Mexico: Justice fails in Ciudad Juarez and the city of Chihuahua
Index: AMR 41/007/2005
The Governor of the state of Chihuahua in Mexico said recently that international attention on the situation in Ciudad Juarez is damaging the city's public image. The purpose of Reyes Baeza's comments is unclear, but such statements in the past have had the effect of undermining families and local NGOs seeking justice.
To say that it is international concern, and not the situation in the region, that is damaging the city's image is very clearly wrong-headed. Ciudad Juarez has a reputation for violence and brutality against women -- not because of international concern -- but because of the reality and the institutional failures to deal effectively with this reality.
The reality is that since 1993 more than 370 young women and girls have been murdered in the cities of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua - at least a third suffering sexual violence - without the authorities taking proper measures to investigate and address the problem.
Thanks to the efforts of the families of the victims and local women's organizations, coupled with international campaigning by the likes of Amnesty International and V-Day, things have begun to change. In 2003-4, in the face of this intense pressure, the federal government finally agreed to get involved, with a range of measures to combat violence against women in Ciudad Juarez -- but sadly not the city of Chihuahua.
A widely respected human rights activist, Guadalupe Morfin, was appointed to lead a Special Commission to oversee federal intervention in Ciudad Juarez. The Special Commissioner's office has played an important role in fostering contact with the families of victims and human rights organisations, developing projects to address underlying social problems and highlighting the systemic failure of state authorities in allowing the murders and abductions to take place and related abuses. However, her powers are very limited -- she has been denied access to the case files of the murder enquiries.
Another key mechanism was the creation of a Special Federal Prosecutor's Office to work with local prosecutors and conduct federal investigations into a very limited number of cases. The Prosecutor, Maria Lopez Urbina, also sought to systematise information on all case and locate women reported missing. In 2004, the Prosecutor reviewed the case files of 150 previous murder investigations handled by the State Prosecutor's Office. She concluded that there was probable cause for criminal and administrative investigations into more than 100 Chihuahua state public officials for negligence, omission and other related offences.
While these findings were an unprecedented recognition of the systematic mishandling of the original investigations, federal authorities insist that they do not have jurisdiction to officially investigate the cases. The cases have, instead, been handed back to the local Prosecutor's Office and courts in Chihuahua that conducted the flawed investigations in the first place. Unsurprisingly, the office has consistently failed to investigate these allegations properly. On the contrary, senior officials responsible for the original investigations have initiated slander actions against the Prosecutor.
Local media has reported that judges have suspended arrest warrants against state officials on at least three occasions over recent months. Charges against some of the officials have been dropped on the grounds that the statute of limitations has expired in relation to charges of negligence and other lesser crimes. The failure to address the deep seated problems in the local judiciary means it is unlikely that prosecutions would be likely to succeed even after passing the first hurdle of securing indictments.