Sobbing mourners released a cloud of tiny white butterflies as a coffin holding the remains of 14-year-old Diane Angelica Castañeda Fuentes was lowered into the ground, 18 months after she disappeared on her way to a friend’s house in Ecatepec, a dusty suburb on the northern fringes of Mexico City.
Diana’s skull and feet had been found in a plastic bag dredged from a foul-smelling waterway known as the Great Canal, which runs through the State of Mexico – the country’s most densely populated state.
The schoolgirl, a devoted fan of One Direction and Justin Bieber, was the first to be positively identified after the remains of dozens of people were recovered last year from the black waters of the canal.
Her funeral on 26 March was attended by members of several other families whose own missing daughters are among the thousands of young women to have disappeared in the past decade from the state, known in Spanish as Edomex.
The mourners’ sorrow was shot through with anger as they called on the country’s authorities to stop the violence which has made Edomex the most dangerous place in Mexico to be female.
“Enough!” they cried. “Not one more girl!”
‘Edomex is no-man’s land’
A staggering 1,258 girls and women were reported disappeared in Edomex in 2011 and 2012 – of whom 53% were aged between 10 and 17, according to figures obtained by the National Citizens Observatory on Femicides. Over the same period, 448 women were murdered in the state. Many of their mutilated bodies were left displayed in public places like roads, parks and shopping centres – an act which criminologists and feminist scholars say is associated with gender hate crimes.
Edomex is the powerhouse of Mexico City’s modernisation: a sprawling conurbation of industrial sites and anonymous dormitory settlements that wraps round the capital. Since the 1950s, its population has increased to around 16 million, as huge numbers migrated towards the capital in search of work. Piecemeal urban growth has created a patchwork of disparate communities lacking a discernible centre or shared identity.
“Edomex is no-man’s land; it doesn’t exist to the outside world,” said Cynthia Galicia, a legal expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Between 2005 and 2011, the state was governed by Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who was heavily criticised for failing to tackle violence against women: a further 1,200 were murdered in the state in the same period.
The violence in Edomex is disconcertingly reminiscent of a previous epidemic of femicides: between 1993 and 2005, 379 women were murdered in Ciudad Juárez, a city in the border state of Chihuahua. Many were sexually assaulted and dismembered before their bodies were left in the desert.
Protests in Juárez prompted media coverage north of the border, which in turn helped galvanise international outrage, multiple inquiries, new legislation and at least two Hollywood movies.
But in the same period, 10 times as many women were murdered in Edomex than in Ciudad Juárez. Most of these killings have gone unreported and unnoticed by the outside world, the victims mourned only by their loved ones.
“Edomex is a poor state, people are anonymous, and there are no campaign groups, so it has remained invisible,” said Galicia.
Activists say there is no single explanation for the wave of violence against women in Edomex. As in Ciudad Juárez, evidence suggests that some girls and women have been trafficked into prostitution, while others have fallen victim to gender hate murders, said Lucia Melgar, a leading culture and gender academic.
“We can also hypothesize the violence is linked to big business owners, corrupt politicians and organised crime just like in Juárez, but we really don’t know as there are no investigations. The impunity in Edomex is brutal,” she said.
But fewer than 5% of murders – and only a handful of trafficking cases – are successfully prosecuted in Mexico, and activists worry that a full reckoning of the Edomex killings may never be possible.
Perseo Quiroz Rendon, the director of Amnesty International Mexico, said: “The dreadful inefficiency in the criminal justice means we don’t know why the violence has increased, or even exactly how bad it is.”
‘Burying her means that’s it – there’s no more hope’
Ecatapec, population 1.7 million, is an unsightly collection of neighbourhoods connected by a highway that runs parallel to the putrid canal where the bodies were pulled out. There are few restaurants, parks or social spaces apart from churches, but plenty of missing person posters and illegal rubbish dumps which exacerbate the stink of the canal – and the atmosphere of desolation.
Diana was last seen at 4.30pm on 7 September 2013, crossing the bridge which connects Ecatepec to the neighbouring municipality of Tecamac. Her family reported her as missing that evening, but authorities said nothing could be done for 72 hours. So, Diana’s relatives knocked on doors, begged CCTV footage from local shops, plastered missing posters across the state, and started trawling through Diana’s social networking accounts.
“After six months, the prosecutors told me that they’d hit a brick wall, there were no clues and no witnesses,” her mother, Maria Eugenia Fuentes, told the Guardian. “I’d always worried that if she’d been killed they’d throw her in the canal, so when they told me they’d found remains there, my world caved in.”
In September, DNA tests and a distinct canine tooth confirmed that a skull and feet found in a plastic sack belonged to Diana. “I asked for further tests to be sure, and in January they confirmed it was my daughter. The authorities have done their best but they can’t tell me when she died, or how or where or why … It’s given me some peace knowing that she hasn’t been trafficked and isn’t suffering, but burying her means that’s it – there’s no more hope,” said Fuentes.
Authorities have downplayed the horrific discoveries in the canal. The official version is that a plastic sack containing the remains of one body was discovered during a routine clean last September, triggering a dredging operation. More than 7,000 bones and bone fragments have since been recovered from 11miles of the canal, which included 79 bones belonging to two humans, but 98% were animal bones, the state attorney general said last October.
But other families with missing daughters say they have been told that partial remains of between 40 and 60 bodies have been recovered, and their DNA is currently being cross-checked with these remains. Fuentes said she was told by prosecutors that the canal was first inspected in March last year, not September, after authorities received a tip-off.
The second victim to be identified from the remains lived just a couple miles from Diana. Mariana Elizabeth Yañez Reyes, 18, left home just before 9pm on 17 September 2014 to print off documents for a scholarship application at a nearby internet cafe, leaving her father and little sister dozing on the couch.
Mariana’s route was a six-minute walk along two well-lit streets, but she never reached the cafe. Her mother, Guadalupe Reyes, returned from her call centre job in Mexico City at 10.30pm, to find her daughter had not returned. She ran to the cafe but it had closed for the night; one woman who lives on the same block as the cafe said she had heard a girl scream, but saw nothing.
“She was a good student and a good daughter with so many dreams, but the authorities painted her as a depressed drug taker and tried to stain her name,” her mother said.
In January, prosecutors said they had positively identified Mariana from remains – the top section of both thigh bones and a fragment of skull recovered from the canal a month after she disappeared. They did not offer any theory to explain how or why Mariana was abducted and killed.
“They refused to show us the bones or even photos, said we weren’t psychologically ready. I want to know everything, step by step how they found her, who found her, everything, but I don’t know anything. They said we needed to accept it, but it makes no sense. How could her body be so decomposed after one month? I don’t believe it, I don’t believe them,” said Reyes.
Neither the state government, nor the attorney general’s office or specialist federal prosecutor responded to multiple requests for comment by the Guardian.
There is still no national DNA databank in Mexico, so thousands of unidentified bodies are buried in common graves. Reyes is applying for permission to excavate the three bones which authorities say belong to Mariana, in order to commission independent DNA tests.
Since 2010, the Observatory – a coalition of 43 groups that documents serious crimes against women – has been petitioning for a gender-based violence alert to be activated in Edomex. The emergency mechanism, introduced into law in 2007 as part of the post-Juárez reforms, would oblige the state government to launch an in-depth investigation into violence against women, and take concrete steps to tackle the problem.
But officials have repeatedly said they need more proof that women in Edomex are being systematically targeted because of their gender, rather than falling victim to the violence of Mexico’s drug wars. Last year, the state governor’s spokesman said there were “more serious issues to deal with” than gender-based violence.
Maria de la Luz Estrada, director of the Observatory, told the Guardian: “The situation in Edomex is grave and desperate. This is an emergency, authorities must start investigating and sanctioning perpetrators. Access to justice for women must be a reality, not just something which exists on paper.”
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