In Mexico's Murders, Fury Is Aimed at Officials
CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico - Víctor Javier García still has a dozen marks across his abdomen and genitals from the burning cigarettes the police used to torture him into falsely confessing to being a serial killer.
It made no difference to a lower court judge that the DNA tests on the bodies identified as his victims were not conclusive. Or that a forensics expert testified that he had been ordered by his superiors to plant false evidence. Or even that witnesses retracted their testimony, saying the police had threatened them into making false statements.
Mr. García was sentenced to 50 years anyway.
The State Supreme Court of Chihuahua threw the case out in June and set Mr. García free, but only after three and a half years in prison, during which he lost his business, his savings and his wife to another man.
"Imagine it," he said in an interview, choking back tears. "Everywhere she went, people looked at her like she was married to a terrible criminal, when the real criminals were outside. They still are."
Troubling as it is, Mr. García's case is not isolated. International observers, human rights workers and federal authorities say it illustrates a disturbing pattern of malfeasance by state law enforcement authorities responsible for investigating Mexico's most gruesome murder mystery: the deaths of more than 350 women in this border area over the last decade, including at least 90 raped and killed in similar ways.
Whether through incompetence, corruption or a lurid connection to the killings, the bungling and cover-ups are so extensive, federal investigators say, that the police and other officials have themselves become suspected of links to the crimes.
"The question I and so many other people have," said Guadalupe Morfín, President Vicente Fox's special envoy to Ciudad Juárez, "is why did the authorities go to such lengths to fabricate cases? Maybe it was because of incompetence. Or maybe it was because they didn't want to be exposed."
In a quiet but notable shift, a new set of state officials has taken steps to right past wrongs by reviewing and reopening more than 100 cases. They have called in a team of Argentine forensic experts to exhume unidentified bodies and retrieve others stored in state morgues for DNA tests. The overturning of Mr. García's case, too, is part of a new determination by some courts to scrutinize evidence more carefully.
But virtually all agree that the problems swirling around the investigations are profound and far from fixed.
Senior officials appointed by Mr. Fox two years ago to review the cases have charged that state authorities played down killings, failed to start searches for missing women in time to rescue them, covered up or falsified crucial evidence, and tortured suspects into confessions.
Their actions, the officials said, were meant not only to fend off a public relations nightmare as international pressure grew, but also to protect those many suspected of being behind the killings, including corrupt police officials, powerful drug traffickers and other organized gangs.
Critics of the state say the cover-ups have created a second cycle of injustice and have set the investigations back for years. The government has created a $30 million fund for the families of the dead, and there is some public sentiment that the falsely accused should receive some of it. But for now, they have little recourse, even in the courts.
In the meantime, there are growing signs that the serial-style killings have spread to other cities, like Chihuahua, 200 miles along the border; Toluca, a suburb of Mexico City; the Gulf Coast capital of Veracruz; and Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the southern state of Chiapas. Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca says he is considering creating a special prosecutor's office to investigate.
Whether justice can be found in Ciudad Juárez, where the killings began, has become an important test of Mexico's efforts to establish a rule of law, human rights and law enforcement authorities say.
Ciudad Juárez, an industrial capital of some 1.3 million people, has won the dishonor of being Mexico's most violent city. It remains in the grip of organized crime, especially drug traffickers and prostitution rings that have cover from corrupt authorities, federal officials say.
Women and girls continue to disappear and suffer violent deaths here at a rate more than twice as high as in the rest of the country. At least 36 women and girls, including two ages 7 and 11, have been killed in Ciudad Juárez and the city of Chihuahua since the beginning of 2004, according to information compiled by the Washington Office on Latin America from media and law enforcement reports. People who are probably innocent remain in prison for many of the killings, based on little more than confessions that they say were obtained under torture. Meanwhile, the authorities responsible for putting them there - as well as those who committed the crimes - walk free.
