Justice for the Martyr of Migration?
This post is also available in: Spanish
Found hanged in a Ciudad Juarez children’s shelter in March 2014, Nohemi Alvarez Quillay instantly became the subject of international controversy. The 12-year-old indigenous girl from Ecuador was traveling in the hands of human traffickers in a desperate bid to join up with her undocumented parents in New York City. Instead of reaching her destination, she was detained by Mexican police, bounced through the state bureaucracy and placed in a privately-run shelter.
Only days later, and reportedly in a state of extreme emotional distress, the little girl allegedly committed suicide by hanging herself in a locked bathroom. The incident caused Francisco Torres, Ecuadoran consul in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, to declare that his government would make Nohemi a martyr of migration so similar calamities might not happen to others.
In comments to the Mexican press, Torres further urged the U.S. to ease up on its immigration policies so families could more easily reunite. “It would be better for the (U.S.) immigration law to permit the legalization of those who have years living in that country, Mexicans as well as Central Americans and Ecuadorans,” Torres was quoted.
In August 2015, the Mexican government’s official human rights commission released a report on Nohemi’s case with recommendations designed to avoid precisely the tragedy that claimed the life of a little girl one ugly afternoon last year.
But questions linger whether justice will be delivered for not only Nohemi and her survivors, but in truly addressing the conditions and circumstances that shaped and surrounded an Ecuadoran girl’s fateful journey.
“It’s one of those stories that stays with you,” said Camilo Perez Bustillo, international human rights attorney and professor at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces.
Last March, the one-year anniversary of Nohemi’s death, Perez Bustillo stood before a crowd gathered at NMSU’s annual J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium and dedicated the event to Nohemi.
For Perez Bustillo, Nohemi’s story, “embodies, sadly,” multiple dimensions of the international and regional migrant experience—sexual violence, rampant government corruption and violence in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, the generalized victimization of people in movement, and the largely silent emigration from impoverished, indigenous regions of Ecuador, especially to New York City.
According to Mexican and Ecuadoran press accounts published last year, Nohemi originally tried to reunite with her parents in New York during the summer of 2013 but was detained in Panama and deported back to Ecuador.
In early February 2014 the 12-year-old embarked on a second journey, reportedly after her parents paid immigrant smugglers upwards of $15,000 to get their daughter to New York.
Nohemi then seemingly dropped off the face of the earth for more than a month before her detention in Ciudad Juarez by Chihuahua state police officers. The exact circumstances of the detention are still unclear, and could be key in explaining the girl’s death.
Issued last month, Recommendation 22/2015 from Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) recounted the police version of Nohemi’s detention, which held that she was detained in a vehicle along with an adult Mexican national, Domingo Fermas Uves, at 10:08 pm on the evening of March 6, 2014, in the Ciudad Juarez colonia of Anapra, a hotbed of organized crime on the northwestern edge of the city bordering New Mexico.
According to the CNDH, Nohemi was in the custody of state police officers for four hours before being turned over to the social work unit of the Ciudad Juarez municipal security department, which in turn held the young migrant for more than 7 hours prior to sending her to a privately-run shelter (ironically named “House of Hope”) subcontracted by the Chihuahua state Integral Family Development (DIF) department, a social welfare agency of the government.
For his part, Fermas was charged with human trafficking, later released and subsequently rearrested, released and rearrested several times.
The CNDH report briefly notes a second version of the detention, apparently confirmed by Nohemi just prior to her death, that she was really detained in a raid on Fermas’ home.
Based on interviews with Fermas, his relatives and neighbors, the Juarez press published accounts that alleged state police officers burst into the house without warrants looking for “the little girl” and cocaine.
If the later account is true, it begs the question why a state law enforcement agency not traditionally charged with enforcing immigration laws was looking for “the little girl,” much less drugs in a suspicious manner.
The CNDH report detailed other irregularities and violations based on the Mexican Constitution, international human rights law and a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the rights of unaccompanied minor migrants.
The commission criticized the Chihuahua DIF for not only lacking adequate supervision of the shelter where Nohemi died, but also for a general absence of “protocols and specific functions” in its dealings with subcontractors as well.
