Mexican Journalist Marcela Turati: “Don’t Abandon Us”
By: MARCELA TURATI | July 3, 2013
Journalist Marcela Turati has gained global attention for her compassionate and committed reporting on the victims of Mexico’s drug wars. An investigative reporter for the magazine Proceso, she is co-founder of Periodistas de a Pie (Journalists on Foot), a network that supports journalists covering issues such as poverty and human rights. The Nieman Fellows at Harvard University, in choosing her for the 2013Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism, called Turati “a standard-bearer for the journalists who have risked their lives to document the devastating wave of violence in Mexico,” and saluted her “courage… journalistic excellence and leadership.”
On June 25, Turati gave the keynote speech at the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) annual conference in San Antonio, Texas. During a lengthy talk, in sometimes halting English, hundreds of journalists sat silent and fixed on her words. Turati’s message to her colleagues was straightforward: “Don’t abandon us.”
Here’s her full speech.
Good afternoon everyone.
I am honored to address IRE on a topic of importance to us all, especially considering that this is an organization that has long stood up for investigative reporting on the border, most memorably after Don Bolles, an IRE co-founder, was killed by organized crime figures in Arizona.
As you know, in 2006 president Felipe Calderón launched the ‘war on drugs’ in part with funding from the United States. Our country became a battlefield. He put soldiers and federal police on the streets, supposedly to fight drug cartels, giving rise to an irregular war, which has caused at least 70,000 victims of homicide, and more than twenty thousand disappeared people. These are unresolved crimes, of which we still have not fully grasped the nature.
Journalists in many regions of the country have become trapped in the middle of the conflicts. And, due to the lack of investigation into the murders by the authorities, it is still difficult to understand who is truly behind the crimes.
We Mexican journalists have become war reporters in our own country. In my case, for example, I began as a reporter who covered poverty, who from one day to the next was suddenly covering massacres of young people, documenting ghost towns abandoned after a series of murders, or social programs for children orphaned by the violence. One day I had in front of me a row of 30 women with photos of their missing children who wanted to tell me their stories.
I have dedicated much of my own work as an investigative reporter at Proceso to ferreting out the truth behind some of these episodes and documenting the victims of the war.
We Mexican journalists were not prepared for the violence. Suddenly, there we were, being pushed-around, in the chaos, in the middle of a war which was not about drug trafficking, as they told us, but for control of territory. A war to see who would hold onto the land where narcotics are grown, the trafficking routes, and the points of sale of drugs in the country. To see who would control the business, who would tax the sellers, who would appoint the mayor, the next chief of police and the director of prisons.
And in a situation like this, it is clearly central to have control of the press, so that no one asks questions. To guarantee control of the population.
I and other reporters founded an organization called Periodistas de a Pie (Journalists on Foot) to train journalists who cover poverty issues. However, we had to change focus quickly to respond to the crisis. We held workshops on how to survive an assignment, how to understand the drug trafficker, how to interview a child who had survived a massacre, how to continue reporting without losing the joy of living.
Before we realized it, we were a crisis center. At any hour of the day, including tense deadline moments, we have received calls from colleagues in remote zones, desperately seeking help because they know the hitmen are coming for them and they need refuge. Or requests for psychological support for reporters who don’t want to go back out to work after a traumatic event, like a fire or attack on their office.
Unlike in traditional wars, in Mexico journalists don’t die in the crossfire, from a stray bullet, from walking in a minefield. In Mexico, the killers hunt down journalists…
In this war for territory, the journalists have become victims. Because, unlike in traditional wars, in Mexico journalists don’t die in the crossfire, from a stray bullet, from walking in a minefield. In Mexico, the killers hunt down journalists, dragging them out of their offices and their houses, intercepting them in the street.
In Mexico the reporters who are supposed to file the news became themselves the news.
In the past 10 years, at least 17 journalists have disappeared and 72 have been killed. None of them have been solved.
One of them is Regina Martínez, the valiant reporter who exposed political corruption and
organized crime in the state of Veracruz. She worked for Proceso magazine, as do I. A year ago she was strangled in her house. The local government, which may be implicated in the murder, decided without credible evidence that her murder was the result of a robbery, and they locked up a young man. He claims he was tortured into admitting the crime.
As in the other murders of journalists, the judicial authorities did not consider her journalistic work as a possible cause of the murder. As in other murders, they blamed the journalist for her own death, and tried to call her integrity into question.
Days after her murder, two more journalists were killed with another who had recently left the profession out of fear.
These killings had the desired effect. They silenced the rest.
At least 17 journalists fled the state, some of them paid by the state government to leave and come back after the elections. Some left the profession in an attempt to save their lives. Others of them are cutting grass or selling tacos in the US, or rely on solidarity to sustain themselves, whilst they wait for their asylum case to be heard. Others work as street vendors or as whatever they can, in Mexico City, trying to rebuild their lives. Terrified, penniless, broken.
The situation is different in various regions of Mexico.
In some areas, drug traffickers leave videos or messages, and they call up the journalists to report on them. In other zones, the warnings always come accompanied by violence, and journalists who publish information that annoys a certain group are abducted and tortured, and their skin marked, to show that they won’t get a second chance. In some areas, journalists are forced to attend press conferences with the local cartel chief, who dictates the editorial line: telling them what information to cover and what to ignore. Generally, they give them instructions to follow, they watch them, and they pay them a salary. The newsrooms are infiltrated, too. Whoever refuses has to change jobs or start a new life somewhere else.
In places like Mexico City, they are visited by the so called ‘narco-lawyers’, who tell them which information irritated their clients.
In this turf war, the media is a target: they receive intimidating phone calls, bombs are hurled, they are fired upon with heavy arms. There have been cases in which employees (not always journalists) have been taken as hostages to force the publication of something favoring a certain group. Some newsrooms have been burnt down as reporters are inside, writing.
Some states have become zones of silence, and the silence has extended. We are losing contact with regions that are now forbidden territory for everyone, in which we no longer know something as basic as how many people are killed every day. Only from time to time, when a massacre occurs (which is so spectacular that it can’t be covered up – such as that of 72 migrants -) or an entire village flees their homes: only then can we get a sense of what is happening, only then can we get an idea of what is being hidden.
One of the most dangerous states for journalists is only two hundred and sixty five kilometers from here, less than three hours on the highway, on the other side of the border, where silence has been imposed.
In states like the Tamaulipas, many blood-chilling episodes take place, which could have been written about by any war reporter. For months, passengers in public buses have been made to get off and in that very place recruited by force, taken as slaves or killed and buried. Only suitcases arrive at bus terminals. Nobody said anything until graves were found containing almost two hundred bodies.
In places like this, and in various parts of the borderland, people ‘disappear’, along with their car or truck. Some were Mexicans on their way to McAllen or Laredo to go shopping or to visit. Some were Americans visiting relatives in Mexico.
I remember when I went to Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, to cover the discovery of this mass grave. It was said that there were thousands of bodies, but they didn’t finish excavating it. Hundreds of anguished families arrived there from all over the country, all looking for a child who had disappeared.
A woman who was waiting to see if one of the bodies was that of her son found out I was a journalist. She began to hold forth furiously.
“Why are you, reporters, coming here now,” she said, “for months we have been saying that people were disappearing on this highway, but nobody paid any attention. It felt like we were talking from the bottom of the sea.”
