~ This story was originally published by VICE on October 10, 2016 ~
Génesis Urrutia was 22. Her friends and classmates described her as an outgoing, happy person, who dreamed of finishing her degree in Communication at the University of Veracruz (UV) and spending the next year traveling the world. Being free.
On Thursday, September 29, 2016, Génesis Deyanira Urrutia, Leobardo Arroyo, Octavio García and, in a separate case but on the same day, Andrés García A., were kidnapped in the port city of Veracruz, “levantados” in the colloquial expression used to describe forced disappearances.
The idea of disappearance is common in Veracruz and it is dreaded by families. It means not knowing if a person is alive, if they are suffering, if they are eating, if they are being forced to work or if they have been sold into human trafficking, or even if they are dead and gone without a tomb where they can be mourned.
According to the statistics from the state attorney general, there are more than 950 reports of disappearances, of which 73.6% are of people between the ages of 15 and 29 years. Young people. Those numbers are not recorded in the national database of missing and disappeared persons (RNPED) operated by the National Public Security System due to the omissions of local authorities who treat reports of disappearances without much concern.
These days, freedom is only a romantic ideal that has been destroyed by the violence of Veracruz’s narco-state. The port “was not always like this,” say students from the School of Communications (FACICO) who were born in this city located on the Gulf of Mexico.
But during the administration of Javier Duarte de Ochoa (the PRI governor of the state from 2010 to 2016), it became impossible to walk the streets or wander the harborside promenade during the early morning, impossible to go to nightclubs, impossible to even go to the minimarket after midnight.
The avenues were flooded with convoys of State Police trucks and military patrols, helicopters buzzed the city, shootouts echoed through the city at night. It was rumored that narcotraffickers would enter bars, lock the doors, and carry off women. Those supposed “urban legends” lost their air of fiction when the disappearances of young people became too common a reality to ignore.
Perhaps the most shocking moment came in September of 2011, when the criminals dumped 40 bodies in front of the most popular shopping center in the city, at the very moment when Reynaldo Escobar—then the state attorney general—was giving a presentation at the World Trade Center a few steps away.
“Before, people talked of shootouts and murders, of organized crime activity. Today, we talk about robberies of stores, where someone steals a fruit rollup and a Twinkie from the minimart.” That was the famous phrase that exemplified the mindset of Javier Duarte, the governor who oversaw the state’s descent into crisis. Veracruz now is:
- Ranked first nation-wide in forced disappearances (SNSP and Asociación Alto al Secuestro)
- Ranked second in homicides (SNSP)
- Ranked second in executions (Semáforo Delictivo)
- The most dangerous state to be a journalist in all of Latin America (Artículo 19, Reporteros sin Fronteras)
- Ranked eighth nationally in femicides
Society Condemns the Violence
Génesis had returned to the state in January from a stay at the University of La Loja, in Ecuador, where she was studying abroad for the previous semester as part of the UV’s international program.
The young woman was strikingly photogenic, and she was a constant part of her classmates’ photography projects. She was also a three-time national chess champion and a socially-committed volunteer. She visited shelters, and “as part of a project, went around all the streets of Boca del Río and placed notes about spelling errors on all the bus stops,” recalls Margarita Torres, who would have graduated with her.
“She was a beautiful young woman and she attracted a lot of attention, and that provoked envy,” remarked another colleague. If her physical appearance was, at times, a liability within her academic department, following her disappearance it was widely lamented being attractive, or simply trying to have fun, might have made her a target for criminals.
The most recent accounts suggest that Génesis and three other young men (one a student in accounting at the UV, and two other students from the Veracruz Institute of Technology) were kidnapped in a taxi between 4:30 and 5:00 PM on September 29.
Nevertheless, it is still not clear—to either the families or investigators—where and how this occurred. While some accounts suggest that they were taken from a residence, the leading account suggests that the events occurred at the Plaza Crystal, on Avenue Díaz Mirón.
In that area, there are nine surveillance cameras and although the families have requested copies of the tapes, they have only succeeded in obtaining one that, because of its location, does not show anything. The authorities have not even been able to determine the registration number of the taxi where the crime took place.
“You don’t mess with the FACICO”… Until fear shows up.
On Saturday, October 1, a Facebook post paralyzed a young woman walking through the center of Veracruz. “Is that true? Tell me that it’s not Génesis,” a classmate begged in a reply on the social network, after seeing a photo with the missing young woman.
First, there was fear that it was a kidnapping for ransom, a theory that was later discarded because the families were never contacted with a demand of money in exchange for the freedom of any of the four.
Grecia Bonilla, one of Génesis’s classmates, recalls the last time they spoke, at an exhibition exactly a week before the disappearance. She remembers that, among other things, Génesis Deyanira said her dream was to study for a Master’s degree abroad, possibly in Spain. A few days before she was kidnapped, Grecia saw her at a distance with two young men she did not recognize, possibly Leobardo and Octavio. The latter has been linked to organized criminal groups, since according to information in state media outlets, Octavio García Baruch was arrested on December 28, 2012, due to connections with a kidnapping ring, something that Génesis’s father has corroborated. Octavio’s brother, Gustavo García, disappeared on October 12, 2015.
