Jeff Smith 12:15 p.m., April 24
- Community Blog
The Vanishing Women of Baja
Women vanish around the world every day. Some women are simply never heard from again, while others are found buried in a shallow grave. A number of women are trafficked for the want of man, while others are taken on their path to a new home. Tracking how many women fall victim to such things is difficult, as the location, reason, or cause vary greatly. Some countries have no method of tracking the violence against women, while others have no desire to do so. Fighting these evils is an everyday battle, as some cultures continue to treat women as second rate citizens.
Some cities in Mexico have seen horrible epidemics of such violence, such as Ciudad Juárez over the last 20 years. Cases of missing and murdered women have not slowed in Juárez as media may portray, women still disappear and are murdered in this border area at a high rate.
While not all border areas are plagued with such an epidemic, an increasing number of cases have risen on the western end of the border. Women in the furthest northwestern Mexican state of Baja California have been kidnapped or killed at an alarming rate in recent years.
When I started writing for the San Diego Reader in early 2012, I attempted to start raising more awareness on cases I came across of missing women and children. While my means of action were limited, I was able to draw some attention to the cases by writing about them and using social media. I created missing posters for missing children and women, as well as passing around tip-lines to call in with information.
Several cases of high-school and college age females who had been killed or gone missing had started to stack up by late summer of 2012. Many of the cases were eerily similar. A few were solved, yet most were not. It seemed all it took was time for the faces of the women to disappear into history, only to be remembered by friends and family.
Cases of women disappearing or being murdered in the area at this time were not overly abundant, but surfaced at a consistent rate. By the start of fall, more people started to notice the number of women who had vanished for one main reason. Many of the women who were missing or murdered were not the average unidentified migrant. These women were young students and professionals.
On September 4th, the bodies of two college age girls were found murdered near Ensenada. On September 16th, another young woman who worked as an oceanographer was found killed nearby.
Ironically, the case that brought major media attention to the issue was a runaway. Magaly Salazar Brazo helped the issue as her disappearance brought on marches and protests to fight femicide. However, her self-inflicted disappearance did the overall issue harm, as authorities went on to claim many of the missing women were simply runways just like Magaly. (Many now think Magaly pulled off the stunt for publicity in her modeling career)
Authorities in Tijuana and Baja California have repeatedly downplayed the issue of missing and murdered women. Officials almost always attest the cases to prostitution, drug use, or runaways. It is true that that Tijuana is a hotspot for drug trafficking and prostitution, but the lives of women should not be expendable to such businesses.
Some men in border areas do treat women as a much lesser being. For those involved in drug-trafficking, women are often seen as expendable. Females get involved with narcos for different reasons, yet receive little respect from the men they accompany.
While runways can be attested to some of the missing women, it can hardly be used as an excuse for most. The culture in border cities is like no other. Women are moved to these areas with family members, sometimes against will. Some take it into their own hands to move back to where they came from without telling a sole. Others disappear overnight into the United States as they look for a new life.
Bodies of unknown women are at times discovered near the border. These women could be Central American immigrants, women from the interior of Mexico without identification, or women trafficked against their will. The impunity which grants these nameless women to be butchered and discarded is unbelievable.
In January of 2013, a woman’s head was found in a trash bag in Rosarito. Authorities believe the head belonged to a torso and arms that were found a few weeks before. Officials claimed to be investigating the gruesome murder, yet no arrests were made.
Some young women, like 16 year old Anayeli Gomez Najera, vanished from Tijuana without a trace of evidence. The statement, “without a trace of evidence”, may not apply however in places that do little to investigate the cases.
On March 17th of this year, a woman was found strangled to death and left in an abandoned vehicle in Tijuana. The body was found in an area near the border that traffickers frequent. Doses of crystal meth were found in the car and authorities quickly insinuated the murder was drug related, hoping to downplay the incident.
The next morning, another woman was found dead near the border. This time, the victim was chopped up and placed in a suitcase. The 26 year old victim, Claudia Verónica Palacios Espinoza, was found in a shanty home less than 100 meters from the border fence. Authorities made sure to state the victim had a Santa Muerte tattoo, obviously insinuating she was a criminal. A family of five suspects is being detained in the murder. The son admitted to killing the woman in a drug induced rage, while other family members helped him attempt to dispose of the body.