In its investigation, the CNDH concluded that Nohemi was not given a timely psychological evaluation during her detention, despite visible evidence that she was scared and withdrawn. Repeatedly, officials have claimed they believed a tight-lipped Nohemi was from the Mexican state of Durango. For this reason, they argue, she never made a call to her parents in New York or the Ecuadoran consular representatives in Mexico, as required by international law.
The CNDH report delved into the strange and abusive behavior of agents from the Ciudad Juarez branch of the Mexican Office of the Attorney General (PGR), who threatened shelter staff for “obstructing investigations;” one unnamed agent in particular was “behaving very hostile” to Nohemi during interrogations and even shouting at her, the human rights commission wrote.
Frustrated by a first interrogation, the agent returned to the shelter at 2:00 am on the morning of March 9 in an attempt to see Nohemi again, but was rebuffed by shelter staff who argued that the girl should not be disturbed.
The PGR agent caused psychological damage to Nohemi and possibly worsened “an already degraded emotional state,” according to the CNDH.
Most gravely, the CNDH confirmed a determination by the PGR—originally denied by the Office of the Chihuahua State Prosecutor (FGE), which had earlier conducted a questioned investigation of Nohemi’s death—that Nohemi had been raped. The CNDH wrote that Nohemi was raped approximately five days or more prior to her death, thus provoking psychological problems like anxiety and depression.
Prior to the CNDH’s report, El Diario de Juarez quoted anonymous sources from the FGE who claimed superiors knew about the sexual aggression against the young migrant but ordered it hushed up.
An FGE spokesman denied the accusation to the newspaper, maintaining that Nohemi was not raped. Armando Aguirre, the Chihuahua state employee who performed an autopsy on Nohemi, insisted that the anal lesions found on Nohemi’s body were caused by the girl’s excrement.
Although the CNDH upheld suicide as the cause of Nohemi’s death, Perez Bustillo argued that the girl’s preceding and terrifying interactions with government officials translated into official culpability. “That means responsibility,” he said. “You can’t simply dismiss it as a suicide.”
On the official front, a flurry of activity surrounding Nohemi’s death has unfolded in several nations.
In February 2015, as part of a joint operation, the PGR, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations identified and indicted 42 individuals allegedly involved in the network that moved Nohemi from Ecuador through Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, where she was housed at 17 different places during her fatal journey, according to officials.
The suspects were charged with human trafficking, aggravated rape of a minor (Nohemi), sexual abuse of migrant victims, and fraudulent exercise of public office.
In a statement announcing the indictments, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico declared that “the incident of March 11, 2014, in which an Ecuador-born minor lost her life, was clarified.”
The trafficking network, the U.S. Embassy continued, was involved in “physically and sexually assaulting women and female child migrants.”
Earlier, the Office of the Ecuadoran State Prosecutor won convictions of two alleged human traffickers, Ecuadoran national Raul Huerta and Guatemalan national Manauel Lopez, in connection with Nohemi’s death journey. Both men were slapped with 16-year sentences by an Ecuadoran court.
With the February 2015 indictments in Mexico, the Ecuadoran national prosecutor’s office assured that “justice will be served in both nations.”
But will the bells of justice ring loudly and vigorously or peter out with a whimper?
Sent to Mexican Attorney General Arely Gomez and Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte last month, the CNDH’s recommendations advised the officials to ensure that their respective personnel are trained in the rights of unaccompanied child migrants, develop protocols for protecting the rights of such young migrants, compensate Nohemi’s survivors, and issue public apologies.
Additionally, the CNDH contended that the PGR unnecessarily delayed access to key documents and reports by commission staff for almost six months, despite repeated commission requests. Moreover, the CNDH charged that it never had access to the complete PGR investigation, in violation of Mexican law; accordingly, the advisory commission filed a complaint over this matter with the PGR’s internal affairs division, as well as an additional one concerning the behavior of the PGR agent who violently questioned Nohemi.
In early September, the head of the PGR office in Juarez during Nohemi’s detention and subsequent death, Cesar Peniche Espejel, was removed from his post as part of a national change of PGR delegation chiefs in 22 states.
Peniche was replaced by Edgar Pineda Ramirez, who had previously served as PGR delegation chief for Michoacan during 2010-11, a time when the Mexican state blew up in a spasm of narco-related violence.
Meanwhile, the issues thrust into the spotlight by Nohemi’s death, including the deaths of migrant children trying to reach the U.S., continue to be play out in Mexico and across the Americas.