Dovianid Carranza Baruch, Octavio and Gustavo’s sister, would ultimately tell Ciro Gómez Leyva on his nightly news show that she and Octavio had been previously kidnapped in Acayucan, Veracruz, and that the family was only able to pay her ransom. Days later the kidnapping ring was broken up and her brother was photographed as part of the arrests, even though he was not implicated and was released. Three years later, Gustavo was taken from his home in Veracruz along with three other young people and five days after filing a report with the authorities, the family received a call telling them to give up looking for him because he had been executed.
Those circumstances have been enough to link his case to organized crime, something that has also been used to tarnish the image of the Communications student, since according to her classmates and professors, Génesis was not involved in any way with criminal activity, and her mistake was being “in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.”
“I think that she wasn’t with the right people, perhaps she wasn’t the target, perhaps they were after the guy, but she was with him,” Bonilla says. She now thinks that given the situation in Veracruz she might be better off leaving the state and looking for work elsewhere.
“I feel worried, knowing that it happened to someone close to you makes you think that ‘it could have been me’ and everyone in the university community has started to feel vulnerable,” she adds.
Marco Agustín Rivera Malpica, the director of the FACICO, organized a protest on Ruiz Cortines Avenue after learning of the disappearance on October 3. Both Génesis’s father, Edgar Urrutia Hernández, and his wife, Ramona Ramírez Ureña, are graduates of the School of Communications.
“We wanted to reach out to the people who had taken her, to make them feel sympathy, to release her. We asked for clemency, for them to have mercy on her. These are extreme situations, we think she was in the wrong place, the wrong circumstances, the wrong company. Every young person makes mistakes, hangs out with the wrong person, but that should not make them the target of crime,” explained the director in an interview for VICE.
The protest was well attended, and from that moment, the students organized to make flyers and to take collections to pay for the printing. But as the hours passed, and as the attorney general’s office, headed by Luis Ángel Bravo Contreras, signaled, as it always does, that the disappearances were linked to organized crime and that the case would possibly be taken over by federal authorities, the students slowly abandoned their protests and returned to sharing pieces of news via Facebook. By Friday, the department had returned to normal.
“I don’t think she was involved in that (organized crime), she was totally against those people, we think she was collateral damage,” remarks José Reina, who as a FACICO student is indignant but also afraid. “At the moment, nobody is safe from this sort of situation, we’re all exposed by things we see or say. Many people want to help, but are also afraid of retaliation.”
Young people in Veracruz are not just afraid of expressing their solidarity with a classmate. They are afraid that something will happen to them when they try to enjoy themselves, when they socialize, because they don’t know the complete story of some ‘casual friend.’ They are afraid of making a mistake and not living to tell the tale.
When professor José Luis Cerdán Díaz, a sociologist and instructor at the UV, analyzes the situation he describes how “violence is legitimized through personal conduct,” and how situations that are normal in other cities become a death sentence in Veracruz.
The days passed and there were no signs that the authorities were genuinely searching for the missing young people, “just as in hundreds of other cases,” the professor notes. He describes the student march last Monday as “a moving attempt to make something happen, to bring attention and respect to the case and to force the authorities to do something.”
In 2011, a professor in the Education department at the UV was murdered. Years later, there were several FACICO graduates killed, but the school stayed quiet, especially due to direct threats that paralyzed the faculty and student community. And the fear became terror: “The floodgates opened, because there was impunity, and because the authorities played dumb,” concludes José Luis Cerdán.
“In Veracruz, the horrible government we have is one of the principal causes of things like this. As students, we are speaking out, but every day there are worse things happening,” concludes one of the students interviewed for this story.
Although in 2004, the Los Zetas cartel controlled Veracruz from Pánuco in the north to Las Choapas in the extreme south, in recent years the Zetas cells have seen their influence in Veracruz diminish due to disputes with four other cartels now present in the state: The Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel (CJNG), the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Gulf Cartel (CDG).
The struggle has been visible in the messages that the groups leave with the bodies that have been scattered across the state, messages that justify murders and make new threats. And the sheets tacked to bodies with icepicks are not the only signs – there are banners hung from overpasses. The war has even led rival groups to form alliances against those “of the Z.”
Owing to the circumstances that surround the case, some FACICO students who were interviewed for this story asked that their full names not be used. Others declined to comment further, and others refused to speak completely.
The leadership of the school, which had assured local media from the first that the marches would not cease, changed its tune following the discovery of the bodies, and began counseling caution so as “not to impede investigations” and to take “the most prudent course.”
A visceral fear gripped the students and professors, and a week after the disappearance of their classmate, and after four days of activity, have practically abandoned all protests. The FACICO put more energy into an alumni event than to demanding answers about the whereabouts of a young woman who should have never disappeared. The discovery of her body rekindled those protests, however.
As it was for Génesis, to be young in Veracruz is to risk death. Moreover, being a woman and being beautiful is not an advantage in a state where the authorities have even told mothers of disappeared young women that they should not worry because the criminals will not harm the girls because they are pretty.
