders begin paving the way for a new attitude that recognizes the need for change in Mexico’s institutions to effectively put an end to the culture of impunity that has thousands of family members grieving without answers for their pain.

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