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In Mexico, a Question of Guilt by Protestation

Stanley Pimentel, a former FBI agent who reviewed more than 300 murder case files as part of a U.N. investigation, said that was incorrect. "These were young women who were kidnapped, used for a while and cast away," he said. "In every case, simple, basic investigations had not been done and logical leads were not followed. There are people out there committing these crimes, and they are still out there."

On May 13, 2003, Neyra left the clothing shop where she worked but never made it home. After family members searched for her for three days, Neyra's stepfather, Jesus Argueta, called their relatives in Chiapas, and Neyra's cousin Meza flew to Chihuahua, 1,500 miles away.

Neyra Azucena Cervantes is mourned by her mother, Patricia Cervantes, left, her stepfather, Jesus Argueta, and their daughter Alejandra, 19. Argueta said police slapped him and told him to confess to her murder, but he refused. (Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)

Almost immediately, Meza said, the family became frustrated with police inaction and marched in front of the office of Solis, the attorney general. They carried signs and shouted that police were either behind the killings of Neyra and the other women or were protecting the killers.

Meza and the family met three times with Solis. Meza said that the meetings turned increasingly hostile and that during the last one, he told Solis that if he wasn't willing to investigate, he should quit and let someone competent do the job.

Meza said Solis was furious and told him: "You want the responsible person? You're going to have him very soon."

A week later, on July 14, after some bones and clothes were found in the desert, Meza and Neyra's mother, Patricia Cervantes, went to police headquarters and Cervantes identified Neyra's pants, shirt and tennis shoes. Cervantes said she began crying and screaming at the dozens of police officers there. It was then, they said, that the police started treating them as criminal suspects.

Police took Jesus Argueta, Cervantes's husband, for a polygraph test. About midnight, Argueta said, they drove him to a walled and gated police complex. There, he said, they slapped him and told him that he should confess to his stepdaughter's murder. He refused.

At the same time, Meza said, police took him to a different room in the same complex. He said a police officer told him, "We know that someone in the family killed Neyra. And tonight we are going to find out who that guy is."

For the next six hours, until dawn, a dozen or more police officers tortured him, Meza said. They made him strip, then wrapped him up like a mummy in 12-inch-wide bandages, leaving just enough space for him to breathe. He said they threw water on him, then shocked him with a cattle prod. They kicked him and forced spicy water up his nose, he said, and put a plastic bag over his head until he thought he would suffocate.

"I felt like I was dying," Meza said. "So I told them I would sign anything they wanted me to sign."

Meza said the police talked it over and agreed on a story for Meza to sign. According to his confession, he was sexually obsessed with Neyra, but she rebuffed him. So he paid two men $700 each to abduct Neyra and bring her to a house on the outskirts of Chihuahua. Meza met them there, bought a gun from them for $400 and borrowed a car from them. Then, according to the confession, he drove Neyra to the desert, where he raped her and shot her in the head.

Police acknowledge that they have never found those two men or the gun and car they say Meza used. Police also have no forensic evidence that Neyra was raped; Neyra's family wondered how police could determine from a few weathered bones that this was so. Meza said his confession was dictated to him by police officers who made up the story. His mother and other family members said Meza was with them in Chiapas when Neyra disappeared.

"They know I am not guilty," said Meza, 27, a stocky man in freshly pressed jeans and a polo shirt, sitting in a small prison conference room. "It's hard on me, but it's worse for my family."

Meza's mother and sister have moved to Chihuahua from Chiapas and are living in a small house near Neyra's family. They have sold property in Chiapas to pay attorneys to defend Meza. "They've done a lot to try to divide us, but we've stayed together," said his mother, Carmen Argueta.

"They took my Neyra," Cervantes said. "I will never forgive the people who took my daughter, or the police for not investigating."

Researcher Bart Beeson contributed to this report.

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