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Justice expiring for Mexico’s murder victims

More than 400 women have been murdered in the past 14 years in Ciudad Juarez, many of the bodies dumped in the desert, horribly mutilated. Now the earliest of those cases are quietly slipping off legal dockets because Mexico, unlike the United States and many European countries, has a statute of limitations for murder.
This mural in El Paso, Texas, was painted in dedication to the unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.Hector Mata / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

For 13 years, June 14 has brought tears, tortured memories and enduring pain to Griselda Salas.

It was on that date, in 1993, that her 16-year-old sister, Guadalupe Ivonne Salas, disappeared. Guadalupe Ivonne's body turned up less than a week later in a park in this dusty, windswept industrial city near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Guadalupe Ivonne, who was raped and strangled, was one of the first victims in Mexico's grisliest modern-day crime mystery -- the murders of more than 400 women in the past 14 years in Ciudad Juarez, many of the bodies dumped in the desert, horribly mutilated. The killings, mostly of poor young factory workers, have inspired two Hollywood motion pictures and enraged human rights groups, which have filled volumes with accusations of corruption, botched investigations and official negligence.

Yet the mystery remains unsolved.

Now the earliest of those cases are quietly slipping off legal dockets because Mexico, unlike the United States and many European countries, has a statute of limitations for murder. At a time when U.S. prosecutors are resurrecting Civil Rights-era murder cases -- some more than 40 years old -- Mexico is closing murder cases forever after 14 years. With each passing day, it appears likely that a legal technicality may end a quest to unravel a string of slayings that shocked the world.

"It is totally and absolutely grotesque to think that murderers could be enjoying their freedom because of this law," said Jaime Garcia Chávez, a Chihuahua state legislator who is pressing to abolish Mexico's statute of limitations. "It is inexcusable."

'Worrying silence'
Once filled with optimism, buoyed by support from the likes of actresses Jane Fonda and Sally Field, feminists and lawmakers here are demoralized. Esther Chávez Cano, founder of Juarez's first rape and domestic violence counseling center, laments "a worrying silence" about cases that once commanded banner headlines. Few here are optimistic, even though the looming deadlines for dozens of Juarez cases have set off a last-minute race to revive long-dormant investigations.

An Argentine forensics team commissioned to look into the murders, drawing on experience from investigations of Argentina's "dirty war" and the Salvadoran civil war, is expected to release a damning report later this year that will illustrate the almost impossible task faced by prosecutors. The Argentines have found body parts carelessly left for years on the floors of medical examiner's offices, heads with no matching bodies, bodies with no matching heads and a mishmash of unlabeled corpses tossed into mass graves at paupers' cemeteries.

"It's basically a huge mess," forensic archaeologist Mercedes Doretti, the team leader, said in an interview.

Garcia Chávez's effort to give investigators more time to untangle that mess by extending the statute of limitations, a gambit he considers a long shot, has already come too late for Jesica Elizalde, a slain journalist whose murder case expired March 14. The case of a factory worker, Luz Yvonne de la O Garcia, went off the books April 21, as did the murder of an unidentified woman on May 12. Dozens more will follow in the coming months and years.

'Found a dead girl'
The next could be Guadalupe Ivonne Salas, though prosecutors say they may be closing in on a suspect -- a promise that her family is reluctant to believe after years of dashed hopes.

Salas, a petite 16-year-old, shared a single bed in a cinder-block shack with her infant daughter and her mother, Vicky Salas. The family, like thousands of others, was drawn to Ciudad Juarez by the maquiladoras -- assembly plants, most of them owned by U.S. companies -- that sprung up blocks from the border because of an abundance of cheap labor and that transformed the town into the fourth most populous city in Mexico.

Young women were especially prized by factory supervisors because they were considered more reliable and less rowdy than men. Almost overnight, women were making money while men were still struggling to find jobs, leading to resentment in the local macho culture that activists cite as a social undercurrent to the slayings.

Salas walked each day down a treeless dirt road, past piles of rotting garbage and shacks with sagging walls, to catch a bus that took her to a television parts manufacturer. She made about $35 a week, sometimes pulling night shifts and returning home to a neighborhood with no streetlights.

The day that she disappeared should have been joyous; she was getting ready to celebrate her daughter's first birthday. Griselda Salas remembers her sister saying that a friend was going to lend her money to buy presents and party supplies.

