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WITH LUCHA CASTRO
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Lo que sigue es una entrevista con Lucha Castro y Alma Gomez, representantes de la organización Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas, y abogadas de las familias de las víctimas de la violencia en Chihuahua y Juárez. Fue hecha por teléfono el 19 de octubre, 2003
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1. Every report on the violence against women in the state of Chihuahua varies with respect to the statistics on murders and disappearances. Can you explain the wide discrepancies?
Lucha Castro: First I can tell you that one of the reasons that we don't have an accurate and trustworthy data is because those in the attorney general's office and the other authorities haven't paid attention to the investigation. They haven't really wanted to deal with it. It is only because of pressures from NGOs and human rights groups and because of international outcry that the investigation is finally underway.
But the manipulation of the figures is also a move on the part of the attorney general's office to minimize the problem, suggesting that in reality there have only been 90 murders. We reject the classification of the crimes in this way. In the end these were women whose lives were taken away, who were victims of sexual violence and who were murdered. Some of the murders seem to be serial killings, and others that are related to domestic violence. It seems that the only ones considered important are the serial killings, and no importance is given to domestic violence. For us both are equally monstrous.
Alma Gomez: The Women's Institute of Chihuahua speaks of 321 women murdered in Juarez. If you take into account that Martha Altolaguirre speaks of 268 deaths, the Attorney General speaks of 268 cases, the Women's Institute of Chihuahua speaks of 321 women and Amnesty International's figure which is 360 there are not great differences among the figures. What is true is that we do not have accurate and trustworthy public available data. The authorities have barely begun to work of determining the figures. The report from the Women's Institute of Chihuahua is important because it is the first public information that the state government has made available with names and numeration of cases.
LC: I have in my hands an autopsy report of Cecilia Covarrubias. Here it clearly established by doctors who examined her - that she was sexually violated. There is evidence that she was penetrated, and an abundance of sperm was found in her vagina, and the doctor's determined that she died from being violently attacked. She was shot twice in the breasts. Nonetheless, if you look at the government document that Alma was just talking about she (Covarrubias) does not appear. She is only listed by the Attorney General's office as a murder victim, not a victim of sexual violence. They have been manipulating the data in the cases to lower the figures. That is what is happening.
2. When did the violence extend to Chihuahua and what are the conditions that led to this spread?
LC: Domestic violence has been present for a long while in Chihuahua and is rooted in the fact that Mexico's society is patriarchal. What we are identifying as serial killings begin in Chihuahua City in 1999, with a young woman Norma Leticia Luna. Sadly there are seven other young women who died in the same circumstances. And at the moment there are three cadavers that are being examined for proper identification. One we know nothing about - the Attorney General's office has hidden all their information. One we assume to be Neyra Azucena Cervantes, and the other to be Yasmin Garcia Medrano.
I want to say that these victims are between 14-18 years old. They are women who are of the same physical type as the victims in Juarez - young women who worked in maquiladoras or who students at the Ecco Computer School, who were dark, thin, pretty, and working class. Their bodies were thrown into the desert after their being raped and/or tortured.
AG: Chihuahua City has experienced that same accelerated growth. Not to the same degree as Juarez. But the maquiladora industry has also grown here, and massive numbers of women have joined the work force, going to the maquiladoras in particular. If we think these are factors that have contributed to the violence in Juarez, we have to acknowledge that in Chihuahua we also lack infrastructure. There aren't enough nurseries and childcare centers, there is not enough policing or public transport. Many areas lack street lights. These factors also contribute to the murders.
3. Many people think that the drug traffic in Chihuahua has created a climate of violence and fear that has contributed to the murders and the lack of public reaction to them. Is this true?
LC: Some cases have to do with the situation created by drug trade. Nonetheless, that is not everything. But that corruption, that mafia has permeated the police corps and gives them economic security regardless of whether they investigate the crimes - that is at what permits and supports the impunity. There is a line of investigation here that would take us directly to the police.
4. You have written that the local media in Chihuahua manipulates the information about the murders and the measures taken by the authorities. How is the media dealing with the issues and with the families of the victims?
LC: The local media are completely co-opted by the authorities. There is a complete clampdown on the information. They present the families as disintegrated, infiltrated by stepfathers, and the victims as girls who were running away from their families. It's a campaign to promote the notion that the victims and the families brought the trouble upon themselves and the problem is a personal one, related to the family.
