This month we present an interview with Alma Gomez Caballero, member of the Center for the Human Rights of Women (CEDEHM), from Chihuahua. The CEDEHM legally represents victims and families of femicide, enforced disappearances, torture, people trafficking, sexual and domestic violence, and furthermore litigates in the international and national sphere for protection measures for human rights defenders. The members of the Center explain that the work they do takes place in a context of violence in the state of Chihuahua, which claims a high rate of murders and threats against human rights defenders.
According to the Center, Chihuahua is characterized by impunity, absence of political will on the part of state institutions, resource constraints as well as the constant threats from the main groups of power in the state. Due to threats, harassment and various security incidents, members of the organization have had precautionary measures issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights since 2008.
Social fighter and woman human rights defender
My name is Alma Gomez Caballero, and I am the oldest of five children. I was born in Mexico City but have lived almost all my life in Chihuahua. I was raised in a leftist and tenacious family so I have been aware of social movements since I was small. I am a teacher but now I am retired.
I studied at the Normal Rural Ricardo Flores Magon and participated as a student in the mobilizations of the 50s and 60s. In those years the struggles were for land, social security, trade union democracy and to demand that universities and colleges were more democratic spaces. After meeting the state's response to our demands with the slaughter in Plaza de las Tres Culturas [the Square of the Three Cultures] of 1968, I joined MAR, el Movimiento de Acción Revolucionaria [Revolutionary Action Movement], a guerrilla organization. I was detained by the White Brigade in 1973, tortured and imprisoned without trial until 1976. In the autumn of 1973 arrested colleagues and partners began to disappear. It is said that there were more than 500 persons missing from that time. I left prison due to a presidential decree, thanks to the pressure from the Popular Defense Committee of Chihuahua. At that time that it became clear to me that it was not possible to achieve a social transformation through armed action and so I joined the Popular Defense Committee of Chihuahua, which was a pioneer in invading lands in order to create housing colonies. When we detected a vacant lot, we invaded it, and then came the repression. In Chihuahua there are 5,000 fields that were won through this struggle. The first thing we did was to found a school for the children of the people who went to live there.
In 1998 I was the first leftist congresswoman in the local Chihuahua congress. In 1994, along with others, I founded El Barzón Chihuahua and in 2005 the Centre for Human Rights of Women, where I currently work.
Defending women rights
I've come a long way, and fought a long struggle for human rights without ever considering myself to be a human rights defender. Now I present myself as such. I understand defending human rights as teaching people about their rights and how to defend them. This means training, legal struggles, mobilization and advocacy to change public policies. Here we perform an active defense of human rights. Justice here does not walk alone; we have to help it walk and walk well. We continue to demonstrate in the streets, maintain political struggle and use peaceful civil resistance, but sometimes it is not so peaceful because there is always repression. There is always repression.
As an advocate of human rights of women what I do is basically empower women about their rights. The training I had in my family was that we women, are able, can and must participate in all areas of life. Since I can remember I heard about women who were heroines like Valentina Tereshkova [the first woman astronaut] or the Cuban revolutionary women changing the world. Like many women in this world and in Mexico, I have faced obstacles, but I have not felt that I could not overcome them. It has made things easier that my partner and I are in the same fight. I met him in these social struggles. We have come together and have shared the family duties and obligations, since we have four sons.
Since my participation with the Women Barzonistas, I have been worked for the rights of women. There we urged women to know their rights and get involved in the defense of the family assets. Later, in 1997, at the invitation of Esther Chavez Cano, who was the first to document the killings of women in Ciudad Juarez, I joined her in the fight against the murders and disappearances of women along with other organizations of Chihuahua. In 2002 we founded Justicia para Nuestras Hijas [Justice for Our Daughters]. Then, in 2005, we founded the Centre for Human Rights of Women to stop violence against women.
The start of El Barzón as part of the fight to preserve family heritage
El Barzón claims the right to housing, land, water and the environment, and is against genetically modified crops. El Barzón was born here in Chihuahua around 1991, as a peasant movement fighting to preserve their agricultural lands. Among them was my husband’s family. In 1994 problems with the banks arrived to Chihuahua, and people with mortgages could not afford to pay them. Then the movement spread through Mexico.