Ms. Morfín said reviews of cases like Mr. García's had begun to uncover corruption and abuses at high levels, implicating the former state prosecutor, Jesús José Solís Silva, and the former head of the state police, Vicente González García.
Both men quit last year after federal authorities found the bodies of 12 men, believed to have been killed in drug-related disputes, in the backyard of a home on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez. Federal authorities arrested at least 16 state police officers in connection with the killings.
In resigning, Mr. Solís said he had been the object of baseless accusations. Mr. González quit, along with three state police deputies, two weeks later without comment. If the two men are linked to any wrongdoing, Ms. Morfín said in an interview, it will be hard to believe that they acted alone.
"In these cases, it is the authorities themselves who are exposed, and the feeling that has begun to spread is that in addition to omissions and negligence, there may also be complicity," she said.
That possibility, she and others say, helps explain the lengths to which authorities have gone to prosecute sketchy cases. In Mr. García's case, not only was evidence planted and testimony retracted, but a lawyer working on the case was gunned down by police officers who said they had mistaken him for a fugitive.
Months before Mr. García's release, authorities threw out a similarly dubious case against a 46-year-old American woman, Cynthia Kiecker Perzábal, and her Mexican husband, Ulises Perzábal, 47, who were arrested two years ago in the murder of Viviana Rayas, 16.
Shortly after they were arrested at their home in the city of Chihuahua, Ms. Kiecker said, police officers separated her from her husband, stripped off her clothes and tortured her with electric shocks for two days and nights. She could hear her husband screaming, she said. Sometimes, she said, the officers forced her to watch them torture him.
"I would have confessed to anything to stop them," Ms. Kiecker recalled. She eventually did, agreeing that she and her husband had killed Viviana as part of a satanic cult.
The forced confession was the only link to the crime in a prosecution that was based largely on the couple's lifestyle - long hair, tattoos and a penchant for tarot cards.
"They used all these things to portray us as monsters," Ms. Kiecker said. "The police created an image of us as devil worshipers because they wanted to shock people. The police wanted people to be so horrified that no one would defend us, and they could get away with their lies. But it didn't work." The United States monitored her case closely, but lodged no official complaint with Mexico.
Patricia González, the lead prosecutor for the state of Chihuahua, rejected accusations that state authorities had willfully falsified investigations, saying that most of the problems she had uncovered stemmed from poor training and antiquated equipment. The killings of women along the border was a product of domestic violence, rather than the work of serial killers, she said, adding that she had begun retraining the police and prosecutors with $5 million in United States assistance.
Still, in an interview at the Mexico City airport, she conceded that dozens of case files were so plagued by errors that her office was starting them over and had agreed to bring in the Argentine forensics team.
Previous forensics tests were so flawed, Ms. González said, that many victims' families were still not sure whether the remains they buried belong to their loved ones. These families, she said, felt so mocked and abused by state authorities that they had stopped cooperating with them.
Among them is Patricia Cervantes, who lives in the city of Chihuahua. Her daughter, Neyra Azucena, 20, went missing for two years. Her nephew, David Meza Argueta, 29, sits in jail accused of the killing.
Ms. Cervantes says she does not believe that her nephew, who was at the other end of Mexico when Ms. Azucena went missing, is the killer. Instead, she said, he had traveled to Chihuahua to help find her, leading demonstrations to demand justice.
Óscar Maynez, formerly one of the state's top forensics experts, sees Mr. Meza's arrest as another example of police abuse. He said he quit his job because he did not want to be involved in fabricating cases.
"That was a clear message by the authorities to the victim's families," he said. "If you make too much noise, if you demand justice, then the state will find a way to hold your own families responsible for the crimes."
Today, Ms. Cervantes is not only distrustful of the authorities, but also angry. She is not sure that the remains the police turned over to her - clean, shiny bones - belong to her daughter. Independent tests were inconclusive. American forensics experts who examined photographs of the remains said the skull looked like it belonged to a man.
"At the beginning I wanted justice for my daughter," she said in an interview. "Now I want more. I guess you could say I want vengeance."