The Assassination of Juárez Human Rights Defender Josefina Reyes Salazar Has Been Followed by Continuing Attacks on Her Family
By Fernando León and Erin Rosa
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
The recent kidnapping and murder of three family members related to a slain human rights defender in the state of Chihuahua has drawn more scrutiny to the Mexican military’s role in policing and fighting the drug war. Lost in the national and international media’s reporting of the story are claims that soldiers on the ground in and around Ciudad Juarez are involved with committing assassinations and kidnappings to silence those who accuse them of corruption.
Members of the Reyes Salazar family have criticized the military for a number of illegal acts, including extortion, harassment, and murder. In the last three years, six family members have been killed. All of the incidents involve suspicious circumstances that happened after the family began denouncing the Army for human rights abuses.
“Please know that militarization is largely to blame for so much extortion, so many kidnappings, and so many murders that we’re seeing in Ciudad Juarez.” says Marisela Reyes Salazar in an interview with Narco News. Marisela’s sister, Malena, her brother, Elías, and his wife, Luisa Ornelas Soto, were kidnapped on Feb. 7 by six heavily armed men in ski masks while driving on a highway near the city.
Immediately after the kidnapping the family organized an encampment outside of the office of the federal Attorney General in Ciudad Juarez to demand an investigation into the incident, and to call for the immediate release of Malena, Elías, and Luisa.
“They got out of their truck. They got closer and pointed their weapons at us. Four of them had large guns and another two had smaller ones. They got out and they shot two times into the air and yelled at us to get out,” recalls Sara Salazar Hernández, the mother of the kidnapped, who was in the car with her 11-year-old granddaughter when her children were abducted. “They opened the door where I was and they pulled me out and they pulled me to the ground. It was the same with my grand daughter.” Minutes later the three family members were gone.
The family lives in the town of Guadalupe, outside of Ciudad Juarez, the country’s most violent city. Like many areas in northern Mexico, Guadalupe and Ciudad Juarez are occupied by soldiers who have been sent in by the federal government to fight the drug war, after Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war against drug traffickers in 2006. The year 2010 was the deadliest year in Ciudad Juarez, averaging eight murders a day.
Sara couldn’t identify the men, who approached the family’s car approximately 2 kilometers from a military check point. “I couldn’t tell who they were because they were masked. They had ski masks and were dressed in black,” she says. “Nobody was recognizable.”
Family members suspect the involvement of the military because of the close proximity to a check point when the kidnapping took place and because they say the military has been linked to other murders and harassment against family members. Eight days after the kidnapping, Sara’s house was set on fire, hours after the family held a public event to demand the release of the three disappeared.
The Army Goes After Its Critics
“When we were at the encampment in Juarez, a neighbor came to warn us that my mother’s house was on fire,” Marisela says. “The strange thing with what happened to my mother’s house was that less than one hundred meters away there was a makeshift military barracks that was converted from a municipal gym, and there are more than forty troops around the area. It’s not possible that they didn’t see somebody coming to burn the house if it’s that close.”
Human rights defender Josefina Reyes, Marisela’s sister, was murdered on Jan. 3, 2010, right outside of Ciudad Juarez near the town of El Sauzal. “A witness inside of the restaurant where my sister went to buy food—where they approached her to kill her—told us that there was a specific car and a pick-up truck that were property of the Army,” says Marisela. “In them were people dressed both as military and civilians trying to take her. She began to struggle and when they saw that she was backing away they took out a pistol and put four bullets in her head.”
Josefina began to campaign against the militarization of Chihuahua when one of her sons, Miguel Ángel, was taken from his home by soldiers without an arrest warrant in August 2008. He was later accused of of being a drug trafficker, but was then released a few days later, according to the military.
Josefina organized a demonstration to demand his release. After that, the military began to target her for speaking out. “When my sister still lived in Guadalupe, that is when the strong harassment began against her. The soldiers would constantly arrive at her house, come in, go through things with their rifles,” says Marisela, who notes that on one occasion the soldiers tried to take another one of Josefina’s children with them. “They didn’t have a reason. They didn’t ask permission, and they didn’t have a warrant to enter the houses.”