By harm, though, they meant only death. Because according to the stories of the few survivors, the women who are chosen by the criminals because of their beauty experience hell, and death is less painful than the suffering they experience.
The state authorities who are now investigating Génesis’s case are the same ones who told Araceli Salcedo in 2012 that her daughter, Fernanda Rubí had perhaps “been picked up by some narco because she was pretty.” Araceli Salcedo later confronted Governor Javier Duarte, in October of 2015, and became one of the principal spokeswomen for the groups of mothers and family members of disappeared in the state who have organized to do what the authorities will not. “No, Mr. Governor, you cannot hide, your prosecutors are worthless, they do nothing to help us. Here is your ‘magical town’ where our children are disappeared and you act as though nothing is happening.”
Javier Duarte, the governor who turned the entire state into a ‘Magical Town’, a giant graveyard, a clandestine cemetery, is weeks, days away from leaving office. [After this article was published, Duarte requested a leave of absence in order to address corruption allegations. He was not forced from office, however, by the death and disappearance of thousands or the murders of scores of journalists. -MJL] And the case of Génesis and of the other three disappeared young people seems destined for the same fate as almost a thousand others: forgotten by society, justice never served, their reputations besmirched by authorities who portray them as criminals. A week of attention, two days of protests, and from there, to become a statistic.
It depends, then, on the same young people not to bury the memory of those like Génesis in Veracruz. Justice for the disappeared and dead, and safety for those who are young.
On Friday, October 7, on a dirt road between two towns in the municipality of Camarón de Tejeda, more than 50 kilometers from the port of Veracruz, where they had been taken, workers found nine bags filled with human remains.
The contents were macabre, chilling: six people whose remains were marked by cruelty and sadism, burned with acid. The state investigators told the press in the area that they had to solve ‘a human jigsaw puzzle’ to determine to which victim each arm, leg, and torso belonged. A death marked by brutality and horror.
The human remains were taken to the coroner’s office in Xalapa, the state capital, where on Saturday, the parents of Génesis, Leobardo Arroyo Arano, and Octavio García Baruch were able to finally confirm through tattoos and scars that the bodies were those of the missing students.
While the corpses were on the metal slabs, some reporters noted that there was a large quantity of sand with the remains and in the folds of the shredded clothing. Had they been buried elsewhere and “spit up” by the criminals due to the pressure the students applied?
The answers are not clear, since the attorney general’s office, which could not find them alive, almost never solves these cases. In the more than 900 cases of forced disappearances in Veracruz, there are rarely arrests. In most cases, the files are left to collect dust, forgotten once the bodies are discovered, as though they no longer mattered, as though justice was just a slogan, part of the false publicity produced by the government of “prosperous Veracruz.”
The university community collapsed at the news. There was resignation, rage, and tears, but there was also apathy from the students who were not part of her class year. Another march was convened on Monday morning, while her remains were being transferred to her hometown of Jáltipan, in the south, where she had been the winner of various beauty pageants.
“There was not a year that she did not compete, she was great at chess, she was brilliant. I can’t imagine the pain her parents must be experiencing. They are wonderful teachers,” comments Gloria Montiel, Génesis’s classmate from high school in Nanchital, where the murdered woman’s parents teach classes in writing, literature, editing, and communications.
On Facebook, her university classmates created the page “Hasta Encontrarte Génesis,” [Until We Find You, Génesis], first to try to find her, then to share their experiences and memories, as a sort of memorial, but also as a means of encouraging protest and action, because whatever is happening in Veracruz, it needs to stop now.
Génesis Urrutia was known in the FACICO as Genevieve, a French name that she used as a pseudonym since it was close to her first name. Now, among her friends and companions it hurts to recall this alias since it seems to be saying ‘Génesis vive,’—in Spanish, Génesis Lives. It led to a hashtag, #GeneVive.
That is the fate of those who are young in Veracruz, be they doctors, lawyers, journalists, taxi drivers, vendors, housewives, students, teachers, workers, or unemployed. Here, unlike in the famous song by Agustín Lara, that tells how “someday, Veracruz, to your distant beaches, I must return,” many will never come back, because we do not even know if they are still with us or if they are covered with sand in some remote, forgotten, clandestine grave.
Violeta Santiago was born and raised in Veracruz, where being a journalist means risking your life daily. She studied in the School of Communications at the University of Veracruz and at University of Paderborn in Germany. Santiago nació y creció en Veracruz, en donde ser periodista es jugarse la vida día con día. Estudió Ciencias de la Comunicación en la Universidad Veracruzana y en la Universidad de Paderborn, en Alemania. There are days when she writes so much her wrists hurt, but she truly believes that journalism is a means by which society can improve its future.
This article was originally published by VICE under the title “Génesis Urrutia o de cómo ser joven en Veracruz es sinónimo de muerte” and is available at http://www.vice.com/es_mx/read/genesis-deyanira-urrutia-ser-joven-en-veracruz-es-sinonimo-de-muerte.
Translated with permission by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute