Five members of a Mexican street gang on Monday night were sentenced to almost 700 years in prison each for the kidnapping, trafficking, and murder of 11 women in the border city of Juarez, Mexico.
The women were forced into prostitution and then killed and dumped at a riverbed, in a case that observers said tested the strengths of new laws meant to help improve the country's beleaguered justice system.
The sentencing in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, ended a marathon case that began in April and was also considered a major barometer of judicial reforms passed seven years ago in Mexico. The case was heard in oral arguments, as opposed to the antiquated written litigation that was the norm in the country before the 2008 reforms.
It was also a test of justice for survivors of victims of femicide, or the extremely violent killings of women by men in circumstances related to a victim's gender. Ciudad Juarez became the international symbol for these types of crimes for hundreds of unsolved cases of disappeared or murdered girls and women.
The trial, which focused on 11 women abducted and murdered between 2009 and 2010, lasted three months, and called more than 200 witnesses to testify in court.
'We will find peace when we have certainty that these events will not happen again.'
Piles of evidence and even weekend court sessions resulted on July 19 in the conviction of the five suspects identified as members of Barrio Azteca, the street gang and armed wing of the formerly dominant Juarez Cartel. The men are Jesus Hernandez Martinez, Cesar Felix Romero Esparza, Edgar Jesus Regalado Villa, Jose Antonio Contreras Terrazas, and Manuel Vital Anguiano.
Each was given a prison sentence of 697 years, and each will also have to pay reparations to the victims' relatives set at 839,274 pesos, or $51,000 dollars, according to the current exchange rate.
Three female judges presided over the trial, which took place in a small hearing room with white walls, where the number of security cameras outnumbered that of attendees. The accused, dressed in grey sweatpants, sat on the right side of the room, while the plaintiffs sat on the opposite end.
A view of a border crossing at Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Image via VICE News)
A mother who lost her daughter said she still finds no comfort in the sentences handed down against the Barrio Azteca gang members. "We will find peace when we have certainty that these events will not happen again," Dora Maria Venzor, mother of Andrea Guerrero Venzor, one of the victims, told VICE News.
The bodies of the 11 women were among the first found and positively identified in a riverbed in the so-called "Valley of Death," home to a series of small towns in the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, and where many unidentified bodies of tortured and murdered women have been discovered.
The trial revealed how the accused tricked victims into a life of terror through fake job openings placed as ads in local newspapers. Once women fell into the trap, they sent their job applications filled with personal information and with hopes for a better life.
Criminals used the information to locate the women, abduct them, and force them into sex work.
The accused revealed the hotels and houses where they kept women in Juarez's old downtown, like Hotel Verde, where victims were forced to work as prostitutes for US nationals who crossed the border by foot.
Two different sets of photographs were also included as evidence, which VICE News observed over the course of several days in the courtroom. The first one showed the young women smiling and alive. The remaining pictures depicted the same women, their bodies lying lifeless along a river.
Relatives of women murdered in Ciudad Juarez march for justice in November 2003. (Photo by Guadalupe Perez/EPA)
Although the number of plaintiffs for the trial was small, the evidence and testimonies presented could help clarify more than 1,500 similar cases in the region that local activists say remain unsolved.
Such "disappearances" of young women, who are later found dead in barren lands near the city's outskirts, attracted the international spotlight on Ciudad Juarez beginning in the 1990s. More recently, the State of Mexico in the center of the country has become a flashpoint of violence against women.
'Authorities said they first had to finish with the narco problem, and then they would deal with the disappearance and murders of women.'
According to specialists, however, far from stopping, femicides in Ciudad Juarez have worsened in the last seven years, a phenomenon that locals blame on years of negligence and lack of attention from the authorities.
The spike in such killings in Juarez coincides with the declaration of "war" against powerful drug cartels by former President Felipe Calderon, whose term ran from 2006 to 2012.
Javier Juarez, a researcher at Madrid's Complutense University who has studied Ciudad Juarez femicides for more than a decade, said that after federal security forces were deployed in the Juarez border area to stop drug-related violence, femicides experienced an uptick.
"In five years, between 2008 and 2013, while the local, state and federal forces were in Ciudad Juarez, more women disappeared and were murdered than between 1993 and 2007," Juarez told VICE News.
According to the researcher's detailed records, from 1993, when the counting of femicide victims began, to 2007, more than 500 women were abducted and murdered. More than 700 women have suffered the same fate between 2008 and 2013, including the eleven victims in this month's historic trial.
Imelda Marrufo, representative of a group called Mesa de Mujeres, which also monitors the femicide crisis, said her organization warned the Mexican government in 2008 about the rise in violence against women.
"Authorities said they first had to finish with the narco problem, and then they would deal with the disappearance and murders of women, as something of less importance," Marrufo said.
'Now I know who killed my daughter and how they did it.'
The Mexican authorities' negligence, some argue, is because some officials were involved in the crimes themselves. The judges in this month's case ordered Chihuahua state investigators to pursue such possible leads in future cases.
"There's no doubt that the local, federal and state police, as well as the military are behind many of the murders. The problem is why none of these agents were called to testify," Javier Juarez told VICE News. "The trial is leading us to answers about what happened during all these years in which families and citizens could only speculate about the fate of their daughters."
Marrufo also said there is evidence that links security forces to the string of women murders.
"Agents of all three government levels were pointed out during the trial by victims who managed to escape. Those women said they were bought as objects by policemen and soldiers," she said.
After hearing the sentence, Venzor, the mother of Andrea Guerrero, said that her family was expecting life sentences for the accused, but said the 697 years they received "is a big step."
"It's a lot of time. They won't see any freedom again in their lives," Venzor said.
For Norma Laguna, mother to 19-year-old Idali Juache Laguna, who disappeared on February 23, 2010, the sentence means that she can finally find some level of peace. "Now I know who killed my daughter and how they did it," Laguna told VICE News.
Follow Luis Chaparro on Twitter: @LuisKuryaki