Her phrase, talking from the bottom of the sea, sums up perfectly the situation that this lost zone is living there, where The Dallas Morning News reported that 8 journalists had disappeared, something that we Mexicans didn’t know. And where have been discovered training camps for the ‘sicarios’, the hitmen, some of them teenagers from Laredo, Texas, who dropt out of high school to become assassins on the Mexican side of the border.
In this area full of hidden graves, sown with corpses, citizens are murdered every day. Even the border crossing is controlled by drug traffickers, who abduct those who don’t pay and decide who goes through and who dies.
Many journalists tried to speak out about it until they were silenced. As far as they can, they are still trying. Some live with a pistol to their head. Others leave running, with only their keys in their pocket, to start again. Until the night covers them.
How much they can do depends on where they live.
In desperation, citizens have tried to assume the role of the journalists. I remember that video filmed by a normal citizen who went out into the street to record on her cell phone the destruction of the battle of the night before, of the shootouts that the authorities claim don’t happen. They use social networks or set up blogs, such as ‘Valor por Tamaulipas’, where they post citizens’ reports of armed encounters which the media are prohibited from covering. These websites don’t last long. The drug cartels put a price on the heads of their administrators.
The government is also interested in shutting down these sources of information, because they contradict the official government position that everything is well.
I know a journalist who went to Tamaulipas to report on the situation. In the main square, in front of the government building, he was surrounded by a convoy of vans which bore the logo of the local cartel on their number plates. The reporter and the cameraman were abducted and tortured, and warned to stop asking questions.
In this area, the earth swallowed a young freelance visitor from San Antonio, who left his hotel to take photographs and never came back.
And a Mexican reporter who anonymously ran a blog for citizens, telling them where there were shoot-outs and publishing their complaints, was decapitated, and her body found with a note threatening anyone who uses social networks. How can we say that journalism is possible in a place like this?
The violence has even reached Mexico City. An example is the magazine where I work, which was founded four decades ago and is still considered a leader in investigative journalism today. Proceso is one of the media which has suffered the most aggressions. Not only did they murder Regina Martínez. Four journalists have been forced to move, some outside the country, others from one city to another. In this year, four have been threatened, and some of them have asked for assistance through a recently created governmental mechanism for journalists’ protection. Let’s see if it Works.
Proceso is not the worst case. Others exist.
At the beginning of the last decade, the organization for training journalists that emerged thanks to the support of the IRE, was forced to attend to the crises of that period. In these recent years, involuntarily perhaps, our organization has focused too on attending these crises.
From being active journalists, without quite knowing how, we became defenders of human rights. We have organized marches to demand an end to impunity and justice for our colleagues, as well as auctions and collections to support journalists who have had to flee their homes. We support other local journalists, helping them become stronger, organize themselves and develop their own techniques to deal with emergencies.
We do not agree that the only way for the government and some international organizations to deal with these crises is by removing journalists from their home territory. Because in this way the silencers win the game.
The battle we have at hand is not only for freedom of expression. It is for peoples’ right to be informed.
In a panorama like this, investigative reporting has faltered. Journalists are no longer the watchdogs of democracy, as we used to define ourselves.
In many areas, the watchdog is chained, muzzled, it does not have permission to bark. It is an abused animal who has learned not to bark when an enemy approaches. It is a dog domesticated by governors who bought its silence. It is a dog forced to turn a blind eye to violations of the law.
However, even in some of the worst places there are a few fierce and isolated watchdogs still fighting to defend the owners of the house they protect, still resisting the leash. There are individual efforts, true heroes, who risk their lives with every article they write.
Not every part of Mexico has come to this extreme point but the silence is spreading. Not only through violence but through more sophisticated methods, such as the threats of imprisonment. Or using enormous government advertising budget lines to fill media with propaganda or pay for publicity or they remove it, as reward or punishment. Or buy off media owners and managers.
Mexico’s newly-elected president has insisted to “speak well” of Mexico. At the moment, politicians and organized crime share the same objective: ‘que no se caliente la plaza’, to keep from heating up the areas they control.
The killings and disappearances of journalists are not random. The targets are often the leading investigative reporters — or top watchdog reporters who appear to have been carefully selected to send a powerful message and silence a region rather than an individual.
Ramón Angeles Zalpa is an example: he exposed the extraction of natural resources, of mines and forests, by organized crime in Michoacán. He was never seen again.
María Esther Aguilar Casimbe published about the capture of a trafficker mayor, a police torturer and the seizing of a shipment. Any one of these three stories could be the cause of her disappearance.
Alfredo Jiménez Mota started the list. A brave, experienced young journalist who was investigating a local capo, Mota went out to take an interview and wasn’t seen again.
Although we have new laws which allow us to access public information, investigative journalism is becoming more and more difficult. Even daily journalism is under threat. There are questions that now nobody asks.
In 1976 IRE made a great effort to shed light on the murder of its co-founder Don Bolles by traffickers. You were not able to live with this murder, you made great investigative efforts because he was one of your own.
On the other side of the border they are killing journalists like flies. Some of them are young people who dreamed of being investigative journalists. Others were skilled reporters who died investigating stories. Armando Rodriguez, “El Choco” was a member of the IRE Mexico Project and had spoken at its conferences.
He was the reporter who counts the daily killings in El Diario de Juárez. He was killed when he was taking his daughter to school.
These are your colleagues, our colleagues, members of our family of investigative reporters. I want to ask you that you do not ignore us. This problem, and these techniques I mentioned, do not stop at the border.
I recognize that great efforts have been made by some American journalists. Many top us newspapers covered the violence in Juarez , in fact almost all the newspapers of the world eventually sent someone there. There are subjects that came to light thanks to the work of US investigative reporters or correspondents, such as Operation Fast and Furious, which makes us so indignant.
Or the publication of the databases with up to 25,000 names of people who disappeared under the last government.
But as time passes, all this death, all these massacres, all these mass graves, all these bodies, all these missing people, stop being so newsworthy.
As Lise Olsen wrote in a book: on the US side, “reporters who are informed and experienced in Mexico and the border have been dropped in all border states, largely for economic reasons, but the violence has had an impact too.
“Every major newspaper in the region has eliminated bureaus and cut coverage. In California, the largest border region newspaper, the San Diego Union, had a five-person border team in the late 1990s. Only one person remained to cover Tijuana in 2012. The Los Angeles Times has a single border reporter, though he works with a team of two in Mexico City. The Arizona Republic has lost border staff too. In Texas, the Dallas Morning News formerly deployed five people to Mexico City–one remains. The Houston Chronicle and the Express-News (…) located only 150 to 300 miles from Mexico by car, once had three border reporters and two in Mexico City. Only one of those jobs remained in 2013.
“Many large and small US newspapers no longer allow reporters to cross the border to cover any story. Both national US and Mexico City-based media companies have reduced binational coverage”.
Many times, reporters as you, ask us: how can we help you?
We could say: raising funds, offering asylum, raising awareness. But what we ask from IRE members is that you do your work here. That you investigate trafficking networks in your own country. That you share this problem, which is mutual.
It isn’t only gun trafficking that adds to the death toll in our country. It’s corrupt us government officials, US drug dealers and gangs, and US dirty businessmen and money launderers.
Because some cartel leaders and hitmen are us citizens. Many others live and own property here.
We do not ask for anything that is not in your best interest.
But as your friends, we need you to see that you need to face this problem as your own. Asking yourself, who is my neighbour. Who controls neighbouring states. Because we share three thousand kilometers of border. Because, as you have reported, Mexican cartels are present in more than 200 cities, and keep growing.
