Victims of violence shall not be forgotten

Kent Paterson

Frontera Nortesur 

Every night this week, a street in central El Paso will light up with the names of more than 10,000 people killed in the violence that’s ravaged Ciudad Juárez and Mexico since 2008. Sponsored by Annunciation House, the nightly projection/vigil is part of a week-long series of activities that will culminate with a dinner honoring in person the Mexican poet and anti-violence activist Javier Sicilia on Saturday, April 28. A shelter for migrants and the homeless, Annunciation House, has named Sicilia the recipient of its 2012 Voice of the Voiceless award.

To call attention to the loss of human life in the so-called narco war, Annunciation House will project the names of murdered people on one side of the organization’s building on East San Antonio Avenue while simultaneously flashing large photos on another side of the red-brick structure. Accompanied by music, the stunning images show grieving families, funerals galore, freshly-killed victims laying in the street, masked soldiers in the streets and outraged citizens protesting in public.

On Sunday evening, April 22, about 100 people attended the week’s kick-off event at Annunciation House, where an altar was erected so people could place remembrances of their loved ones. The first name and photo visible belonged to Juan Patricio Peraza, a young Annunciation House client who was killed in a controversial 2003 Border Patrol  shooting not far from the shelter.

In certain ways, the multi-media presentation is the U.S. equivalent of Javier Sicilia’s idea of erecting memorials to the victims of violence in the main plazas of Mexican cities.

Seated on the street outside Annunciation House, El Paso resident Maria Medina held a large portrait of her late daughter Solangie Medina. The 20-year-old El Pasoan was murdered in Ciudad Juárez after she crossed the border to attend a birthday celebration in June 2009. According to Medina, three men were later arrested for stealing her daughter’s truck and killing the young woman in the commission of the crime. The suspects later received 39-year jail sentences, joining the limited ranks of the few who have been punished for violent crimes in Juárez.

“Since this happened, I don’t go to Juárez,” Medina said. “Something should be done so there is not so much violence.”

Ruben Garcia, longtime Annunciation House executive director, set the tone for the gathering by declaring that victims of violence suffer a double death: the first time when they are kidnapped and killed and the second time when they are forgotten. The vigil, Garcia said, was more than just a memorial and represented Mexicans’ deep-seated demand for justice and the “return of their country.”

Also on hand for the opening evening were Emilio Gutierrez, a Mexican journalist who is seeking political asylum in the United States, and Marisela Reyes Salazar, a surviving member of a well known Juárez Valley family that was active in environmental and human rights causes only to lose six members to killers since 2008.  In a press conference,  Reyes challenged officials who contend that the security situation is improving in Juárez.

As proof that the overall public safety climate is dire, Reyes mentioned the April 20  massacre of 15 people (14 men and 1 woman) at the Colorado bar in Chihuahua City as well as the recent discovery of the bodies of 12 young women dumped in the Juárez Valley. Found within the same geographic area, eight of the victims have been publicly identified as young women who disappeared in circumstances very similar to victims of  the rape-murders that have terrorized Ciudad Juárez for more than two decades.  As in earlier instances, no arrests have been made in the latest Juárez Valley crimes.

In his own remarks to the press, Gutierrez had harsh words for outgoing President Felipe Calderon, and demanded that the officials responsible for ongoing violence be hauled before international tribunals.

“They took away our lives and our country just because of a drunken leader who did not have the sensitivity for life,” Gutierrez said. The Mexican exile later added that he is helping organize a new organization based in Las Cruces  which will give “moral support” to asylum seekers like Gutierrez and his son.

Insisting that journalists cannot freely operate in Mexico, Gutierrez also criticized the July 1 elections as a “dirty war” more designed to gain positions of power rather than solve the country’s problems.

“(Candidates) aren’t presenting a viable government project that will allow Mexico to recuperate security and jobs, and to recuperate the minimum guarantees to which we have a right, such as health and education,” Gutierrez said in an interview. “If Mexico had invested all these billions of dollars which have been spent on this senseless (narco) war on education, it probably would have allowed us to have a better standard of living and, above all, an effective democracy.”

Also seeking U.S. political asylum,  Reyes told FNS she tried securing safe refuge in Mexico City but was threatened even in the Mexican capital. The former Juárez Valley resident zeroed in on criticisms Chihuahua Gov. Cesar Duarte directed against her after she publicized a report that armed men were burning properties and terrorizing people in the tiny Juárez Valley community of El Mimbre last December.

In news coverage that quickly became polemical during the otherwise slow news cycle  of the Christmas season, much of the Ciudad Juárez press also ran with the government’s contentions that the report was false.

Reyes insisted that the report came from a credible source, and that police patrols responding to it did not investigate the right place in question. “Many people said the  (police) only passed by on the main street and did not enter the ranch where this was happening,” she added.

Reyes estimated that only 20 percent of the pre-2008 population remains in several familiar Juárez Valley communities, with the vast majority of the people scattered from a scorched earth campaign launched by armed bands vying for control of a strategic smuggling zone. Other members of the Reyes family, including her brother Saul, have already received political asylum, Marisela said, but her own case still awaits legal action.

Annunciation House’s Ruben Garcia calculated that 80.000 100,000 Mexicans have fled to a corridor between Fort Hancock and El Paso in the last four years. Operated by people of faith, Annunciation House has long served refugees from Central American wars or economic dislocations south of the border, but since 2008 the shelters’ clientele has been weighted with Mexicans escaping violence, Garcia said.

A central purpose of this week’s activities, he added, was to remember the victims of violence and not allow their memories to be swept under the rug in the current campaign by some Mexican officials to minimize bad news while painting  a positive image of Ciudad Juárez and Mexico in order to lure new foreign investment. But for the families of the 10,000-plus people whose names will roll along a wall of Annunciation House this week, it’s questionable whether it will ever again be business as usual.

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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