The Reyes Salazar Family and the Hidden Toll Behind Mexico’s Execution-meter

On Friday, February 25, the bodies of Magdalena Reyes Salazar, her brother Elias Reyes Salazar, and his wife Luisa Ornelas Soto were found dumped along the side of a road in Guadalupe, Chihuahua, just outside of Ciudad Juarez. In total, the Reyes Salazar family matriarch, Sara, has lost six family members to the execution-meter: four children, one grandson, and a daughter-in-law.

In the prologue to his new anthology, Pais de Muertos (Country of the Dead), renowned journalist and Monterrey native Diego Enrique Osorno writes, “It’s not the same to count the dead as it is to recount our dead’s stories.” Osorno has joined the growing number of Mexican journalists who criticize the ejecutometro or “execution-meter,” which refers to the running tallies of drug war dead kept by the government and newspapers. Thanks to the public’s obsession with the execution-meter, Mexico’s murdered citizens are metaphorically heaped together into the drug war’s mass grave. With an average of one person killed every hour in the drug war (and eight per day in Ciudad Juarez alone), newspapers don’t even bother to report the dead’s names, let alone the circumstances of their lives and deaths. They simply report the gruesome manner in which the bodies were found: if the body was found whole or in pieces, clothed or naked, which body parts were missing, how they were tortured before they were killed, which of all of the injuries was the fatal blow…

Mexico’s skyrocketing homicide rate means that the bodies are dumped in the metaphorical mass grave with increasing frequency. Journalists find it more and more difficult to keep up with the death toll, let alone carry out a serious investigation into individual murders. Moreover, argues Proceso reporter Marcela Turati in her new book Fuego Cruzado (“Crossfire”), “When violence competes with itself and habitually breaks its own record, it stops being news.”

The growing heap of bodies also means that the government, notorious for its dismal conviction rate, feels even less pressure to investigate individual murders. Instead, it issues press releases and statements arguing that the dead were members of organized crime, as if that meant that their murders were justified and don’t merit an investigation. “If the dead was a young man, surely he was a gang member; if it was a cop or a soldier, surely he was an infiltrator; if it was a citizen on the street, what was she or he doing walking at the scene of the crime?” explains Roberto Zamarripa, a journalist for the national daily Reforma. “Model students displayed as hit men; tortilla vendors turned into shooters; construction workers treated like dangerous crooks.”

The government’s lack of investigation into the cases, combined with proven cases where the government deliberately painted innocent civilian victims as drug traffickers, leads journalists like Turati to question the President’s unsubstantiated statistic that 90% of all drug war dead were drug traffickers and cartel accomplices who deserved to die. Casting further doubt on the government’s claim is the fact that in 2010, the government only opened investigations in 5% of the country’s murders. The other 95% were never investigated at all.

The Reyes Salazar Family Tragedy

The execution-meter currently stands at over 35,000 drug war deaths since President Felipe Calderón took office just over four years ago. That statistic’s failure to accurately portray the real-life consequences of the drug war for Mexico’s citizens was highlighted the same weekend Turati and Osorno launched their books. On Friday, February 25, the bodies of Magdalena Reyes Salazar, her brother Elias Reyes Salazar, and his wife Luisa Ornelas Soto were found dumped along the side of a road in Guadalupe, Chihuahua, just outside of Ciudad Juarez. Authorities say that “narco-messages” were attached to the bodies that said that the three were killed for their involvement in organized crime.

The three dumped bodies would have ticked Mexico’s execution-meter up three more notches without any fanfare (and certainly without any investigation) were it not for the work Magdalena and Elias’ sister Josefina started three years ago, when she began campaigning against the militarization of Ciudad Juarez. The triple murder wouldn’t have made it onto the execution-meter at all if Josefina’s sisters Marisela and Claudia hadn’t continued Josefina’s fight for justice after Josefina herself was murdered in January 2010. The three cadavers were found covered with dirt and lime, leading authorities to believe that they were buried before they were dumped alongside the road. It is believed that the murderers dug up and dumped the bodies because of the pressure created by Marisela and Claudia’s protests. Had the murderers not done this, Magdalena, Elias, and Luisa would have been considered “disappeared,” not murdered, and disappeared persons aren’t counted on the execution-meter. Unlike murders, the government doesn’t even attempt to keep track of drug war disappearances. Bodies that are dissolved in acid, dumped into the sea, buried in cement, or dumped in clandestine mass graves disappear without even registering on the execution-meter, let alone in the press or the attorney general’s office.

In total, the Reyes Salazar family matriarch, Sara, has lost six family members to the execution-meter: four children, one grandson, and a daughter-in-law.

The family’s plight began in 2008, when the military arrived to occupy their state as part of “Operation Chihuahua.” Josefina, a well-known activist who protested against femicides and the Sierra Blanca radioactive waste site, opposed the militarization of her region. When the military arrested thirteen of her neighbors in mid-2008 and placed them under Mexico’s internationally criticized pre-charge detention (“arraigo”), Josefina joined a commission that met with human-rights-activist-turned-senator Rosario Ibarra to plead for their release. On August 14, 2008, Josefina spoke at a conference entitled “Forum Against Militarization and Repression.” She participated as “a political activist under attack by the military,” and during the forum she led a march against the soldiers’ presence. Just days later, on August 21, the military disappeared her son Miguel Angel.