In August, Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper ran a story that alleged two presumed Mexican girls, 12 and 13 years of age respectively, were raped by maintenance personnel at a state DIF shelter in Juarez. Marisela Vega Guerrero, local DIF director, told the daily the allegations would be investigated by the appropriate authorities.
Also in August, the U.S. media reported on the case of an 11-year-old boy from El Salvador who was found unresponsive by the Border Patrol in the Texas-Mexico border region and died of heat-related causes.
While similar tragedies claiming the lives of refugee children attempting to enter Europe have recently grabbed the world’s attention, ongoing dramas involving children crossing Mexico en route to the U.S. have largely been shelved into the background, despite the commotion stirred up last year over the arrival of thousands of Central American children to the U.S. border.
Though Nohemi’s story has largely faded from the headlines too, Camilo Perez Bustillo is one who is not forgetting the life and death of a star-crossed little girl.
The international human rights expert is personally familiar with the region where Nohemi was from-the impoverished province of Canar, having traveled there and studied the socio-economic conditions.
Perez Bustillo said families in Canar are typically divided with the parents residing in New York and grandparents raising the children, as was the situation with Nohemi.
In a 2008 study undertaken with the support of UNICEF, the Ecuadoran Observatory for Child and Adolescent Rights reported that half the population of Canar had migrated to the U.S. or Europe, with 8,000 children of migrants remaining at home, including many youngsters like Nohemi who were left behind when they were under five years of age.
“Many of them have not received a hug from their parents and have never seen them, since the migration policies imposed by nation states limit and turn upside down the family relationships of these homes,” the Observatory wrote.
The report quoted a 12-year-old girl from Canar: “I saw my father when I was one-year-old. After that, only by photos. I don’t know if he is dead. But I know he loves me…”
Unlike Central American emigration, the decades-old tradition of Ecuadoran migration doesn’t get a lot of attention in this country, Perez Bustillo said.
“One of the things we’ve noticed in the flow of this region is there are a lot of folks from the Andean region who are invisible,” he said.
Yet Ecuadorans are squarely in the sights of victimizers who target them on the long migrant trail north. Five of the 72 migrants who were slaughtered by gang gunmen operating with police protection in San Fernando, Mexico, in August 2010, were Ecuadoran migrants, Perez Bustillo added.
According to the human rights activist, the five Ecuadoran victims of the San Fernando Massacre included Leonidas Yupa, Elvia Pasochoa, Maria Tipantari, Cristian Caguana and Rosa Panza. A sixth Ecuadoran—and the only publicly-identified individual of four massacre survivors—18-year-old Freddy Lala, was on his way to meet his parents in the United States, just as Nohemi attempted.
“I think the Ecuadoran government has gotten off rather softly in the case,” Perez Bustillo said, pointing to Nohemi as a tragic example that should pose the question: “Why do people migrate from Ecuador in those conditions, and where does the Ecuadoran government, state, fit in this?”
Perez Bustillo plans to bring Nohemi’s story before the upcoming International Tribunal of Conscience in New York City, where he will act as prosecutor in the case.
Convened by grassroots organizations from Mexico, the U.S. and other nations, the event is scheduled for September 25 and 26-the first anniversary of the forced disappearance by Mexican police of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college.
Born in part from the Permanent Peoples Tribunal, which issued a thick report last year on massive human rights violations against migrants and other sectors of the population in Mexico, the International Tribunal of Conscience aims to put the Mexican state-and its US sponsors-on trial for crimes against humanity.
Among many other cases, a panel of distinguished international jurors will hear in vivid detail about Nohemi’s cursed voyage on a perilous path carved out by restrictive U.S. immigration policy, the so-called war on drugs, free trade, organized crime and other forces that drive, control and ultimately prey on migratory outflows from the south to the north.
Kent Paterson, US-Mexico, is a freelance journalist who covers the southwest of the United States, the border region and Mexico and director of Frontera Norte-Sur. He is an analyst for the Americas Program americas.org
Mexico National Human Rights Commission Report and Recommendations on the case of Nohemi Alvarez Quillay (Spanish):
Report on Children and Migration in Canar, Ecuador (Spanish):
September 25-26 New York hearings on human rights crises in Mexico and Central America :
Permanent Peoples Tribunal-Mexico Chapter final report on migration, forced displacement and refugees (Spanish).