Women in Baja California: Death and Violence – by Sergio Haro and Rosario Mosso Castro (Semanario Zeta)

~ This article was originally published by Semanario Zeta on March 23, 2015 ~


Since the start of 2015, nine women have been murdered in Mexicali, three of them in the last week. Another eight have been killed in Tijuana. Their bodies appear tied up, shot in Tijuana streets, or decomposing in drains and canals in Valley of Mexicali. In the majority of these cases, impunity reigns, and there has been no official response thus far. Human Rights activists are encouraging officials to issue a Gender Alert in Baja California.

Behind the patios of the valley, another dead woman. Photo: Sergio Haro/Semanario Zeta

Behind the patios of the valley, another dead woman. Photo: Sergio Haro/Semanario Zeta

The strength of a single man was not enough to pull up the metal basket, they needed two, three more to help. It was then, and only with great effort, that they could haul from the bottom of the drain the body of the woman tied to a giant engine crankshaft. She had been found midday on Tuesday the 17th of March, a few meters from the highway to San Felipe, in the south of Mexicali, in the middle of the sprawling urban zone. After several attempts, workers from the forensic service and agents from the investigative police managed to bring the basket up to ground level.

The scene was striking, the body of a young woman, wearing jeans, a sandal on her right foot, and a dark colored shirt, bent in a semi-fetal position, with grey tape binding her hands and legs. Her two arms were tied with wires, hugging a crankshaft that, by its dimensions, possibly came from a bus. From the state of decomposition of the body, the authorities believe she had been there several days, half submerged in the green water.

Another woman. Photo: Sergio Haro/Semanario Zeta

Another woman. Photo: Sergio Haro/Semanario Zeta

Fewer than 100 meters away, three young people, two men and a woman, approach the agents, hoping to identify the body, since they have been searching for a missing family member, but an agent suggests that it would be better for them to do so two hours later in the offices of the Forensic Medical Examiner (SEMEFO) in Mexicali.

This is the ninth woman murdered in Mexicali since the start of the year, the third found in similar conditions in just a week. On Friday, March 13, in the afternoon, the body of another young woman was found at the edge of a drain near the highway to Santa Isabel district—in the western part of Mexicali, in the area of Los Santorales. She was wearing black pants and a dark blouse, she had been bound, and had a plastic bag over her head.

Four days earlier, on Monday, March 9, the half-naked body of another woman was found in an empty lot in Pólvora district, in the eastern part of the Valley of Mexicali, in an area bordering the Mexicali-San Luis highway. She was disfigured by decomposition, laying in the middle of a blanket, with an electric cable tied around her neck. Days later, and thanks to dental records provided by the family dentist, it was confirmed that the body belonged to a woman who had been missing for four days. The last time she had been seen alive was at a Chinese restaurant near the Autonomous University of Baja California on Benito Juárez Boulevard. She had a date with a man.

It was Ana Leticia Zatarain, though after her body was found, it took several days to confirm her identity and her dentist had to intervene. “When he finished, he concluded that it was, in fact, her, that there was a match,” explains the head of the Forensic Medical Examiner Service in Mexicali, Francisco Acuña Campa.

According to the specialist, the cause of death was strangulation: she had a wire—an electrical cord—wrapped around her neck. There were no signs of sexual violence, she was half-naked, and the body was returned to the family on Sunday, March 15. Her family has not wanted to speak with the press.

Regarding the woman found on Friday, March 13, at the mouth of a drain that crosses the highway to San Isabel district , Doctor Acuña explained that she died from obstruction of her upper respiratory passages. She had marks from binding on her hands and feet and did not display other signs of violence. As of the morning of Tuesday the 17th, the body had not yet been officially identified by her family members, although it is believed that it is Erika López, a mother of three who lived in Nacionalista district, and who had been missing since Monday, March 9, when her relatives had dropped her at the Santa Bárbara shopping center, at a Calimax market.

Regarding the wave of violence that has left nine victims thus far in 2015, Acuña Campa explains: “The characteristics do not suggest that a single person is causing these deaths,” since, although they are all in Mexicali, they are in different places with different injuries, ranging from strangulation or suffocation, and in some cases there is evidence of sexual assault, as in the case of the Japanese nun murdered in the Valley.

Drug Dealing and Family Violence
A total of 75 women were murdered in Baja California in 2014: 41 in Tijuana, 17 in Mexicali, 11 in Ensenada and six in Tecate. Before the end of the first trimester of 2015, another eight women were executed in Tijuana and nine more in Mexicali.

