October 10, 2003

From North to South: A Trail Blazed in Femicide and Impunity

(Editors Note: In previous articles, as part of its commitment to cover developments in the Ciudad Juárez serial-killings, Frontera NorteSur has explored the spread of the Juárez-style, rape serial murders to Chihuahua City and Tamaulipas. Now, similar crimes have been taking place in the southern tourist getaway of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo. A common thread between many of the murder victims is an association with one of two chains of computer schools with branches across Mexico. This feature article examines femicides and impunity across Mexico, possible modus operandi in the killings, and the prospect of resolving and ending these crimes.)

Found raped and murdered on a Nuevo Laredo street in early January 2003, Olga Lidia Osorio died before she could realize her dreams of moving up in the world. The brutal killing of the 16-year-old computer school student jolted the Tamaulipas border city and moved its citizens to demand justice in the case.

Members of Nuevo Laredo’s city council and the state ministerial police, the law enforcement agency charged with investigating homicides, soon announced that leads would result in the arrests of suspects. A bereaved Pedro Osorio, Olga Lidia’s father, expressed confidence that authorities would apprehend whoever was responsible for his daughter’s killing.

Months later, and following several changes of lead investigative personnel in the case, Olga Lidia’s killer or killers remain free and questions remain unanswered about a crime that bore chilling similarities to the rape serial murders that have terrorized Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City.

Like many victims from Chihuahua state, Olga Lidia was enrolled at a private computer school and would visit one of the many cyber-cafes that dot Mexico. The teenager attended the Nuevo Laredo branch of Grupo Premier, a San Luis Potosi-based institution with branches in several Mexican states, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the national ECCO computer school chain operated by Grupo Pionero.

Since 1995, at least 15 young women linked to computer schools in the state of Chihuahua and Nuevo Laredo have disappeared or been discovered raped and murdered, with 14 of those cases occurring since late 2000.

Reportedly, 11 of the Cd. Juarez and Chihuahua City victims had some sort of contact with ECCO branches. Some were ECCO students, at least one was an employee of the computer chain and others were contacted by recruiters just days before they disappeared.

In Nuevo Laredo.

A southern connection?

In the summer of 2001, two men claiming to work for Grupo Premier, Ruben Ponce and Hector Manuel Gonzalez, were involved in a strange affair that scandalized the tourist port of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, in southern Mexico. In this instance, a group of three young women and a young man from a town in Jalisco state hit hard by ma-quiladora lay-offs accused Ponce and Gonzalez of deceiving them to travel to Zihuatanejo to work as recruiters at a computer school.

After turning over original identity documents to Gonzalez and Ponce, the youths claimed they were put through a three-day training course in Zihuatanejo that emphasized self-esteem and salesmanship. Within days, the youths, including one 15-year-old girl, claimed that lofty promises of salaries and housing were grossly violated. Instead of finding decent lodging, the Jalisco group charged that they were crammed into an unsanitary house with no food and forced to sleep on the floor along with approximately twelve other young people. According to their testimonies, none of the previously-arrived girls appeared to be actively working for the computer school and situations of drugs and prostitution appeared to be present.

Shortly after their arrival, some of the Jalisco girls were invited aboard a yacht in Zihuatanejo Bay by another supposed employee of the computer school. Onboard they were sexually propositioned aboard the vessel by a man that they thought to be from “North America,” meaning a US citizen or Canadian.

Fleeing the house, the penniless youths contacted local authorities. A complaint was filed with the state’s attorney general’s office in Zihuatanejo against Ponce and Gonzalez.

However, a brief investigation by the Guerrero State Judicial Police determined that no laws had been broken and the case was closed on September 3, 2001. Both Ponce and Gonzalez denied any wrongdoing, and Ponce put his name on a document agreeing to pay transportation costs home for the four young people.

Although no direct link has been revealed with Zihua-tanejo’s computer schools, a spate of women’s murders in 2002 and early 2003 in the tourist port recalled episodes in northern Mexico. In different instances, police recovered the bodies of 6 women who had been stabbed, raped and left for dead in isolated spots along beach and scenic routes or near the downtown club district.

Three of the victims were not initially identified, and local authorities suspect the women were from out of town. The former state prosecutor in Zihuatanejo, Alberto Ortiz, dismissed the possibility that serial killings had moved south from the border, but only one arrest has been reported in the murder cases. Mayor Amador Campos, Zihuatanejo’s first elected opposition mayor, does not discount that the bodies might have been planted in an attempt to destabilize his new administration.