Also push for your newspapers to cover stories about how Mexican policy cost lives or forced journalists or others into exile. Many of those who were forced to flee are here – right here in Texas – and are included in the growing list of those who have asked for asylum.
I would have liked to have come here to talk to you about a different panorama. To tell you how fruitful were the courses and conferences that IRE’S Mexico Project organized in Mexico City in the nineties, and in the two binational meetings in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Or how long lasting have been the relationships that were made between many journalists back then.
But what’s left after they shoot up your office three times, as happened to El Siglo de Torreón, even though it had federal protection? Or if, as happened to El Mañana, they kill two editors and throw a grenade which wounds many people? Or to El Diario de Juárez that after two of its reporters were murdered wrote an editorial asking drug lords who control the city what their ground rules were, thereby revealing to the world that the Mexican national government had no control over the largest city on the us border?
The battle to control information is underway at this very moment.
But everything is not lost. Valiant efforts are being made. El Diario de Juárez, as example, using databases and processing information it was able to map the violence and related how the government aligned itself with a cartel group. And the magazine Zeta de Tijuana every month tells us the correct figures for the killings, because otherwise no one would have access to that state’s data.
There have been efforts of collaboration among editors who agree to publish the same article when they put pressure on someone from the group. Or collaborations between reporters and foreign correspondents, so that news prohibited in Mexico can be divulged elsewhere.
Other journalists have created news blogs to inform the people of what is happening, and they maintain them for the time they are able to keep their identity secret. In one case, a Mexican media opened a blog in Texas, in order to avoid detection. Until they were discovered. Journalists have also created our own networks, such as our organization.
I know various journalists who are secretly writing a book, hoping that conditions change and they can publish it. These are efforts which go against the current.
These isolated and, for their own safety, anonymous heroes, are among various enemies: companies which don’t protect their own people, the corrupted government and organized crime.
I have a story embedded in my mind. I repeat it a lot – perhaps you have already heard it. But I can’t avoid retelling it here.
A reporter told me how one night someone called to tell him that a commando squad had taken his colleague. He got up from the bed, got dressed, said goodbye to his wife, kissed his children, and sat down in the living room; waiting to be taken away. It was the longest night of his life.
“Why didn’t you run?” I asked, surprised.
“Where could I run?” he said. “My only wish was to stop them entering my house and taking me in front of my family. I didn’t want my family to remember me with that image.”
He survived, but his friend was found the next day, his body discarded in the street, as if he were trash. In the city where they live, the policemen are the narcos.
There’s another one I can’t forget. A colleague went to see what help she could give to some reporters in Veracruz. She asked one of them how we could help. He said: bring me a pistol. She was stupefied. A pistol? Yes, he said, it isn’t to kill them, it’s to kill myself if they come for me. Because now they don’t just kill you – they torture you as well.
Whenever I recall these stories I think of how many journalists would be feeling that same solitude. Not knowing whom to ask for help. Too many are resigned to the fact that death is their destiny.
Whenever I recall these stories I think of how many journalists would be feling that same solitude. Not knowing whom to ask for help. Too many are resigned to the fact that death is their destiny.
So the question of what we can do acquires a different resonance. You can do many things. But I believe that we must do journalism, because that is what we are, journalists. We must expose the business, the drugs and arms trafficking networks, the corrupt authorities, we must follow up on judgments to piece together the puzzle of who are their partners and where the disappeared people end up. We must follow the narco-money on both sides of the border.
Again, this isn’t just about helping us, it’s about helping yourselves as well.
In an IRE workshop, I learned that reporters from Laredo or McAllen, Texas, have also been threatened not to cross the border. Correspondent Alfredo Corchado was threatened in a bar in Texas.
What you can do? A friend in Sinaloa, in the investigative magazine Riodoce, perhaps said it the best way: Don’t abandon us. I say the same to you.
As the great Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski once said: In the struggle against silence, human life is at stake.
Marcela Turati is an investigative reporter for the Mexican magazine Proceso. In 2007 she co-founded Periodistas de a Pie, a journalism network created to support reporters covering issues such as poverty, civic participation, and human rights. Later, its main mission shifted to support journalists covering the war on drugs conflict and to defend freedom of speech. In 2010, Turati published the book Fuego Cruzado: Las Víctimas Atrapadas en la Guerra del Narco (Crossfire: Victims Trapped in the Narco-War), about the impact of drug violence on Mexican society.
The National Decay
MARCELA TURATI. Translated by John Gibler
Originally published in Proceso, July 25, 2011
The Matamoros morgue is a branch of purgatory. After news got out
that a mass grave filled with bodies had been discovered in San Fernando,
Tamaulipas, hundreds of people from across Mexico came to see if their
vanished loved ones—whom they were too terrified to report as missing—
were here, among the executed. The bureaucracy is slow and painful,
especially so when answers are late in coming, and even more so when
one learns that many of the cadavers were sent to Mexico City because San
Fernando, the “Mecca of the disappeared,” can no longer hold so many dead
The stench seeps through the morgue’s walls. It slips into schools,
businesses and homes; it soaks clothes, jams throats, pinches noses,
triggers nausea, quickens strides. The pestilence comes out of a
white building where seventy-one bodies are piled one on top of the other
on the floor, each waiting its turn for an autopsy. In the parking lot, a cargo
truck used to haul fruit serves as storage for another seventy-four bodies,
all bound in trash bags and veiled in masking tape bearing the location
of their discovery.
Hearses arrive every now and then with more recently dug-up bodies,
but by the last count there were 145 corpses.
The secret burial grounds discovered in nearby San Fernando—which
sits on a major highway between Reynosa and Matamoros to the north
and Ciudad Victoria to the south—symbolize the drug war’s debasement.
Each mass grave is proof of the official cover-up of everyday abnormalities:
highways controlled by criminals, daily massacres, the underreporting of
the dead, the en masse disappearances of people, the primitive barbarity
of the groups in conflict, the forced recruitment of youth for the war, the
complicit indifference of the justice system, and the obligatory silence
A blonde woman wearing dark glasses, struggling to speak through
her tears, says, “Just now do they realize what’s happening. After how
long? My husband and his friend were on their way to León to drop off
two cars and they never arrived in Victoria, and I’m living without any
“There have been many complaints since last year but no one paid
attention. It was like trying to be heard from under the ocean,” a skinny, agile-looking woman froma Tamaulipas says furiosusly, as she pulls five-
gallon jugs of drinking water from the trunk of her car. She sets the jugs
down under a tarp strung up to serve as a kind of shelter where volunteers
have spontaneously shown up to help feed and console the out-of-towners
who have come to see if their family members who one day went out and
never came back are among the disinterred.
Matamoros, the national Mecca for families of the disappeared
“We had never filed a report. We just now decided to come because they
are taking so many people out of the graves, and we saw on the news
that many other families had arrived,” says the father of Leonte Silva
Hernández, chicken rancher, father of three, and missing in San Fernando
since November 2010. He didn’t file a missing person’s report for fear his
son’s captors “would torment him.”
The opened graves brought people from every corner of the state of
Tamaulipas, whose residents make up the majority of those here waiting,
but also people from Guerrero, Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Mexico City, Zacatecas,
Michoacán, Jalisco, and Guanajuato who suspect their relatives were
captured along one of these highways of death.
