WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
7 Oct 2003 | | News

Trip Report: October 2003 Congressional Delegation to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

From October 11 to 13, 2003, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), and the Mexico Solidarity Network (MSN) co-sponsored a congressional delegation to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to examine the murders of hundreds of women in that city. Over the past decade, approximately 370 women have been killed, many after suffering sexual abuse and torture. In the majority of cases, there have been no proper police investigations to identify suspects, nor serious efforts to prosecute themFour members of Congress participated[1]:  Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA), Vice-Chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus (CWC); Rep. Ciro Rodríguez (D-TX), Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC); Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), who represents Ciudad Juárez’s sister city of El Paso; and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL). 

 Other delegation participants included a representative of the office of Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ); staff from the offices of Reps. Solis, Reyes, and Rodriguez; Eric Olson of Amnesty International USA; Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers; Daniel Solis from the Chicago City Council; and filmmakers Lourdes Portillo and Emiko Omori, makers of the award-winning film Señorita Extraviada.  Joy Olson and Laurie Freeman of WOLA, Sean Garcia and Elanor Starmer of LAWG, and Macrina Cárdenas of MSN also participated.  Officials from the U.S. Consulate in Juarez and the human rights officer from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City attended several informational meetings.

The delegation met with family members of murder victims; human rights, women’s rights, and solidarity organizations; labor organizers; maquiladora owners; Mexican legislators; and officials from the municipal, state, and federal governments.  Following are some of the highlights of the delegation. 

Saturday, October 11

  • Delegates went to Ciudad Juarez and met with the family members of the murder victims.  There were about 30 family members present, each of whom briefly told the delegation about their daughter, the date she disappeared, and what happened to her, if they knew.  Following these introductions, four individuals went into detail about their daughters’ cases.  Delegates also met with family members of people who have been tortured into confessing to some of the murders.  They met with Miriam Garcia, whose husband, Victor Javier Garcia Uribe, was tortured into confessing to murders of eight women whose bodies were found in a cotton field in downtown Juarez in 2001.  This session also helped to emphasize that the family members of the victims and the accused are working together, and see themselves all as victims of the government’s unwillingness and inability to put a stop to the Juarez murders.  After these presentations, the participants broke down into four groups, where the delegates had the ability to talk personally and in depth to multiple families on a one-to-one basis. 
  • Following the meeting with the families, the delegates met with representatives of the women’s’ organizations from Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City that have been pushing the government to properly investigate and prevent the deaths of young women in their cities.  They detailed stories of harassment, delays, denial of access to basic case information, and the government’s unwillingness to take their claims and demands seriously.

Sunday, October 12

  • The delegation began the morning with an extensive tour of Anapra, one of Juarez’s poorest neighborhoods.  Delegates were driven down the sandy roads of Anapra past makeshift homes of concrete block, tin, pressboard, and scraps.  The neighborhood has little electricity and few homes have running water.  Tour guides described the lack of streetlights, the noticeable absence of a police presence, and the lack of rule of law in the neighborhood.  The tour was designed to give the delegates a sense of the areas that many disappeared women live in, and the difficult conditions they must endure when walking to and from home to work.  The delegation made a stop at the home of one of Anapra’s residents – a couple with a young daughter working in a maquila. 
  • The tour continued with a drive across town, through the industrial park area, and led to a cotton field that was the location where 8 bodies were found over the course of two days in November 2001.  The cotton field is hemmed in by two major streets, and is located across from the headquarters of the maquiladora owners’ association.  Tour guides explained that three bodies were found on the first day, and five bodies were discovered the second.  They were laid out intentionally, and were not buried.  The guides further explained that investigators failed to collect basic evidence from the sight, including clothing, hair samples, and other personal effects, which were collected by volunteers after the police re-opened the site.  Many of the delegates took this opportunity to pay their respects to the victims at this site.

 Monday, October 13

  • The delegates met with officials from the Mexican federal government, the State of Chihuahua, and the Ciudad Juarez Municipal Government who are directly responsible for the prevention of and investigation into crimes against women.  Officials presented their respective plans of action.  At the end of the meeting, 20 relatives of victims were given the opportunity to present their complaints to the Mexican officials, and provide additional information to the U.S. delegates. 
  • Congresswoman Solis and Congressman Reyes held a press conference to announce their conclusions regarding the trip.  Some of the action items they discussed are included below under medium and long-term follow-up activities.  They were covered extensively in the US and Mexican media.

