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Frustration Grows Over Killings

Times Staff Writer

The federal attorney examining the killings of women in the border town of Ciudad Juarez reported Monday that she was making progress in her investigation, but victims’ families responded that not enough was being done to solve the slayings.

In a report issued a year after her appointment as special prosecutor, Maria Lopez Urbina said the federal government was investigating 50 suspects in the killings as well as 49 local law enforcement officials, who were being looked at for possible negligence in past probes. She also cited as achievements the establishment of a DNA data bank to identify victims, the creation of a $2.2-million fund for victims’ families and the opening of a public park in Ciudad Juarez where women could feel safe.

But victims’ families and advocacy groups pointed out that 22 more women died violently in Ciudad Juarez last year, double the total for 2003. Several victims were sexually abused and tortured.

Although state and federal authorities trumpet the convictions last month of several murderers, activists say the crimes were committed in 1999 or earlier.

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“The investigation has stalled,” said Esther Chavez, director of Casa Amiga, a women’s shelter in Ciudad Juarez.

About 350 women have been killed in Ciudad Juarez since 1993, 90 of them after being sexually abused. The slayings have triggered international outrage and accusations police were too lax in their investigations. Dozens of other women have died elsewhere in Chihuahua state under similar circumstances.

Urbina acknowledged Monday that forensic evidence indicated that at least an additional 106 women have disappeared, although activists put the number at several hundred.

Doubt has been cast on the guilt of the few that the government has convicted. In October, bus driver Victor Garcia Uribe was sentenced to 50 years for eight murders he allegedly committed in 2001. But his family says he was tortured into confessing, and his co-defendant died in jail under suspicious circumstances.

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Much of the families’ frustration arises from the fact that Urbina can investigate cases only in which federal laws have been broken, including those involving the participation of organized crime and the trafficking of arms, drugs or human organs. Chihuahua state investigators, whose performance has been roundly criticized, have the responsibility to investigate the remainder.

“When her office was created, there was the perception that she was going to be investigating all of the murders, and that’s not what she is doing,” said Laurie Freeman, the Mexico associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a public interest group.

Some investigations are being carried out on parallel tracks by state and federal authorities, and that has led to intragovernmental wrangling. The latest sign of possible conflict was the announcement last month by Chihuahua state Atty. Gen. Patricia Gonzalez that she had asked a U.S. forensic team from the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights to investigate the slayings and identify victims.

Gonzalez did so without reviewing the report of an Argentine team that, at the invitation of federal authorities, reviewed evidence last year in many cases. In a report presented here last month, the Argentines found that unidentified human remains at a common grave and at the state morgue may have come from at least 53 people.

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The Argentines have worked in 30 countries over the last 20 years identifying victims of mass murders and political genocide. Although they made presentations last month before various federal, state and local authorities, they were unable to hold a meeting with Gonzalez, whose approval they need to continue their probe.

Gonzalez’s spokesman, Rene Medrano, said the Argentines’ report was not relevant to the state investigation because it had been ordered by the federal commissioner for Juarez, Guadalupe Morfin Otero. “That’s a different authority from the state, with which [the Argentines] have not collaborated,” Medrano said.

Chavez, of Casa Amiga, said that the entry of the U.S. forensic group could mean a further delay in victims’ families receiving identification of their loved ones.

“It seems very strange that the authorities don’t want to listen to people we confided in, and whom the victims’ families believe in,” Chavez said of the Argentine team.

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Dr. William Haglund of Physicians for Human Rights visited Ciudad Juarez last week but declined to comment. In a statement, his group said it had not yet decided whether to accept Chihuahua’s request.

“The bottom line is that once again the authorities are asking the victims’ families to wait for answers, and they have been waiting too long,” Freeman said.

Urbina’s report, her third since taking the prosecutor job, comes a week after a scathing study by a United Nations group alleging “deficiencies” in the government’s conduct of the probes, including negligence and “grave omissions” in the handling of evidence.


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