Their nightmare unfolds in San Fernando, the municipality bordering
Matamoros and controlled by the Zetas, who since 2010 have been at
war with the Gulf Cartel, their former employer. In August 2010, San
Fernando scandalized the world as the place where seventy-two Central
and South American migrants were mass murdered. Now, there’s this. On
April 6, 2011, eight hidden graves holding fifty-nine bodies were discovered,
further exposing a persistent rot: criminals are murdering bus passengers
traveling along the highway through San Fernando, as happened on three
occasions in late March 2011.
The army detained several people accused of participating in the
murders, who then showed them where to dig. They also arrested eleven
complicit police officers. By Friday, June 15, 2011, 145 bodies had been
exhumed from dozens of graves.
A housewife from Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero, stands motionless,
leaning against the wall of the special investigator’s office. She is the
presumed widow of one of the bus passengers traveling to Reynosa. Her
husband and six friends were going to try to cross into the United States
“Since he didn’t arrive, we asked to speak with the driver, to ask him
about it, but at the bus station they said the driver hadn’t reported anything.
But they suspected that people were missing because there were ‘extra
suitcases.’ Only later did the bus driver confess to us that between seven
and eight in the morning on March 29, 2011, armed men made all the
passengers, about twenty-five people, get off the bus. They only let two
women, the bus driver and his helper, go,” this mother of four children
says, holding a backpack with some clothes, her only luggage.
None of the people from Guerrero reported the disappearance because
they were waiting for the kidnappers to demand a ransom, as is the custom.
Then she learned the bodies of the passengers were being housed at this
“I’ve been here for three days. They told me I can’t see them because
the bodies are very decomposed… but if he is dead or alive, I want to find
him,” she says, sad and scared. “Don’t put his name in your report. They
say that sometimes the kidnappers have them alive and if something is
published about the missing, they kill them.”
Another woman from Arcelia, Guerrero, waits in line to have a DNA
test so she can reclaim her son from among the bodies piled in plastic bags.
“He is a day laborer. He was going to Reynosa. He left on March 28, 2011,
in one of those buses.”
People arriving from other cities at the morgue have to wait in at least
four lines, each lasting hours: two to report the disappearance, and two to
have blood drawn for the genetic comparisons.
In the office of the special investigator’s reception area, during the
hours of waiting, one hears the common worries:
“Miss, couldn’t you show us photographs of the dead?” an elderly
“No. They are no longer recognizable due to the passing of time and
the conditions of their deaths,” the receptionist answers. “Only with
descriptions of their clothes, tattoos, or necklaces can they be recognized.
That is why we ask you to leave this information because there are a
hundred bodies but some 400 families have come looking.”
“When will you let us know?” asks a frustrated woman who has been
waiting four days.
“Ma’am, there are a lot of people, and we have to send the kits for
The office seems like a purgatory filled with lost stares, watery eyes,
tear-streaked faces. At times a funereal silence descends, at times the
place becomes a self-help community.
“Sometimes it is better to have the blow come all at once rather than
to spend all day wondering if he’s alive, if they’re beating him, if he’s
eaten,” someone says.
“I can’t even swallow food anymore, this is a slow death,” says a young
woman with a baby in her arms.
“We don’t want to find my son here. We want him alive. We’ve already
looked for him in Reynosa, Laredo, Mier. We even went to look at some
burned bodies, but there wasn’t so much as a tennis shoe or pant leg left.
And that’s where we’re at,” says the mother of Leonel Ignacio Mancilla
Silva, a cook who disappeared while driving his car with his boss and two
co-workers on the highway to Reynosa.
A hundred people wait in line today. Some cross themselves when
it is their turn to be attended. A nervous elderly woman sighs and says,
“May it be as God wishes, what else is there?”
On an adjacent property, forensic doctors fitted in white surgical suits
maneuver the cadavers. They unload the human-shaped plastic bags from
the trailer and deposit them on the floor of the Medical Forensic Service.
Working in opposite order, they load other bodies onto the trailer.
The searchers feel their hearts squeeze as they watch the bodies stacked
in the trailer’s bed as if they were cartons of fruit. “I hope to God my
family members aren’t among the bodies. It makes me uncomfortable to
see how they are taking people off the trailer,” Isidra Pérez Segundo says,
as she hurries away. A cook by trade, Pérez Segundo lost, all on the same
day, her son, her daughter-in-law, her eight-months-pregnant daughter,
her son-in-law, and her five-year-old grandson on the highway. Now she
cares for Daria Yareli, her four-year-old orphaned granddaughter, who
smiles out from a cell phone screen.
The forensic workers can barely keep up. At times, they step out to
smoke and get rid of the stench gripping their throats. They unzip their
overalls. In whispers, because they are prohibited from giving information,
they say the majority of the cadavers they have seen have their hands tied
behind their backs and their shirts pulled over their heads. They were not
blindfolded. Few had a quick death. Three were women.
“They are badly beaten, with blows to the skull, using something like
an iron rod, a pipe, or a mallet. That’s how the nine we have seen today
came in. Some of them can’t even be evaluated, almost none of them have
bullet wounds in the head,” one of the forensic doctors says.
Another of the investigative experts who participated in finding the mass
graves explains they were able to do so thanks to the “mole” (informant)
who guided them; the graves were not at the edge of the highway nor easily
visible. Several mounds the criminals made with heavy machinery to hide
their victims had to be excavated.
This investigator confirms that the majority of the victims were killed
with a hammer blow to the head. As with all the other authorities, he
attributes the crime to the Zetas, who control the region.
Some of the dead wear winter clothes. Almost all of them were poor.
(“They couldn’t afford to pay the toll fees on the faster freeways, and no
one bothered to figure out what was going on because they weren’t the
children of anyone famous,” the investigator says.)
“Why would they have killed them?” I asked the investigator.
“All the men, who were young, of recruitment age, the killers see them
as potential enemies. Perhaps the killers are so desperate that they kill
these men to prevent them from becoming hit men for the Gulf Cartel.”
Also, this way the young men are prevented from arriving in Matamoros
and Reynosa, cities controlled by the enemies.
No government official can act surprised by what happens here.
Especially if they look at the flyers that line the offices with messages
such as “Help us find him,” with the faces of young people like Eli Octavio,
seventeen, who went missing on the highway to San Fernando; the fifteen-
year-old Yukan Yanay, kidnapped from downtown Valle Hermoso along
with young Francisco Felipe Maya. There are hundreds of them.
Those who are here have already traveled the circuit of the mass
narco graves, like Crescencio Ortiz, an elderly sorghum farmer from San
Fernando, who is looking for his son Adolfo, also a farmer. “And he wasn’t
a drunk, or a smoker, or a gambler, or anything like that,” he adds.
“After he didn’t come back, I’ve been going off to look for the discarded
dead, going off to see them, walking along the shoulder of the highway or
through some hillside or at the funeral parlors. I’ve gone to ask the army
to give us the names of those whom they’ve detained and released to see
if any of them had seen him.”
Or the relatives of Natanael Arturo and Josué Arcel, brothers from
Mexico City who were going to McAllen to buy clothes for Natanael’s baby.
Before disappearing, one of them sent a text message from his cellphone:
“We’ve just been kidnapped in San Fernando, don’t do anything, if something
happens just let my parents know. They put me in the trunk. Don’t call
me or anything.”
His parents have combed Tamaulipas, dodging the drug-gang lookouts,
going to morgues, the state prosecutor’s office, the federal attorney general’s
office, the army, the Federal Police, human rights workers, journalists, to
try and recover them.