El Barzón functions through three main areas of the social struggle: the organization, the legal defense and peaceful civil resistance. This applies for cases in which there has already been a trial and it was lost due to the person’s ignorance or by the complicity of the justice system. A court order can be legal but may not be fair, because the economic problems are due to a crisis in the country that is not our responsibility. People stopped paying the bank because they lost jobs or because agricultural products came to Mexico at cheaper prices from abroad and they were unable to sell their crops, etc.
Through organization and civil resistance we were able to stop evictions. When the police came we were detained, beaten, but the problem was so widespread that some mayors decided they were not going to be collectors for the banks. Since the law commanded them to send police officials, then they would send only a couple of policemen to comply with the law. We earned time this way and many people could make proposals, reach agreements with banks and settle their debts. Later, with the violence and lack of security in Ciudad Juarez and in Chihuahua since 2007, many restaurants and businesses have closed. Many sweatshops [maquiladoras] have also closed and migrated to countries where they can pay less for the workers. Many people became unemployed and could not afford to pay their mortgages. There has been a reactivation in the fighting of El Barzón, but now we are with a more vulnerable sector of society, the unemployed workers.
A feature of Barzón in Chihuahua has been that we address the problems as a matter concerning the whole family. When people came to us, we told them this is not a male problem, but also for women and children and everyone has to come to the trainings. Often the children and the wife did not know about the stopped payments to the bank. This way, the women began to know their rights by attending, and we offered a gender approach to the debt problem.
Repression against social activism
Since I can remember, I have been repressed for fighting for social justice. My family has been repressed, and my partner also. I have always understood that wanting to change this country and the world is not an easy matter, that there would be repression; it comes along with the job. But knowing it does not mean it does not affect me. It is much worst when considering my children’s situation because I can accept the consequences of what I do, but that something could happen to them or to my grandchildren, that's just unbearable. For me, it has been fundamental to have my family participate in this process, and my children have been with us in the struggle, but they have also been beaten and repressed. My long life in this repressive and uncertain atmosphere has given me personal and collective tools to go ahead. I consider myself to be emotionally well.
I experienced an example of reprisal in 2012. That year my picture appeared on social networks with the text "wanted", like a criminal. This came from PRI's [Institutional Revolutionary Party] youth movement, the youth of the governor. It happened on my return from New York, where I represented the Centre for Human Rights of Women, CEDEHM. Along with more than 40 Mexican organizations we participated in the review of Mexico by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Upon my return there was a campaign against me and against the CEDEHM. They said that we did not want the problems to be solved, that we were speaking ill of Chihuahua and that we lived and profited from this. The maquiladoras [sweatshops] were leaving because we denounced femicide. People thought they had lost their jobs because of us. Why didn’t they tell them the maquiladoras were leaving because maquiladora workers were being paid less in other countries?
Here there is a tight control on the media, and they publish what the state government says. It is very difficult to present the topics we work for so we have to use national and international mechanisms for reporting.
In 2010 and 2013 someone broke our windows and entered the offices. A number of workers from the center have had their belongings stolen from their vehicles, and once they destroyed everything related to CEDEHM.
In the past years due to the work with relatives of missing persons and the psycho-social support we offer to victims, I have thought more about the issue of the risks we face. Enforced disappearances are an issue that involves a lot of vulnerability because when we believe that the responsibility lies within the authorities the risk is clear, but when you do not know who you are up against it is worse. We have had periods of insecurity. We take care of each other and we live with uncertainty, but that does not mean that we are restrained in our work. The problem is not fear. It is that fear dominates you. Once you can dominate it, you can go ahead.
The case of Marisela Escobedo
We began to work defending human rights defenders after accompanying cases like the one of Marisela Escobedo.
She was a businesswoman from Ciudad Juarez whose daughter disappeared. After filing the complaint and following the path that all the mothers and relatives of missing women have been through, she finds out through her own investigations that her daughter had been killed and identifies the murderer. He was detained. There was a trial and he was declared innocent. This was terrible for Marisela. It was at that time that she contacted us and we became her legal representatives. We appealed the sentence, had a new trial and the murderer was sentenced. But since he had been set free, we did not see him again.
