By Kent Paterson
Rosa Maria Gallegos had trouble telling her two grandsons about how their mother really died. In 1998 Gallegos’ 23-year-old daughter, Rocio Barraza Gallegos met a suitor while working in a Ciudad Juarez restaurant-bar. He was Pedro Alejandro Valles Chairez, a young officer with the old Chihuahua State Judicial Police (PJE) who was assigned to the special unit charged with investigating gender crimes. According to Gallegos, the married policeman projected a “possessive” character that turned Rocio off and had the young mother in fear for her life.
“She told me he wasn’t her type of man,” Gallegos recently recalled. “Besides in the physical sense, he was very bossy.”
On September 19, 1998, Rocio Barraza’s fears came to pass. At the State Police Academy in Ciudad Juarez, Rocio Barraza was found shot to death inside an official truck assigned to officer Valles. And so began Gallegos’ long and dangerous quest to bring a killer to justice. The bereaved mother quickly found out that Valles had protectors in high places, namely an uncle, PJE Commander Alejandro Castro Valles. Gallegos soon began receiving unwelcome visits from Castro’s men who warned her to back off from the case.
But the grandmother, who was now raising Rocio’s two young boys, did not cease and desist. Instead, she joined with mothers of other murdered and disappeared women, whose ranks were growing in the 1990s.
“They accepted me, so we could be one voice with force, demanding that they catch the killer of my daughter. I wasn’t alone, and we were many,” Gallegos said. “If (authorities) could not catch someone from the inside, much less could they catch the serial murderers who have no face…:”
Lo and behold, Gallegos tracked Pedro Valles to a U.S. prison, and demanded his extradition to face trial. By now an activist, Gallegos let state law enforcement authorities know she was prepared to take the issue to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Organization of American States court based in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Years of searching, investigating and pressuring finally bore fruit when former Chihuahua Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez had Pedro Valles returned to Mexico to face the legal music. According to Gallegos, her daughter’s murderer is now serving a 20-year sentence.
In a report, Mexico’s official National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) documented irregularities and violations of investigatory protocol in the law enforcement response to Rocio Barraza’s murder.
“It is noted that neither the institution of the district attorney nor the police have done the pertinent work linked to compliance with the judicial order,” the CNDH stated. The investigation, concluded the agency, violated three sections of the American Convention on Human Rights that oblige the State to “respect, recognize and protect the rights of persons under the law.”
The CNDH report cited Chihuahua state officials who blamed the murder on a deadly combination of alcohol, a heated argument and a firearm.
Rocio Barraza’s murder raised red flags about the PJE, the state law enforcement agency charged with investigating women’s murders. Pedro Valles’ uncle, PJE Commander Castro, later made headlines as the suspected murderer of Mario Escobedo, a young lawyer who represented one of two bus drivers initially accused in the slayings of eight young women who were found murdered in Ciudad Juarez cotton field in November 2001.
The bus drivers were tortured by PJE agents into making false confessions. One of the drivers, Gustavo Gonzalez, later died under suspicious circumstances in a Chihuahua City prison, while Gonzalez’s co-defendant, Victor Garcia, was absolved of wrong-doing after spending nearly four years behind bars.
Despite Commander Castro’s turbulent service, the Chihuahua policeman reemerged in 2003 as an official with the Federal Secretariat of Public Good, the anti-corruption agency directed by Francisco Molina Ruiz, a former Chihuahua state attorney general who also served as a drug czar in the administration of President Ernesto Zedillo.
At one point, Castro was reported working as an escort for President Vicente Fox. The controversial cop eventually met an untimely end, gunned down gangland-style in Chihuahua City in July 2010.
While Rosa Gallegos’ long fight netted some results, most of her friends and colleagues in the non-governmental group Mothers in Search of Justice are still waiting for the scales of justice to tip their way. For nearly two decades, they’ve petitioned, prayed, marched and cried out for justice. In their unwanted journey, the women have probed, pounded the pavement, coped with family crises, sparred with countless government officials, endured insults and mistreatment, and through it all comforted one another like others can’t understand.
In their office, stunning pictures of their daughters adorn the walls. Flowering in a moment of brief life on a troubled planet, they were girls and young women with proud smiles, big dreams and ambitious plans.
Amid great expectations, Ana Alarcon, mother of 16-year-old murder victim Esmeralda Juarez, watched her daughter’s case taken over by the federal attorney general’s office during the Fox administration only to have it returned to the state of Chihuahua. That was nearly a decade ago. Alarcon then got accustomed to a routine conversation when she visited state offices for any possible updates.
“(Law enforcement authorities) ask: ‘What do you have for us?’ It’s logical when I get mad and say, ‘No, I came to see what news you have for me, not the other way around,” Alarcon said.
Dr. Cynthia Bejarano, professor of criminal justice at New Mexico State University and the author of numerous writings on transnational gender violence, calls the Juarez activist mothers “witness survivors,” women who’ve stepped out of private life and their roles as housewives, cooks and factory workers to acquire a “collective identity.”
Their activism, Bejarano said in an interview, serves not only to publicize the disappearances and murders of women but creates personal healing, empowerment and the “transformation of justice.” A co-founder of the Las Cruces-based Amigos de las Mujeres, a non-profit group which supported the relatives of femicide victims during the last decade, Bejarano has personally witnessed the anguish, sorrow, anger, and stoic defiance of the mothers.
