- Ciudad Juarez is the most violent city in the world with a murder rate of 240 per every 100,000 inhabitants
- However, in the midst of this death spree, the citizens look for ways to heal their wounds and prevent the violence from rising in the absence of action from the authorities.
In the midst of the spiral of violence that affects Mexico some places are much more hazardous than others. Ciudad Juarez is one of them. It has the dubious honor of being the most violent city in the world. In the last four years almost 10,000 people have been murdered, one fourth of all the drug trafficking-related murders in the country. The figures are outrageous all over the country, but Juarez reached in 2010 a rate of 240 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, more than triple the deaths that take place in El Salvador, the bloodiest country in Latin America. However, in the midst of this death spree, life looks for its ways. Although about 300,000 people have left the city because of the insecurity, more than a million still fight to survive in this town, marked by being right on the border with the US.
This dividing line has been its source of wealth but also the root of its worst tragedies. In the 80’s the maquilas, manufacturing factories dedicated to export, that took advantage of the cheap labor and the proximity to the US, began concentrating there. The economic development that followed attracted migrants from all over the country. In the 90’s, Juarez was the zero-unemployment town. The possibility of work made the authorities not worry about creating some minimum well-being and the city grew without the proper services or infrastructures. Juarez also became the US’s backyard, not just because the factories were located there but because Americans from the South crossed the border every day to have wild fun, drawn by the cheap alcohol, drugs and sex. Trafficking networks started to flourish in the midst of a climate of impunity and a huge contempt for life and the female gender. In 1993 a group of mothers raised the alarms when they denounced 300 feminicides of young women, kidnapped, raped, mutilated and murdered in the city’s surroundings. And since 2008, when the Mexican government deployed the Army to fight against organized crime, the disappearances and murders of women have multiplied. In the last three and a half years, 903 more women have been murdered and another hundred have disappeared state-wide. Mónica Alanís Esparza is one of them. On the morning of March 26th, 2009, her father, Ricardo Alanís dropped her off like every other day at the University of Ciudad Juarez, where Mónica studied Business Administration.
By Majo Siscar (México) / Translation: Blanca García Bertolaza
- 180 organizations travel in the Peace with Justice and Dignity Convoy around the country’s most violent spots getting together with the victims of the war on drug trafficking
- We travel with them, listening, watching how they share their grief, and in many cases, how they are heard, comforted in their grief for the first time
“If I end up dead one day, I’ll be grateful because I’ll be going with my sons”, Bibian Echevarría heartbreakingly blurts out in Durango’s main square, in Northern Mexico. Her three sons, Luis, Hugo and Miguel, 27, 22 and 20, went out to have fun and were murdered. The only explanation: “We are sorry madam, your sons were good, it was a mistake”. A “mistake” that remains unpunished under the wing of the war on narcos implemented by president Felipe Calderón that has already killed more than 40,000 people since 2007, most of them the same age as Luis, Hugo and Miguel.
Bibian’s words join dozens of testimonies from parents, children, siblings, friends or partners who were murdered and disappeared, who, like a never-ending stream of horror and death, are discovered as the Peace with Justice and Dignity Convoy passes by. This initiative, driven by 180 social organizations, wants to make society aware and put an end to the violence that is terrifying most of the country.
That’s why 14 buses and 25 cars left Cuernavaca last Tuesday, capital of the state of Morelos, where on March 28th Juan Francisco Sicilia, son of the poet Javier Sicilia, was murdered along with six other friends. That father’s sorrow has crystallized the grief of a wounded society and after two months of local demonstrations, it has been channeled into a pilgrimage through the states harder hit by the violence in which they try to bring all those atrocities to light, often darkened by the fear of being persecuted, marked, stigmatized. That way, the route of fear has turned into the route of “consolation”, as Sicilia named it. “This war, crime, our government, fractured us, they lead us to silence and lack of unity. But this convoy that springs from the grief, from the offenses, from the dead, and that is getting a lot of victims together, this convoy speaks of comfort, of being with the other one’s solitude”, said the poet, who tries to bring society together so that it gets organized
against crime for itself. The convoy will arrive on the 9th to Ciudad Juárez, the country’s most hurt city. There, a citizens’ agreement will be discussed and signed. It sets six essential points to get the Army off of the streets, put an end to immunity and corruption, regain the memory of the victims, give young people opportunities, strengthen the democracy and rebuild the social fabric.
