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MEXICO CITY, Nov 24 2010 (IPS) - They were not looking for war, but it found them anyway: Yosmireli and Griselda, two and four years old, died by bullets to their heads from soldiers’ guns. Their mother, aunt and seven-year-old brother Joniel were also killed, on a rural road in northwest Mexico.
The only survivors were two other teachers and Adán Esparza, the husband, brother and father of the five victims.
The Jul. 1, 2007 killings became the first known case of civilians gunned down by soldiers in the “war” on drug trafficking declared by the government of conservative Felipe Calderón, which tipped the country into a spiral of violence.
According to government statistics, 30,000 people have died in drug-related killings since the army was enlisted in the war on drug cartels when Calderón took office four years ago.
But that figure does not include an undetermined number of widows, orphans, maimed victims, and people who have been forced to leave their homes or flee into exile.
One very clear effect is “the invisibility of violence against women,” David Peña of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers told IPS. His organisation brought the case of three young women (the “Cotton Field case”) killed in Ciudad Juárez, on the U.S. border, to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which held the Mexican state responsible for the killings.
“The number of deaths is so great that there is no differentiation between male and female victims. Worse yet, there is no specification of motives in the murders,” he said.
“If a girl is found dead on the street and the body shows signs of violence, whether she has a bullet wound, is tied up, or there is a dead man next to her, her death is recorded in the category of ‘organised crime’,” Peña said.
Ciudad Juárez, notorious worldwide for hundreds of unsolved murders of young women committed since 1993, is one example of this phenomenon.
In the last three years, more women have been murdered in that city — nearly 600 — than in the previous 13 years, for which the official total was 575. And 288 women have already been killed so far this year.
“By recording the cases in the catch-all category of organised crime, the victims’ families no longer have access to the case file and cannot pressure the authorities to solve the crime,” Peña said.
He added that in the last four years, the progress made by civil society on the human rights front has been “rolled back.”
The phenomenon is nationwide. An April report by the Special Commission on Femicides (a term coined for misogynist or gender-related murders of women) in the lower house of Congress states that there have been 1,756 murders of women in 18 of Mexico’s 31 states since 2007. Of that total, only three percent have led to court sentences.
“There are either no records or insufficient records,” said commission chair Teresa Incháustegui, a lawmaker of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution.
“But the problem is not just the murders of women, or the increase in the number of killings,” Sara Lovera, a pioneer in journalism with a gender focus in Mexico, told IPS. “History shows that whenever there is a war, women are victims.
“The presence of troops on the streets increases the vulnerability of women, puts them at risk, and generates fear. And above all, the military are not held accountable for their abuses,” she said.
Lovera cited the example of Castaños, a town in the northern state of Coahuila, where 13 exotic dancers were raped in a night club by a group of soldiers in July 2006. The majority of the troops involved are still free, she pointed out.
Mexico is the most recent case in Latin America of the link between militarisation of law enforcement and gender violence, the focus of the 16 days of activism against sexist violence that will begin Thursday Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
“In any circumstance where the army actively participates, women become spoils of war, and are more vulnerable to attack,” said Blanca Rico, executive director of Semillas, a non-governmental organisation that supports women’s rights in Mexico through grant-making and technical assistance to women’s groups.
The problem, she said, is that on the part of the state there are no mechanisms for support or reparations for damages. And even non-governmental organisations are finding it necessary to reformulate their goals, in order to take into consideration a situation that the government will not acknowledge.
“It is a phenomenon that has completely gotten out of hand,” Rico said. “Human rights defenders have never been a central focus of Semillas, because what is happening today had not happened before: a shocking rise in threats, which are now constant, with all of them feeling harassed and threatened now.”
“Collateral damages” of the violence that has become generalised in the country are still not quantifiable, but they have many faces, experts say.
For example, there are the cases of women in prison on charges of being “the women of narcos,” without evidence that they actually took part in any criminal activities. Or an increase in prostitution in areas where troops have been posted.
“It’s the use and abuse of women,” Lovera said. “Something that used to happen in very specific regions where there was a military presence, but has now expanded.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch criticised the government’s proposal for the reform of the military justice system and special courts, calling Tuesday for the exclusion of sex crimes and human rights violations from the jurisdiction of the military courts.
Mexico’s 1933 military justice code says the special courts have jurisdiction when crimes against military discipline — a category that ranges from insubordination to rape — are committed by serving armed forces personnel while on duty. It does not differentiate crimes committed by troops against civilians, as it was designed for a situation of war.
The case of the Esparza family is one illustration. When the murders of the teachers and the children occurred, the women in the village of Sinaloa de Leyva, where the women taught school, took advantage of the presence of journalists who were there to cover the killings to speak out and call on the government to clarify the murders.
But more than three years later, the family has not received any public apology or even a condolence message. There is no official information available on the military trial against the 19 soldiers involved in the massacre.
The “evidence indicates that the soldiers opened fire without justification” on the car in which the five victims and three survivors were driving, says the report “Uniform Impunity” published by Human Rights Watch in 2009.
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