Citizen Excursions into the Border’s Valley of Dollars and Death
It’s anybody’s guess how many victims of violence are still buried somewhere in the Juarez Valley on the Mexico-U.S. border. For starters, there is the still largely unexcavated Navajo Arroyo, where the remains of 18 young women who went missing from nearby Ciudad Juarez have been recovered and identified since late 2011, according to the local daily Norte.
“If Ayotzinapa is an emblematic case, Mexico is filled with emblematic cases. The Navajo Arroyo is another one,” said Dr. Julia Monarrez, a Ciudad Juarez sociologist who’s studied the disappearance and murder of women in the border region for decades.
The Navajo Arroyo victims mainly disappeared during 2009-2010, when Juarez and its adjacent rural valley paralleling the Rio Grande were engulfed in extreme violence and access to the valley was controlled by armed bands of criminals or police and military contingents.
Strongly suspecting more victims rest in the huge desert gully, dozens of human rights activists, relatives of victims and supporters fanned out across the Navajo Arroyo last month looking for more remains. Because of ongoing violence, Chihuahua state and federal police agents provided security.
Assisted by the Mexico City-based Grupo de Accion por los Derechos Humanos y la Justicia Social (Human Rights and Social Justice Action Group) and the experienced hands of Grupo Vida of Torreon, a relatives’ organization that has successfully recovered numerous human remains in its home state of Coahuila, the citizen-led search covered approximately 354 of the 8,000 hectares comprising the zone.
During two days of probing, searchers found a total of 54 suspected human remains as well as a purse and clothing, including a t-shirt stained with what appeared to be blood.
The citizen search was initiated by the family of Esmeralda Castillo Rincon, a 14-year-old girl who disappeared from Juarez in 2009 and eventually was identified by Chihuahua state officials as one of the Navajo Arroyo victims.
But Esmeralda’s parents are skeptical of the official identification since it was based on a small, deteriorated body fragment, and seek to recover more remains to see if they match Esmeralda’s.
Another search by NGOs and relatives yielded more suspected remains and women’s attire on October 22; activists plan a third search later in November.
Doing victim searches in the Juarez Valley is a complicated, risky endeavor. The rural zone is watched by “halcones,” lookouts for organized crime who report the comings and goings of traffic and visitors.
“It’s a zone of cemeteries, not just one, but the whole valley,” said a staff member of a local human rights advocacy group who asked not to be named because of security reasons. “It’s a point of violence. Searches and findings are not only important, the activist said, “but what comes after.”
As gruesome as the Navajo Arroyo episode might be, it’s only one passage in a chilling chapter of carnage that’s gripped the Juarez Valley during the last eight years.
El Paso lawyer Carlos Spector, who participated in September’s search of the Navajo Arroyo, said more secret graves could be located not far away around the depopulated town of Guadalupe. “My sense is that the biggest graveyards are in Guadalupe, based on the reports from people I work for,” Spector said. “But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Many Juarez Valley residents have fled their homes, including some who seek political refuge in the United States. Hundreds have been murdered.
The representative of Mexicanos en Exilio, (Mexicans in Exile), Spector estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 people from the valley are now living in the El Paso area alone.
He said political asylum has been granted in about a dozen of his cases so far. “Many are seeking and many have gone to other places. I get calls from Dallas and Phoenix,” Spector added.
A common thread in the stories of displaced persons from the Juarez Valley was that armed criminals- often accompanied by police- showed up at their homes and told them to leave.
“Most believe it was because of a family member who was believed involved in a criminal activity…It’s Mayberry. It’s a small town, so if you’re a cousin of somebody and they’re cleaning up, they want everybody out,” Spector said, adding that homes and properties were burned or destroyed.
Competition over a lucrative commercial corridor is the backdrop to the Juarez Valley bloodbath, according to the El Paso attorney.
Neighboring Texas, and just southeast of El Paso with its multiple connections to the interstate U.S. highway and rail systems, the Juarez Valley became internationally known as a producer of high-quality cotton and other agricultural products.
But the so-called “white gold” of an earlier era dissolved into fast bucks from other profitable activities: drugs and migrants trafficked from Mexico to the U.S. and guns, cash and customs-busting commodities of all kinds transported from the U.S. to Mexico.
If anything, the valley’s dollar value only continues multiplying, evidenced by the recent opening of the Tornillo-Guadalupe international border crossing over the Rio Grande. The new bridge stands as a key link for future warehouses and factories, Spector said.
A recent spate of valley violence was targeted at importers of used U.S. cars passed over the Tornillo-Guadalupe bridge, according to Juarez press reports. Yet, heftier potential profits bubble in the ground from unexploited deposits of shale gas, not to mention the pipelines for transporting and moving energy resources south to north or vice versa.
In Spector’s view, property ownership is the big bone of contention in the Juarez Valley. Accordingly, Spector and Mexicanos en Exilio support dispatching international observers to the zone so forcibly displaced residents aren’t permanently dispossessed of their properties.
A Pandora’s Box in the Navajo Arroyo?
While the full extent of the clandestine graveyard in the Navajo Arroyo is still unknown, the site has emerged as the largest mass dumping ground of feminicide victims in or around Ciudad Juarez since similar cases were first systematically exposed in the 1990s.
“What you don’t address at the beginning will repeat itself,” Ana Lorena Delgadillo, executive director of the Mexico City-based Foundation for Justice, warned of the Navajo Arroyo saga. “If you don’t investigate the cases of the past, it’s giving a message to contemporary (killers of women) now that nothing will happen.”
Delgadillo formerly worked on legal affairs for the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EEAF), which was brought to Juarez and the state of Chihuahua to identify victims during the last decade following a demand by mothers of disappeared women and young girls that the government enlist the independent expertise of the forensic specialists.
Reflecting on her Juarez experience, Delgadillo said she witnessed official practices and postures common across Mexico – mismanagement of bodies, inadequate forensic services, mishandled evidence, and a lack of respect for the victims, some it all possibly “intentional.” On the other hand, Delgadillo said she also observed a tremendous strength on the part of families looking for loved ones.
Yet even as the EEAF worked diligently to restore names and faces to previous victims, the murder mill was churning out new ones. As it turned out, the EEAF wound up identifying two of the Navajo Arroyo victims: 17-year-old Maria Guadalupe Perez Montes, who disappeared on January 31, 2009; and 19-year-old Idaly Juache Laguna, who vanished on February 23, 2010. The remains of both victims were recovered in 2012.
Like other regional dumping grounds of murdered women, the Navajo Arroyo was first publicly revealed because of an accidental discovery by a citizen. Although the site has been known for nearly five years, it’s unclear why Mexican authorities have not conducted a more consistent, thorough search of the zone, especially considering that numerous other young women in the same age range, with the same low socio-economic status, and sharing a similar physical profile as the 18 identified victims to date, disappeared in similar circumstances after 2008 and remain missing to this day.
Chihuahua state authorities searched the zone in 2015, reportedly finding some possible human remains but fewer than the citizen-led probe encountered this year.
Moreover, Norte has identified eight other young women found murdered in other places in the Juarez Valley, with their preceding disappearances also occurring between 2008 and 2010 and following the pattern of Navajo Arroyo victims who disappeared while reportedly shopping or searching for employment in downtown Juarez, a considerable distance from the valley.
The use of the Juarez Valley as a disposal ground of murdered women from the city long predates the Navajo Arroyo. In 1998 disappeared maquiladora worker Sagrario Gonzalez Flores’ body was reported recovered near the community of Loma Blanca, as was Edith Aranda’s years later. The 22-year-old schoolteacher went missing from downtown Juarez in 2005 but her remains weren’t discovered until 2008.
The Navajo Arroyo-related disappearances coincided with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ 2009 landmark sentence in the Campo Algodonero case that held the Mexican State responsible for a pattern of violence against women in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua. In addition to curbing violence, among the mandatory remedies ordered by the Costa Rica-based court that state officials to be much more proactive in searching for disappeared women and girls.
Monarrez suggested authorities aren’t interested in prying open the bigger Pandora’s Box the Navajo Arroyo could hold.
Though the Office of the Chihuahua State Prosecutor (FGE) lists slightly more than 100 women and girls missing from Juarez since the early 1990s, local women’s activists consider the number too low. What’s more, hundreds of men are likewise disappeared from the area. An objective of September’s citizen-led search was also to look for signs of missing men, Monarrez said.
“(Officials) are saying, ‘We clean our hands and we don’t care if it matters,’” she added. “It’s not for lack of political will. It’s that the political will is to do nothing.”
Prosecutions Spark Controversy
In a 2015 criminal case locally dubbed “The Trial of the Year,” five men were convicted and slapped with centuries-long prison terms by a Chihuahua state court for their alleged participation in abducting Arroyo Navajo victims for sex trafficking and drug dealing purposes before killing them.
A sixth defendant was acquitted, while a seventh suspect, an elderly man, died in prison while awaiting the trial.
Last July, La Jornada daily reported that the FGE’s special unit for gender crimes against women issued two arrest warrants for employees of Los Arbolitos bar, where Navajo Arroyo victims were allegedly sexually exploited. Los Arbolitos is located across the Rio Grande from Fabens, Texas, in the small Juarez Valley community of Caseta. So far, no actual arrests in that case have been reported.
In the court cases evidence was presented by state prosecutors, much of it based on leads developed by victims’ relatives who had conducted their own investigations that tentatively connected some of the defendants to the victims. This year, three more men and a woman are on trial in the second round of the same case.
