One Woman’s Fight against Femicide Crosses Borders

April 23, 2014

Laura Aragon Castro has broad perspectives on the struggle for gender justice. Inside and outside of government and across multiple borders, Aragon has waged a long fight from different trenches for women’s access to justice and a life free of violence.

Growing up in the state of Chihuahua in the 1990s, the young Mexican woman became aware of the serial murders of women in the state’s big border city of Ciudad Juarez. Later, while studying in France, she learned about similar killings in her hometown of Chihuahua City.

Although the femicide issue never went away, it faded from the spotlight in recent years, Aragon told FNS.  “This isn’t getting the attention like it did before, despite the increase in women’s murders. The issue is getting minimized,” Aragon said in a phone interview.

Currently based in Washington, D.C., Aragon said even professional colleagues and U.S. officials are surprised to hear about the continuity in women’s disappearances and murders, which reached 520 killings in Chihuahua during 2010 alone, according to statistics compiled by the activist.

Although the Mexican authorities blame many of the murders on drug-related violence, the  truth is difficult to ascertain because of the lack of investigations, Aragon said.  A sharp increase in women’s murders and disappearances coincided with the introduction of large groups of armed men, both from government security forces and organized criminal groups, after narco-violence exploded in 2008, the women’s advocate said.

“There is a correlation between the armed masculine presence and the murders of women,” Aragon added. “According to the statistics, this increased the vulnerability of women.”

Now the director of the non-governmental organization Mukira, Aragon visited the New Mexico State University campus in Las Cruces this week to speak to students about femicides, gender violence and human rights in Mexico during the period from 1993 to 2014.

In her varied career, Aragon has worked as a professor for Mexico’s prestigious Tec de Monterrey university, consulted for the country’s Federal Electoral Institute and served as a deputy director of public policy and women’s human rights in the Interior Ministry during the Calderon administration from 2009 to 2012.

The Notre Dame graduate won first place in a 2012 essay contest sponsored by the Mexican Supreme Court and United Nations for her writing on gender and access to the criminal justice system.

Aragon is also a co-founder of Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for Our Daughters), the Chihuahua City-based non-governmental organization that struggles for justice in the cases of murdered and disappeared women, as well as a former international coordinator for Guerrero state’s Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountain.

In 2003, while on a fellowship with the office of Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva,  Aragon represented Grivalja on the U.S. Congressional delegation that visited Ciudad Juarez in the run-up to the House resolution that condemned the women’s murders in the border city.

An expert in international human rights law, Aragon was asked her assessment of the Mexican government’s compliance with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ 2009 Campo Algodonero (Cotton Field) sentence against the Mexican state.

Laying out numerous orders for reform, the mandatory sentence was delivered in a case brought to the Costa Rica-based court by the mothers of three murder victims who were found alongside the remains of five other murdered women in a Ciudad Juarez cotton field back in November 2001.

Mexican legal analysts and women’s advocates widely consider the case a litmus test of the Mexican government’s commitment to ending impunity, eradicating violence against women and instituting gender perspectives in the justice system.

In Aragon’s view, the Mexican state complied with the Inter-American Court’s order to pay out reparations to family members, but stumbled in implementing other key aspects of the sentence including arresting and punishing the killers, sanctioning justice officials responsible for botching the murder investigation and enacting a rapid alert system for disappeared women.

Some of the officials responsible for irregularities in the Campo Algodonero case, such as confusing the remains of victims (a legal violation) still work for the state prosecutor’s office, Aragon said.

“How is it possible that the functionaries, the officials, who delivered the wrong remains don’t receive any consequences?” she questioned.

Aragon contended that the weaknesses and irregularities in the Campo Algodonero investigation have cropped up again in a newer case: the Navajo Arroyo episode in which the State of Chihuahua is prosecuting 13 individuals on human trafficking and homicide charges connected to the discovery of 11 murdered girls and women in the rural Juarez Valley in 2011 and 2012.  The Navajo Arroyo victims had previously disappeared from the city in a manner similar to the Campo Algodonero victims a decade earlier.

Harkening back to the cobwebs of the judicial past, the Navajo Arroyo prosecution has so far relied on confessions rather than on a “scientific investigation” with evidence like DNA matches, Aragon stressed. And echoes of the Campo Algodonero,  the family of 15-year-old Navajo Arroyo victim Jessica Leticia Pena Garcia, was initially delivered the wrong remains in an act that constituted a “double victimization,” the international activist added.

In her interview with FNS, Aragon spoke at some length about the impacts of the drug war on women and society as a whole in the Americas.  For instance, the Merida Initiative favored bilateral security cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico but downplayed improvement on the gender justice front, she argued.

“We haven’t seen results on human rights or on the issue of women from the Merida Initiative,” Aragon insisted.

While the U.S.-Mexico strategy has detained or physically taken out drug lords like Chapo Guzman and Nazario Moreno, it hasn’t brought about a larger benefit to society or significantly curbed the flow of drugs into the U.S., she said.

On a hemispheric level, the number of women imprisoned in Latin America for drug crimes increased more than 300 percent from 2003 to 2013, the policy analyst added.

On the other hand, Aragon observed, Latin America is reexamining the drug war, evidenced by the first-ever hearing on the matter conducted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last month, as well as the discussion on marijuana legalization within the Organization of American States that was prompted by Uruguay’s legalization of the substance.

“For the first time, international organisms are questioning drug policy and proposing alternatives,” Aragon said.

In 2011 Aragon launched Mukira, which means “woman” in the indigenous Raramuri language of Chihuahua.  Operating from Washington, Chihuahua and Mexico City,  Mukira’s mission is to improve access to justice for women and girls, according to its founder.

In a recent case that became a cause célèbre in Mexico, Mukira joined in the campaign to free Yukiri Rubio, a 20-year-old woman from Mexico City who was arrested in December 2013 after she killed one of two men whom Rubio accused of kidnapping and raping her. Activating an international network via social media, Mukira helped collect more than 65,000 signatures on an Internet petition demanding Rubio’s freedom. Last month, the Mexico City resident was released on bail to await trial, Aragon said.

On an ongoing basis, Mukira teaches youth in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua to challenge gender stereotypes “so young people can reverse them and have equal relationships,” Aragon explained.

For its comprehensive work, Mukira was honored with the UNESCO Label, an award given to a handful of youth-impact projects internationally. Yet another current Murkira project involves mapping women’s murders to identify high risk zones for human trafficking and murder in Mexico.

Queried about the next necessary steps to combat gender violence, Aragon maintained that the first order of business was for government and society to get past the denial stage and recognize that a problem exists. “This causes the government a lot of effort,” she said, “because (officials) want to guard their image.”

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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