Are the experiences of the Juarez mothers with the justice system unique to Mexico or Third World nations? El Paso journalist and author Diana Washington Valdez, whose two books in Spanish and English probed the Juarez women’s murders, has also reported on cases from this side of the border that played out in a similar manner.
One such episode was the 1987 murders of six women in El Paso that were linked to a man now on Texas Death Row, David Leonard Wood. According to Washington, the El Paso convict is also suspected in the disappearance of three young females who have never been found, including 14-year-old Marjorie Knox of Chaparral, New Mexico, a low-income, rural community adjacent to El Paso.
Like the women who later protested their daughters’ disappearances and/or killings in the neighboring city of Juarez, victims’ mothers in the Sun City were put off by the official handling of the investigations. Initially, El Paso police treated the murders as individual slayings, even though the victims were all “petite, young girls” who lived “on the edge” and were killed in serial-like fashion in a murder spree that caused great fear in the U.S. border city, Washington said.
Similar to the early stereotyping of the Juarez victims as fast and loose individuals, some officials denigrated the El Paso victims, the award-winning author said. For instance, one detective was heard calling murder victims “white trailer trash,” Washington said.
Frustrated by what they considered official foot-dragging and negligence, victims’ mothers staged a 1987 demonstration at a border crossing, immediately gaining high visibility in a heavily-transited space where protest over women’s murders in Juarez were publicly aired the following decade.
“It’s very striking because we have American families, Anglo families, who had to organize a protest at one of the international bridges,” Washington added. “It took mothers conducting protests, and we’ve never seen that before.”
Currently, the web site of the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office has the names and/or photos of 106 girls and women reported missing in Ciudad Juarez since the mid-1990s, though other sources like the non-governmental Red Mesa de Mujeres de Ciudad Juarez report higher numbers. Since 1993, approximately 1,500 women and girls have been murdered for various reasons in Ciudad Juarez, according to different estimates. The killings encompass sexual assault, domestic violence, robberies and gangland disputes.
If any one case in Juarez encapsulates all the issues and themes that have surrounded the women’s murders, or femicides, it is certainly the so-called cotton field murders of November 2001, when the bodies of eight young women were discovered in a cotton patch across the street from the headquarters of the maquiladora industry trade association.
Dumped in a populated zone, the remains were also found close to a couple of subdivisions and near the home of Jaime Bermudez, a former Juarez mayor and the legendary founder of the maquiladora industry.
The seven victims who were eventually identified- all in their teens or early twenties- included maquiladora workers, computer and high school students and a young domestic worker who was preparing for her 15th birthday party and coming of age.
Washington and other scholars who’ve examined the murders suspected that a macabre message wrapped in sadistic sexual abuse was being sent by killers.
As the case unfolded, tortured suspects, the fabrication of scapegoats, the wrong identification of bodies, the mishandling of evidence and the harassment of government critics all came to light.
Among the victims, Maria de los Angeles Acosta was a 21-year-old computer school student and factory worker from the state of Zacatecas who moved to Juarez to get ahead in life only to have it cut short. Her sister, Gabriela Acosta, said she was delivered Maria’s remains in January 2005, nearly four years after the young woman disappeared and was found in the cotton field.
Subsequently extradited from the United States, Edgar Alvarez Cruz was sentenced to prison for one of the murders, the slaying of Mayra Juliana Reyes Solis. Alvarez’s conviction for one of the murders was as if the eight slayings were not connected and multiple killers coincidentally chose the same random place in a big sprawling city to dispose of their victims’ bodies.
The cotton field case, riddled with official irregularities and illegalities, also resulted in a landmark legal victory that produced Mexican justice system reforms while containing the seeds of a broader, global justice. The case entered the international legal arena when Irma Monreal, Benita Monarrez and Josefina Gonzalez, the mothers of three of the victims, filed suit against the Mexican government in the San Jose-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
In a historic 2009 ruling, the Inter-American Court determined that the Mexican State failed to not only protect women from violence but did not deliver justice to the victims and their survivors. The justices handed down a mandatory sentence that Mexico, as a member nation of the Inter-American Court, was required to follow.
Vicky Caraveo, a veteran women’s activist who served as the first director of the official Chihuahua Women’s Institute and now coordinates Mothers in Search of Justice, considers the sentence only partially completed, with the government complying with court orders like the construction of a public monument and the issuance of a public apology, but falling short in the crucial area of detaining and bringing the killers to justice.
In the view of gender violence expert Cynthia Bejarano, the Inter-American Court’s “scathing report” provided “some semblance of hope” for justice but was limited in its impact by the prevailing socio-cultural context.
“We’re still struggling with the same level of vulnerability for women and girls in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua and the Americas,” Bejarano said. “We’re still dealing with patriarchal structures and gender norms.” The ruling, coupled with the public pressure and activism that generated it represents “one incremental step in evoking that change, that long-standing transformational change that needs to happen,” she said.
Mothers in Search of Justice proposes to take their experiences directly to the schools in order to educate the new generation about the gender violence issue but has encountered official obstacles, said member Velia Tena. “We have this message, but unfortunately they have not permitted us, helped us in bringing this message to the girls,” Tena said.
Gallegos speaks to her grandsons about a mother who was snatched away from them. “I tell them about the happy moments that we lived together with her, how she was a happy person who loved them a lot,” Gallegos said. “I tell them beautiful things about her, so they don’t get their souls poisoned with a hatred for life.”
This is the second in a series of articles about border gender violence. Today’s feature was made possible in part by a grant from the New Mexico Humanities Council. Frontera NorteSur is on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.