 Delegation Impressions

 It was clear that the Mexican authorities have not done enough to prevent violence against women, investigate women’s murders, or respond adequately to the concerns of the victims’ families.  Recent national and international pressure has prompted the municipal, state, and federal author
ities to announce a series of new crime prevention measures as well as to create a joint federal-state investigative agency, but these have not produced advances in the investigations nor curbed violent attacks against women.  In fact, the day after the delegation ended, another woman was found murdered in Juárez, her body dumped in a trashcan. 

 Mexican officials are very concerned about the Juárez murders’ negative impact on their country’s international image.  For that reason, they will respond to U.S. pressure.  

The most important outcome of the delegation was that members of Congress committed themselves to finding ways to support the families and to assist the Mexican government in measures to prevent and solve these crimes and punish those responsible.

 The delegation meetings made it clear that:  

  • The families of the victims are ignored, deceived, and often times harassed by the authorities.  Families told us of repeated occasions when government officials misled them, deliberately gave them false hopes about their daughters’ fates, and discouraged them from pursuing justice.  We were able to witness these kinds of tactics during our visit.  One of the mothers we met with was told the next day by state authorities that they thought they had found her daughter’s body.  She later found out they were lying: They had done facial reconstruction on two unidentified bodies and wanted to compare them with a photograph of her daughter, but there was no reason to believe either body was her daughter’s.  She was so traumatized that she had to be taken to the hospital.
  • The families of the victims have no faith in the state authorities to conduct effective or serious investigations.  Federal officials have assumed shared jurisdiction over many cases, but a lack of progress in the investigations or contact with the family members has meant that there is little faith in their efforts either.
  • The authorities continue to blame the victims for their own murders.  Families also reported that the investigations tend to focus on them. 
  • The authorities commit human rights violations in the attempt to “solve” the murders.   Scapegoats are sent to jail for the murders on the basis of coerced confessions and the authorities tolerate police abuse and torture.  Allegations of torture were denied by officials during delegation meetings, and the evidence presented was flatly dismissed.
  • The victims’ families and the families of the accused are working together.  Victims’ families generally believe that the accused have been tortured into confessing to their daughters’ murders, and that the real perpetrator is still loose.  They have formed a unique coalition where victims and the accused are working together to find the real perpetrators.
  • Authorities often refuse to perform DNA tests to positively identify the bodies of murder victims.  Many bodies are kept in a common grave and have not been identified.  Other bodies have been “identified” by evidence that was found near the sites where they were disposed, but DNA tests were contradictory or inconclusive.  As a result, many families live in agony and uncertainty, not knowing if their daughters have been murdered; some hold on to slim hopes that they might still be alive.  The authorities tell families that DNA tests are unreliable and would not be valid if performed by independent or foreign experts.  Even if the authorities were willing to perform DNA tests, the families would not believe them because the tests have so often been botched and contradictory. 
  • Women continue to be murdered and the local authorities have not improved investigations.  The day after our delegation ended, another woman was murdered in Juárez.  The authorities alleged that she was a drug addict, implying that she was responsible for her fate by associating with criminals.
  • Some of the victims of murder and disappearance have been U.S. citizens.  The delegation met with a U.S. citizen from El Paso, Texas, whose daughter disappeared in Ciudad Juarez in 2000. 
  • The authorities do not have concrete proposals to change the culture of violence and discrimination against women. 

Delegation Accomplishments

  • The families of murder victims felt that their voices had been heard.  Family members had two occasions to share their stories with members of Congress, and the importance of these opportunities cannot be underestimated.  After being ignored by the Mexican authorities for years, many family members of murder victims expressed hope that members of Congress would pressure the Mexican authorities to act. 
  • The members of Congress on the delegation committed themselves and the Women’s and Hispanic Caucuses to deepening their involvement in the issue, and began discussing ideas for concrete ways to follow up. 
  • Likewise, the NGOs who sponsored the delegation deepened their commitment to pressing for resolution in the identification of bodies, resolution of crimes, and prevention of violence against women.
  • There was considerable press coverage of the delegation by US and Mexican radio, TV, magazines, and newspapers.  Coverage began a full week before the delegation with stories on Mexican TV and radio shows, including Formato 21, Radio Formula, and El Mañanero and En Contraste on Televisa.  The delegation was reported on in Reuters, Associated Press, El Paso Times, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Ms. Magazine, and BBC World News TV, among others.

[1] Several other members of the Women’s Caucus had confirmed their participation in the delegation but cancelled at the last minute due to health reasons and unforeseen travel.  These were Louise Slaughter (D-CA), Chair of the Women’s Caucus, Corrine Brown (D-FL), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX).