Human skin turns the color of lead as the body loses blood. It’s one of the physical signs, perceivable at plain sight in a homicide victim, marking the boundary between life and death. Another is ...

Human skin turns the color of lead as the body loses blood. It’s one of the physical signs, perceivable at plain sight in a homicide victim, marking the boundary between life and death. Another is the color of the blood itself, from the almost translucent, still glistening red of those recently massacred, to the blackening brown of bodies found long after death. The skin of victims murdered by bullet or blade turns ashen at the same pace as their blood drains from the wounds, fanning out from the body. Ambient temperature can slow or speed this process. Heat accelerates the chemical breakdown of blood, the rate at which it loses color and becomes more viscous once it is outside the body. The body, meanwhile, slowly inflates like a wrinkled balloon. The blood also leaves a brown, almost impossible to remove stain on sidewalks, streets, floors, walls. Family members tend to cover these stains with sand, others try to wash them away with a hose, literally smearing blood across the city streets.

The most horrifying moment for families tends to be when the body is removed from the scene of the crime, when the victim is stripped and the bullet entry and exit points are exposed, perfectly round and rimmed by the black burn of gunpowder soot that contrasts against the color of skin. But the barbarity of the crime is most palpable in the sheer lifelessness of the bodies left on the ground, sometimes found lying on their sides, their hands over their bellies, their shoulders and legs torn apart by the impact of each bullet, or sometimes they’re still bleeding or, if they were shot in the head, their faces can be almost completely obliterated—this is how they drop by the thousands, without explanation. In the vast majority of cases, knowing the motivating factors behind each crime has been the exclusive privilege of the murderers. For the families of the victims, and for the community at large, there are only leads—leads that always fall short. In 2004, the administration of President Fox announced the plan to improve criminal investigations, as part of a larger judicial reform financed by the United States with the intention of introducing Juárez to the “adversarial” system of oral court proceedings. By 2010, the plan had been reduced to a system of police, forensic experts, and public prosecutors who were only able to present evidence and probable suspects in 3 of every 100 homicide cases throughout the city, a ratio that dipped even lower than before the reform. Of the other 97 out of 100 crimes, it was officially filed that there was no evidence and there were no leads to follow.

<i>La policía, Juárez, México</i> (2008). Photograph by Scazon / Flickr

La policía, Juárez, México (2008). Photograph by Scazon / Flickr

In these years, marked by the violence attributed to a turf war between two cartels—which coincided with the introduction of the new justice system—the authority of public officials sank woefully, along with their performance indicators. Between 2008 and 2010, a period in which more than 7,000 people were found murdered in Juárez and the city became the most violent in all of Mexico, evidence against alleged suspects was found in less than 200 cases. In the other 6,800 cases, only trace remains were left behind to piece together how or why each murder was committed. The public prosecutor’s office actually stopped surveying crime scenes altogether, and over the course of six years—from 2004 to 2010—it was a rare sight to see police officers patrolling the more dangerous neighborhoods. That left all fieldwork to forensic investigators, the only officials who contributed evidence to preliminary investigations or case files.

In contrast to the cases from the ’90s, the new case files were only recording who or what led to the finding of each victim, the position of the body found on the ground—decubitus, in forensic terminology—the physical characteristics (hair and skin color, complexion, clothes) and copious amounts of details of the necropsy, such as the exact entry and exit point of each bullet, the trajectory of the bullet through the body, and all the damage caused en route, including organ lacerations and bone fractures. Each wound left behind a detailed record, even if the victim had more than a hundred bullet wounds.

The lead investigators were also meticulous in detailing the shell casings found at the scene of the crime; they counted them and organized them by caliber—useful to determine how many guns and how many shooters were present. A database from the assistant attorney general’s office compiled more than 1,000 homicide cases and found that at least one-fourth of the crimes committed during 2008 were committed with 9-millimeter handguns. AK-47 machine guns took second place.

