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Seeking justice for Mexico state's female victims

ECATEPEC, Mexico — At 14, Jessica Lucero had already lived a hard life. A stint in rehab, dropping out of school, making her way, day in, day out, in a terribly violent, desperately poor neighborhood.

But things were looking up. She had stayed clean and was planning to resume studies. She dreamed of becoming a forensic pathologist.

Then, in June, Jessica was raped by a man she later identified as a notorious neighbor, a known drug pusher. Jessica's reaction was to do something that few people twice her age have ever dared. She went to the authorities and denounced the crime.

Not 30 days later, she was killed, beaten to death with a small boulder. The force of the blow was so strong that her skull left a dint in the ground that would remain for days.

And with that, Jessica became one of hundreds of women and girls killed every year in Mexico state, a region of 15 million people governed until recently by the man who will be the next president of Mexico.

Authorities handling of the cases in this state with one of the country's highest female homicide rates has raised questions about their commitment to law and order, especially when the victims are women.

The killings have been criticized recently by several human rights groups. In a new report, Amnesty International complained that "gender-based violence in the country continues to be widespread," and singled out Mexico state and two other states, saying "state-level authorities that have failed to prevent or punish documented cases of grave gender-based violence, including rape and killings, have not faced additional pressure or oversight."

In Jessica's case, a top state prosecutor went on national radio to suggest that the girl had been drinking when she was killed by young men who also raped her — again. He insisted that Jessica's death had nothing to do with her reporting of the original attack. Soon afterward, he stepped down to join Enrique Peña Nieto's presidential transition team.

***

The dead women and girls of the state of Mexico, which abuts Mexico City, have as their voice and champion a fireplug of a man named David Mancera.

Part political activist, part social worker, and a bit of a gadfly, Mancera carries a spiral notebook filled with the scrawled names and circumstances of recent slayings of women.

"Just last week," he starts.

Yuridia Valente, 22. Raped, strangled, single shot to the head.

Fernanda Esparza, 19. Killed, allegedly by a boyfriend who killed his previous girlfriend three years earlier.

Sonia Neleya, 25. Raped and found dead, naked, strangled.

Name unknown. Stuffed into a suitcase.

Mancera, who cites statistics saying that 200 to 300 women were killed during each of the last five years in the state, has a flair for the dramatic. The other day, to demand an audience with authorities, he chained himself to the front door of the local attorney general's office. Then he led a protest march that tied up one of this city's main thoroughfares for hours.

He also rallied the social media networks; in Jessica's case, someone tweeted a photo of the dark-haired, full-cheeked girl to Gov. Eruviel Avila. That, apparently, did the trick: The governor ordered prosecutors to look into the case.

But the cases of many of the women who are killed or who disappear don't get such attention.

A Mexican watchdog group, the National Citizens' Observatory of Female Murders, said in a report this year that "a lack of investigation, prosecution and punishment" in Mexico state has led to a climate of impunity. It estimated that of 1,003 slayings of women during the Peña Nieto term, roughly half were unsolved and largely uninvestigated.

There are no real mysteries as to why women are being killed in Mexico state. Much of the impoverished region, including Ecatepec, the state's largest city, have grown rapidly in recent decades. Housing is precarious, jobs scarce, opportunities next to nil. Many people living in the state travel hours a day to work in Mexico City. Dysfunctional families leave children abandoned to their fate; many girls end up not going to school, getting pregnant, trapped.

In addition, drug traffickers have moved into the state, and with them, dealing and use have grown.

Activists also blame the state government for an apathy that made it easier to kill women and get away with it. Peña Nieto served as governor of the state of Mexico from 2005 to 2011, when his term ended and he launched his campaign for the presidency. He will be sworn in Dec. 1.

Lizbeth Garcia, a federal congresswoman from the state, said she and other activists last year sought to have the Peña Nieto government declare a red alert over the slayings of women, which would have triggered more attention and resources for the problem.

"They told us it was not such a serious topic," Garcia, a member of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, said in an interview. "They accused us of wanting to damage the image of the state and of [Peña Nieto]."

Eventually, before Peña Nieto left the governorship, his government established a special prosecutor's office for "gender-based" crimes. In recent weeks, repeated phone call messages and emails seeking comment, sent from The Times to Laura Elena Uribe, a spokeswoman for the state prosecutor's office, were not answered.

Elizabeth Vilchis, social development secretary for the state, disputed critics' claims, saying the state is one of the few to respond to the killing of women with especially tough sentences, including life imprisonment.

"Far from neglecting these cases, this is one of the most active states ... giving a broad range of attention to these cases," Vilchis, a state government official for 18 years, said in a telephone interview. She also cited the construction of three shelters for abused women.

***

In some ways, Jessica had it better than many girls in Edomex, as Mexico state is familiarly known. She lived in a modest home with two parents, siblings and a pair of grandparents. But she didn't escape the troubles of her neighborhood, a collection of dirt-floor, tin-roofed homes in the scruffy foothills that rise above Ecatepec.

Her mother, Cruz Perez, 34, said Jessica had kicked her habit of inhaling paint thinner and was returning to school in the fall, after dropping out last year, part of what the mother described as a teenage "rebellious spirit." In rehab, Jessica met her boyfriend, Marcos, a polite bricklayer 10 years her senior, and she wanted to work in the center as a counselor, helping other addicts.

Jessica was lively, a jokester, a happy spot in the family who loved to dance and cook, her parents said. Her middle name, Lucero, means "bright star," "because she was the light of our life," said her grandfather, Felipe Perez, 65, a sad-faced man who walks with a bad limp since an attack by thugs in the neighborhood several years ago.

It might have been that spunk that led her to denounce the rapist in mid-June. Everyone knew who the attacker was. Family members said that when they went to authorities, the officer in charge demanded 2,000 pesos (about $150) to proceed with the case, money they did not have. The case stalled; nothing happened. (Authorities now say they believe the person demanding the money didn't actually work in the prosecutor's office.)

On July 14, Jessica left home with a couple of young men from the neighborhood, people the family knew, people she had considered friends. She did not return. Her frantic mother searched and searched; eventually the police found her body in a wooded area about 15 minutes from home.

On July 20, Alfredo Castillo, top prosecutor for Edomex, went on national radio to announce that a suspect had been arrested. Castillo insisted that the killing had nothing to do with the first rape. He also said Jessica had been drinking with three men when she was killed.

Jessica's family finally got a meeting Aug. 1 with the state prosecutor in charge of gender crimes, Gail Aguilar. Mancera was there. So was a Times reporter, invited by the family but forced to leave by the prosecutor.

Since going public, the family has been harassed. Someone shot up the home of Jessica's older sister. The day of the meeting with the prosecutor, someone shoved her brother down a flight of stairs.

"There isn't a neighbor or friend who doesn't warn me we will get killed for going ahead with this," Cruz Perez said. "They ask me, what could I possibly gain? But if you don't do it, it won't stop. I don't want there to be another mother like me."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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