Hope does not die. They seek refuge in prayer, in riddles and even
miracles. Like the elderly Oaxacan woman who says, “I want to go to the
television show with Laura (Bozzo) to see if she can find them.”
Nerves fray during the long waits, as with Guadalupe Alfaro when
she wants to list her nephew Jairo Daniel among the disappeared. Her
reprimand becomes a cry: “We wanted to file a report but the federal
attorney general’s office in Reynosa didn’t want to accept our report, for
our own security! There is collusion going on here! I had to make flyers
and leave them all over the place. I spent fifteen days by myself going
through the ditches along the highway looking and asking at the military
roadblocks and bases that the soldiers call if they should find a dead body
or rescue someone.”
People explode when they learn the trailer with the bodies was sent
to Mexico City. They feel like they have been cut off from their loved
ones yet again.
“The dead are from Tamaulipas, we want them here!” screams the
wife of Agustín Jaime del Ángel, who disappeared on December 1, 2010,
on the “dangerous stretch” of the highway. “We’ve already been turned
into widows with orphaned children. Why do they want to expose us to
danger by making us travel on those highways to go look for our disappeared
in Mexico City? Do they want the killers to murder another 500 people?
How long will they make us wait before they return our relatives to us?”
Gonzalo García Casanova, from Matamoros, was the first person
among the dead to be identified. Yet his body was taken with the others to
Mexico City. “If they know who he is, why did they take him? They’re just
making us suffer more,” says his sister, who, like the majority here, does
not understand why their relatives were “taken for a ride” to Mexico City.
Bouts of rage greet any official who appears, and the people here
complain that the governor, Egidio Torre, has not come here to express
solidarity, that President Felipe Calderón has never travelled along these
highways. People from outside Matamoros also complain that no one ever
warned them about the dangers on the highways.
The driver of a bus that makes a daily trip to Victoria acknowledged
the dangers his colleagues have faced: “Beginning two years ago, at night
or in the early dawn hours along the highways or on the side of the road,
you’d see big $30,000 or $40,000 trucks with the doors open and men with
shaved heads and rifles. That’s why we stopped traveling at night. If you
are driving a car, be careful! They cut you off with their trucks, they tip
your car over, kidnap you, or kill you.”
Blood calls to blood
Many mothers stand in line, the first to volunteer for blood tests that
may let them reclaim their sons. Their husbands wait for them in the
hallways, nervous. Some women have brought all their children in case
the government requires more gene tests before their fathers can receive
a proper grave.
A three-year-old girl stands in line, believing she’s about to get a
vaccination. Her uncle and aunt have not told her that her father, her
mother, and her little brother have all disappeared.
A twelve-year-old boy from Zacatecas holds a photograph of his
father, Enrique Vazquez Ibarra, while he’s being photographed. His father
disappeared in Méndez while returning in a used car he had just bought.
The boy’s uncle says, “They grabbed his dad from in front of the school.
They drove up, threw him in the car and took off.”
The majority of Tamaulipas residents have never reported a missing
person. Out of fear.
The stories told here while waiting could form a map of abductions
and lead you to the conclusion that around here young people are forcibly
recruited to replace those who are executed everyday.
“My son was about to turn twenty-two years old. He worked in an Oxxo
convenience store. On January 8, 2011, they took him away. It happened
in Valle Hermoso. We couldn’t report what happened because there are
no police there.”
“Mine is José Juan Zavala (a laborer, father of four children). He left in
the morning, and never came back. In Matamoros, they take many people.”
“I’m here for Roberto Díaz. He is a stonemason’s assistant. They took
him from his very own house.”
“That’s what happened to my son, César Mosqueda. They took him,
like they do with many kids. One of his young friends came to tell me that
men in a pickup truck took him away; he was so scared he didn’t even want
to describe the truck.”
“Take note of my case: Daniel Contreras Lerma, sixteen years old,
and his friend César Homero Salazar, eighteen years old. They took them
from the Oxxo a block and a half from our house. That’s what happens
in Valle Hermosa: people are just walking down the street, and they get
taken away. Or they pull you out of your house. It doesn’t matter if you
are a man or a woman. And people who have escaped don’t want to say if
they saw someone.”
“They motioned to my sister (Luz Elena Ramírez, a thirty-year-old
mother) to come over to a gray car. She walked up; they grabbed her by
the shoulder, and that was the last we saw of her.”
“I’m looking for Édgar Silquero Vera, manager of a gas station in San
Fernando. We just found his Expedition truck. Soldiers were driving around
in it, but they said they don’t know anything about what happened.”
“My son would be about twenty years old now. They took him in a
mass roundup in San Fernando, because they take everyone there and
force them to work. But it would be better if you erased his name.”
The morgue workers take another break and come out to smoke.
It is Thursday, June 14, 2011. They have been working all week and
have just heard that another truck with a dozen bodies is set to arrive.
The daily newscast reports that the Tamaulipas state government will
promote the state as a tourist destination during Holy Week.
“Those bastards are so full of shit!” says a furious prosecutor from
the district attorney’s office.
A local reporter, noting the general fatigue, comments: “And to think,
they still have to excavate the grave sites in Camargo, Alemán, Guardado de
Ariba y de Abajo, the towns of Los Guerra y Comales, Ciudad Mier, Valle
Hermoso, Anáhuac, Cruillas, González Villareal, Nuevo Padilla, Nuevo
Guerrero … The whole state is full of hidden graves.”
Everything around here reeks. Ω
Spoils of War
with young Francisco Felipe Maya. There are hundreds of themBy Marcela Turati
Proceso 1726/November 26,2009
She has a nose ring, wears long earrings and her school uniform skirt has been hemmed into a coquettish mini- skirt. She turned 16 and loved going to dances, until she became afraid of some gunman “liking
her” and of being kidnapped and raped, since she has heard about that happening to other girls.
“ Nobody goes anywhere now , at any moment they can grab you and they take you to “work” or they make you do just about anything. That happens because they see that we are women, because any girl that they like they take, and sometimes they turn up dead or they come back traumatized,” explains the adolescent, interviewed in her classroom.
When she is asked who does that to them, she shrugs in response. She doesn’t say more. Another classmate, with big star- shaped earrings and a Little Kitty bracelet, completes the information: “They grab
them and take them, they rape them, and they don’t even bring them back anymore. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Nothing has happened to me because my cousins take care of me when I go out.”
Then, the first student adds: “More than anything, our parents tell us not to go out .” The friends who are listening to the conversation take a seat. The young women are in the third year of secondary, in the Lazaro Cardenas school of Torreon, Coahuila. They live in the La Duranguena and Cerro de la Cruz neighborhoods, east of the city, precisely in the mountainous zone in dispute between Los Zetas clan and those of El Chapo, and where sometimes, the Army deploys an operative in search of drugs.
“There was a 17 year-old girl who they “picked up” (levantaron) one Saturday and they returned her on Tuesday. She appeared they naked in La Union, and crazy. Not she or her family did anything, they didn’t
file a complaint; the way things are, one prefers not to know much,” narrates another neighbor, a young woman who works in the Museum Casa del Cerro, located in the epicenter of the fight between the cartels. From those stories, it seems like they live like their grandmothers did in the time of the Revolution, in those same hills. Every time the pistol-packing men arrived, the women ran to hide in their houses.
Their fathers would bar the door.