“This convoy is about comfort, about being with the other one’s solitude”
But in a country in which the shadow of doubt falls upon the dead, where fear is the way to silence desperation, the first step is for the victims to unburden themselves and meet each other. The
testimony of the victims’ relatives is joined by dozens of people who want their dramas to be heard, which get more intense as they head north. On Monday, in Durango, the first northern state the convoy gets to, a six year old boy went to welcome Sicilia with his mother. They put up with the five-hour delay, until 9 at night, in a van in the middle of a city where normally people do not leave their houses after dark. Francisco Fernando Rodríguez carried his father’s picture, after whom he is also named. He was shot to death.
In this city’s schools, kids the age of Francisco Fernando learn to throw themselves to the ground if there is a shootout, they know if they are being followed by a van and they talk to each other about the dead unburied from the narco-pits every week. Two hundred twenty eight corpses from April to June according to official data. Many more, according to local journalists. Of all of those, only one has been identified until now, but dozens of relatives show up at the forensic lab looking for answers.
[This video showing a teacher enthusiastically teaching the kids a song while there is a shootout outside in which 5 people died, in Monterrey, became world-famous a couple of weeks ago]
Diana Jacobo was one of them. She is looking for her husband, Abraham Salazar, kidnapped by the state police last April 1st. According to an eye witness, the officers arrested him in a police post inside the city, they beat him and took him. Abraham did not have an arrest warrant, no one asked for a ransom, he was just disappeared. Now, Diana takes part in the convoy with the hope that it will bring her husband back. Her two kids and several of her husband’s cab-driver colleagues are with her. They all agree that the police is working with the criminals, and that the officers themselves steal, extort and assault.
But in this war, like in others, there is not a good side and a bad side. The convoy is also made up of policemen’s relatives, killed or missing in this trickle of blood. Like Ofelia Castillo, whose son, Edgar Humberto Quesada, local policeman in Calera, Zacatecas, has been missing for a year. On July 13th last year, Edgar was on duty. At 4 in the morning he was on the phone with his wife when he told her he had to hang up because “some people” had come in. He never answered the phone again. When it was time to go, his wife called the station to be told that he was in some classes. In the
evening, a colleague confessed to his wife that he had been kidnapped by the Zetas and that the police was not going to do anything about it. In fact, Ofelia asked her son’s bosses for an explanation and they did not even pick up the phone. The attorney had the nerve to tell her: “don’t worry, he must be working with them and he will make good money”. Ofelia wants to know but she doesn’t dare to ask anymore. She is scared. Her own husband did not want her to go meet the Zacatecas convoy, but she decided to go alone. For her son and for her two grandchildren, 15 and 8, who are practically orphans.
“Ofelia wants to know but she doesn’t dare to ask anymore. She is scared.”
Like Francisco, like so many other kids, like María Herrera’s five grandchildren. This woman from Michoacán has four missing sons. Every night she imagines their faces, hoping to see them again, although she knows that is not easy. The first two to disappear were Raúl and Jesús Trujillo Herrera, last seen on August 2008 in Guerrero state, where they went to buy gold to sell later on in their town, Pajuacarán. The buying and selling of jewelry is the biggest source of income in that place, but to get it they have to travel all over the country, facing roads and towns where crime is the only law. Two years later, in September 2010, Gustavo and Luis Armando disappeared on the way to Veracruz. María’s family has looked for them everywhere, they have reported it to different authorities, but not only have they not given them answers, they have hindered the investigations. However, María does not give up. In her community, there are 15 more young men missing while they worked buying and selling gold. “Today it is them, but tomorrow it can be you and we have to put an end to it, we have to support each other”, asserts María, visibly moved, in the same square in Morelia – the state’s capital – where in 2008 eight people were killed by the explosion of hand-grenades in the course of a popular festivity.
