In an action that gives the old Friday News Dump an extra twist, a Mexican court handed down a Saturday night verdict in a landmark and controversial case.
Before a packed courtroom late Saturday, July 18, three women judges in Ciudad Juarez found five men guilty and absolved a sixth in the trafficking and killing of 11 girls and young women who disappeared in the Mexican border city in 2009 and 2010.
The highly decomposed remains of the victims were discovered in the Juarez Valley, an agricultural zone outside the city that borders the United States, in 2011 and 2012. The victims’ identities were later established through DNA testing.
During the period of the victims’ disappearances- and subsequent recoveries as bones- access to the Juarez Valley was controlled by criminal gangs, the Mexican army and federal police.
In a statement posted on Juarez news site Arrobajuarez.com, the Office of the Chihuahua State Prosecutor (FGE) applauded the verdict, declaring that the decision followed an “unquestionable” investigation and prosecution that was buttressed by 176 testimonies, thousands of photographs, scientific studies and other evidence.
The state prosecutor alleged that young women, who disappeared by the scores in downtown Juarez at a time when the city was under siege in a so-called drug war and occupied by soldiers and federal police, were lured to their fates with baits of employment and then pressed into prostitution and street-level drug dealing. According to the FGE, the victims were later murdered once they were deemed no longer “useful” to the defendants.
Trial testimonies alluded to the complicity of soldiers and police in the violence against the missing young women, but did not delve into greater details.
Lead Judge Catalina Ruiz Pacheco agreed with the FGE’s arguments, adding in her remarks explaining the verdict that traffickers took advantage of the city’s violent turmoil to kidnap women who were vulnerable because of their age and low-income socio-economic status.
“They were recruited by force and then kept segregated from their families and submitted to forced prostitution,” Ruiz was quoted in El Diario de Juarez.
In addition to the use of the new oral trial system operative in the state of Chihuahua, the trial was unusual in that two longtime women’s advocacy organizations with a history of strongly criticizing the government’s response to femicides, Justice for Our Daughters and the Ciudad Juarez Women’s Roundtable, actively collaborated with the prosecution and even participated in delivering the State’s case in the courtroom.
Personal investigations by victims’ relatives provided leads that were later used by the FGE in its own investigation and prosecution of the six men, who were arrested in 2013.
In a report on the July 18 verdict, NPR termed the case a “milestone” in the Mexican justice system.
But family members of the defendants and other observers had a far more critical take on the prosecution’s story, pointing to glaring weaknesses in a case that have some charging yet another miscarriage of Mexican justice.
For instance, it was never revealed in the months-long proceeding, which commenced last April, where the women were murdered, when the homicides exactly occurred and precisely who did the killing. No physical evidence was presented to prove without doubt that the defendants committed the homicides, while the precise motives for the murders remained vague.
In her closing arguments, public defender Yesenia Jaquez jumped on contradictions in the testimony of online casino star witness Luis Jesus Ramirez Loera and inconsistencies in the dates of the women’s disappearances, their alleged captivity at a now-closed hotel, and the discoveries of their remains.
“It has not been proven that (the defendants) participated together in trafficking, much less murder,” Jaquez was quoted in the Ciudad Juarez daily Norte.
Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a former investigator for the official Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission (CEDH) who is now in private legal practice, slammed the Juarez Valley criminal investigation and prosecution as a “contaminated” one.
De la Rosa Hickerson represents the family of a seventh man, Victor Chavira, who likely would have been on the stand in the Juarez Valley trial had not the elderly man died in prison early last year after reportedly suffering a severe illness. The owner of a boot store, Chavira was arrested along with the rest of the defendants in 2013.
Insisting on Chavira’s innocence, de la Rosa Hickerson demanded the clearing of the deceased man’s name in a statement posted on Arrobajuarez.com just prior to the July 18 verdict.
“From the beginning we warned about the little solid evidence collected by investigators,” the human rights specialist wrote.
De La Rosa continued: “We are not sticking our hands into the fire for the rest of the accused, but we insist once more that Mr. Victor Chavira, who was accused of depriving a young woman of her freedom and delivering her to a criminal organization under investigation, was accused based on the testimony of a minor who first said that the young victim was in the hands of a woman who sold cigarettes in the city center, but 50 days later the same witness declared that Don Victor Chavira was the one who delivered the victim.”
De la Rosa wrote that while he was employed by the CEDH he sent recommendations raising concerns about the Juarez Valley investigation to CEDH President Jose Luis Armendariz but was ignored.
The defendants convicted in the Juarez Valley trial included Vital “Don Meny” Anguiano, Edgar Jesus Regalado Villa, Cesar Felix Romero Esparza, Jesus Hernandez Martinez, and Jose Contreras Terrazas. Jose Gerardo Puentes Alva was found innocent, but the FGE could appeal the decision. Now awaiting sentencing, the convicted men face life in prison for their crimes.
Although dozens of women’s bodies and remains have been found in the Juarez Valley dating back to the 1990s, eleven of the more recent victims were the focus of the trial.
The victims were identified as Jazmin Salazar Ponce, Lizbeth Aviles Garcia, Monica Liliana Delgado Castillo, Beatriz Alejandra Hernandez Trejo, Jessica Terrazas Ortega, Deysi Ramirez Munoz, Maria Guadalupe Perez Montes, Perla Ivonne Aguirre Gonzalez, Idaly Juache Laguna, Jesica Leticia Pena Garcia, and Andrea Guerrero Venzor.
Relatives have described the victims as loving, goal-oriented daughters who wanted to help support their families in a city where basic survival can be a daunting task. During the trial, some testimony was offered that young girls and women were essentially stalked and investigated by their victimizers to determine if the families of potential victims had sufficient financial resources to effectively pressure the authorities or were connected to law enforcement.
FGE Statement (Spanish): http://arrobajuarez.com/notas.php?IDNOTA=40766&IDSECCION=Portada&IDREPORTERO=De la Redacci�n
De La Rosa Hickerson Statement (Spanish): http://arrobajuarez.com/busca.php?palabra=gustavo de la rosa&Buscar.x=50&Buscar.y=10