They lived with the fear that one of those people would take a liking to their daughters. The same nightmares told by the women of Torreon and Gomez Palacio, Durango, are shared by others in various villages and cities in Chihuahua and Baja California. Feminists, academics, doctors and government officials have detected that in the zones disputed by the cartels and by the Army, there has not only been an increase in extortion, kidnappings, robberies,”pick-ups”(levantones) shoot-outs and murders. Underneath the general uproar of narcoviolence there are other methods of violence against women, more hidden, less noisy, almost imperceptible and rarely denounced: sexual violations and murders occur with the brutality of organized crime, beside the surge in the lists of the missing (desaparecidas).
In those areas, women are have an especially hard time. They say that they are “spoils of war.” “We know of some girls that were in out and about-two in the city of Chihuahua, one in Cuauhtemoc and two in Madera (in the Sierra Tarahumara)- the kind that young guys pick up, in good enclosed trucks like Explorers, well-dressed, armed. They take them to a deserted area, group rape them and they throw them away. We don’t know if they are gunmen or just gangs,” says a Chihuahuan activist who works in the
mountainous area and asks for anonymity” “If your say who told you this they will come and kill us.”
One of the crimes she related was committed by gunmen enlisted in a cartel, and the sexual abuse victim knew them. Another case ended in mutilation, as punishment because the victim dared to file a complaint
with the authorities. In another, the kidnapped woman was taken to another state, where she is obligated to sell drugs. This activist is not the only one aware of these kind of acts, still not officially recorded. In Chihuahua, the Centro de Derechos Humanos de las Mujeres, presided over by Luz Estela Castro, a well known activist in the area of the feminicides in Ciudad Juarez, has also received news about victims of tumultuous sexual violations (gang rapes), either because a family member told the story, or because the victims went to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases or because they asked for information
about terminating pregnancy.
“We have cases of women who have been kidnapped by groups armed with high power weapons, with extreme sexual and physical violence, tumultuously (gang) raped and then thrown out Ion the road), which for obvious reasons they refuse to denounce. We do not have information about who are responsible; they could be, gunmen, paramilitaries… (The victims) just tell us that they are armed groups,” says Castro in Mexico City, days after having concluded the feminist caravan “Ni una muerta mas” (Not one more death), that traveled throughout the country.
The activist commented that not much is known about what is happening to the women of Chihuahua’s mountainous zone, considered no-man’s land, although sometimes her human rights center receives testimonies about the situation. She gives an example: “I was giving a talk in the Tec de Monterrey and a girl from Namiquipa (in the mountain zone) interrupted me and told me that I hadn’t fully described the situation. She told us “One of those armed men liked my best friend and her father had to take her to the United States.” Her voice breaking, she said “She can’t come back, either.” Sociologist Rosario Varela, investigator and professor of the Autonomous University of Coahuila (UAde C) has also heard her students confess to fear. ‘When talking with the young women, they voice their fear. They talk about
how in the clubs they are taken off to be raped, and no one one says anything due to the exisiting context of generalized violence.
The women are under a civil curfew order, they have to return to their homes by 11 PM, but time itself is no guarantee of anything. The violence against women has gone by inadvertedly, being lost in the combined evidence of violence” Professor Varela told this reporter. The former ombudsman of the state commission for human rights for Ciudad Juarez, Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, who last October
denounced the human rights abuses committed since the start of the Chihuahua Joint Operation, has another take on the matter,. He does not consider the rapes of women to be generalized.
“It is random. If it was a mass pattern like that of Servia or Kosovo, where there was a campaign to come and rape women and through that provoke the destruction of a race, the phenomena would be evident. I
haven’t found a pattern nor have I received a single complaint of rape. However, it is true that those who have suffered more through all this have been the women, because they are the ones hurt by the homicide. If you’ve got 4,000 dead, then you’ve got 4,000 injured by the crimes; you can always see them crying for their dead, looking for a missing family member, with their burden of suffering; they are the
ones who saw how their husband or son was taken, how they beat him before they killed or disappeared him, or they’re the ones who became widows with children,” he explains.
New Disappearances On December 7, 2008, in the center of Ciudad Juarez, Brenda Lizeth Vera Castro vanished. She was 22 and had gone downtown to buy shoes. On January 6, 2009, the second one: Brenda Berenice Castillo Garcia, 17, while she looked for works in the same area. Just 18 days later,
it was the third victims turn: Brenda Gudalupe Mendez Ochoa, 16, had also gone towards the very heart of that city’s downtown. The three Brendas are on the Jurez based organizations list of the 25 disappeared so far this year. There are also two Karlas, two Alejandras and three Guadalupes on the list. “Violence against women has increased, but unfortunately, with the situation of so much violence that Juarez is living through, and so many executions, the issue of the women has been canceld out. We see that many keep dying, keep disappearing,” laments Irma Casas, operations director for the Casa Amiga organization.
In the database that is updated daily, the investigator Julia Monterrez, of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, registered 15 missing women in Juarez in 2008, and until June, 2009, had 25. She notes a difference in the disappearance of before and those taking place in these violent times: “Women in Juarez keep disappearing, but now their bodies don’t appear. Before, they did turn up.”
According to her statistics, in 2007 four women were murdered in that border town by organized crime (which does not mean to say that they formed part of the networks of narcotrafficking) and in 2008, the number shot up to 53. Of these, 12% were killed for outstanding debt, 4% were killed by being caught in a shoot-out, 44% for narcotrafficking, 16% for circumstantial presence, 3% in reprisal for filing a complaint, and for the remaining 21%, there were no details in the press.
Despite the Inter American Court of Humarn Rights condemnation of the Mexican state condemnation of the Mexican State last November 19 for negligence in resolving the feminicides committed in that city since 1993, the same situation still prevails more than a decade later. “The State is charged before the Inte rAamerican Commission for that very issue, and keeps repeating the same thing. When we listen to the mothers, (of the newly missing) we hear the same stories of 10 years ago; that the authorities don’t believe them when they register their cases, that they don’t do anything to find them, that the first hours are lost, which are the most important. The investigating police are rotated, they don’t compare the lists of murder victims with the disappeared, each investigator works his case in isolation; the weight of the investigations falls on the family. They experience mistreatment, simulations, minimization, non-acceptance of the problem and because of everything else that is going on in Juarez, there is no
investigation, “ says Castro.
She considers that investigations should be made of the ramifications of organized crime, because the networks of drug and weapon sales are possibly used for the trafficking of persons. This complaint is not exclusive to Chihuahua, it is also shared by groups of families of the disappeared in Baja California.
“We have a list of disappeared but there are no investigations because they are afraid to investigate the narcos. It’s an open secret that many women have been disappeared, but the families are afraid of denouncing and the authorities turn a blind eye when there’s any indication of organized crime,” informs Fernando Oceguera, of the Asociacion Ciudadana contra la Impunidad (Citizen’s Association against Impunity), which is dedicated to search for the disappeared in Tijuana.
As an example, he mentioned the in May of 2007 kidnapping of seven Tijuana bar hostesses whose whereabouts remain unknown. At this time, the Asociacion Esperanza contra las Desapariciones Forzadas y la Impunidad (Association Hope against Forced Disappearances and Impunity), of Mexicali, has two cases registered where criminals specificallywent to get someone but then took the entire family, ncluding
wives and children. Women as Property On August 1st, as she was leaving her home, the model Adriana Ruiz Muniz was kidnapped in Tijuana by an armed commando. Her body was then found buried in a garbage dump. She had been tortured, her fingers mutilated, and she was decapitated. According to the Baja California Attorney of Justice, the material authors of the murder are at the service of Teodoro Garcia Simental. El Teo, representative of the Sinaloa Cartel in Tijuana.
