Ciudad Juárez, Mexico – The body of the 16-year old girl was found last month lying face down in a park near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Perla Cristal Garcia Ponte was released to her mother after being arrested the day before for public intoxication. Shortly after being returned to her family at 3:30 p.m., June 17, the teen ran away.
Next morning, her body was found in Chamizal Park, a well-traveled oasis in this city of brown and gray shades. Officials said she was strangled to death and found beneath a sign that said access to the area was for municipal use only.
The case of Garcia Ponte highlights a problem in Mexico that has been quietly pushed out of the public eye thanks in large part to the country’s ongoing drug war – that women are being murdered in the city at alarming high rate.
"Murders are rarely investigated and only 1 percent are even decided upon," said Irma Casas, director, Casa Amiga Esther Chavez Cano, a woman's rights advocacy and counseling center. And the situation seems to be getting worse, Casas said.
Juárez received worldwide attention in the early 1990s not only for an inordinate number of women missing, but the sadistic manner in which they were murdered.
And while the headlines have disappeared, the problem has not.
We need to have unity among women here to make our right to be free of violence.
Cecilia Espinosa of Red Mesa de Mujeres said officials have used the war on drugs to deflect attention from a problem that has actually worsened after the insertion of the military and federal police into Juárez.
Human rights organizations have been tracking the murder and disappearance of women in Juárez for nearly 20 years and the numbers are staggering, despite officials boasting the lowest murder rate in three years.
According to statistics provided by Casa Amiga, between 1993 and 2007 - before Mexican President Felipe Calderón escalated the war against the cartels in Juarez - there were a total of 385 women reported murdered. From 2008 through 2011, there were 789 women officially reported murdered, a more than 100 percent increase despite a saturation of military and federal police in the city. Through June of this year, 60 women have been killed, reports show.
Silvia, Najera, spokeswoman, for the Chihuahua State Prosecutor for Attention to Women Victims of Crime by Reason of Gender, said her office recognizes there is a problem and steps are being taken to address it. She said the higher numbers is not because more women are being kidnapped or killed, but because more people are reporting it.
“I’m sad and hurt as a woman,” said Najera. “But fortunately, there is an increase of women who are complaining and denouncing to the authorities all the abuses such as rape, abuse, and murder.”
She said there NGOs were created to address the problem. And there is a higher level of trust among women for the government’s efforts, so they are reporting it more.
“From the past 10 years to the last three, you can see an increase of complaints not because more women are being abused, but because more women are making complaints to the proper authorities,” Najera said.
Among these efforts was the establishment of the Chihuahua state office of Prosecution for attention to women, a governmental office that is responsible for receiving all complaints of crimes against women.
“We are responsible to demand that the woman’s human rights are being respected,and their guarantees be invoked,” Najera said.
But critics say the increase on violence against women is because of a long-running culture of impunity and corruption in Juárez.
Casas believes there is a concerted effort by the government to avoid the topic of violence against women in the media. She claims there is an agreement that keeping accurate statistics is daunting because of poor record keeping, institutional interests, public relations, and silence of the victims.
Casas said there has been a culture created in the police department by Chief Julian Leyzaola, a hard-charging military man credited with a significant drop in crime in what was until recently known as "The Murder Capital of the World." She claims police are over abusing their powers by storming into homes and sexually attacking women.
The chief's office did not return phone calls seeking comment.
"Leyzaola has given the police powers they don't have," Espinosa said.
Espinosa knows first-hand about the abuse of power she accuses law enforcement of. One night after work she got into her car when it was surrounded by four police pointing guns at her.
"Their commander got into my car and made sexual advances at me," she claims.
She said she still has emotional issues over what happened to her.
"I see I don't have the right to be safe," she said. "We need to have unity among women here to make our right to be free of violence."