In terms of percentage, during 2014, an average of six women were killed every month in the state, of these, three in Tijuana and 1.4 in Mexicali. In comparison, the murders in 2015 suggest an increase, since in the first two months of the year, in Tijuana four women have been killed per month, one more than the previous year, and in Mexicali 4.5 per month, three more than the previous year.

Erika López. Photo: Sergio Haro/Semanario Zeta

Erika López. Photo: Sergio Haro/Semanario Zeta

According to statistics from the State Attorney General’s Office (PGJE), 15% of these killings are linked to organized crime, 20% of femicides are crimes of passion or tied to personal relationships; 20% are domestic violence; 35% are connected to drug dealing; and 10% are classified as “unknown motive.” That last figure includes many of the decomposing or incinerated bodies that have been discovered.

Four of every 10 women who have been murdered are connected to drug dealing, and their participation in that activity has been more or less stable, according to PGJE statistics from 2014 to 2015. Examining arrests, for example: last year, 5,261 men and 404 women were arrested for the crime of drug dealing; in the current year, 1,442 men and 110 women. In general, during both periods women have comprised around 8% of the total.

Officially, thus far none of the PGJE files have labeled a murdered woman as a “femicide.” The former attorney general, Rommel Moreno, argued that under the category of “femicide,” murderers had a greater chance of escaping justice and receiving a lesser punishment.

Tijuana, Drugs and Organized Crime
Tuesday, March 10, at around 10:35 AM, on the principal avenue of Ejido Valle de Las Palmas, in the Presa Rural Delegation near the municipal dump, authorities found the body of a woman, who later would be identified as Elizabeth Gutiérrez Armenta. She was wrapped in a blanket, with a gunshot in her head, and thrown in the street.

The young woman, around 20 years old, was a known criminal in the area: her arrest record for robbery and possession of small amounts of drugs began when she turned 18.

The first police reports on her death suggested the crime was connected to drug dealing and romantic entanglements. They indicated that the woman had cheated on one of the relatives (presumably the son) of Manuel Rodríguez García, aka “El Profe,” the man who, according to officials from the State Security Council, controls the trafficking and dealing of drugs in the area. On March 19, the PGJE announced that the victim had been linked to drug dealing, and was classified as a consumer, not a dealer. On March 9, the body of another woman was found in the Flores Magón district. She had been burned.

Another case that exemplifies what has been happening in Tijuana was the murder of a pretty Venezuelan woman. Her body was found on January 16, 2015, bound at the hands and feet, face covered with adhesive tape, on Veracruz Street in the Constitución de 1917 neighborhood in the La Presa Delegation. She had been previously arrested with a group of men carrying heavy weaponry and large quantities of drugs. In that case she had been released.

In the report, her death is linked to narcotrafficking and organized crime, and some evidence suggests that she was killed by her own criminal group who suspected that she had betrayed them. The woman owned a 2015 BMW, which was found after her death. The authorities discovered that the passenger seat had a false bottom, which had been pulled open by whoever abandoned the vehicle.

Another example was the shooting attack on a woman on January 27, in a house in the Unión Antorchista district. She survived the attack because her husband (who was killed) covered her body with his own. She explained the motive was a dispute over the lot where she lived. A man who claimed to be the owner was angry because the residents claimed to have paid for the land and refused to leave, so “he came at night with a gun and shot us,” the woman affirmed.

Additionally, thus far in 2015: January 4, in the Sánchez Taboada district, two women and a man were shot and injured; January 9, in Libertad district, another shooting, a woman was wounded and a man killed; January 25, a couple was murdered in La Libertad; on the 28th, in the alley “Miguel F. Martínez” in the Zona Norte, the body of a 21-year-old woman was found with a gunshot wound in her neck.

February 10, a woman was wounded by gunshots in the upper part of the Del Río district, at the edge of Campo Reforma. February 9, another woman was injured by gunshots on Primera Sur Street in the upper part of Del Río district, Poniente Otay Delegation.

Femicides and Resolution of Cases
With regards to the decision not to apply the criminal categorization of “femicide” in Baja California, José María González Martínez, Assistant Prosecutor for Organized Crime in Baja California explains that: “There have not been femicides because before—the law was just reformed—the criminal code established that in order for it to be classified as a femicide, it had to be certified that the death was for reasons of gender, but even a confession of ‘I killed her because I hate women’ was not sufficient because they were very subjective factors and we could not certify something like that in any of the cases.”

“Now, because of the pressures that there were, it has been changed and the code now says that any homicide of a woman is femicide, so from 2014 to 2015 we are going to become leaders in femicides as a criminal statistic.”