Josefina eventually left Guadalupe and went to Juarez to try and avoid the threats and abuse. When the harassment had reached its peak another one of her sons, Julio César, was shot to death by unknown assailants. It was a year after Miguel Ángel had been taken away. Family members believe it’s possible that either the military carried out the murders of both Julio César and Josefina, or they were connected in some way to the crimes. “If not directly, then these people are indirectly involved in what is happening with displacing us from the Juarez Valley and wiping out my family. There’s definitely no doubt,” Marisela says.
Before her death Josefina had submitted two complaints against the soldiers in Guadalupe to the Secretariat of National Defense, asking the Mexican agency that controls the Army to step in and stop the harassment. Nothing was done. Six months after Josefina was gunned down her brother, Rubén, was killed and shot nineteen times in Guadalupe. A little over six months later three more family members were kidnapped last month. They turned up dead. Too many people from the same family in the same small town have been killed in the last three years for it to seem like a coincidence. So far, law enforcement officials in Chihuahua have not claimed to have solved the cases of Julio César, Josefina, Rubén, Malena, Elías, and Luisa Ornelas Soto.
The ‘Good Guys’ Myth
Knowing that the authorities in Chihuahua wouldn’t do anything to find their missing family members, Marisela, Sara, and others supporting their cause, appeared in Mexico City on Feb. 21 to draw more attention to the case. Having participated in a hunger strike since the kidnapping on Feb. 7, family members set up another encampment outside of the Mexican Senate to ask federal lawmakers to look into the case. Narco News interviewed Marisela and Sara on Feb. 24, a day before the bodies of Malena, Elías, and Luisa were found at the side of a highway outside of Ciudad Juarez.
“The main reason we’re here is to demand to the higher authorities that they search for my children that were taken from me and give them back to me,” Sara says, while sitting underneath a tent that was put up as part of the encampment in Mexico City. Both Sara and Marisela were under supervision from a doctor due to the hunger strike.
“It’s worth mentioning that the three of them are disabled,” says Marisela, when talking about her siblings and sister-in-law. “My brother Elías had an embolism on Dec. 13. Only fifty percent of his body works. He has no mobility and can’t walk on his own. My sister has a steel plate in her hip, and the other one is very damaged. She walks very slow with help from a cane. My sister-in-law has plates in her legs below her hips due to a car accident. They urgently need medicine to avoid aggravating their health.”
A day after the Reyes-Salazar family arrived to Mexico City the state prosecutors office in Chihuahua launched what it called a “mega operation” to look for the kidnapped family members, more than two weeks after they were abducted. The search was done by the military with the help of Federal Police and included helicopters. “I don’t believe anything these men say,” Marisela says. “The day they come and say to me, ‘Here are your siblings,” then I will believe that they were looking for my siblings and working.”
On Feb. 25 news begin to circulate that the bodies of the kidnapped Reyes-Salazar family members had been found. They had already been dead for approximately two weeks and appeared to have been buried and dug up again, according to the state government. Authorities used a common tactic of disparaging the victims when they hinted to a note that had been found near the bodies that supposedly connected the dead—three people who had significant physical ailments and mobility issues—to organized crime. The cause of death is still being investigated. In the wake of the most recent killings, members of the Reyes-Salazar family say they may be looking to seek asylum away from Mexico in another country.
With local and intentional media using a drug war script that pits “good guys” against “bad guys” in a high-stakes fight to rid Mexico of narcotics, it’s inconvenient to publish stories suggesting that both law enforcement forces and drug trafficking organizations in the country are equally lawless and violent. In an environment where there is no accountability for members of the armed forces, despite skyrocketing human rights complaints, is there really a “good” side?
Military operations and policing efforts, many of which are backed by the United States, have only increased narcotics related violence in Mexico. As the Reyes-Salazar family’s story indicates, it has succeeded in increasing violence against people who aren’t involved with trafficking drugs, too. When asked how violence in Ciudad Juarez could be reduced, Marisela says, “I think it will be possible when they take all of the military and federal police out of Ciudad Juarez and out of Chihuahua…. Of course, then peace and tranquility will return not only to Juarez, but also to the entire country.”