Seeking justice for Mexican victims

Al Jazeera speaks to a lawyer who is working to investigate the deaths of 18 men in Mexico, including members of her family, who drug cartel gunmen mistook for members of a rival gang.

The victims were mostly mechanics who were on their annual beach holiday. Upon arrival in Acapulco gunmen from a drug trafficking organisation mistook them for members of a rival criminal organisation. The men, all from western Michoacan state, went missing in September 2010. Their badly decomposed bodies were discovered on November 2, 2010 stacked up in a mass grave near Acapulco.

One year after the crime was committed, Rodriguez says state and federal authorities have failed to investigate the murders and the crime remains unpunished, despite promises by President Felipe Calder?n that those responsible would be brought to justice.

I spoke with Rodriguez and asked her what the tragedy meant for her family:

Rodriguez: For us it has been devastating. Since then we have felt so much sadness which I can not describe with words. Each moment or thing I do makes me remember them because they were in every part of our lives. The criminals took away people from our family – our brothers, our uncles, our fathers and sons. Now when a car passes we turn and look for them. Where they used to work, we can’t help but look and see if they are still there. At family gatherings, we wait for them before we start to eat. But they never come. It’s as if they cut out a part of each of us. 

Contreras: It seems that you have had to be very strong for your family.

Rodriguez: For me, they were my brothers. And I miss them very much. But I have had to be strong because I am the lawyer in the family. It has fallen on me to take care of things and bring the cases to the attention of justice officials. I have tried to deny my feelings of sadness, but it has been impossible. It makes me feel decieved by Mexico. We thought that Mexico was a beautiful place and that everything was fine.

After this happened, you realise that in reality there is much impunity in Mexico. More than a year has gone by and we have not had justice. Two people are still missing. And up to this day, the authorities have not searched for them. An anonymous person found the bodies and called us – it was not the authorities. There has been no investigation, we have not received justice.

Contreras: You went to see President Felipe Calderon. What did he tell you?

Rodriguez: We went to talk with the president in Mexico City and he received us. When we began to talk with him, he really did not know about the case. He had the facts wrong. He thought some of the disappeared men were responsible for the crime. We realised that he was getting bad information. What can you hope for with that?

He promised that he was going to help us find them. But there are still two men missing and we have no faith that he will keep his promise. 

Contreras: How many times have you gone to Mexico City seeking justice from the federal government?

Rodriguez: I have lost count of the times I’ve gone. The case is now before the attorney general’s office. They keep saying the investigations are in progress. That’s all we know up to now. In reality we don’t see any advances. 

Contreras: How would you characterise the justice system when it comes to these sorts of cases?

Rodriguez: It is characterised by impunity, needless bureaucracy and a lack of any real effort by authorities to resolve these murder cases.

Contreras: What are the next steps you will take?

Rodriguez: We have sent formal petitions via email. Right now we are not able to do another protest march in the streets. Now I understand when other groups decide to conduct protest marches because there is no other way the authorities will listen to you. If you take the legal routes, they do not listen. So you have to demonstrate. That’s the only thing that gives us results.

After three or four marches, the federal authorities began to take us seriously. But even with our protests they never bothered to search the area where the bodies were found. When the bodies were found, a few days later other bodies were discovered nearby. We demand that the authorities tell us where the missing men are. We demand they tell us where they are and what happened to them. Juan Jesus Ortiz Chavez, 37 years old, and Javier, who is 25 years old.

Contreras: So you went to Acapulco to see the bodies shortly after they were discovered?

Rodriguez: Yes, I was there.

Contreras: What was that like for you?

Rodriguez: It was very difficult. We had to see all the photos of the dead, all their clothing in order to identify them. When we got to Acapulco the bodies were very decomposed because Acapulco does not have a decent forensics office. All the bodies were laid out on the ground. They were not refrigerated. You could smell the rotting bodies five blocks away. It smelled of death.

Contreras: How has all this changed your life? 

Rodriguez: It has not just changed my life, but those of everyone in our families. We are all afraid to leave our state. Although I am a lawyer, I do not believe in the Mexican justice system. There has been no investigation. Insecurity is the rule of the day. Ask the authorities to bring justice. And please ask them to listen to the people, who are too afraid to denounce such crimes. Too afraid to ask for help from the police.

The media tried to call them delinquents even though we documented that they were honest people, that they had honest work. They had families and they would go each day [to] pick up their children at school. Now those children have no fathers and their mothers are widow[s], who are trying to make ends meet economically.

Contreras: If you have come across so much impunity, such a lack of a real response, why are you still seeking justice?

Rodriguez: Because I have the hope that someone will listen. In the end, I do not want to think so badly of my Mexico. I love being from Michoacan, I love being Mexican. So I have hope that somethings will eventually change in Mexico.