And that’s it.

Who killed them and why? That was the least of the state’s concerns. They were somehow involved, period. End of investigation.

In the vast majority of cases no one looked for more leads or witnesses to the murder; no one questioned anyone but the immediate family members, and that was almost always done to know one thing and one thing only: what did the victim do for a living? If there was any reason to believe that the victim had, at any point in their lives, direct or indirect contact with any aspect of narco trafficking, then the public prosecutor’s office would try to establish which criminal group could be implicated and then close the case. The case files showed no evidence of further questions and detailed no other interviews. The victim was somehow caught in the line of fire, and so they died. Who killed them and why? That was the least of the state’s concerns. They were somehow involved, period. End of investigation. Even though, in many cases, there were eyewitnesses. During the length of an entire presidential administration, the agents of the public prosecutor’s office didn’t do anything beyond stacking case file upon case file until there were thousands, all of them filled with nothing but the most basic forensic analyses.

With 97 percent of the cases lacking all explanation aside from the acknowledgment that, yes, there was indeed a narco war going on, and with a state that used that acknowledgment as an excuse to evade its responsibility in carrying out justice, we Juárenses lived without the support of evidence to help us understand the extraordinarily complicated phenomenon of the skyrocketing rate of violent crime. In Juárez, murder was the end of a life, as well as its own explanation. Our lack of understanding reduced the gravity of the annihilation of a human life to a summary, to a statistic, to one more slot added to the file cabinet of case files. It was as if murders were committed not by individuals who ran the streets, or by the caliber of their weapons, but by an unexplainable and lethal shadow that was passing over the city.

Judicial impotence served as a mirror held up to the face of the barbaric society that we had become: our highest ideals were a privately operated justice system and the right to commit any crime we wanted. It was as if we had returned to the pre-civilized state of man, to utter lawlessness. But there were existing laws; they just weren’t being enforced. Indeed, the penal code of Chihuahua State begins by explaining that the purpose of each and every investigation is to “establish the truth, guarantee justice in the application of our laws and resolve conflicts and crimes, in order to contribute to the restoration of social harmony.” The rule of law also claims that the state’s greatest responsibility is to protect the individual, even more than protecting the state itself.

The Vicente León case showed us that thorough investigation is the only way for us to get close to the root cause of a crime, to that explosive combination of personal motivations and social factors gestating in every person who decides to commit murder. Although we could generate theories, speculate, and even pass public policies that attempted to explain or combat crime, without appropriate investigations shining light on the cascade of murder cases, it was impossible to know what was actually going on. We needed justice to understand and resolve the phenomenon of violence taking place throughout Mexico. In the state of impunity in which we lived, we could only imagine or catch glimpses of the monstrous consequences of violent crime, and it was only a matter of time before our indifference to the flood of homicides finally turned into a pervasive sense of insecurity and fear. Because we were never able to know who the murderers were, we felt that anyone and everyone could have blood on their hands. Of whom, we asked ourselves, with increasing exasperation, should we be scared

“Why can’t I? Why should you punish me if our whole society is rotten? What do you expect? Why shouldn’t I kill [my family] if women are getting killed around me every single day?”

Vicente, who was so convinced that no one would ever investigate his crime, was paradoxically one of the very few persons detained for murder in Juárez in 2004—a year in which leads were found in less than half of homicide cases, most of which were said to be a result of inter-cartel fighting. And it just so happened that one of the driving motives behind the boy’s triple murder had been the very perception that hardly any crimes in the city were investigated. Though he had publicly confessed to killing his family because he hated his parents for preferring his sister, the criminologists at the Juárez Social Rehabilitation Center for Adults argued that whatever triggered his crime had little to do with the goings-on of his nuclear family. Rather, the trigger had been “exogenous”—they wrote in Vicente’s case file when he arrived at Cereso prison—it came from outside the home, perhaps from his school, his neighborhood or even the city at large. Vicente’s psychological character was officially classified in the case file as 2004/1338, that is: “lacking socialization with a tendency toward distortion at the moment of internalization and interjection of social norms.” The specialists came to that conclusion in his interview shortly after he was first admitted in May 2004, when he told them, as he’d told me, that he had been sure that no one would investigate the murder of his family or try to find him, that he knew as well as anyone else that the city and federal police forces were corrupt, that they themselves were killing people and no one was doing anything to stop them. Ada Robles, lawyer and expert on the Juárez cartel, who for 15 years was chief of the Cereso prison’s Department of Criminology, understood the boy’s motives to be his personal interpretation of the sociocultural makeup of his city and country. It was his way, the criminologist argued, to say: “Why can’t I? Why should you punish me if our whole society is rotten? What do you expect? Why shouldn’t I kill [my family] if women are getting killed around me every single day?”

Vicente had made that assessment of Juárez back in 2004, when the homicide rate was around 300 per year. My interview with Robles was years later, in 2011, when the yearly murder rate was in the thousands. The perceived lack of punishment, Robles said to me with well-founded pessimism, has multiplied a thousand-fold. “That is inevitably guiding our youth. They say to themselves: ‘What is going on? I can rob a cashier and nothing is going to happen to me. By the time they arrest me, I’ll have already spent the money and come and gone I don’t know how many times.’ Because, unfortunately, this is the type of society that impunity creates.” An analysis of the Juárez femicides, published in 2010 by the Catalonia Office for Peace and Human Rights, argued that the “institutionalized apathy toward the murders” is itself a mechanism for structural violence that trivializes attacks on the community and, through its constancy, naturalizes and normalizes acts of aggression.

instead of anger, fear, or dismay, what was actually bubbling up inside him was a profound disregard for human life.

That year of 2004 in Juárez, just as in the rest of the country, there was a generalized conviction that the police and justice system could not be more corrupt or inefficient. The whole world seemed to know this. Chihuahua was the international paragon for exuberant incompetence when it came to finding evidence that would lead to suspected murderers. The Las Acequias scandal served as a straightforward indictment because it unveiled a link between identifiable officers and identifiable victims, but it wasn’t the first piece of evidence tying Juárez police to organized crime. Historic examples abounded, implicating all levels of government. In 2000, for example, a group of municipal police officers was linked to the release of a suspected narco trafficker and an entire ton of marijuana conveniently caught mid-shipment but then rerouted back to the narco trafficker. Even as far back as the ’90s it was reported that Federal Judicial Police Commander Elias Ramirez Ruiz had ties to Rafael Muñoz Talavera, the nephew and confidante of drug lord Rafael Aguilar. An even older case was that of Javier Coello Trejo, a prosecutor working for the Unit of Investigations and Reform Against Narco Trafficking under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who in April of 1990 visited Juárez to unveil the new “punishment by up to thirty-five years in prison for any police officer proven to have ties to narco trafficking.” Four years later Coello himself was charged in a Texas court case for receiving expensive gifts in exchange for the protection of Juan García Abrego, the head of the Gulf Cartel. Vicente was the first person in whom I’d seen this idea played out firsthand. He seemed to have a unique reaction to the violent crime rate: instead of anger, fear, or dismay, what was actually bubbling up inside him was a profound disregard for human life. “Mexico is corruption,” he said. “The police are just decoration.” And he was right.

The Drug Enforcement Administration summarized in a 1998 report presented to the US Senate: “There is no Mexican institution of law enforcement that the DEA can entirely confide in.”

“In Mexico, the narcotrafficking mafias are more powerful than ever before, and the level of corruption in that country cannot be equaled in any other part of the world,” testified DEA Administrator Thomas Constantine.