On November 29, in the neighboring city of Ensenada, the body of hostess Karla Pricila Carrasco Aguero, 25, was found with two bullet holes in her right wrist and in the right side of her skull. The state attorney’s office identified her as the “girlfriend” of a dangerous gunman, and it was rumored that he was El Teo. Last November 12, some graffiti showed up on the walls of the Emilio Carranza school in Ciudad Juarez, where a cartel warned that it will break the agreement to respect the families of its rivals, since the
> sister of one its members had been murdered. The three events have a common denominator: the victims were related to or sentimentally involved with narcotraffickers and perhaps that was their only offense. “This type of gender murder is new within the context of organized crime, although in Mexico (that kind of crime) has been going on for more than 30 years.
During the dirty war, women were commonly murderd for being related to revolutionaries or leaders of social organizations opposing the government. Now, narco has started following the same patterns.. There are a large number of women missing in areas of conflict, although they never held a protagonist’s role, it’s only because they have ties to a man who does,” warned last week the former legislator Marcela Lagarde, who headed up the Chamber of Deputies Special Committee to Track Feminicide (Comision Especial de Seguimiento a los Feminicido)
The doctor and forensic specialist Alfredo Rodriguez Garcia, guest professor of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, explains that 6% of the 16,000 people executed during this presidential term are women, and that some of the murder victims worked as mules (drug distributors), others had a relationship with narcotraffickers and were eliminated because of what they knew, and almost 40% were the domestic partners of a narcotrafficker and died from domestic violence. Not without reason, the shelters for women victims of inter family violence in the country have had to reinforce doors, build walls, install cameras and contract private security, because they are experiencing an increase in attacks by narcotraffickers who want to enter to take revenge on their partners.
“A capo has control of a geographic area and of the people there. The woman becomes his property, it doesn’t matter if she is a lover, a mistress or wife; if she wants to divorce or doesn’t go back, they can kill her, sometimes her friends and even her lawyer. In Tijuana, they cut the legs off a model for having been disloyal, so that all the other women would know that you shouldn’t try to make a fool of the one who has control,” explained the specialist who worked between 2000-2004 in the investigation of the feminicides in Juarez. He considers that in some killings of women that show the signature of organized crime- such as extreme cruelty or mutilation- the victims didn’t have a relationship with that kind of crime, and were only murdered to use them as a “message” to the government or the population.
Due to this situation, the former legislator Angelica de la Pena explains: “women have become spoils of war in the fight between different narcotrafficking mafias in some parts of the county… It would seem that now, they are sending even stronger messages to their opponents, where it hurts them the most: killing women tied to one or another band. And it is very serious.” For the investigator from the UAdeC, Rosario Varela, the mechanisms that allow the Law of Access to a Life Free of Violence (Ley de Acceso a una Vida Libre de Violencia) need to be used to activate a code red, a kind of gender alert, because of the systematic violence that is directed specifically against women in various regions. Other of her proposals would include involving the agencies charged with protecting women in the monitoring and defining of antinarco policy strategies, the keeping of a detailed, up to the minute count and breakdown of the profiles of the female victims of narcoviolence, attending to the wives of executed men who are left with children, and creating publicity campaigns to alert young people to the risk they run if they become sentimentally involved with people dedicated to organized crime.
This diagnostic evaluation is well known by the government, since the very National Commissioner to Prevent and Eradicate Violence Against Women, Laura Cerrera, declared in Chihuahua on November 22: “Women are becoming the spoils of war, we mean the war between bands, and where there has not yet been any answers from our governments.” However, for the former deputy De la Pena, “it is logical that this happens, when there are cases of murdered women that don’t get any attention, if there is not justice, if the investigation is not fully carried out to the end, nor punishment of the criminals, the message that the authorities are sending is that anybody can do what he wants against a woman and nothing will happen. It is like a boomerang. And this is happening all over the country.” Despite the declarations made on November 25 by public officials in commemoration of the International Day to Eradicate Violence against Women, the activist Lucha Castro says: “The only thing that the government cares about is winning the war, and women go into the collateral costs sack, along with the business closings, right beside the extortions and kidnappings, women are stuffed in there along with all the rest. And that is how they make what is going on seem natural and justifiable.”
Identify Yourself and Obey!
Right. Here the 10,000 soldiers and federal police contained the wave of murders that was killing 10 people per day and they abated it during the month of March. Although since April Juarez has regained its title as the most violent city in the country (with an average of four homicides per day, although sometimes six will occur in six hours or 19 in a weekend).
The heaps of soldiers, anonymous tips, and house-to-house searches, however, have produced results: now murders aren’t committed with automatic rifles that leave dead bodies lying around with 80 holes in them. Now 9mm pistols are the weapons of choice, along with penknives and ice picks. And those that are killed aren’t experienced adults–they’re adolescents.
This change in the demographics and the criminals’ modus operandi, according to Mayor Reyes Ferriz, shows that the drug kingpins have fled from the soldiers (perhaps that’s why the murders went up 50% in the rest of the state) and now it’s the street dealers who fight over the “turf.” These dealers are younger and have less-powerful weapons.
The switch from rifles to smaller weapons, and from adults to kids, as Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont puts it, means that the strategy “is on the right path” and that now the second phase can begin, which includes the “stunning” capture of important criminals.
The downside is that with so many unemployed hitmen, the number of kidnaps and extortions has risen, and 50% of the people detained by soldiers in the Chihuahua Joint Operation are set free because the dossiers are put badly put together or for lack of evidence.
Those little details are being worked out so that the experiment can be successfully replicated in the rest of the country. The model includes soldiers in the headquarters of police forces, transit police, prisons, and even in the headquarters of business inspectors; squads of soldiers patrolling the streets; purges of police and training of their replacements in military barracks; and heavy spending to install street cameras, GPS systems, automatic weapons for soldiers and police, and armor.
Don’t miss this opportunity. Enjoy your stay in this border town and feel the “Love for Juarez” that the radio and commercials extol.
“We Want Them to Leave”
He looks like walking death. Mistreated skin, a sad expression. He doesn’t give his name. He survived one of the massacres in the Rehabilitation Centers in this city (three occurred last year, this one being one of them) and, like his friends, out of fear he postponed his plan to heal from his addiction.
It is estimated that in this city, the country’s leader in addictions, there are 100,000 drug users. This young man is one of them.
“It’s real bad with the soldiers. We want them to leave. They just hit you so that you tell them where you buy your drugs. Five months ago four of us were hitting some ‘agua celeste’ [a relatively new drug to Juarez which comes in liquid form and is either inhaled or drunk when mixed with other liquids] and they put us in the back of their trucks, they beat us with their assault rifles, then they put us up against a wall and they beat us with boards. They left my back purple,” he says while he twists to show where they left marks.
He says that even with the beating, he and his friends didn’t talk, because that would be the equivalent of condemning themselves to death. They also didn’t file a complain for the abuses.
“They humiliate you real bad, they will tell you anything. This one time three of my buddies, since they were walking around kind of dirty, the federal police pissed on them. They’ve also disappeared a lot of people,” says the unemployed young addict.
