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A Mother's Two-Year Crusade Ends in Death

Originally published in:
The Wall Street Journal

Since 2004, when V-Day's annual spotlight focused international attention on the Missing and Murdered Women of Ciudad Juarez, V-Day has been working with women and men on the ground who have dedicated their lives to ending the violence that has killed hundreds of women in the last decade. Though there have been examples of triumph in the region, today this story is a heartbreaking reminder of the work the still needs to be done, the attention still needed by the international community, and the impunity and lack of justice that still exists around violence against women cases in Ciudad Juarez, and also throughout the world.


MEXICO CITY--The murder of a mother who spent two years trying to bring to justice the killer of her 16-year-old daughter has struck a nerve in Mexico, casting a harsh light on the country's dysfunctional judicial system.

Marisela Escobedo, 52, was a largely unknown figure until last week, when a man shot her in the head in front of the governor's office building in the capital of Chihuahua, a northern border state known for its drug-related violence. Weeks earlier, Ms. Escobedo had begun a sit-in across the street, refusing to leave until officials arrested her daughter's confessed killer.

The brazen killing of Ms. Escobedo yards away from the governor's office stunned many Mexicans. President Felipe Calderon and the United Nations condemned the murder and called on Chihuahua state officials to clear up the crime. On Wednesday, several hundred protesters held a silent march in Ciudad Juarez, where Ms. Escobedo was from.

"People are angry about this case. It's bringing people together to demand change," said Father Oscar Enriquez, a Catholic priest and the director of a human-rights center in Ciudad Juarez.

Ms. Escobedo's saga stands as a sad indictment of Mexico's law-enforcement system. In August 2008, her daughter, Rubi Marisol, disappeared from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most violent city. Police suspicion fell on her live-in boyfriend, Sergio Barraza, who had fathered a baby girl with Rubi. Mr. Barraza then fled, police said.

Fed up with waiting for police and prosecutors to solve the case, Ms. Escobedo, a retired nurse, did the detective work herself, tracking down Mr. Barraza and leading police to his capture nearly a year later in nearby Zacatecas state.

Mr. Barraza confessed to killing Rubi and led police to her body, which he had burned and then buried near a pig slaughterhouse.

At Mr. Barraza's trial in April of this year, however, a panel of three judges released him, arguing there wasn't enough evidence against him and blaming prosecutors for putting together a sloppy case. An enraged Ms. Escobedo launched a one-woman crusade to bring Mr. Barraza to justice, holding protests from Ciudad Juarez to Mexico City.

In May, an appeals court overturned the lower-court decision to release him. The appeals court convicted Mr. Barraza in absentia of Rubi's murder, and sentenced him to 50 years in jail. But by then, he had fled again.

Over the summer, Ms. Escobedo again tracked down Mr. Barraza. Local newspaper reports said neighbors saw him running away over a rooftop just as the police arrived.

In a bid to pressure authorities, the grieving mother began her sit-in a few weeks ago. "I'm not leaving until they arrest that killer," she told media at the time. She said she had received death threats from Mr. Barraza's family. The government offered a reward for his capture.

Last week, as the sun set on the state capital, security cameras captured the scene as a gunman approached Ms. Escobedo, who fled across the street toward the governor's office. The man gave chase and fired, and her body crumbled to the sidewalk. Among the witnesses: Rubi's infant girl.

The footage of the killing was repeated on nightly newscasts across Mexico, where the mother's role is seen as sacrosanct and Mother's Day is a major national holiday.

The day after Ms. Escobedo was killed, her brother-in-law, Manuel Monje, was picked up by unidentified men at a lumberyard he runs with his brother, Marisela's husband. His body was dumped from a moving car along a Ciudad Juarez boulevard on Saturday, witnesses and police said.

The chances of identifying and capturing the killers of the three Escobedo family members are slim. Only 2% of those who commit crimes in Mexico are brought to justice, according to several academic and government estimates. That impunity has fanned violence in Ciudad Juarez, where 3,000 people have been killed this year alone--many by drug cartels fighting for lucrative smuggling routes to the U.S. Last year, prosecutors in Juarez won 19 convictions for murder; there were 2,600 murders in the city that year, according to data from the government that were published by the Associated Press.

After Ms. Escobedo's killing, Chihuahua state Gov. Cesar Duarte ordered that the three judges who initially released Mr. Barraza be stripped of their jobs. Activists criticized the governor for ordering the move after Ms. Escobedo was killed and not after the decision to let Mr. Barraza go. The governor hasn't directly responded to the criticism, but has said authorities have tried hard to catch Mr. Barraza, whom the governor said is believed to be a member of the Zetas cartel, one of the country's most violent.

This week, the Sinaloa cartel offered its services in tracking down the killers. In two hand-painted banners displayed in Ciudad Juarez, one in front of a public hospital, the cartel offered its condolences to Ms. Escobedo's family and urged residents to come forward with information, even giving out a webpage.