In Juarez, Expiring Justice

Ramona Morales displays a family photo taken on the 15th birthday of her daughter Silvia, who was killed a year later.
Ramona Morales displays a family photo taken on the 15th birthday of her daughter Silvia, who was killed a year later. (By Manuel Roig-Franzia -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 14, 2007

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico For 13 years, June 14 has brought tears, tortured memories and enduring pain to Griselda Salas.

It was on that date, in 1993, that her 16-year-old sister, Guadalupe Ivonne Salas, disappeared. Guadalupe Ivonne's body turned up less than a week later in a park in this dusty, windswept industrial city near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Guadalupe Ivonne, who was raped and strangled, was one of the first victims in Mexico's grisliest modern-day crime mystery -- the murders of more than 400 women in the past 14 years in Ciudad Juarez, many of the bodies dumped in the desert, horribly mutilated. The killings, mostly of poor young factory workers, have inspired two Hollywood motion pictures and enraged human rights groups, which have filled volumes with accusations of corruption, botched investigations and official negligence.

Yet the mystery remains unsolved.

Now the earliest of those cases are quietly slipping off legal dockets because Mexico, unlike the United States and many European countries, has a statute of limitations for murder. At a time when U.S. prosecutors are resurrecting Civil Rights-era murder cases -- some more than 40 years old -- Mexico is closing murder cases forever after 14 years. With each passing day, it appears likely that a legal technicality may end a quest to unravel a string of slayings that shocked the world.

"It is totally and absolutely grotesque to think that murderers could be enjoying their freedom because of this law," said Jaime Garcia Chávez, a Chihuahua state legislator who is pressing to abolish Mexico's statute of limitations. "It is inexcusable."

Once filled with optimism, buoyed by support from the likes of actresses Jane Fonda and Sally Field, feminists and lawmakers here are demoralized. Esther Chávez Cano, founder of Juarez's first rape and domestic violence counseling center, laments "a worrying silence" about cases that once commanded banner headlines. Few here are optimistic, even though the looming deadlines for dozens of Juarez cases have set off a last-minute race to revive long-dormant investigations.

An Argentine forensics team commissioned to look into the murders, drawing on experience from investigations of Argentina's "dirty war" and the Salvadoran civil war, is expected to release a damning report later this year that will illustrate the almost impossible task faced by prosecutors. The Argentines have found body parts carelessly left for years on the floors of medical examiner's offices, heads with no matching bodies, bodies with no matching heads and a mishmash of unlabeled corpses tossed into mass graves at paupers' cemeteries.

"It's basically a huge mess," forensic archaeologist Mercedes Doretti, the team leader, said in an interview.

Garcia Chávez's effort to give investigators more time to untangle that mess by extending the statute of limitations, a gambit he considers a long shot, has already come too late for Jesica Elizalde, a slain journalist whose murder case expired March 14. The case of a factory worker, Luz Yvonne de la O Garcia, went off the books April 21, as did the murder of an unidentified woman on May 12. Dozens more will follow in the coming months and years.

The next could be Guadalupe Ivonne Salas, though prosecutors say they may be closing in on a suspect -- a promise that her family is reluctant to believe after years of dashed hopes.

Salas, a petite 16-year-old, shared a single bed in a cinder-block shack with her infant daughter and her mother, Vicky Salas. The family, like thousands of others, was drawn to Ciudad Juarez by the maquiladoras -- assembly plants, most of them owned by U.S. companies -- that sprung up blocks from the border because of an abundance of cheap labor and that transformed the town into the fourth most populous city in Mexico.

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