There is a strong campaign against the human rights groups and the attorneys. They try to show us as people who are profiting from the tragedy. The president of the Chihuahua women's institute, Mrs. Vicky Carabello gave an interview to the media in which she said that we were profiting from the families' pain. That is the response of the Attorney General to the people and the institutions who are concerned about the femicides.
AG: We have to make a distinction. The majority of the local media, both print and electronic are controlled by the governor. There are some that escape that control but they have been threatened, but through those media we have the chance to make our case. At the national level, the situation is different. We are well covered by radio, television and in papers like La Jornada, Reforma, El Milenio, etc. But those are not media that are well distributed in the state of Chihuahua.
5. Many of the victims worked in maquiladoras. Some of the mothers of the victims have said that if they criticize the maquiladoras for not providing safe travel conditions for their workers, people think that these accusations generate unemployment because they make companies want to leave Mexico.
AG: In the past two years there has been an exodus of maquilas to China. Why? Because in China they find cheaper labor than here. This departure of the maquilas has been used by the authorities and some members of the private sector to suggest that it is our giving Juarez a bad name that is causing them to leave. This is totally false. The maquilas leave because they can generate more profit in China through greater explanation. They are not leaving because women are being murdered here. Really, the maquilas destroy people physically. They are hardly respectful of human life. There are plenty of cases of women who began working there as young and healthy people who are now blind, or have deformed fingers, or they gave birth to deformed children. It's not because of a respect for life that they leave. But the authorities use their departure to blame us.
6. Why has there been so little public outcry in Chihuahua against the violence?
LC: First, there is a lack of solidarity. Because of neoliberalism that has permeated our society and because of individualism. The dire conditions in which people live here do permit them to be that concerned with things other than survival. They are worried about having enough to eat. Imagine a man or women who is the head of a family and who work in a maquiladora. The day they don't work is the day they won't be paid for. If they leave work for a day to go to a protest, that day their family won't eat. If they go to accompany the mothers for a few days, they could be fired. Many people are getting laid off these days. So there is a problem of this kind.
Also, the media has promoted a point of view of the problem as being purely domestic. We are given the impression that the violence is due to family problems, fights between couples, that the women were running loose in the streets, that they were prostitutes, and that they were out late at night. So the person who doesn't go out late at night thinks well this won't happen to me.
AG: All of these factors are part of the problem. It's like a big puzzle. Some of it is apathy, some of it is economics, and some of it has to do with people's fear of coming forward. It isn't possible that nobody was ever around when a kidnapping occurred. But it is true that people are afraid to talk. If you go to the police, you might in effect be making an accusation against them, because of the degree of complicity that there might be. No one talks. There is a fear of coming forward to provide information. People don't want to get themselves involved in problems.
7. Have there been any changes over the past decade as the violence has progressed?
AG: At first, a woman was killed every 12 days, now it's every 9 or 10 days. So what has changed? There is more vigilance from the NGOs. Each time a body is found, we divulge information, initiate legal proceedings, etc. So the mechanisms for organizing information about these days has been elaborated by the NGOs. On the part of the authorities, well imagine, it took ten years for them to issue their first public statement. That should tell you how much things have changed.
Since last July there have been a number of initiatives that we see as resulting from the pressure exerted internationally. We now have an integrated program of public safety for Juarez. A commissioner was just named to deal with the victims in Juarez. A public prosecutor's office representing a joint effort between the state and federal government has been established to deal with the crimes in Juarez. There is a very persistent presence of the National Commission of Human Rights and they just opened an office in Juarez. That means that some things are happening - not that there have been many results yet, but we have take them into account.
8. How do you explain the inertia and repression of public protests on the part of the authorities?
LC: The judicial system is not working with respect to this problem in Mexico. It is a structural problem. The state maintains total control over the public ministries. In this case it is the governor who controls everything. So Alma and I are legal representatives, for Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas, we are very limited in what we can do. Even though we submit requests and ask that certain kinds of investigations be made, when they get to point where it is no longer convenient for them, they just divert everything. On other hand, we have a gender perspective on this and believe that these are sexual crimes. The victims are women, they are sexually attacked and killed because they are women, and tossed away because they are poor. The state's response to this is that this is not a gender issue because there are men in the state who are also killed. But the men are not raped and tossed in the desert. The state does not these as sexual crimes. They see the killings as crimes of passion, or regular murders. So we are speaking two different languages here. And the state is represented by the police who search for the victims. So unless the basic structural problem is solved, regarding the perspective on the crimes and the angles that the investigation will pursue, we are just stuck.