Authorities in Baja California have gone to great lengths not to report missing persons. Multiple reports, using government figures, have stated over 20,000 people have gone missing in Mexico over the last 6 years. Out of those, only 15 were reported missing in Baja California.
While that number may seem positive, it is highly inaccurate. In 2009, a single man admitted to making 300 people disappear himself. Santiago Meza Lopez stated he dissolved those bodies in acid and buried them for the cartel. The same year, a drug trafficker admitted to killing three women because of a mere argument and having their bodies dissolved in a drum.
In late 2012, the remains of over 100 people were found that Meza Lopez had disposed of. By January of 2013, over 800 human teeth were discovered in areas where the bodies were disposed.
According to non-governmental reports and data collected by Zeta Magazine, 191 women were murdered in the state between 2000 and 2004. According to a congressional report which collected data from several agencies, 105 women were murdered in Baja California during the years of 2006 and 2007 alone.
The first major incidents involving violence against women in Baja California, in recent years, that caught headlines occurred in 2007. Gunmen burst into a party and kidnapped 8 women. The location or bodies of those victims were never found. Not long after, three more young women disappeared after attending a party, never to be heard from again. A few months later, 9 more women were kidnapped from a nightclub in Tijuana. None of those victims were found either.
By 2012, over 40 disappearances of women have gone unsolved since 2007. In 2013, Tijuana was named one of 12 hot spots for crimes against women, according to another government report.
As far as homicides, Assistant State Attorney Gallegos has stated that in Baja California 70 percent of cases are resolved. However, in Ensenada six recent killings against women have not been resolved: Christy Alejandra Ortiz Uribe, 20 years old; Ixchel Leilani Dominguez Carrillo, 22; Norma Angélica Sánchez Gijón, 43; Olga Olivia Padilla Valenzuela, 46 years; Camelia Mancilla Alcocer, 42, and Sapphire Sanchez Cabrera, 15.
Violence against women cannot solely be calculated by a body count or missing persons list. Countless women and children are kidnapped, raped, forced into prostitution, and abused. Border cities see a high rate of women and children forced to work in prostitution. Victims are brought from Central America and the interior of Mexico for the sole reason of exploitation. Not every prostitute is working against ones will in areas like these, but a considerable number have been put to work against their choice.
On March 13th of this year, a police officer from Rosarito was arrested for sexually exploiting a teenage girl. During the young woman’s rescue, the victim pleaded for authorities to rescue other girls she had seen being abused nearby.
The same day in Tijuana, a 13 year old girl was rescued from an older man who was holding her against her will. The man had traveled to Sinaloa to retrieve the girl, with plans to exploit her to customers. Only a few weeks earlier, another Tijuana man was arrested while attempting to pick up a 13 year old girl he had lured from Guanajuato. The man was arrested with a list of clients he intended to sell the girl to.
In February of this year, the government of Mexico released a database of missing persons. The list includes 26,121 people who have gone missing since December of 2006 till November of 2012. Why the database only includes those missing during Felipe Calderon’s tenure was not stated, yet is clearly a jab at his presidency. The database does help to find possible information about lost ones. Yet it is not helpful in filtering the number of women in a particular area that have gone missing. (Missing Tijuana girls, like 16 year old Anayeli Gomez Najera who was mentioned earlier, do not appear on this database for some reason)
Overall in Tijuana and Baja California, violence has dropped in the last two years. Murder rates have lowered greatly, as overall violent crime has steadily dropped. The streets are safer. Citizens feel like life is back to normal after the Sinaloa and Tijuana cartels battle slowed down in the streets. Gun-battles and random violence still occur, but not any worse than in most border areas.
While the overall quality of life seems to be better for the average citizen, many women still live in fear. Not every woman has an escort to the bus stop. Not every woman has a cell phone. Some women travel home alone late at night. Other women arrive in Tijuana from far away, looking for a place to sleep. These women are vulnerable. The atmosphere that is created in these border cities has failed these women. Dating the wrong man or working the late shift could mean you never make it back home. Unless this segment of society changes, these women must watch their back forever, hoping not to end up a memory.