Of the deaths in Mexicali, he elaborates: “In Mexicali, the femicide situation is very alarming, but there is no pattern of conduct that indicates that it is one psychopath, a serial killer as some have wanted to say. There is not a repetitive pattern. It is an important issue because we have not been able to clarify each case.”

Two of the murders of women might be linked, “one of an Asian woman dressed in a nun’s habit who sold religious articles, that case is very similar with that of another girl, they were raped, strangled, and thrown near a canal. But the other seven are all distinct, the cases have advanced and we have identified the perpetrators.”

Ana Leticia Zatarain, another murdered woman. Photo: Sergio Haro/Semanario Zeta

Ana Leticia Zatarain, another murdered woman. Photo: Sergio Haro/Semanario Zeta

In comparison with Tijuana, González Martínez explains that for the PGJE it is less difficult to resolve the cases in Mexicali, because 80% of the cases are crimes of passion or interpersonal affairs and only 20% are linked to drugs. Nevertheless, in Tijuana 80% are linked with organized crime or drug dealing, “and that is more difficult.”

He adds, “in terms of resolving the cases, it is easier to work in Mexicali, but we have lagged because of the new system of penal justice. For example, in the last two cases we have identified the perpetrator, and we are tracking them so they do not get away, but we cannot arrest them because we have to wait for all of the scientific proofs, for all of the witnesses to appear before the judge, etcetera. It is very complex, I am not criticizing, but it is a bit slower.”

In general, the assistant attorney general declared that 70% of the cases of murdered women have been resolved, with arrests or warrants waiting to be served.

The Position of the Attorney General’s Office
On the subject of the series of women who have been killed in Mexicali this year, the PGJE sent a release to clarify the agency’s position regarding the events:

“With regards to the reports in diverse media outlets and social networks about the murder and disappearance of women in Mexicali, the following points are pertinent:

“1.-There is no objective evidence linking the nine homicides that have occurred in 2015.

“2.-In three of the cases the responsible parties have been identified and the due penal process is being carried out (in a fourth case the perpetrator committed suicide).

“3.-In recent weeks several complaints have been presented regarding missing adolescent women, who have, in the majority, been located and returned home.

“4.-The PGJE reiterates its commitment to working with scientific and objective evidence to clarify the crimes that most affect families, such as intentional homicide.

Attacks Increase
For Amelia Cruz Ahumada, the coordinator of the Intrafamily Violence division of the Mexicali Municipal Public Security office, domestic violence is an issue of health, and a serious one, considering its consequences. The official mentions that domestic violence incidents are among the most frequent calls to the 066 Emergency line (the 911 equivalent) in the state capital. Last year they received 3,162 calls, of which 1,092 actually required a crisis intervention, resulting in 319 arrests.

According to official statistics, in all the cases of domestic violence, around 75% of incidents are violence against women, and the other 25% are of women against men.

“The most common incidents are a man against a woman, but those cases are less aggressive, and when it is the woman, while there are fewer incidents they are more forceful, because the woman uses a beer bottle, she acquires another object to do harm, she knows that because she does not have the same strength, she is more precise with her blows and more aggressive,” the police official commented.

In 2015, in January alone, there were 247 calls, of which 152 were for domestic violence. In all, they responded to 1143 cases, including people who arrived at the offices and were treated in the street. In February they received 225 calls, of which 169 required a crisis intervention, according to the head of the domestic violence division.

These statistics are for urban Mexicali. In the case of the Valley of Mexicali, Cruz remembers two relevant cases that occurred in the past year, one in the Ejido Oaxaca, where the separation of a couple resulted in violence and the death of the woman.

“Sometimes the violence is not just in the home, sometimes it comes after a separation, he goes, he looks for her, he follows her, he finds her. When he catches her alone, he kills her, and he even told his son that with this gun he was going to kill his mother.”

According to Cruz, a paranoid, sick jealousy is one of the factors that influences violence: “Among the factors that predominates is the consumption of alcohol and drugs, jealousy, the separation of a couple, the fact of being separated and visiting the children, they realize that the other is now seeing someone else; that is a detonating factor that has caused a major increase in violence.”

These sick jealousies increase in risk with the use of drugs: “90 percent of the cases are connected to some consumption, whether it is alcohol or drugs. In times of heat, in the summer, the incidences of family violence shoot up,” the coordinator notes.

They Request a Gender Alert
Wednesday, March 18, in Mexico City, an administrative procedure was initiated to determine whether it was appropriate to issue the so-called Gender Violence Alert in Baja California because of the attacks on women there.

