A Crime Against Mexico

By GERRY HADDEN

Last week the Mexican government publicly apologized for not preventing the 2001 murders of three women in Ciudad Juárez, and for botching the subsequent investigations.

The mea culpa strikes me as very narrow, given that hundreds of women have been murdered in and around that desolate border city since 1993.

To date, no believable arrests have been made, no solid leads established, no credible investigation begun in any of the cases.

The handling of the Juárez murders has been a cynical fiasco from the start. This half-baked, reluctant apology only heaps more shame on Mexican officials.

On Nov. 7, standing on a scrubby Juárez lot, at the half-finished and forlorn memorial to the women slain in that city, Felipe Zamora, undersecretary for legal affairs and human rights, said sorry.

(Zamora was killed in a helicopter crash near Mexico City along with Interior Minister Francisco Blake Mora on Nov. 11. The cause of the crash is still unknown.)

The apology was under duress: It followed an embarrassing request from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The families of three victims had sought justice outside Mexico after years of frustration at home, and the court ruled in their favor, asking Mexico to reopen its investigations and to apologize.

So Zamora, a mid-level official, did just that. He expressed his regret in these three cases. Only these three. He did not speak a word about any of the other victims. The three women were among eight killed and dumped together in a city lot more than a decade ago. At the time, I was covering Mexico for National Public Radio.

I flew up to Juárez, along with Marion Lloyd of The Boston Globe, soon after the mutilated bodies were discovered. As we began to ask questions of Juárez officials, we unearthed utter incompetence at best, and willful negligence at worst.

Two days after these eight bodies had been found, Juárez police arrested two men, both bus drivers. Their nicknames were “Seal” and “Matchstick.” They were paraded before local and national TV cameras amid grave official pronouncements that the murders had finally been solved. The two suspects even confessed before the cameras. It was somewhat difficult to understand them, given their swollen and battered faces — the consequence, according to authorities, of having “resisted arrest.” But still, they did confess.

Seal and Matchstick were the latest in a series of suspects arrested for the Juárez killings. But many people were doubtful, because after each arrest, the murders would continue. Lloyd and I wanted to know why authorities were so sure they’d nabbed the culprits this time around. This is what we learned about the case against the two men:

In violation of Mexican law, police held Seal and Matchstick for three days in a secret location before their televised confession. A police spokesman would not tell us where they’d been held or what had happened during those 72 hours.

When the suspects were finally brought to the Chihuahua state prison, the warden reported that the men were covered with bruises and burn marks, probably from electrical shocks, including one on the penis of one of them. We actually saw the photos. My first thought was, if someone did that to me, I’d have confessed to assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

The prison warden was replaced two days after speaking out.

The police had no physical evidence linking Seal or Matchstick to any of the women, or to the crime scene. No DNA samples were taken from them.

A police investigator told us he quit after higher-ups asked him to plant evidence against the two drivers.

So on what grounds were Seal and Matchstick being held? A special prosecutor for crimes against women in Juárez told us the case hinged on airtight eyewitness testimony.

We were told that one young woman had escaped from Seal and Matchstick just before the November murders. Her testimony was clear and damning, we were told. I asked to read the transcript.

According to the woman, she’d been on their bus and they had tried to kidnap her, but she had escaped. She described her attackers as “brown skinned, stocky, with dark hair and dark eyes.” That’s 90 percent of all Mexican men, I thought as I read her sworn testimony.

Finally I got to something specific: a red dragon tattoo. The woman said that as she leapt from the bus she saw the tattoo clearly on the upper arm of one of the men, that she would never forget it as long as she lived.

“So which one has the tattoo?” I asked the prosecutor. “Seal or Matchstick?”

“Neither,” he said coolly.

“But that’s the only specific detail in her entire account,” we said.

The prosecutor shrugged. “You know women,” he sighed. “When they’re hysterical they’ll say anything. We don’t give that detail much credence.”

Lloyd and I just stared at the prosecutor. I thought to myself, either the real killers have this guy’s family under threat, or he simply doesn’t care who’s killing Juárez’s women.

There was no other way to explain that scandalous lack of professionalism and accountability. At least I couldn’t come up with another explanation. More than 10 years on, no one else has either. The best we’ve seen is a forced apology.

Gerry Hadden is a correspondent for PRI/BBC’s “The World” and the author of “Never the Hope Itself” about his years covering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for National Public Radio.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on November 17, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: A Crime Against Mexico.

About northernbarbarians

I'm an activist and advocate for human rights and the establishment of penalties to the simulators and inconsistent. My fight is for respect for universal rights and freedoms. Journalist various print and electronic media in several countries. Independent research analyst of social risks in unions, political, corporate and institutional image. Four books published and three in electronic version. Live one day at a time, even on payments, sometimes alive yesterday. Modest income is the price of freedom.
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