Josefina declared a hunger strike to demand that her son be charged or released. The government released Miguel Angel shortly after Josefina began her protest.

Josefina’s victory was short-lived. In November, just three months after Miguel Angel’s ordeal, Josefina’s other son, Julio Cesar, was murdered at a wedding. Adrián Fuentes Luján, spokesperson for the Reyes Salazar family, told Upside Down World that a paramilitary squad entered the wedding, ordered everyone to lay down on the ground, and searched the crowd. “One of the men kicked Julio so he could see his face. He asked another man if he was the one they were looking for and he answered yes. Then he pointed his gun directly to the heart and fired a single shot,” says Luján. “The family believes that Julio Cesar’s death was in retaliation for Josefina’s and his own activism against the abuses of the militarization in the Valle de Juarez area.”

On September 4, 2009, the army arrested Miguel Angel once again. Two months after his arrest, the Federal Attorney General’s Office issued an arrest warrant, accusing Miguel Angel of working for the Juarez cartel. The arrest warrant “regularized” Miguel Angel’s arrest and allowed the government to imprison him until his trial. A year and a half later, Miguel Angel is still in prison, awaiting trial.

Throughout her struggle against the military—which was becoming more and more personal with each subsequent attack on her family—Josefina received death threats. In 2009, she was arrested for leading protests against the military. That year, she left her hometown of Guadalupe for a short period because she feared for her safety. However, she returned to run her business, a barbeque stand.

It was in front of that barbeque stand that unknown assailants executed her on January 3, 2010. Witnesses report that as she struggled with her murderers, one of them told her, “You think you’re so f–king cool because you’re with the organizations?” referring to her work with human rights organizations. Josefina’s family says that the people who murdered Josefina were “paramilitary commandos.”

The brutal attacks against the Reyes Salazar family didn’t end with the execution of its most vocal member. On August 18, 2010, unknown assailants executed Josefina’s brother Ruben Salazar Reyes as he headed to the store to buy milk for workers in his family’s bakery. In addition to being a prominent member of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution, Ruben had taken up Josefina’s cause, demanding justice for the murders of his sister and his nephew. His execution followed months of death threats.

Even after losing three family members to hitmen and a fourth to indefinite imprisonment, the Reyes Salazars refused to be silent. Two days after Ruben’s murder, his mother Sara and his sister Marisela led a Walk Against Militarization to demand justice for Ruben and three other Juarez activists who were murdered the day before Ruben was.

Sara and her remaining children refused to give up the struggle that Josefina started and Ruben continued. Their struggle was met with death threats from their enemies and deafening silence from the press, which was too busy covering headless cadavers hanging from bridges and abandoned mines stuffed with bodies—stories that attracted more readers than a humble family’s fight against militarization, impunity, and annihilation.

The Reyes Salazars’ plight made news once again on February 7, 2011, when gunmen kidnapped Magdalena and Elias Reyes Salazar and Luisa Ornelas Soto. Sara, 76, who witnessed the kidnapping along with her 12-year-old granddaughter, set up a protest encampment outside of a branch of the State Attorney General’s Office in Ciudad Juarez. Sara and her daughters Marisela and Claudia hoped that a hunger strike would pressure the government to either present the three disappeared persons or investigate the kidnapping.

The Chihuahua government, however, greeted their hunger strike with cruel distain. Even after unidentified assailants burnt down Sara’s home and the home of fellow anti-femicide activist Malú Garcia as they were on hunger strike outside of his office, Assistant Attorney General Jorge González Nicolás refused to meet with the women. Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission member Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson has called for an investigation into the arsons, because the assailants managed to burn down Sara’s humble cinderblock-and-sheet-metal home only one hundred meters (328 feet) away from the Guadalupe military barracks.

After nearly two weeks of hunger strike in front of González Nicolás’ office, the Assistant Attorney General still refused to meet with the Reyes Salazars, as did Governor Cesar Duarte. Marisela, Claudia, and Sara decided to increase the pressure, so they moved their protest encampment to Mexico City outside the Senate building. Coincidentally, they were camped in front of the Senate when Gov. Duarte arrived to deliver a report to Senators on his successes as governor. He still refused to meet with the Reyes Salazars, until opposition senators “hunted him down” and forced a meeting, which Duarte limited to ten minutes.

While the Reyes Salazars’ hunger strike failed to bring their loved ones home alive, it did, at the very least, allow them to give Magdalena, Elias, and Luisa a decent burial. Magdalena and Elias’ wake was held in the protest encampment in front of the Assistant Attorney General’s Office in Juarez. Magdalena and Elias’ brother Saúl explained that the wake’s location wasn’t so much a form of protest as it was a necessity: “We held their wake in front of the Prosecutor’s office because we don’t even have a house, they were vandalized, and my mom’s home was burnt down.” On February 26, amidst cries of “Long live the Reyes Salazar family! Death to the criminal state!” Chihuahua bid farewell to three more human rights activists, “collateral damage” in Mexico’s war on drugs.