In that procedure, the participants are a group comprised of two local and two national academics, a representative from the National Human Rights Commission, one from the National Commission on Violence Against Women (CONAVIM), a representative from the federal Women’s Institute (INMUJER), and the head of the Women’s Institute in the state, Alfa Peñaloza.

The group has 30 days to investigate the conditions of violence against women in Baja California, and in that same period the state has 15 days to deliver information on official statistics related to the issue.

Ultimately, this team will issue a report with recommendations to the governor, Francisco Vega de Lamadrid, regarding the situation of violence against women; the governor will have 15 days to give an answer. If he does not accept the recommendations, a Gender Alert will be issued; if he accepts the recommendations, he will have a six month period to implement them.

If the state government does not fulfill its obligations, the protocol indicates that the federal Interior Ministry would automatically issue the Gender Alert, implying that the federal government would begin verifying the implementation of the justice process.

Nationally there are five states being examined for Gender Alerts, with Baja California joining Guanajuato, Michoacán, Colima, and Morelos. Thus far no alerts have been issued, since all the state governments have cooperated.

Photo: Sergio Haro/Semanario Zeta

Photo: Sergio Haro/Semanario Zeta

Esmeralda, Missing
Another case is that of Esmeralda Urías, whose family reported her disappeared from January 22, 2015 in the Valley of Mexicali. Married—in the process of separation—and the mother of six children, the woman “was lost,” in the middle of the morning, when she left the house in Ciudad Morelos where she worked as a caretaker for an elderly woman.

The family of the missing woman suspects her husband. The husband argues that “she went with another man…”

“What is happening?” asks Balvina Urías Martínez, the victim’s sister, in her modest home in Ejido Lázaro Cárdenas, a knot in her throat and tears in her eyes.

“Her husband always mistreated her, psychologically, physically, she had made the decision to divorce him, but he would not leave her alone,” Balvina remarks, noting that her sister’s husband had threatened her with death on several occasions.

Thirty-four years old, Esmeralda had been married for nearly 18 years to Martín Belman Corona, a resident of Ciudad Morelos, who is unemployed and occasionally works in agriculture. The couple had been in crisis for nearly a year, with constant separations and reconciliations, and in the last two months she had decided to live with her sisters. According to Balvina and her other sister, Olga, Esmeralda had gone to the authorities to denounce the aggressions. “But they just didn’t pay attention to her.”

They display a complaint against Belman, filed in November of 2014. “You’re a whore, I know you slept with other men,” Esmeralda wrote in her complaint with the State Prosecutors Office, recounting the treatment that she received from her husband. “On other occasions he beat her badly, left her bruised,” her sisters related, and they even tell of how on one occasion, Esmeralda confided that with her husband’s consent, his brother had kidnapped, beaten, and raped her. The sisters also accused both brothers of using drugs.

According to the family’s version, on the day of the disappearance, two bricklayers who were working on the house where their sister also worked noted that her husband was prowling around the area. He had previously called her on the phone. That was when Esmeralda left—at mid-morning—and was not seen again.

Since then they have repeatedly gone to the offices of the PGJE in Ciudad Morelos, as well as in Mexicali, and nothing, they have received no response; they have even been told that the first complaint had been lost. “It is strange,” they say.

“We think that he probably killed her,” Balvina says, then mentions that a year ago Martín Belman burned the house of their father, an aggression that has gone unpunished since at first it was unclear who was responsible. “The truth is that we feel like we have no support,” she says, referring to the lack of response from the State Attorney General’s Office.

Sergio Haro is a longtime reporter, editor, and photojournalist for Semanario Zeta in Mexicali. He is the subject of the documentary film “Reportero.” He is the author of No se olviden de nosotros, and has chronicled the social and political struggles in Baja California for 30 years.

Rosario Mosso Castro is an editor and reporter for Semanario Zeta.

This article was originally published by Semanario Zeta under the title “Mujeres in BC: muerte y violencia,” and is available at: http://zetatijuana.com/noticias/reportajez/19652/mujeres-en-bc-muerte-y-violencia

Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

2 thoughts on “Women in Baja California: Death and Violence – by Sergio Haro and Rosario Mosso Castro (Semanario Zeta)

    • Gretchen,
      Updated statistics are difficult because gender-disaggregated crime statistics are not regularly released. We are working on developing a femicides dataset for Baja California, but don’t have current official information for 2015 yet. Generally, Semaforo Delictivo (http://www.semaforo.com.mx/) provides the best tracking of crime trends, but not of femicides – at least as far as I know. NGOs or the State Human Rights Commission might have some information as well.

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