Marisela dedicated her time for two years, to look for him, city by city, asking whether the authorities were looking for him. She realized that the search orders had been left on the desks. Eventually, she found him and he fled twice. She was forced to return to Chihuahua because the murderer was part of criminal groups and they began threatening her. Then she decided to set camp in the square opposite to the presidential palace declaring that she would stay there until they found her daughter’s murderer. 16 December 2010, she was murdered in that square. The next day, her business in Ciudad Juarez was burned, and her brother was kidnapped and later found dead. His son and others associated with her were threatened. The family had to proceed quickly with a funeral and flee to the United States.
The young man who told Marisela how he had heard his daughter's murderer confessing that he killed the girl was also killed. They murdered him and his mother. After the killing, we were in a very vulnerable situation at CEDEHM. We were at risk, because we had been the legal representative and had been with her in demonstrations and meetings with officials. Some workers left the center and it was difficult to find replacements, because nobody wanted to work here.
In December 2010 we had a tribunal of conscience for the murder. The verdict was that there had not been any justice neither for her daughter nor for Marisela, because her murderer had not been convicted. The murderer of Ruby, the daughter of Marisela, was never arrested. Later on he was killed in a clash between the army and a group of criminals. So he was murdered but there was no justice for them.
Marisela’s murder circled the world. The whole women's movement in Chihuahua was demanding justice. December 2010 the government presented a murderer and the murder weapon. A year later they presented another person. We know that the governor had a a lot of strong pressure to show results, because he was two months in office when she was murdered and an international avalanche of complaints came down. So, we are rather skeptical and continue to demand justice and ask which of the two men is the murderer. The response has been a smear campaign, saying we were defending criminals.
Demands to the Mexican government
We have asked the municipal government to include a gender perspective both in the urban development plan and the budgets. To the local public security we demand trainings in women's rights for local police so that they can address complaints of gender violence. Most women victims of violence turn to the municipal police.
To the state government we ask that it implements the state government plan, which was designed with a gender perspective because the women's movement presented proposals and we worked with the authorities to develop it. When there is not enough money, when there are cuts, they trimmed the budget in women’s programs first. We monitor the budgets and demand that the women’s institute has resources. To the congressmen at state level we ask them to allow us to participate before passing the Family Code and that the Commission on Equity, Gender and Family works with the women's movement in order to promote legislative changes and budgets that address the needs of women.
With prosecutors and the judiciary, there is a long, long pending list of issues we have. We need prosecutors, judges and magistrates to be trained in human rights with a gender perspective, to address and consider the international instruments that Mexico has signed and to take them into account when investigating, accusing and ruling.
At the federal level we monitor the implementation of the project for a Federal Criminal Code, that the current president is driving. We are concerned about the definition standards for some crimes. In Mexico City or in Chihuahua there are high standards, driven in part by the women's movement, but in other states it is not so. We want to know in which direction the unification will take, and we do not want to go backwards.
The Mexican government specializes in getting along well with the world by creating laws, a system for human rights, State Commissions, a National Commission, but whose actions leave much to be desired. It specializes in impressing, legislating, establishing but it doesn’t work.
We have a very bad experience with the Federal Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. We have been on alert since they were first implemented. They were established, formalized and opened their work with the case of the children of two of our colleagues, Ismael and Manuelita, who were killed on 22 October, 2012. It premiered poorly and was extremely bureaucratic. The family of Ismael and Manuelita were told that that if they wanted to continue in the mechanism, they had to give up the precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission. We said, no, we can not give them up. That is the only thing that can guarantee protection.
The support of the international community
The international stage has been fundamental to our work with the murdered women of Juarez. We have used instruments from the UN human rights system and we have also resorted to the Inter-American Human Rights System, not only in hearings to present the situation but also asking for precautionary and provisional measures for the protection of relatives of victims of enforced disappearance and for human rights defenders.
For us, all the momentum and support we have had from organizations like Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders or Peace Brigades International has been essential. We have worked with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and many other organizations, especially from Europe, Canada and the United States. What we fail to make known here, is known internationally. The governing officials begin to receive letters and emails and this has served as a tool to slow things down. The support from the organizations and international human rights organisms has been essential.
This work here at the CEDEHM and El Barzón is part of this great social movement that exists all over the country to change this society, and this world. We can´t go on like this. This country is falling apart and we must organize and mobilize to make changes in order to achieve a different future for our daughters and sons.
I look back and we are worse than 40 years ago when I decided to take up arms to change this country, but I also believe that the night is never darker than when the dawn is coming.
* This interview was conducted by Susana Nistal and translated by Annie Hint
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