MEXICO: Ciudad Juarez: Finally, Steps Towards Justice

Friday, December 18, 2009
Central America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Violence, including human rights violations, has been increasing in Mexico, and women's rights have suffered blow after blow, but 2009 ended with steps towards justice: on December 10 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) issued a judgment in the "cotton field" case against the government of Mexico for violations of human rights. This judgment represents clear progress in the midst of so many legal reversals. AWID interviewed Andrea Medina Rosas from the Comité de América Latina y el Caribe para la Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujeres (CLADEM), which represented the cases before the Court.

AWID: What is the history of cases being brought to the (IACHR)?

Andrea Medina Rosas (A.M.R.): In 1993, civil society organizations and citizens in Ciudad Juárez began to keep a systematic record of the disappearances and homicides of women in the city, mainly through what was reported in the newspapers.
These centralized records included cases that had characteristics in common: the murders of young women, women workers or migrants, whose bodies, abandoned in unused areas outside the city, displayed evidence of violence, sexual torture and, in some cases, mutilation. Most had been reported missing and in most cases, the authorities had not opened an investigation. These records also included women who had experienced violence at home and were killed by partners or family members.

The situation in Ciudad Juárez was complex at that time; there was significant economic growth due to the maquilas in the city and, at the same time, ongoing social deterioration as the city's residents did not benefit from this growth. In this context of general inequality and violence in Ciudad Juárez, there were also extreme types of violence against women (VAW). The international community witnessed this combination of silence, local impunity and the inefficiency of the public policies implemented by the government in response to these crimes, denounced the situation and began to exert pressure through visits, the news and organizational reports.

On November 6 and 7, 2001, the bodies of eight women and girls, who had clearly been sexually tortured, were discovered in an old cotton field in the city. The discovery shocked the local and international community, which already had documentation of the impunity surrounding the disappearances and homicides of women.

In response to the international outcry in the media, the government responded rapidly but once again wrongly: on November 11, 2001, four days later, two men were charged for the homicide and rape of the eight women who had also been tortured. In February 2002, one of the defendants died in prison.

On March 6, 2002, the mothers of three of the women, with the help of individuals and organizations that belonged to the Red Ciudadana de No Violencia y por la Dignidad Humana, filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) requesting an investigation of the crimes.

It is unusual for a petition regarding violations of human rights to be filed so quickly, as the commission requires that domestic legal remedies first be exhausted; however, given the context of wide-spread impunity with regards to VAW that has existed in Ciudad Juárez since 1993 and the government's criminal response (torturing [the defendants] and losing vital information regarding the victims), they were able to file the petition with the IACHR in only four months.

AWID: How did the petition filed with the commission become a complaint against Mexico in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights?

A.M.R.: After the petition was filed, the IACHR did not issue any communications until February 24, 2005, when it declared the petitions admissible.

This communication included a request for more information about the cases so that an in-depth investigation could be conducted. For this process, other organizations became involved to represent the mothers at their request. The Centro para el Desarrollo Integral de la Mujer A.C. joined the Red Ciudadana de No Violencia y por la Dignidad Humana as representatives in the cases of two of the mothers. The Asociación Nacional de Abogados Democráticos A.C. and the Comité de América Latina y el Caribe para la Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer joined the case of the third mother.

For each case a legal brief was filed; for one case, the brief requested that the IACHR consider sua sponte the other five "Cotton Field" cases and investigate the cases as one case with eight victims. The commission did not respond positively to that request and in general maintained intermittent communications. The pressure by the government of Mexico against the cases contrasted with the actions of the commission through its rapporteur on women's rights. For example, in the area of investigation (in 2003 it published a special report on VAW in Ciudad Juárez) and the development of arguments regarding the right of women to live free from violence (in 2006 it published a report on access to justice for women living with violence).

Locally and nationally many things happened with regard to the cases. Final identification of the victims was not made until 2007. In October 2004, the other man charged at the beginning of the investigation was sentenced to 50 years in prison; however, in July 2005, the court of appeals acquitted him for lack of evidence. As a result, in 2006, the investigation to find the murderers of the eight women found in the cotton field was reopened, with no further progress. Also, in 2006, people who supported and represented the mothers began to experience intimidation in addition to the harassment and violence that the families of the victims were subject to.

At the beginning of 2007, the IACHR informed the mothers that it would consolidate the three cases into one, identified as the Cotton Field case, on the grounds that it was necessary to consolidate the cases as the crimes occurred in a context of impunity for violent acts that disproportionately affected women as a group, which had allowed these acts to continue, creating a pattern of conduct.

In July 2007, the government requested a hearing for a friendly settlement, but the mothers of the victims asked that the case be transferred to the IACHR since they sought justice, not monetary compensation. At the same time, the commission found that the government had not sufficiently advanced in complying with the recommendations made in the report on the case. As a result it sent the complaint to the Court. The Court issued its acceptance of the case on December 9, 2007.

AWID: Why is this decision important not just for Mexico but for the whole region?

