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A Bell Tolls for Justice
November 25, 2009

A bell now rings out for justice from the besieged heart of what is perhaps the world's most violent city. Concluding a 13-day trek from Mexico City, a group led by women brought the large bell fashioned from keys donated in memory of femicide victims to embattled Ciudad Juarez early this week.

Written by Staff , Frontera NorteSur

A bell now rings out for justice from the besieged heart of what is perhaps the world's most violent city. Concluding a 13-day trek from Mexico City, a group led by women brought the large bell fashioned from keys donated in memory of femicide victims to embattled Ciudad Juarez early this week.

In one of the final acts of the Exodus for the Life of Women that kicked off in the Mexican capital on November 10, a caravan of women's activists and their supporters stopped at Ciudad Juarez's Campo Algodonero, or cotton field, where the bodies of eight murdered women were discovered in November 2001. There, the participants erected new crosses honoring the victims to replace previous ones which had mysteriously disappeared.

Later on the clear but wind-chilled day of November 23, the group reassembled in front of the local offices of the Chihuahua Women's Institute. On the windows of the government  building, posters of long-missing young women have been joined by newer ones from 2009 that
seek information on the whereabouts of teenagers Maria Guadalupe Perez and Perla Ivonne Aguirre Gonzalez, among numerous others.

Led by an advance contingent of mothers of murdered and missing women who held up a big placard with pictures of their loved ones, the Exodus moved slowly down a main downtown thoroughfare. Dressed in black, victims' relatives rang the bell incessantly from the flatbed of a truck.

"Girls have never stopped disappearing and turning up dead," said marcher and longtime Ciudad Juarez resident Paula Flores. The violence in Ciudad Juarez has reached such levels, Flores told Frontera NorteSur, that "none of us is safe from something that might happen in the streets,"

Driven by organized crime, legal system breakdown and economic chaos, homicide rates for both women and men have far surpassed all previous records in 2009; innocent bystanders including children have been among the victims.

Flores' own daughter, 17-year-old Maria Sagrario Gonzalez, was abducted and murdered back in 1998, but justice is still elusive for the young factory worker and Sunday school teacher, Flores told Frontera NorteSur. A convict, Jose Hernandez, is serving 28 years for the crime, Flores said, but two alleged accomplices remain free.

In her daughter's memory, Flores set up a foundation that sponsors an annual posada, or traditional Christmas celebration, for the children of the working-class Lomas de Poleo neighborhood. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, this year's posada is scheduled for the afternoon of December 19. Last year, more than 400 children received toys and candies, Flores said.

As Ciudad Juarez's murder toll for the year nudged past 2,300 (including at least 128 women), several dozen demonstrators, some attired in black and pink while others sported painted faces and held aloof large card-board cut-outs of human figures with crosses, filed into a downtown swamped with pawn shops and payday-like lenders. Posters of disappeared persons stared out from street corners, while roving Mexican army patrols and city cops sweeping informal vendors from the streets stamped the badge of officialdom on the battered landscape.

Almost like clockwork, ambulances whirred through the streets, their sirens now as much as part of the city's sound ambience as the cumbias or commercial jingles blaring from storefronts.

Olga Esparza tugged a sign for her daughter, Monica Janeth Alanis Esparza, an Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez student who vanished from the campus on March 26, 2009. Although state authorities are working on her daughter's case, Esparza said, no leads are known and a priority needs to be placed on finding Monica and other missing women.

"We need help, foreign help," Esparza pleaded. "We need the FBI, we need the United Nations..because it's been a long time since these girls disappeared."

Arriving two days prior to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women celebrated each year on November 25, the Exodus also coincided with a landmark session of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San Jose, Costa Rica, where justices reportedly finalized a resolution on a case brought against the Mexican state by the mothers of three of the 2001 cotton field victims. Although the Court has not yet publicly announced its decision, the Mexican press reported last week that judges found the Mexican government responsible for the deaths of the women as well as the botched investigations which reeked of a cover-up.

In an interview with Frontera NorteSur, Norma Ledezma, coordinator for the Chihuahua City-based Justice for Our Daughters organization, said trying the cotton field murders in the Organization of American States' court was a "victory" for the mothers and those who represented them.