AG: While the issue of the Juarez murders has gotten international attention in the last few years, in the state of Chihuahua, this has been a political issue locally for a long time. The governor who just took office made it part of this political campaign to say that he was going to resolve all the murder cases in Juarez. A lot of attention is given to how politicians say they will approach the issue of the Juarez murders. So it becomes relevant to the authorities to minimize the problem, to hide it, to say that we are exaggerating, that we are manipulating the issue and profiting from it. So there is a campaign to prevent from getting close to the families of the victims, they tell the families not to get together with us, because we are trouble, etc.
Second, there is a strong campaign in the media saying that the women die or disappear because they are crazy or whatever. Why? To absolve themselves of responsibility and not have deal with how they have failed in guaranteeing public safety. On the other hand there have been strong repression campaign against the organizations. Every time that Amnesty International comes there is a campaign against us. The Human Rights Commission comes, and again, they launch another campaign against us. They suggest that we are provoking the situation, making the international organizations come to our city, that the problem is not that big, that we are exaggerating, because we benefit from this. In the end, the problem is that Juarez murders is a political issue.
LC: How does the government present the victims in this case? They look for rationales to justify the crimes. Some say that there were family problems, that the women were overprotected, that there wasn't enough control over them, bad treatment, etc. Since they haven't found the perpetrators or they don't want to find them because there is complicity and the investigation could lead to people in power, and that the prosecutor's office might be full of people who are involved, so then, they have choose a guilty party so that the public calms down. That's when they start looking for scapegoats. The scapegoats will be among the poor, among those with alternative lifestyles because they are frowned up by the main sectors of society. Finally, if they make themselves up that way, if they dress that way, if they occasionally take drugs, then they might be capable of more. The public doesn't ask question when a young man dresses in that way is jailed and tortured. They say, well, it must be him.
9. Everyone involved in protesting the violence speaks of impunity. Can you specify what this means in relation to the murders?
LC: Impunity means there is no justice with regard to the victims. In the sense that when the girls disappear they are not looked for. There is a selective application of judicial process, due to structural problems. There are first and second class citizens here. When there is a situation or a crime that affects a member of the upper classes, the entrepreneurs or politicians, the classes with power, suddenly the legal process works. When the problems involve the poor, workers, working women, the indigenous, who might be victims of any kind of crime, disappearance, murder, rape, domestic violence, then the justice system no longer works. That is the essence of the impunity here. The girls are not searched for, their murderers are not sought. The rule of law has been ruptured and the system does not function for our second class citizens, the poor of Mexico.
AG: In the context of Mexican law, what is already on the books is fine and should work. What is missing? Very concrete things. When a bank alarm goes off, the police show up and even the fire department. Why do they arrive? Because they have to protect money, which is important. But when a woman disappears, they tell the family to come back in 48 hours. And there is no further response. So what do we say? We demand that a group of trained specialists be formed so that as soon as a woman is abducted or disappears, they will look for her. Immediately, just they respond to a bank alarm.
Then, when a woman's body is found and it appears that she was murdered. They don't have an elaborated data base because they didn't work on this. And when the body is found, the retrieval of the cadaver is not handled properly. The crime scene is not examined properly. They don't do proper tests during the autopsy to see if the victim was raped, or how she died. In response to this situation we say that she was special police units with proper forensic labs and such that enable them to conduct proper investigations. This infrastructure does not exist.
10. How can those outside Mexico help to bring an end to the violence in Chihuahua?
LC: One concrete thing that could happen is that US Congressmen propose that Mexico sign an agreement with the US regarding the murders. Last week we were visited by Congresswoman Hilda Solis. We hope that you can support your Congressional representatives in their efforts to help us.
AG: Some of the disappeared women have been gone for two or three years. We are asking for help to be able from experts who can create portraits of what the missing young women would like now after two or years of being missing. We have noticed in the US that these kinds of missing person signs are posted in many public places. We would like the portraits of our missing daughters to be posted around the US. Also, we would like an investigator who could examine the documents from the open cases of missing women and make suggestions about what kinds of lines of investigation could be undertaken to begin to look for them. In the case of the murdered women, we have trouble getting access to the bodies to conduct DNA tests, because of the monopolistic control that the state has over the human remains, but we would look for the way to conduct these tests independently. There is the case of the eight bodies that were thrown in the cotton field. The families have given blood samples to conduct comparative tests three times and supposedly the blood gets contaminated, and still there are no results. And it is has been two years since the bodies were found and it is still not known who they are. We are talking about a criminologist, who could come and study some of the cases and offer an opinion.