"She's probably gone off with some stud," Griselda Salas remembers being told by police when her sister did not return home. "You watch, she'll come back pregnant with a fat belly in a few months."

Vicky Salas was on a religious retreat at the time of her daughter's disappearance. When she returned several days later, members of her church were in tears.

"They've found a dead girl," she remembers her friends telling her. "They think it's Ivonne."

A car accident delayed Vicky Salas's trip to the morgue, which was closed when she arrived. An unsmiling police officer told her, "You'll have to come back tomorrow," and no amount of pleading by a panic-stricken mother could change his mind, she recalled.

'Sexism and classism'
Even as the death toll rose, victims' families continued to complain about insensitive investigators. One state attorney general suggested that the women encouraged their attackers by dressing provocatively. Other officials implied that the victims were prostitutes, living "double lives," though their mothers insisted they were poor factory workers.

"They called them the morenitas," Juarez police criminologist Oscar Maynez said in an interview, invoking a derogative term that was in vogue at the time and roughly translates to "little brown ones." "No one cared about investigating their deaths. There was clear sexism and classism."

Mexican federal authorities and international human rights organizations that have investigated the cases have accused local authorities in Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua of covering up evidence and failing to properly investigate crimes for a decade and a half.

The Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, a Washington-based human rights organization, has said the true killers may have been protected by authorities who tortured innocents to confess to the killings. Victims' families have been subjected to harassment.

"One relative of a murder victim received a threatening voicemail message warning her to drop the case; the caller ID showed the call had come from the state judicial police," a WOLA report said.

Flor Rocío Munguía González, the special prosecutor for what has become known as the femicides in Juarez, said in an interview that such offenses are "things of the past" and that she has more than tripled her investigative staff to solve old cases before the time limits expire and to track down those responsible for the ongoing killings of women in Juarez.

"I take great satisfaction in our efforts -- we're doing everything we can," said Munguía González, who has been in office since February 2006.

After seeing eight special prosecutors come and go with no results, local activists are not impressed. Maureen Meyer, a WOLA analyst, said that a special federal investigator had found that 130 public officials had either been negligent or abused their authority during the murder investigations, but none has been disciplined.

"There's a real failure to hold them accountable," Meyer said in an interview.

Powerful network protecting killers?
Maynez, the criminologist, said he believes a powerful network of police, municipal officials and organized crime figures still protects the killers. He resigned from the job for a short time, after being asked to help frame two bus drivers in one of the cases. He refused, but the two men were arrested anyway. One died in suspicious circumstances during a jailhouse surgery. The other was released after testifying that he had been tortured by police into confessing.

An attorney for the bus drivers was killed by Chihuahua state police in a drive-by shooting in 2005, four days after vowing to file a corruption complaint. The police said the shooting was a case of mistaken identity.

Skepticism is growing as the Argentine forensics team nears the conclusion of its inquiry. The team has discovered that forensics officials in Ciudad Juarez boiled the corpses of some victims, destroying crucial DNA. The group also has found that the families of at least three victims received the wrong bodies for burial.

"The authorities just sealed the coffins and told the families not to ask any questions," said Doretti, the lead forensics investigator.

The Juarez families, Doretti said, have insisted that no evidence be sent to Mexican laboratories. Instead, Doretti has sent samples to a U.S. lab; she is expecting results soon.

'Can't do it anymore'
The new forensic evidence and the approach of the statute of limitations deadlines are the sorts of developments that once would have prompted demonstrations in downtown Juarez. But the mothers who for years have pleaded for justice are exhausted, aging and in poor health.

The case of Silvia Morales, who was killed when she was 16, will expire in less than two years. Her mother, Ramona Morales, had been one of the most vocal critics in a protest movement of victim relatives, but is now suffering from diabetes and a bad knee.

"I can't do it anymore," she said one recent afternoon, tears trickling down her face.

Eva Arce, whose daughter Silvia Arce disappeared in 1998, was twice beaten by thugs after demonstrations demanding justice. She spends her days clipping newspaper articles about a new generation of murdered women in Juarez and writing poems.

"A tortured soul pours from a river of blood," she said one recent afternoon, reading from her notebook.

That same day, the newspaper El Norte of Ciudad Juarez carried a photograph of a pretty, dark-haired young woman. She didn't look so different from Silvia Arce or Silvia Morales or Guadalupe Ivonne Salas. The caption read: "Edith Aranda Longoria, 729 days since she was last seen."