Long basking in its reputation as a tranquil getaway Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo has suffered mounting violence in recent years. Straddling strategic coastal and land routes, the tourist resort has become a major smuggling pathway for both South American cocaine and locally-produced opium and marijuana.

Tamaulipas Fears

In Tamaulipas, Olga Lidia Osorio’s killing openly sparked speculation that Cd. Juarez-style sex killings had come to haunt that side of the border. The fears were reinforced two months later when the raped and strangled body of 19-year-old gym employee Wendy Rodriguez was found outside her place of work in Reynosa, a city immediately across the border from McAllen, Texas. Like many victims from Chihuahua state, Osorio and Rodriguez either disappeared or were found on a Tuesday, a day that has a strange connection to numerous Juarez killings, according to journalist Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, the author of Huesos en El Desierto (Bones in the Desert) a book about the killings.

Serial-like women’s murders actually might have commenced in Tamaulipas in 1999 with the rape and murder of prostitutes working Nuevo Laredo’s zone of tolerance (a red light district). The following year, in Reynosa, three men, including Jose Antonio Gonzalez Torres, a reputed former maquiladora security guard, were arrested for drugging, raping and killing four women all of whom were between 19 and 21 years old.

The victims bodies were burned, a trait present in some of the Juarez cases. According to the Tamaulipas attorney general’s office, two of the suspects in the Reynosa case were known to have visited Bagdad Beach (Playa Bag-dad) near Matamoros, the place where children’s television hostess and sex-murder victim Erika Daysi Martinez’s body was found in October 2002 shortly after she disappeared.

A recent compilation of press reports by the Reynosa-based non-governmental Center for Border Studies and the Promotion of Human Rights (CEFRODHAC) reported at least 126 murders of women in 10 Tamaulipas municipalities during the last 5 years. Many of the killings were “characteristic of what has happened in Ciudad Juarez,” says CEFRODHAC President Arturo Solis. According to the report, detentions were made in only 60 murder cases, leaving more than 50 percent of them unsolved. Since influential people could be involved in the murders, Solis calls for genuine police investigations to “get to the bottom” of the cases.

Murdered at the beginning of 2003, Olga Lidia Osorio could have been the proverbial canary in the coal mine. While no direct link has yet been established with other killings, the young woman’s murder set the tone for one of bloodiest years in Nuevo Laredo’s history as rival mafias turned the city’s streets into an open battlefield in their war for control of the rights to the lucrative drug-smuggling routes or “plaza.”

In another development, the presence of Central American gangs tied to drug and human trafficking has been recently reported in Nuevo Laredo. Known as “maras,” the gangs were spawned in the barrios of Los Angeles from the massive refugee flight which accompanied the Central American wars of the 1970s and 80s. Later, gang members returned to their devastated homelands.

Today, maras are blamed for scores of gruesome women’s killings in Guatemala and El Salvador over the past few years that rival those of Cd. Juarez and Chihuahua City, repleted with raped and dismembered victims. Now, the gangs are establishing a foothold in Mexico.

Meanwhile, a bloody trans-national highway strewn with the snuffed-out lives of raped young women now runs parallel to the major drug and immigrant smuggling routes that pass through Central America, cross into southern Mexico and then touch the U.S.-Mexico border. In virtually all the cases, the victims have been the dispossessed of the region, young women crowded into poor barrios or forced to travel north in order to eke out a living.

A murder on the U.S. side too

Finally, the March 2003 discovery of a murdered young woman in Laredo, Texas—just across the border from Nuevo Laredo—raised questions of possible links to international organized crime.

Found completely nude and in a state of decomposition, 21-year-old Esmeralda Gutierrez’s body was recovered from an empty lot not far from the Laredo County Club and Golf Course. The young woman had received a blow to the head and had been strangled. Martin Guerra, a homicide investigator with the Laredo Police Department, says Gutierrez had been killed elsewhere and then dumped in the lot, the modus operandi of women’s killings in Northern Mexico.

According to the detective, the victim had a history of drug abuse and had been arrested in January 2003 by the United States Border Patrol for smuggling undocumented immigrants, an activity that is increasingly controlled by organized crime in Mexico and other countries. Due to the condition of Gutierrez’s body, Guerra states that investigators were unable to determine whether she had been sexually assaulted, “We can’t say no, but we can’t say yes.” Guerra adds that no suspects are in custody. This leaves Esmeralda Gutierrez’s death—like Olga Lidia Osorio’s—as another one of many unpunished crimes on a long, bloody trail of femicide and impunity that extends back over a decade.

Frontera NorteSur: on-line news coverage of the US-Mexico border http://frontera.nmsu.edu. FNS is an outreach program of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico. Greg Bloom, Editor.

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