By Kent Paterson
In one way or another, Esther Chavez Cano has touched countless lives throughout the world. In the judgment of El Paso labor activist Victor Munoz, collaborating with the longtime Ciudad Juarez women’s rights activist shaped “who I am.”
Assigned to cover the Ciudad Juarez women’s murders for CNN in the 1990s, journalist Brian Barger was amazed by the boxes of newspaper clippings about the femicides Chavez had collected. Long before few cared, the founder of the March 8 Feminist Group was methodically documenting and publicly denouncing the rape-murders of young women whose bodies were dumped on the desert outskirts of Ciudad Juarez.
Profoundly moved by the crimes, Barger quit the reporting beat and helped Chavez found Casa Amiga, Ciudad Juarez’s rape crisis and domestic violence center, back in 1999. The experience, Barger said recently at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces (NMSU), “changed my life.”
Suffering from cancer, Cha-vez was honored at a November 9 NMSU ceremony attended by Munoz, Barger and other friends who gathered to celebrate the life of a Mexican feminist whose legacy will endure in the university’s library, which now contains the Esther Chavez Cano Papers 1990-2006.
Personally donated by Chavez, the papers cover the history of the Ciudad Juarez femicides as well as other developments related to women’s and labor issues in the Mexican border city.
“NMSU is profoundly honored to accept the donation of the Esther Chavez Papers to the Rio Grande Historical Collections of the library, said Dr.
Waded Cruzado-Salas, NMSU executive vice-president and provost. Praising Chavez’s leadership, Dr. Cruzado-Salas said the human rights advocate’s work assured that the “voices of the silenced” wouldn’t be forgotten.
In an interview with Frontera NorteSur after the emotional celebration, Chavez reflected on the long struggle of Ciudad Juarez’s women to combat gender violence and win justice. Chavez’s best-known accomplishment was the establishment of the non-profit Casa Amiga as an institution of survival and healing for violence-tormented women and children.
Struggling out of an old house near the city’s downtown for many years, Casa Amiga now occupies a large, modern facility in the southern section of the city that serves thousands of clients every year. Casa Amiga has inspired the creation of similar centers in a city where battered and assaulted women once had nowhere to turn. Still not satisfied, Chavez said she would like to establish a second center.
“I don’t know if I have time, but it’s urgent for me to open another (Casa Amiga) where we were in the city before, Chavez affirmed, “because the distances are such and the poverty is so great that a woman from the (other) side of the city who wants to visit us has to spend half her salary in a day just to go, because she has to take three buses, which are expensive.”
Observing Ciudad Juarez grow from economic investment and the North American Free Trade Agreement, Chavez contended that the city’s workers have not enjoyed the fruits of the boom. In Chavez’s view, Ciudad Juarez is saddled with a deadly underdevelopment that results in bizarre tragedies like this year’s street cave-ins which killed a young girl who was walking to school, Jazmin Garcia, as well as a man who tried to rescue the 12-year-old child. “We are in the 21st Century,” Chavez said in an incredulous tone.
After weathering years of battles and negotiations with successive Chihuahua state and municipal governments, Chavez assessed the gains and shortcomings of the women’s movement. The seasoned activist cited as positive steps forward the creation of special prosecutorial divisions for women’s homicides and sexual crimes, a new domestic violence law, legal system reforms, and the involvement of national and international human rights organizations in the Ciudad Juarez women’s struggle.
Still, Chavez conveyed skepticism. “I ask myself constantly: If the mentality of judges and prosecutors doesn’t change, the law might be good but it won’t change anything.”
Crediting the present Chihuahua state government for not trying to undermine Casa Amiga, Chavez maintained the current authorities have a better understanding of the gender violence problem-to an extent. Chavez charged that a “lack of political will” or a “cover-up” means scores of rape-murders linger in impunity.
“We have a lot of corruption,” Chavez said. “It’s not because I say it.
You can see it in any newspaper you open up: an ex-cop kills a woman or an ex-cop was seen kidnapping... there’s a cop involved in many of the Juarez crimes. It’s known there is a pact between the police and those that sell drugs. A lot remains to be done.”
Just days prior to Chavez’s appearance at NMSU, a young mother, 22-year-old Claudia Elizabeth Gallegos Serranos, was found strangled to death and her body burned in Ciudad Juarez, according to press accounts.
Questioning official statistics of the crimes, Chavez openly pondered: “Who are the real victims? How many disappeared are there in the city?”
Among others who were on hand in Las Cruces to honor Chavez was Paula Bonilla Flores, the mother of 1998 murder victim Maria Sagrario Gon-zalez Flores. In a separate public presentation sponsored by the NMSU student group Advocates to Stop Chihuahua Femi-cides, Bonilla Flores retold the history of her daughter’s brutal slaying and the long struggle for justice that followed it.
In 2005, Sagrario’s family encouraged Chihuahua state police to arrest a suspect in the crime, Jose Luis Hernandez, who was sentenced to 28 years in prison for the young woman’s murder last year. But Bonilla Flores, who said she was only notified of the sentence after making a special trip to the state prosecutor’s office, quickly added that several other suspects in Sagrario’s slaying were still free.
In May 2007, prompted by the numerous irregularities in the murder investigation of her daughter, Bonilla Flores filed a complaint against the Mexican government with the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the official human rights agency of the Organization of American States. Closer to home, Bonilla Flores and other relatives of femicide victims recently painted emblematic pink-background crosses along Ciudad Juarez’s new Camino Real highway and, inspired by the Argentine mothers of the disappeared, began holding regular protests on the first Thursday of every month outside the offices of the Office of the Chihuahua State Attorney.
Like Chavez, Bonilla Flores is appalled by the efforts of some to sweep the murder cases under the rug or portray them as a “myth” or “black legend” that have stained Ciudad Juarez’s reputation.
“My daughter Sagrario is not a myth. I didn’t make it up that I had a daughter named Sagrario. I didn’t make it up that she was murdered in such a way,” Bonilla Flores said in an interview after her well-attended talk.
“My daughter existed, and I would tell you all to believe in the families and not in everything the authorities say. We have the truth in our hands and in the case files of the victims. There are no advances, nothing is resolved and there are no real investigations.”
In Esther Chavez Cano’s worldview, justice for Sagrario Gonzalez and many other wo-men is truly an issue that transcends borders. “There’s a lot to do, but there many more voices demanding justice, demanding changes. I think this is important. In spite of everything, more discordant voices are being born that say, ‘I don’t agree with this, I don’t want this’,” Chavez said. “Although you are Americans and we are Mexicans, the murdered women are the world’s murdered women, because women are killed all over the world. We have to join together to bring an end to this.”
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.