NOTE: This article is the third in a series by the Americas Program honoring Mexico’s women human rights defenders, published during the 16 days of activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Find the entire series listed below and please send us your comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nearly five months ago, the Narvarte multi-homicide in Mexico City took the lives of Nadia Vera, Yesenia Quiroz, Mile Virginia Martín, Alejandra Negrete, and Rubén Espinosa Bonilla, and sparked fear and outrage in the community. The past months have been marked by impunity, confusion and injustice as families, friends and activists have sought truth and justice in hopes of easing their pain.
Media instantly spotlighted the photojournalist, Rubén Espinosa, while pushing the attacks and murders of the female victims under the rug. Nadia was a prominent activist and artist who courageously defended human rights. As a women human rights defender she had received threats and been the target of violence leading up to her tragic death.
Nadia’s mother, Mirtha Luz Pérez Robledo, a renowned Chiapas poet, years ago wrote a poem called “Ballad for a City Girl” for her daughter. Today her words devastate the broken hearts of Nadia’s community:
Don’t leave me without your eyes
Don’t leave me without your voice
Don’t leave me without your light
In the dark
Don’t leave me without your skin
Don’t leave me without you
Nadia’s murder revealed the brutality of Mexico’s patriarchal and misogynist society. Just Associates (JASS) states that, “Discrimination and gender-based violence are expressions of power relations and male control over women and their lives, and are manifested through a set of practices and norms, explicit and implicit.” In its recent report on gender-based violence in Mesoamerica, JASS found that in 2014 there were 226 attacks with a gender component in the region. Femicides, or the murder of women for being women, and violence against women are often coupled with sexual assault of the victims.
The horrific reality for women in Mexico is that it’s not a matter of if, but more a matter of when. The situation is alarming; 63 percent of young women age 15 and over have experienced some form of violence. This generalized gender violence aims to intimidate and repress women. Women human right defenders and activists won’t allow this though; they fight to preserve the memory of victims, to seek justice for them and to prevent future victims.
Women human right defenders redefine gender dynamics and roles, and as a result they face threats and reality of violence from those who want to maintain this system of power and oppression. Attacks on women human rights defenders in Mexico nearly doubled between 2013 and 2014 with a total of 308 defenders attacked, with 18 percent directed towards women journalists. Nadia was the 36th women human right defender murdered in Mexico since 2010. Under President Peña Nieto, repression and violence, and especially against youth and student protestors have increased. A 2012 report by the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders found that state authorities were responsible for 87 percent of the attacks against defensoras.
This state-sponsored violence threatens freedom of expression and the right to organize in Mexico, but it has not, and never will, steal or silence the voices of the people. They stole Nadia’s life, but her voice and ideals live on.
Daughter, sister and friend. Student rights, anti-corruption, freedom of expression and human rights activist and artist. Assassinated on Jul. 31, 2015.
A native of the southern state of Chiapas, Nadia moved to Xalapa to study social anthropology at the University of Veracruz. She became involved in student activism, joining their Student Assembly, the Yo Soy 132 (I am #132) political movement and more recently organizing with Ayotzinapa Movement for Justice. She also fought for freedom of expression, protection of journalists and the right to peace.
Veracruz is the most dangerous state in Mexico for journalists, and those who critique and challenge the state government. With widespread presence of organized crime and corrupt authorities, it is a violent state with a high number of human right violations.
On Nov. 20, 2012 Nadia attended a demonstration demanding justice for assassinated journalists and criticizing the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) government. Along with others, she was beaten and detained by police without justification. Also in 2012, her home was ransacked while she was out. A year later during a teacher’s strike, she and others were violently attacked by authorities.
A professor and friend of Nadia’s explained that Nadia was a happy person, but she also lived in fear. After the threats, attacks and witnessing the violence against her peers, this fear was well-founded. She decided to move to Mexico City because she no longer considered herself safe in Veracruz. Mexico City had long served as a refuge for journalists and activists under attack.
In 2014, Nadia did an interview for a Rompeviento film called, “Verarcuz: The Forgotten Mass Grave.” In the interview she held the Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte Ochoa and the whole government culpable if anything were to happen to her or her friends. She firmly stated, “We want to make very clear that our security is totally the state’s responsibility, because they are the ones who send people to repress us.”
She explained on camera the rise of disappearances and human rights violations under Governor Duarte’s term, and the corruption that links organized crime with the state. As an almost eerie forecast of her own murder, she stressed, “We’ve had how many journalists assassinated? And the state does nothing. How many students? How many human rights defenders? And, how many activists? All who were assassinated, kidnapped or disappeared.”
Nadia didn’t just march in the streets for social change, she was also an artist who used creativity for justice. Following in her mother’s, footsteps she wrote poetry, and also produced films, danced, and led theater workshops. This past year in Mexico City, she was organizing an international film festival and producing for the International Festival 4×4. A peer of Nadia’s, Julián Ramírez, also a human rights defender, stated that she loved her work and the new challenges.
The Web of Injustice
On Jul. 1—a little over a month before the multi-homicide that would claim Nadia’s life—Governor Duarte while speaking to reporters on Free Speech Day in Veracruz instructed, or perhaps threatened, journalists to “behave”. “We’re going to shake the tree,” he warned, “and many rotten apples are going to fall.”
On the afternoon of Jul. 31, 2015 Nadia along with Yesenia Quiroz, a beauty school student; Mile Virginia Martín, a Colombian model and hairdresser; Alejandra Negrete, a housecleaner and 40-year-old mother of three; and photojournalist Rubén Espinosa Bonilla were murdered execution style in their Colonia Narvarte apartment.
Despite being a high-profile case, the details of what happened are unknown and the investigation has spurred conflicting accounts and misinformation. There is even speculation that the Mexico City justice department (PGJDF) leaked (mis)information on the case.
What is known, and confirmed by Mexico City officials, is that there were signs of a struggle, and that all five victims were shot in the head by a 9 millimeter gun. A neighbor, Esbeidi N., stated that when she left for work at 8am that Friday she saw Alejandra arrive. When she came home from work, the door was open and she found her friends inside, murdered.
SinEmbargo ran a story based on an interview with a friend of Ruben’s showing that Ruben had last texted his friend at 2:13pm. The PGJDF current official account of the atrocities is that three suspects—Daniel Pacheco Gutiérrez, José Abraham Torres Tranquilino and César Omar Martínez Zendejas—were in the apartment on Jul. 31 and were caught on street video cameras leaving that afternoon. Mexico City police arrested all three on charges of homicide, four femicides and robbery.
Journalists, human rights activists and the victims’ families criticize this account, and the lack of transparency and accountability within the PGJDF’s investigation. The authorities have still not released the final results of their investigation.
Many refuse to accept the thesis that robbery was the primary motive, since both Nadia and Rubén faced threats of violence leading up to the homicide and Ruben had been threatened again in Mexico City. The Vera family attorneys have stated that the case file doesn’t include evidence of a robbery.
Moreover, the testimonies of the suspects conflict with each other, and partway through the investigation, the Prosecutor Rodolfio Ríos announced that the PGJDF had altered the timeline they had previously hypothesized of the crime. In November of 2015, Pérez, Nadia’s mother, wrote an open letter to the government and the PGJDF criticizing the incomplete investigation. The letter asked why authorities had failed to interview all the neighbors and friends, why the crime scene was tampered with, why information was leaked to the press, among other concerns.
Accounts have changed from one government statement to the next, and the press has presented a bewildering array of contradictory “facts”. It is nearly impossible to know what to trust. Initially, Prosecutor Rodolfo Ríos announced that the victims knew the murderers, but this has been questioned since. In early reports, the media stated that neighbors heard loud partying all night and into the morning Friday.
“Leaked” information sought to defame the victims. This effort had a clear gender bias against the female victims, claiming the women were involved in drugs and prostitution as if any of that would justify their brutal murder. Criminalizing the victims—blaming them for their own murders—is often a state-endorsed tactic in the world of impunity and injustice. Nadia, Yesenia, Mile and Alejandra continued to face victimization and injustice even in death.
Later it would become clear that the neighbors did not hear anything, not even gunshots. This has led many to believe that the gun was used with a silencer, but the PGJDF has denied this. The PGJDF confirmed that the murder weapon was never used in other crimes, leading many to believe that it was purchased specifically for this multi-homicide.
Another strange confusion regards whether or not the victims were tortured and the women sexually assaulted before the murders.
Yet another inconsistency in the case is the plausibility that there were more than three suspects or assassins. David Peña, member of the Action Group for Human Rights and Social Justice and representative of the Vera family, states that DNA was found in the apartment that does not match any of three suspects in custody. Legal aids involved in the case have informed that Pacheco Gutiérrez and Torres Tranquilino both testified that other people and vehicles were involved. There is also mismatched DNA in the car and apartment. Street camera footage seems to support this claim.
As a result of the chaotic investigation, on Nov. 5 legal aids filed a petition for legal protection with Federal Judicial Power against the investigation directed by Ríos Garza. The official complaint claimed lack of transparency by not informing them on updates of the case and delays in expert evaluations.
Despite the lack of clarity and progress in the investigation, the PGJDF announced in early November that they were near closing the case. On Nov. 9 human rights defenders, journalists, legal aids, and family members of the victims announced a Platform of Accompaniment to help guide the investigation, and to demand justice and transparency from the PGJDF.
However, weeks later authorities have still not presented findings to the public. When asked for a comment on the latest case updates, the office of the PGJDF told the Americas Program, “As soon as we have updates, we will let the public know.” It’s concerning that nearly five months later, that the PGJDF’s investigation doesn’t have any advances in the case that could clear up the contradictions.
Nadia’s mother stated in her open letter that, “We’ve noted that in this country, a common citizen like us doesn’t have easy access to justice.”
Preserving Nadia’s Memory and the Fight for Justice
After the multi-homicide, thousands around the country marched in the streets on behalf of the victims, mourning their loss and demanding justice.
On Aug. 5 hundreds came out in Chiapas to pay their respects to Nadia. They brought flowers and read poetry in her memory. Nadia’s father, Efraín Vera stated,
Hopefully her death will be a turning point so that people change, so there is a bit of awareness that people can die for their ideals. Thank God, my daughter will be a bastion to change the world a little bit. Good things cannot be ended. She was a beautiful girl and they killed her. It will take a long time to close this wound of mine.
Nadia’s strength, creativity, bravery and determination to create a world of justice is a legacy to learn from. As Rexiste, a group of activists that came out of the Yo Soy 132 movement, states, “Nadia lights our darkness.”
It’s vital to follow Nadia’s lead, to seek justice for her, Yesenia, Mile, Alejandra, Rubén, and the thousands of other victims of human rights violations in Mexico. It is crucial to continue the fight to change our world so this epidemic of violence against women, and women human rights defenders comes to an end. Women of the world have the right to live full lives, and to be their whole selves, in peace.
Nadia’s mother, Pérez says it best, “When there is almost nothing left, what we have is to defend the memory, and to not become insensitive to the normalization of violence, violence that sometimes feels so far away and other times slaps us in the face.”
In the name of Nadia, and the many other women human rights defenders, let’s continue this fight for justice to end this everyday violence against women.
Nicole Rothwell is an intern for the Americas Program www.americas.org and writes about global social movements, education, and human rights in the region.
Artwork by Sarrah Hashim
Editor: Laura Carlsen
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