Government gives mothers of slain women houses as compensation

Friday, September 17, 2004

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- The government of a northern Mexico state has promised to give free homes to 47 mothers of women killed in a string of sexually motivated slayings, angering some activists who say the gifts gloss over the lack of results in the criminal investigations.

Thirty families in Chihuahua state will receive the houses later this month, with the rest distributed after the new government takes office in October, said Victoria Caraveo, head of the Chihuahua Women's Institute.

Mexican authorities say 340 women have been killed over the past decade in Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.3 million people. About 90 of the victims were sexually assaulted, strangled and dumped in the desert surrounding this sprawling industrial city across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas.

The homes are being given to the families of 47 of the 90 sexual-assault victims. Only those who came forward received the help.

The 235-square-foot homes, made of concrete and tin, and surrounding lots are worth $12,000. The program also includes psychological, medical and legal support, as well as a monthly stipend of $160.

One activist said the homes and support program were nothing more than bribes to keep the families from publicly pressing for the crimes to be solved.

"The government knows of the great financial need these families have, and they are taking advantage of that," said Marisela Ortiz, of the not-for-profit Bring Our Daughters Back Home.

Some theorize the women were victims of a serial killer, drug smugglers or even organ traffickers. There have been more than a dozen arrests, but only one man -- an Egyptian resident of the United States -- has been convicted of killing one of the earliest victims.

Outrage over the authorities' failure to solve the crimes prompted families to unite and form dozens of organizations demanding justice. Their plight attracted international media attention and financial donations.

Many of the organizations disbanded after accusations that they were profiting from the killings. Now, mothers are divided between those who believe the only way the government can compensate them is by finding the killers and those who say the least the government can do is help them get back on their feet.

"What the institute wants is to have all the mothers be part of its program so they can continue covering up for the government's inability to find the true culprits," said Ortiz, a school teacher who became involved in the fight for justice when one of her students was killed.

After taking over the state-run women's institute almost two years ago, Caraveo began looking for ways to help those women affected by the killings.

Caraveo, who has long pressured authorities to solve the crimes, disagreed with Ortiz and said the goal of the program was to empower the mothers so they could continue demanding justice.

"To say something like that shows a total lack of respect for the pain a mother goes through after losing a daughter," Caraveo said. "What we're doing is offering services these mothers need and have a right to get."

The remains of Josefina Gonzalez's 20-year-old daughter, Claudia Ivette, were found along with those of seven other women in 2001. The daughter, a factory worker, earned the family's main income.

"Even with all the pain of losing her, I had to find work just to be able to put food on the table," said Gonzalez, who earns $10 three days a week as a maid.

Gonzalez said she receives a monthly stipend of $160 from the state and a monthly pension of $20 from the factory where her daughter worked.

"A house or money won't bring my daughter back, but if there is help, then it should go to those of us who really need it," said Gonzalez, who lives in a borrowed, two-room adobe house with four relatives.

The houses are located on 1,600-square-foot lots in Los Ojitos, a dusty, sun-scorched neighborhood surrounded by bare mountains in southern Juarez.

Julia Caldera, whose 16-year-old daughter Maria Elena was killed in 2000, said she had lost hope authorities would find the killers. Living in a scrapwood shack in the Anapra slum, Caldera said she was on the waiting list for a new house.

"Maybe it's just another lie because this government is on its way out," said Caldera, who lives with her husband, six children and two grandchildren. "We have to wait and see if the government can keep one of its promises."

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