“We walk among the remains of the dead, and their death hurts more than our own life, and I ask Calderón, are there collateral casualties?” exclaimed Sicilia to the hundreds of moved citizens of Durango who for once defied the implicit curfew. She pleaded for a unitary demand of justice and “if necessary, organize a boycott, civil disobedience, until we change the institutions”. In this sense, she gave the example of Cheran, an indigenous purépecha community in Michoacán state, who after years of harassment form criminal groups paid by the timber merchants who are destroying their forests, they decided to close down every access to their community with barricades and bonfires. Meanwhile, they move forward in their autonomy project according the ways and customs of the native Mexican peoples. “ ‘Enough’ to us means reflection, meeting, union, conscience”, expressed the Cheran commoner.
And that reflection and organization is happening in the heart of the convoy. The faltering voices and bleary looks become embraces and their stifled cries are channeled into a single one: ‘Stop the violence’. For that, besides the events in every city, they swap experiences and discuss the proposals during the trips, the rests and the meals. The deepest work will be done in Ciudad Juárez but when that moment comes they will already have traveled over 3,000 kilometers in this route of grief and hope. For now they still have to visit Saltillo, in Coahuila state –where dozens of corpses have also been unburied from narco-pits-, Monterrey, the country’s second most important city that has become a trench in the last couple of months, and Chihuahua, the capital of the state where Juárez is. There, they will go to the door of the government house where, last December, activist Marisela Escobedo was murdered while demanding justice for her daughter’s feminicide, to remember them, to condemn their deaths and to point at those responsible for so much pain. From town to town, they unravel the mesh of silence that perpetuates corruption, violence and impunity.
“What would happen if all this was done in every neighborhood of every town, of every state, of the whole country? Where would Mexico’s criminals hide?”, proposed to the crowd Julián Le Barón, a farmer from Chihuahua whose brother was murdered after leading a citizens movement that managed to free their youngest brother, kidnapped by the narcos. The suggestion is enough to silence the skeptic.
- 183 corpses have been exhumed in 40 illegal communal graves in Tamaulipas that the narcos use to bury their victims
- Hundreds of relatives of missing persons search for their own among the remains
- The discovery also brought to light the Mexican state’s inability to guarantee the safety of its population
Guadalupe Ríos waits seated on the stairs of the Mexican State’s Attorney’s Anti-Kidnapping Unit. Inside is her oldest daughter, Angélica Velazquez, to have a DNA sample taken, and to try to remember peculiar details that reveal the identities of her sister and her son, who disappeared seven months ago. They come from far away with the hope of finding their relatives among the 183 corpses unburied in April in the 40 illegal pits found in the municipality of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. More than 130 of these people show signs of torture, exposed fractures and head trauma, as the authorities revealed after the autopsies. According to the investigations, these massacred corpses could belong to people that would have been kidnapped by the two drug trafficking cartels that are fighting over the area, El Golfo and Los Zetas, to join their ranks, and when they resist, they are tortured to death.
“We want to have them back in any way, we would want them to turn up alive, but if not, at least we want to find them so we can bury them”, Guadalupe Ríos manages to say among tears. Her daughter, Julia, traveled to Reynosa last September to bring goods for the store she ran in Tula, Hidalgo. Her nephew, Miguel Ángel, Angélica’s youngest son, went with her. On the night of September 25th Julia talked to her husband to tell him that they were already on the road and that, at the latest, they’d be home by 9 or 10 in the morning. They never got there. Julia’s husband reported them missing, he asked formally to see the tapes of the tolls on the road, and for five months he traveled all over desolate paths and villages. Everywhere the same answer from the government workers: “she’s not the only one, there’s hundreds of missing people”. Now many of their relatives, certainly many more than the 183 corpses found, line up in Mexico DF and in the Matamoros, Tamaulipas, morgue, where the bodies have been distributed. With each one of these remains the everyday abnormality this country, and especially this border state, lives in has been unburied: daily massacres, the barbarity of the criminal groups, the connivance of many government workers, the society’s fear of reporting it, and the mass disappearances.