“They might be able to prove that (defendants) exploited them, but not that they are the ones who killed them,” Monarrez contended.
Considering the long history of framing up feminicide suspects in Juarez and Chihuahua City, the Navajo Arroyo legal proceedings have generated polemics. Physical evidence linking killers to homicides is lacking; times, dates and places of murders are very sketchy; the alleged chief of the ring charged with being behind the crimes, “El Miguelito,” was killed by Chihuahua state police prior to the arrests and trials; and leads pointing to broader institutional involvement in the abductions/killings did not immediately result in additional arrests or indictments, even though such information was vented during the first trial more than a year ago.
The Navajo Arroyo judicial proceedings are based on the newer system of oral trials adopted by the state government of Chihuahua as part of justice system reforms promoted by the U.S-promoted Merida Initiative. Until now, the crucial evidence used to convict defendants has relied on eyewitness accounts as opposed to scientific evidence that would make a definitive link between killers and victims.
Some victims’ mothers and civil society groups like the Red Mesa de Mujeres de Ciudad Juarez insist that the defendants merely constituted the lower-rung of a criminal network that also implicated police, soldiers and prison officials.
The family of a defendant in the current trial, Camilo del Real Buenida, steadfastly proclaims his innocence on a Facebook page. The owner of a small publicity and modeling agency, Del Real worked with Navajo Arroyo victim Idaly Juache Laguna on a commercial video shoot. Case testimonies indicate Juache was headed to a Juarez prison to visit a relative the morning of her disappearance and had plans to visit Del Real’s office later the same day so she could pick up a forgotten ring.
Whatever the truth in Del Real’s guilt or innocence, one thing for certain is that the U.S.-inspired new justice system hasn’t given him a speedy trial. The small businessman has been in prison since his detention by state police in a raid on his Juarez home in June 2013.
After more than two years, the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission issued Recommendation 19/2015 in response to Del Real’s arrest. The official state agency concluded that the warrantless raid violated the sanctity of the family home and recommended to then State Prosecutor Jorge Gonzalez Nicolas that the responsible agents face sanctioning.
Back to the Future?
As the second Navajo Arroyo trial lurches forward, violence reminiscent of the so-called narco war of 2008-12, which provided a convenient cover for feminicides, is unsettling both Juarez and the Juarez Valley. Every day, the local press is filled with incidents of gunplay, public executions and bodies dumped in the streets. In one murderous assault, a young man was gunned down while walking in the street with his three-year-old daughter, who was left in tears.
In 2016, homicide numbers for both men and women are far outpacing the entire toll for 2015, according to Norte. Based on the FGE’s numbers, the newspaper reported that Juarez suffered 308 murders in 2015, while 398 homicides were registered solely through the middle of October of this year.
Spector said he and members of Mexicanos en Exilio aren’t surprised at the resurgence of violence given the nature of organized crime and it’s relationships to government.
“That’s the pattern. (Exiles) are used to it. When things are peaceful we call it authorized crime. There’s an understanding between a dominant criminal group and authority. It doesn’t mean that the violence and repression doesn’t exist. It’s just normalized,” he said.
However, a new feature of the most recent lawlessness is that it’s tracking exiles to the United States. According to Spector, exiles have received calls in their presumed sanctuary demanding money at the risk of seeing a relative still at home hurt. The extortion calls are made with a “level of sophistication we haven’t seen,” he said. Spector cited the case of an elderly woman who ultimately decided to take her chances in the valley after her relatives could not pay the extortion money demanded.
The latest outburst of violence erupted amid thorny municipal and state government transitions. Stoking controversy, former FGE head Jorge Gonzalez, who oversaw Navajo Arroyo case prosecutions, was named public safety director of Juarez earlier this month by new Mayor Armando Cabada. Reportedly, two other former FGE officials have been appointed as Gonzalez’s deputies in the border city.
In an October 6 letter signed by 38 women’s, human rights, environmental and rural organizations, Gonzalez’s appointment was sharply criticized on a number of counts, including the official’s alleged “omissions and irresponsibility in the cases of more than 1,300 disappeared people in the state of Chihuahua.” Gonzalez’s appointment was also opposed by newly-inaugurated Chihuahua Governor Javier Corral, producing an early political rift between the two most important elected officials in the state of Chihuahua.
Defending Gonzalez’s appointment, Cabada in turn took a shot at Corral’s plan to resume mixed patrols of soldiers and police as an answer to renewed violence. The plan stirred memories of 2008’s Joint Operation Chihuahua, a military-led deployment of troops and tanks ostensibly designed to counter narco violence and restore public order. Far from containing murder and mayhem, killings and other human rights abuses increased sharply during Joint Operation Chihuahua, including the mass disappearances of women and girls.
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.