Maria Elena Ramos, coordinator of the organization Compañeros, which gives out clean syringes to drug users to prevent HIV or Hepatitis B and C infection, says that the soldiers treat addicts as criminals and they take away their new syringes even when they’re not carrying drugs, which creates a public health problem because more people could become infected.
“They should offer more rehabilitation centers [and] invest in people, not in armament and war,” says the activist.
The Joint Operation has not undertaken a strategy to rehabilitate addicts. The municipality has a mandatory rehabilitation center planned, but it is still not operational. The main addiction treatment centers are religious and their patients sustain them [financially] without government assistance. Moreover, even with all the soldiers, drugs are still being sold even though their distributors have changed their strategies.
“Before there was a narco-store near here, but now the sales have gone mobile. People gather in the street and someone comes along and whistles and tells them where the dealer is; everyone who needs a hit goes hunting for it and there’s someone who makes sure the military doesn’t come,” explains a woman who is a member of the Juarez Citizens Council.
Transvestites and sex workers who live and work in the declining Bellavista neighborhood–the red light district–also complain about the militarization. Transvestites have suffered beatings from soldiers who were angry at discovering that they shared a bed with a man dressed as a woman. Federal police extort money from sex workers and their clients.
“They scare us,” says a transvestite with long fake fingernails who is waiting for clientele outside a hotel in Melchor Ocampo Street. Federal police pass by on their rounds.
In the video, a 20-something young man with closely-cropped hair and an orange shirt tells how some soldiers grabbed him from his house, covered his head, wrapped him in a blanket, poured water him, and subjected him to beatings and electrical shocks. They interrogated him and threatened to kill him if he didn’t tell them where he bought his drugs. Later they let him go. It was the second time they detained him that week. His case is filed under the name Alfra-Lambda.
The testimony is saved in the computer of the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission ombudsman, Gustavo de la Rosa, who has in his office various manila folders that contain citizen complains against soldiers and federal police. So far this year he has received 53.
One of them is called “the Rosales case:” a young man was detained along with a friend who died from a beating perpetrated by soldiers. Caso Alfa Xi: a dozen people dressed as soldiers riding in olive-green trucks beat and detained an older man and set out in the direction of Juarez; the victim was never seen again. Alfa Fi: detention and beating of an older man in the Bellavista neighborhood, who was presented in the Federal Attorney General’s Office they next day. Alfa Gi: complaint for three searches of the same house. Alfa Omicron: a young man detained by people who who identified themselves as federal police, and now he is disappeared. Alfa Rau: a young man says that soldiers found him on top of a train; he says that they beat him, tortured him, and demanded money.
The human rights ombudsman says that Joint Operation Chihuahua has meant two years of suffering for the citizens of Juarez, two years of constant violations of the Constitution, and two years of the police’s “miserable failure” in the fight against drugs.
He becomes exasperated: “We are in the middle of a war. In 2008 there were 2,500 soldiers. Now there’s 10,000 and we have the same number of deaths. And detentions? Practically none. We have more deaths now than we did this time last year, and we have four times as many soldiers.”
This lawyer believes that the effort isn’t worth it: “The soldiers are sending [prosecutors] weak cases, with poorly compiled dossiers that are falling apart. The number of detainees who have to be freed is very high.”
To back up his argument he offers some numbers: “We can estimate that there have been about 1,500 detentions, of which one third (450) have been brought before a judge, and of those, at the most half will be convicted. In other words, the military’s productivity rate is around 15% when you consider how many they detain and now many are sentenced.”
His analysis is disheartening. He estimates that there’s between two and three disappearances daily (some of them turn up dead or in the Federal Attorney General’s Office), between three and five kidnappings per week and an unknown number of extortions carried out by gangs.
He’s not the only one who says this. Doctors organizations, the Business Coordination Council, the Factory Association, bar associations, students, members of congress, human rights activists, and social organizations have stated that a new approach to the operation is urgent.
The Autonomous Univeristy of Ciudad Juarez took out spectacular advertisements that demanded information about two of its female students who have disappeared. It also requested an explanation for the murder of Professor Manuel Arroyo, who organized a solemn march in which professors and students asked for the withdraw of the military.
“It’s Going Good”
From his office in the historic part of the city, which has a view of the US side of the border and a river crossing where fleeing addicts and people who mug migrants hide, Mayor Reyes Ferriz defends Joint Operation Chihuahua’s bold results. He says that during the past five years Ciudad Juarez averaged a murder a day, but in 2008 the rate skyrocketed to eight per day by the end of the year. He adds that this past February was the worst with 10 murders per day.
According to Ferriz’s statistics, with the presence of ten thousand troops, the murders dropped to an average of one and a half per day, but since April they’ve increased to four.
Either way, he says, “we are 60% lower than the most difficult months. The operation is producing results.”
And he explains that “before they were organized crime murders, all of them with rifles or shotguns, and in the past two months they’ve been murders between gangs or minor criminals. They are groups who are affiliated with organized crime in low-level distribution, who want to control street-level dealing.”
The dead, he confirms, are youngsters without criminal records.
“At this rate, we won’t even see half of last year’s [homicides]…. If it continues like this, we probably will have less than a thousand,” he says. And he argues that journalists are using the biggest peaks of violence to compare the year, but that soon his officials will demonstrate that Juarez does not have the highest homicide rate in the country.
The mayor says that regarding the 5,000 troops that patrol the streets, he’s only received congratulations, although he admits that various Juarez residents have complained about the 2,500 soldiers and 2,000 federal police that do “intelligence gathering” and search homes. As of June 15, the municipality had received 552 complaints against the operation, of which, he says, the majority have been “resolved.”
Meanwhile, the municipality has invested 105 million pesos in this experiment: 48 million in overtime for troops assigned to street patrols to prevent them from taking turns (five thousand per person), 20 million to rent seven converted warehouses for them to sleep in, 15 million pesos in food, plus the costs of vehicles and gasoline for patrols (which are three times more intensive than normal), and training for new municipal police, in addition to 300 million pesos for cameras and GPS radios.
Perhaps the photographer who’s shooting pictures of a cadaver doesn’t know this. (The dead man’s name was Victor, he was 41 years old and had a son; he was murdered on Father’s Day.) He doesn’t even finish shooting when they announce another 3-9: another murder. The photographer runs to his car and hits the gas.
He comments, “When the Joint Operation began, there were two or three weeks without deaths. Later it didn’t matter to them if there were soldiers or not, the violence shot up real bad: minimum five or six murders daily. They kill at all hours, or kidnap people… Sometimes they set them free; others, they kill. It’s barely 10:00 and already we have two dead. June has just begun and we have 860 dead already, it seems to me that we’re going to break last year’s record.”
“My record was in 2008: in one day I took [pictures of] 20 dead. The most I’ve ever shot together were nine, outside the racetrack. One of them was a cop and they cut off his head and put it between his legs. This year they aren’t killing so many together anymore.”
In the Tierra Nueva Seguna Etapa neighborhood, the victim was a 45-year-old man. They called him El Chispa (“the Spark”) and they killed him with an ice pick. Near the cadaver housewives and their children eat and tell jokes. The violence is becoming normalized.
The photographer returns to his car. On the radio frequency that police and paramedics use to communicate a strange music is playing. It’s a ballad. No, a narco-ballad (“narcocorrido” in Spanish). The lyrics can barely be made out. The photographer explains, “That’s how the narcos let it be known that there’s going to be an execution.”