According to a Ministry of Defense report, from January to October 2010 there were 1,700 people reported missing in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León (adjacent states). And by the end of March, the National Human Rights Commission had registered 18,000 missing throughout the country since 2006, when the war over control of the territory broke out between the drug traffickers and the Mexican Army. And that in spite of the fact that most of the ones who go looking for their relatives now confess that they hadn’t dared to report it. They feared the authorities would answer them with the already traditional “they must have been up to something” or that they themselves were conniving with crime. In fact, the Citizens in Support of Human Rights organization (CADHAC), of Nuevo León, who along with other NGO’s from the Northeastern Mexican states submitted a report about forced disappearances to the UN office, has heard about threats against people who are looking for their missing relatives from government workers -attorneys, policemen and soldiers, as well as from strangers. For instance, among the 76 people arrested related to these graves that the authorities have now hurried to show appear 16 San Fernando local police officers. They have also arrested the alleged mastermind, Martín Omar Estrada, aka El Kiko, pointed as the leader for the Zetas in that same city and alleged murderer of about 200 people.
However, its residents do not think that these arrests will make much of a difference. “Before the ones from El Golfo and the Zetas lived in San Fernando and there were no problems, but since (president Felipe) Calderón came in with his soldiers, both of them are fighting for the area and they keep recruiting new people. Now there are a lot of massacres, kidnappings, extortion, robberies. And they are done by armed 14 or 16 year old kids. Or they pull people off the buses so they join the cartel, if they don’t want to get in, they kill them”, a San Fernando neighbor who is waiting for news of her daughter tells.
That is also the way the National Security office handles it. It points out that most of the 183 corpses found would be those of people who traveled in the passenger buses that go to the neighboring country. The Tamaulipas customs are the southernmost along the border, and a lot of Mexican and Central American migrants choose to cross through them because they are more permissive and they are the shortest way to cross Mexico. In fact, it was in San Fernando itself where last August the corpses of 72 undocumented Central and South Americans were found.
But fear spreads everywhere there. “It’s awful. If, for example, you are riding a car they like on any road they take it away, and if you don’t give it to them, they kill you”, says the same San Fernando neighbor. Among the relatives runs around 4 years-old Tania, oblivious to anything. Her mother, Esmeralda, 8 months pregnant, told her they were going to the doctor to get from her a blood sample that will help identify her husband, missing since a couple of months ago, when he went to take a van to Tamaulipas. He worked in a used car agency in DF and he was supposed to bring another vehicle back. He never got to deliver the van.
He might have disappeared in San Fernando or anywhere else in the state, because in the Tamaupilas roads criminal squads are multiplying and there does not seem to be any law apart from theirs. A National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) report from last February identifies 71 towns in 16 different states, road and railroad stretches in which there have been kidnappings, extortion, robberies, sexual assaults and abuse on migrants. But as the CNDH points out, 39 of these risk spots congregate in only four states: Nuevo León, Veracruz, Chiapas and Tamaulipas.
The government’s promises of increasing security measures after the finding of the 72 murdered migrants last August do not seem to have made much of a difference. The open war between the Golfo (Gulf) Cartel and its former military arm, the Zetas Cartel, added to the militarization and the police corruption maintain what analysts have dubbed a “failed State”. The thugs themselves murdered last year the governor candidate, and his brother, who replaced him, set up an ineffective government. The press is silenced by beatings or by bills and the local police is an accomplice to the cartels. The state has become considerably depopulated and those who have stayed live subdued to floor rights charges and extortion, mandatory toll for any business in the region. And if they refuse, they’re killed, its residents assure. They don’t leave their houses after dark anymore. “No one can speak, we don’t even have neither Police, nor Justice, nor anything. Security is paid for through extortion. But what security? If they want to they kill you. We’ve been living a massacre for more than a year”, the same San Fernando neighbor, who prefers not to give her name, tells.
Guadalupe, on the other hand, asks: “What would happen if it were the politicians’ relatives the ones who were in this situation? What would Calderón do if his children disappeared? And the criminals? Don’t they know that they are destroying entire families? We all suffer, children, grandchildren, siblings…
All of their stories transmit an eerie feeling of fragility. It will still be a while before they get answers. As just this week, after almost a month, the Attorney’s office has delivered the first three identified bodies. And while they are still waiting, 104 more have been unburied in the also northern state of Durango. This dance of corpses seems like a convicting enumeration to the State, which not only is incapable of maintaining the civil population’s integrity, but that sentences them to the uncertainty of not knowing what has happened to their thousands of missing persons.