The Reyes Salazar family, “or what’s left of us,” as Saúl said during his siblings’ funeral, are considering offers of asylum from various countries, including Venezuela, Spain, France, Canada, and the United States. Regarding the United States’ offer, Marisela says, “I wouldn’t accept the offer to go live there, because the United States plays a big role in everything that is happening to us.” Whether or not the family decides to flee the country, Marisela explains why they won’t cease their fight for justice: “I’m scared for my family, but I’m even more scared of continuing to watch so much blood run in the streets of my city. Because if we don’t cry out, they’ll still kill us, and if they kill us, let it be for something, so that the world hears what is really happening in Mexico.”

Blaming the Victims

In Juarez, where more people died in the drug war in 2010 than did in the war in all of Afghanistan over the same period, the government hasn’t found it very difficult to avoid investigating murders of innocent civilians. Cases in which security forces are clearly to blame, such as the shooting of civilians at military checkpoints, cause national scandals. However, cases where the assailants are not readily identifiable, such as the Reyes Salazar murders, fail to attract media attention because they are automatically written off as cartel-on-cartel violence.

Nonetheless, the Reyes Salazar family refuses to let their dead turn into nameless ticks on the execution-meter. They’ve made it difficult, if not impossible, for the government to avoid carrying out at least a superficial investigation into the murders. So the government is falling back on an old stand-by: blame the victims. To some extent, the strategy worked in Josefina’s murder. Because the government accused (but never convicted) Josefina’s son, Miguel Angel, of having worked for the Juarez cartel, even the Chihuahua Human Rights Commission’s de la Rosa Hickerson believed at one point that the most likely culprit in Josefina’s murder was the Sinaloa cartel.

“Before, they only applied sanctions to those persons who were involved in the drug trafficking business,” he explained following Josefina’s murder. “But starting in July [2009] we’ve been warning that they’ve extended their war to the destruction of the families of those who had illicit or licit business with the opposing cartel. In Josefina’s case, a son (Miguel Angel) worked as a mechanic for La Linea [of the Juarez cartel].”

The appearance of “narco-messages” on the bodies of Elias, Magdalena, and Luisa has given the Chihuahua state government the opportunity to wipe its hands completely of the investigation into the murders. Assistant Attorney General González Nicolás says that his investigation points to the Sinaloa cartel as the most likely culprits of the triple homicide. Therefore, he argues, the case falls into federal jurisdiction, not his state’s. “It’s clear to us that organized crime participated [in the murders],” he argued. “There’s no doubt, because of the data and proof that we have.” In the meantime, he told the press his office is investigating the Reyes Salazar family to see if they have any criminal records.

The Reyes Salazar family scoffed at the suggestion that the three victims worked in organized crime. Elias and Luisa “were handicapped, they needed help walking. How could they possibly believe that [they worked for organized crime], if their whole lives they humbly worked in their bakery?” The family has insinuated that the narco-message, which claimed that Magdalena, Elias, and Luisa were murdered because they collaborated with a drug cartel, was planted after the bodies were dumped. They say that the witnesses who discovered the bodies alongside the road told them that they never saw the narco-message. “We will not permit—as often happens—that the name of this family of activists be tarnished by framing this unfortunate event as [the result of] a supposed relation with organized crime,” the family said in a statement.

While it’s still not clear who killed the six Reyes Salazars, the family and international human rights organizations agree that the government is responsible. The Reyes Salazars are demanding the resignation of González Nicolás, “who is directly responsible for these crimes against humanity, due to his inability to carry out his responsibilities and for not guaranteeing the life and security of the family and the people of Juarez.”

The government’s obvious indifference to the plight of the Reyes Salazar family was highlighted by the speed in which the government says it solved ICE agent Jaime Zapata’s murder. The government’s priorities weren’t lost on Marisela, who said, “In a couple of days they caught Agent Zapata’s murderer because he’s from the United States. My siblings’ murders need to be solved. Those responsible must be caught and tried.”

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, lashed out at the government for failing to protect Chihuahua human rights defenders. It noted that Sara Salazar and Malú Garcia, whose homes were burnt down while they were on hunger strike, were granted protection measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2008. Human Rights Watch argues that federal and state authorities did not comply with their obligations to protect Garcia and Salazar and their families. Had the government complied, perhaps Salazar’s children, grandson, and daughter-in-law—all of whom were murdered while she was under IACHR protective measures—would still be alive.

“Even though it’s not possible to confirm that the authorities are actively complicit with organized crime,” argued Garcia, “it can be said that they are [complicit] by omission, because they have not advanced in investigations into various attacks against human rights defenders, whom they’ve even blamed for attacks.”

Reyes Salazar family spokesman Adrián Fuentes Luján agrees with Garcia. “The Prosecutor’s Office is limited and incapable of combating the powerful criminal group that harasses the Reyes Salazar family,” he argues. “The State is the only one responsible for the massacre that’s being committed against them.”

Photo Courtesy of Agencia Reforma.