March 5, 2004

Mexico’s Forgotten Disappeared: The Victims of the Border Narco Bloodbath

By Mark Getty

(Note: This is a two-part feature article that has a gruesome title but with 16,000 killings alone in Sinaloa over the past two decades and thousands more in other states that are joined by the border dynamic of supplying illegal drugs to the US at any human cost, the notion of a bloodbath is not an exaggeration.

Reading about this type of violence is never pleasant but perhaps increased awareness of the conflation of drug, political and gender crimes in Mexico can help lead to the reform and police cleanups that Mexico’s attorney general and president have themselves stated to be of the highest importance for the nation.

Greg Bloom, Editor, Frontera NorteSur)

Ciudad Juárez’s endemic violence generated new world headlines in late January 2004 when federal Mexican police recovered the bodies of 12 tortured and murdered men from a “narco grave”. In a stunning declaration, Santiago Vasconcelos, the head of the federal anti-organized crime unit known as SIEDO announced that members of the Chihuahua State Judicial Police (PJE) had carried out the forced disappearances and executions of the victims at the behest of the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel.

Calling the revelations “extremely serious”, Vasconcelos pledged to combat drug-related police corruption. Thirteen PJE agents were arrested, four more are wanted (including a regional PJE commander) and ten city police officers have not reported to work since the day excavations began in search of bodies. Other unit commanders have also resigned rather than face investigations by Internal Affairs.

José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, Subprocurador de Investigación Especializada en Delincuencia Organizada. Foto: Luis Castillo

Not lost on anyone in Cd. Juárez is the fact that the PJE is the same police agency charged with investigating murders and kidnappings throughout the state as well as the sex-related serial slayings of young women in that city.

Unearthed Bodies: Solace for Some, More Agonizing Questions for Others.

Located in the backyard of a home in a normally quiet residential subdivision, the macabre unearthing of the clandestine cemetery drew dozens of anguished people from as far away as Torreón, Coahuila. These people were searching for loved ones who had earlier vanished into the cracks of the border city’s streets.

In Cd. Juárez, many still wonder what really happened to their missing relatives. Just ask Professor Ernesto Ontiveros, who still holds out hope his son will turn up alive. Abducted in 1996 in Cd. Juárez, Victor Hugo Ontiveros was a former Mexican Army lieutenant who was working as a firearms instructor for the PJE when he was stopped by several carloads of gun-toting men and whisked away into the darkness. He has not been seen since then.

On the US-Mexico border, where powerful drug cartels hold sway. During the last 10 years, hundreds of people from Tijuana to Matamoros have been forcibly carted off by heavily armed men sometimes sporting police insignias and uniforms. They are the victims of a style of violence known in border lingo as the “levantón,” which could be literally translated as the “lift” or “pickup.” Occasionally the “levantados” turn up murdered baring signs of torture but frequently they are transformed into memories of agony for distraught relatives.

The International Association of Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons.

El Paso accountant Jaime Hervella, whose godson Saul Sanchez Jr. disappeared in 1994, helped found the International Association of Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons (AFAPD) in 1997, a group which attracted Ontiveros and others to its ranks. The binational organization has lobbied Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials, passed out leaflets at the El Paso airport and international bridges and conducted vigils in an effort to keep the memory of the disappeared alive. While AFAPD members concede that many of the disappeared on AFAPD’s list were probably involved in criminal enterprises, they insist that others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or knew too much about organized crime. Hervella is quick to add that everyone has a human right not to be subjected to forced disappearance.

AFAPD maintains a list of 196 disappeared persons, mostly men but a few women too, who disappeared into the lethal fissures of Cd. Juárez. According to Hervella, the FBI has identified 32 of the victims as being U.S. citizens. AFAPD members say that the actual number of disappeared in Cd. Juárez is higher but many people are frightened to report cases to the authorities. Estimates of Cd. Juárez’s disappeared surpass 700 individuals if both men and women are counted. One group of the disappeared includes 12 men and women who are still missing in Chihuahua state from the so-called Dirty War of the 1970s, when the Mexican government employed brute force to stamp out both armed and peaceful opposition.

Not mincing his words, Hervella vents frustration at the lack of media cooperation in Cd. Juárez in publicizing the cases of disappeared men, and expresses irritation at what he describes as an exclusive national and international focus on the cases of young women and girls who have been victims of sex crimes. “What the hell are you telling me, human rights have an age, a sex?” questions Hervella.

Murder’s History

Hervella and Ontiveros trace the upsurge in border disappearances to 1993, the first year of the administration of Chihuahua Governor Francisco Barrio. Incidentally, 1993 is the also the first year that the mass rape-serial murders of young women in Cd. Juárez became widely publicized. But Judith Galarza, a former Cd. Juárez resident and current director of the Venezula-based Latin American Federation of Relatives Associations of Disappeared Persons (FEDAFEM), reports similar sex-related killings in the border city occurring in earlier years.

In any event, 1993 was a milestone year, which featured Amado Carrillo Fuentes taking over the reigns of power in the Cd. Juárez drug organization after eliminating its former boss, Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, and setting off the city’s worst and ongoing bout of criminal violence. Soon victims were being gunned down in restaurants and bars and disappeared from public streets, private businesses and homes.

Narco-slayings dipped briefly in 1999 (the same year women’s serial murders reportedly declined) after a new governor, Patricio Martínez, took office. However the number of killings climbed again in 2000 (as did women’s murders and disappearances) to reach record levels by 2001. In that year a new PJE squad, Grupo Zeus, was created to ostensibly investigate killings and disappearances by organized crime. Also after 2000, the murder of men as well as the serial killing of young women and girls spread from Cd. Juárez to other parts of Chihuahua.

A Border-wide Bloodbath

Along the border, violence is damaging communities as crime-syndicate purges and gangland retaliations swirl around a multi-billion dollar per year drug business.

Alma Díaz, the coordinator in Calexico and Mexicali for the three-year-old, non-governmental Esperanza Association, has knocked on many doors to learn the fate of her son Erick Díaz. Then 20-years old, Erick Díaz vanished from Mexicali on June 7, 1995 after leaving a party attended by policemen. The young man left behind two children, a girl and a boy, now 11 and 9 years old, who wonder what happened to their dad. “It’s very sad when they ask,” offers Díaz.

Díaz’s journey mirrors those of people with a similar predicament in Cd. Juárez. Criticizing a lack of official interest, Díaz says that family members have become investigators themselves while being forced to cope with children left behind by a vanished parent or parents.

The Cold, Hard Numbers: 16,000 in Sinaloa alone over Two Decades.

To roughly gauge the scope of narco-violence in the border region, it is perhaps useful to compare the killing with armed conflicts in other parts of the world. In Chiapas, about 150 people died during the 1994 Zapatista uprising. More than 600 U.S. soldiers have died so far in Iraq and Afghanistan. From 1969 to 2003, approximately 3,348 died in Northern Ireland’s political troubles.

In contrast, 790 murders-many of them drug-related-were reported in Tijuana from 2000-2002; official Chihuahua state government figures reported in the Cd. Juárez’s El Diario newspaper registered a total of about 343 narco-murders in Cd. Juárez from 1995 to the end of 2003. In Sinaloa state, the birthplace of important border cartels, the press has reported close to 16,000 murders from 1980 to July 2002. During the first three weeks of 2004 alone, 45 murders were registered in the conflictive state, a place where rival bands of gunmen kill for control of the drug-producing Sierra.

Analysts who 10 years ago once warned about the “Colombianization” of Mexico now appear to have been not far off the mark


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