The mother of 16-year-old murder victim Paloma Angelica Escobar, Ledezma has been pressing to get her daughter's case into the Inter-American Court. Currently, the case is in the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in Washington, which could petition the Court to hear the matter by next year, Ledezma said.

"We are doing everything possible to get it in the court, "Ledezma added, "because after almost eight years, we've realized that justice doesn't come here."

Ledezma characterized the Exodus as a "bittersweet" journey of consciousness-raising that visited many states, local legislatures and town squares. Along the way, activists raised demands for political equality, sexual and reproductive freedom and the right to live a life free of violence, as guaranteed by international agreements like the Belem Do Para Convention.

In Guanajuato, activists protested against a law that criminalizes abortion even in instances of rape and health endangerment, while in Chihuahua City, the caravaneers participated in the First Encounter of Feminism and Women.

Yet even as the Exodus worked its way across Mexico on the old Camino Real, new atrocities were reported including the rape-murder of a 12-year-old girl in Zacatecas and the discovery of an unidentified woman's body in an arroyo in Parral, Chihuahua, on the very day the Exodus passed through the area.

Not long before arriving in Ciudad Juarez, on Friday, November 13, the teenage daughters of accused 1999 serial killer Jesus Manuel Guardado Marquez, or "El Tolteca," were brutally murdered in the border city. According to press accounts, Maria Concepcion Guardado Flores and sister Maria Guadalupe had been abandoned by their mother at an early age and raised in a city that's devoured so many families who once arrived with high hopes for the future.

Other sad news accompanied the caravan. A principal organizer of the Exodus, Irma Campos Madrigal, was the first woman to ring the bell in Mexico City, where the Chihuahua activist delivered stirring words at the beginning of the historic event, even though she was gravely ill with cancer. A prominent Chihuahua women's movement leader, co-founder of the March 8 Group and Women in Black activist, the 60-year-old Campos had been a leader in student, feminist and other political struggles dating back to the 1960s. A video produced in 2008 and available for viewing on You Tube commemorates Campos' life.

On Sunday, November 22, as the Exodus was preparing to pack up for Ciudad Juarez, Campos passed away in Chihuahua City. Organizers first considered postponing their scheduled entry into Ciudad Juarez, but ultimately decided to continue on with the bell. The decision to reach the border on November 23 was perhaps the most fitting tribute to a life-long activist whose last bits of strength were expended on the Exodus.

Fighting back tears, Campos' friend and former Chihuahua state legislator Alma Gomez  called Campos a "fundamental motor" of the Exodus. "(Campos) was a fighter, a rebel woman all her life, a feminist who fought against injustice and for the cause of women," Gomez said. "She also fought against a difficult disease. She is dead, but she is with all of us, because her life of rebellion is an example to all of us."

At the final Ciudad Juarez stop of the Exodus, a minute of silence for Irma Campos was held as the bell was hauled out to a temporary resting spot on Founder's Plaza behind the downtown Cathedral and in front of the old mayor's office. Campos' spirit was evident in women like Norma Ledezma who vowed to maintain their long battle for justice.

"We will continue this for them, for our daughters, until the end of our lives," Ledezma said. "We will continue struggling, because as long as we are alive, our daughters will live on."

Additional sources: Norte, November 24, 2009. Articles by Carlos Huerta and editorial staff. El Universal/EFE, November 20, 23 and 24, 2009. El Paso Times, November 17, 22 and 23, 2009. Articles by Diana Washington Valdez. Lapolaka.com, November 23, 2009. El Heraldo de Chihuahua, November 20, 2009. El Diario de Juarez, November 16, 17 and 19,  2009. Articles by
Sandra Rodriguez, Gabriela Minjares and editorial staff. Cimacnoticias, November 19, 2009. Articles by Lourdes Godinez Leal, Paulina Rivas Ayala and Dora Villalobos Mendoza. La Jornada, November 19, 2009. Proceso/Apro, November 19, 2009. Article by Gloria Leticia Diaz.

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