May 22, 2009

Femicide in Baja California

Frontera NorteSur

One day in May, passerby spot a woman’s body in an irrigation ditch next to a wheat field on the outskirts of Mexicali, Baja California. Though no one seems to know the identity of the murdered woman, the half-clothed victim is quickly assumed to a prostitute because of the manner of her dress.

Estimated to be in her thirties, the still-unidentified woman was the fourth female victim found murdered and dumped in a Mexicali-area irrigation canal since 2008. All four victims were strangled to death; no suspects are in custody for any of the crimes.

In Mexicali and other parts of Baja California, women’s murders tend to get “buried” in the avalanche of news about violent crime, which includes hundreds of slayings, numerous kidnappings and street-side shoot outs since last year alone. While femicides in Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua garnered international headlines in recent years, little international attention was paid to women’s murders in Baja California.

A report issued earlier this year by the femicide commission of the lower house of the Mexican Congress, found 105 women were murdered in Baja California during 2006-2007. Using official numbers, more women were murdered in Baja California than in Chihuahua (84 female murder victims) during the same comparable period.

In 2006-07 Baja California ranked eighth place nationally for women’s homicides, falling slightly behind Mexican states with much larger populations including Jalisco, Veracruz and Puebla, according to the Mexican Congressional report.

Baja California shares many socio-economic characteristics with Chihuahua, another northern Mexican border state. Displaying contrasts of wealth and poverty, both states suffer endemic violence connected to organized crime, grapple with corrupt law enforcement institutions and constantly receive new migrants. Foreign-owned, low-wage assembly plants mark the landscapes of both border states.

Like Chihuahua, Baja California is an important smuggling corridor for illegal drugs sold in the United States, as well as an important consumer in its own right.

Occasionally, women’s murders grab more press attention than usual.

Perhaps the best recent example involved the gangland-style slayings of two US residents, 19-year-old Briana Hernandez and 20-year-old Carmen Jimena Ramos, whose tortured and strangled bodies were recovered together with two young male victims inside a van in Tijuana on May 9 of this year.

Media reports speculated that the young women were with the wrong people at the wrong place and the wrong time. Traces of cocaine were reportedly found in Hernandez’s body.

Ramos’ father, Chula Vista resident Rogelio Ramos Camano, described his daughter as a happy young woman “with a desire to explore the world.” The young murder victim worked at an amusement park and had dreams of becoming a hair stylist, Rogelio Ramos told the Associated Press.

Another recent murder story that got extra press coverage involved three young women who went missing in Mexicali in August, 2008. The Baja California Justice Ministry revealed this month that sisters Nataly Medrano, 17, and her older sister Ivon Denisse Medrano, 20, were murdered in Tijuana along with their friend Laura Gabriela Mejia.

The Medrano sisters were waitresses at Mexicali’s La Taberna strip club, while Mejia worked as a hair stylist.

According to official versions cited in the press, the three victims left La Taberna with clients and traveled to a Tijuana nightclub located in a section of the city known as Plaza Zapato. For still publicly unknown reasons, the three women were later killed at a Tijuana safehouse and their bodies dissolved in an acid or chemical bath.

The perpetrators of the triple homicide were allegedly connected to a faction of the Arellano-Felix drug cartel led by “El Ingeniero.” Two suspects linked to the Arellano Felix organization, Ernesto Antonio Grajeda Mendoza and Fidel Abraham Barajas Sanchez, were later picked up by the Mexican army on other charges but connected to the triple slaying. A third man, Javier “El Javo” Hernandez Olguin, is also wanted for the multiple slaying.

An unidentified uncle of the Medrano sisters was quoted in the local press after news of his nieces’ deaths was made public.

“It has been terrible to live with this uncertainty,” he said. “They advised us one month ago what happened to the girls and now it remains for the rest of the family to be notified, including their sick mother and their grandmother, who saw them grow up.”

The Medrano sisters reportedly made good tips at La Taberna, a place which is well-publicized on the Internet.

La Taberna had been in the news more than once during the last few years.

In 2008 Mexicali’s fire department cited the club for safety violations, including having closed exits. A year earlier, six men and a woman were detained by Baja California and federal law enforcement authorities for staging kidnappings of individuals allegedly involved in illegal activities, including the owners of La Taberna. In 2005, Baja California state policeman Alfredo Javier Rivera Avilez was accused of killing Jesus Javier Garcia Silvestre in La Taberna’s parking lot.

A sampling of other press stories suggests different motives for women’s murders in Baja California. Sex-related crimes, narco-executions, possible robberies, revenge, and domestic aggressions all figure in the grim equation. For example, the mutilated body of a woman was found stuffed inside a Volkswagen Beetle parked one block from the Tijuana police station this month. Left next to the body was a message that read “thief.”

A similar message had been placed at the scene of three previous murders in Tijuana.

On Mother’s Day 2009, 20-year-old Telma Denise Alvarado Torres of Tijuana was killed by a machete blow allegedly delivered by her husband, Jaime Martinez Lopez, who was then reported a fugitive. A reportedly jealous Tijuana husband, Ricardo Lopez Orozco, was earlier detained and charged with the May 1 murder of his wife, 32-year-old Estrella Osuna Cardenas.

In recent years, extreme violence has appeared in areas of Baja California once considered peaceful. In June 2007, Guada-lupe Fuentes Garcia was found murdered in her Tecate-area rural home. Next to the body of the 34-year-old woman was the corpse of her three-year-old son, Juan Fuentes, who had been strangled.

Most recently, on the afternoon of Sunday, May 17, local police responded to a call to Mexicali’s Oasis Hotel and found an older woman and a purported sex industry worker, Esperanza Valenzuela Perez, beaten and strangled to death. Police quickly arrested Ismael Avalos Ortiz for the crime. Avalos was variously identified as a former soldier and laborer from the state of Veracruz.

Speculation ran that Avalos could be connected to other women’s murders, but the suspect claimed Valenzuela was “almost my wife’ and “didn’t show me respect.” Local media mentioned Valenzuela as the seventh sex industry worker reported murdered in Mexicali in less than 9 months, and the 12th woman murdered in the city during 2009 so far.

Most local reporting on women’s murders in Baja California could be classified as falling within the school of sensationalistic crime reporting, with very little follow-up investigation or analysis of the deeper causes of violence against women.

An unscientific, online-poll conducted May 18 by the Baja California Internet news site asked readers to select from several possible explanations of the murders of sex workers. Of 1092 responses, 81 percent selected two answers that explained the murders in terms of the wo-men’s lifestyles. Slightly more than 9 percent of responses picked a serial killer as a possible reason, while a small minority—just above three percent— considered lack of law enforcement or public security as reasons for the homicides.

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