Oscar Maynez was the criminologist heading the public prosecutor’s office’s Department of Expert Witness Services. In 2002, he resigned because of internal disagreements surrounding the investigation of eight women found slain in a cotton field. When I questioned him in 2004 about the involvement of police in the Las Acequias mass grave, he said it was clear that government corruption was the only sound explanation for the control that narco trafficking had over Mexico. “For organized crime to exist,” he said, “it must have ‘officialized’ protection.” I interviewed him in front of his class at the Institute of Social Sciences and Administration at the Autonomous University of Juárez. Sarcastically, Maynez asked his students how much they knew about the 12 bodies found at Las Acequias, where, “Hold on to your seats,” he said to them, “it seems that police were involved.” The students responded with a collective cry of irony, “Naaah! How strange is that!”

The national and international condemnation of how organized crime had infiltrated Chihuahua’s justice system was nothing compared to the international upheaval about how the femicide crimes were being handled. Three hundred and seventy-eight women were reported murdered in Juárez between 1993 and 2004. With mounting international pressure, President Vicente Fox created a federal prosecutorial team that, by January 2004, had made headway in only 21 cases, while another 60 cases with preliminary investigations had proved “impossible to follow up on.” It seemed no one was willing to conduct a serious investigation.

In the ingrained system of impunity of the ’90s, there developed several social, political, and media-related phenomena. Local feminist organizations cropped up in defense of women’s rights and demanded justice for the murder victims of gender crimes. Thanks to their efforts, information about femicides soon started circulating both nationally and internationally. Within a few years it seemed that the entire world had an opinion about these cases. A 2005 article published in El Diario estimated that the femicides had, since 1999, been the main topic of at least 18 books, 12 plays, 9 feature-length films and documentaries, 14 songs, and a myriad of reports from various national and international media outlets, particularly from Europe and the United States. There were even multiple analyses of the various femicide theories: how each explained, interpreted, and presented Juárez as a world capital of violence against women. The theses were as diverse as their authors. One investigation, by Erin Frey, professor of history at Yale University, found three main narratives in the various artistic, commercial, and journalistic mediums covering femicides in 2008: the first understood the murders to be a result of neoliberal politics and its injustices, the second drew a relationship between the murders and impunity and the failures of government to protect women, and the last argued that they were simply individual acts committed by one or more serial killers in the city. Not one of them examined the problem of violence in all its aggregate complexity, and all of them, Frey concluded, examined the femicides through the lens of gender. Frey added that the three theories failed to consider that the violence of Juárez was not only targeting women but men as well, and in much greater numbers. She demonstrated this via a database from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (Northern Border University) comparing the number of murdered men to murdered women between 1985 and 2004. A total of 378 women were reported murdered between 1993 and 2004. In the same time span, 2,700 men were reported murdered.

By 2004, the kaleidoscopic narrative that had formed around the femicides had spurred hours upon hours of interviews with the victims’ families, especially the mothers of the victims, who seemed to suffer a little more with each question they were asked. There was a deep disconnect characterized by the masses tuning into local, national, and international coverage and the painful sense of alienation, impotence, and impunity in which these mothers were living. They shared with the media stories of their loved ones being killed over one, two, three, sometimes even six years without seeing any results and without seeing any justice. How were we to understand this epidemic of murder and violence? What else did we need to witness in Juárez to comprehend the severe lack of justice consuming the mothers and families of the thousands upon thousands of homicide victims?

It was at this critical point that the León Chávez family paid for the impunity suffered by other families with their own blood. It was at this critical point that Vicente became the first murderer whose case was seen as direct evidence that crime was contaminating us all, and that impunity, which we had understood as an unfortunate grievance for the victims, was in reality a problem for all of Juárez: impunity had taught us that any and every savage crime was fair game.

Excerpted from The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juárez (Verso, 2015) and presented in collaboration with the Public Books blog series El Miradoricon

Featured image: Omar Uziel Homero Murillo, Vicente Leon Chavez, and Eduardo Jimenez. Photograph by Gabriel Cardona / El Diario