A.M.R.: When the Assembly of American States approved the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women in 1994, it made this continent the first—and to this day, only—continent with a binding normative instrument on this form of violence that is based on gender discrimination against women. This has led to a rich and intense debate in the region about women's right to live free from violence, which was only identified as such in international law in 1992. However, legal interpretation (from the Court) was almost non-existent.

As a result, it is important not just for Mexico, but for the region, because it establishes the first basis for interpreting the right of women to live free from violence and the responsibilities of States to guarantee this right, which is essential for the work that is happening in each country.

It is also important because the cases are about a specific type of VAW, which has been documented and debated in the region using the concept of femicide. The facts marshaled by the Court for its argument, which the State must to respond to, are also important not just for Mexico and the inter-American region but for other regions in the world.

For Ciudad Juárez, the mothers of these victims and all the victims of femicide in the city, the Court's judgment against the State for the violation of women's human rights is significant. For 15 years, the State has denied that there is a problem. The recognition of the harm caused and the judgment that Mexico must implement measures to avoid these crimes from happening again is an opportunity to make this serious violation of human rights a learning moment and to more solidly construct the rights of women and of societies based on liberty and equality for women and men.

AWID: What is the status of femicide in Juárez and beyond?

A.M.R.: The situation in Ciudad Juárez has not only not improved, in many ways it has gotten worse. In the last two years, violence in general has been increasing and the city has been militarized, as have other areas of the country. The presence of the military and the war against organized crime has increased VAW, especially sexual violence and femicide. Once again we are finding the bodies of murdered women who seem to have been killed by organized crime, but that's not necessarily the case; however, based on this appearance the government is once again justifying its failure to investigate these crimes of VAW.

Another factor is that in Ciudad Juárez, in the last few years, there has been a growing campaign to discredit the mothers and civil society organizations that denounce VAW and support women's rights. The local media do not report on these crimes and instead publish editorial content and information that create a discourse around the "myth of femicide" as fantasies of mothers who are seeking money.

In addition, threats against human rights advocates have grown in the last two years, creating a climate that supports further impunity, now with an additional risk for human rights advocates. Women's organizations and academics continue to be the main sources of documentation for these types of cases. Most of them work on a volunteer basis and without any official support for access to information.

Also, the murder of women and gender discrimination is not separate from the context of the ongoing elimination of women's rights in Mexico and the region. It is central to the reversals of fundamental freedoms such as the right to voluntary motherhood, to a secular state and to sex education, which have created a social environment of polarization around women's rights and women themselves as rights holders.

AWID: In your opinion, why do these femicides continue and what should be done to stop them and bring these murderers to justice?

A.M.R.: Violence against women is defined as a form of violence that has an institutional basis and is linked to the historical inequality between women and men as well as the culture of discrimination against women. Although Mexico has signed international instruments that support these statements, it acts nationally and locally without reference to these criteria. Its actions do not address these institutional reasons and therefore cannot achieve substantive change in the situation of VAW.

Given the inefficiency of government actions, academia and civil organizations have begun to address the central issue which is that the State pretends to act, pretends to prevent and pretends to address VAW, but in reality its actions do not have continuity, and they are not directed at the people or strategic areas where change can occur. As a result, yes, they have created specialized prosecutors, commissions on investigation and services, they have met with all the specialized international rapporteurs for the issue, have created a budget item, but the truth is that 2009 ends with the highest number of murders of women in Ciudad Juárez and with the loss of women's fundamental rights.

AWID: What does this court decision mean in practice?

A.M.R.: The decision was published on Thursday, December 10, 2009, on International Human Rights Day in recognition of a slogan: "Women's rights are human rights."

The decision, which ends an eight year search for justice both locally and regionally, finds that Mexico is responsible for violations of the human rights of three women, including the violation of their right to and the guarantee of life, personal integrity and personal freedom, with aggravated violations in the cases of two women, who were minors. Mexico is also responsible for failure to comply with its obligations to legislate and act with due diligence to prevent, investigate and sanction violence against women.

It also recognizes Mexico's violation of the human rights of the families of the victims for failure to guarantee access to justice and legal protection and for failure to comply with its obligations to legislate and act with due diligence to prevent, investigate and sanction VAW. Additionally, it recognizes that the State is responsible for violating the right to personal integrity due to the suffering and harassment experienced by the victims' families.

The Court found that Mexico violated its obligation to non discrimination because it had a duty to guarantee the rights mentioned both for the murdered women and their families.

The decision, which is more than 150 pages long, includes important reflections on the right of women to a life free from violence that we will need to discuss in the coming months. It also established 15 remedies that the State must implement within one year for the Court to close the case. These remedies include measures for reparation and in remembrance of the victims, measures for reparation for the violations of the rights of their families, and measures to prevent discrimination and VAW with regard to the rights that were violated.

It is important to remember that the decision is a type of reparation in and of itself, because a decision from the inter-American justice system implies that the State has not provided adequate mechanisms for access to justice, and the judgment means that Mexico will need to do so not just for the specific cases investigated, but must ensure that these human rights violations are not repeated. However, as with all decisions, it will require vigilance and monitoring to insure compliance. As a result, follow up to its implementation in 2010 will be crucial in ensuring justice. To that end we hope to continue to count on the solidarity and attention of all, both in Mexico and internationally.