Of Juarez and the "Dirty War" in Mexico Print
Written by <B>Rafael Nuñez, <i>Newspaper Tree (El Paso, Texas)</b></i>   
Monday, 01 May 2006 00:00
I first met Judith Galarza-Campos in 1995 in Ciudad Ju?rez, when she was the always enthusiastic and indefatigable head of a local, independent human rights organization called Comit? Independiente de Chihuahua pro Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (Independent Human Rights Defense Committee of Chihuahua), dedicated to fighting on behalf of the downtrodden. I recall that in those days, that particular NGO (non-governmental organization) ran on a shoestring budget at best, but more often than not, only on fumes and good wishes, and on Judith?s relentless, tireless drive and desire to help those that didn?t have a voice or any money --- and on her ever-present notion that justice would eventually prevail, no matter what...even in the many seemingly lost causes that she took on.

Back then, Judith was rapidly becoming very well known in the local media for being one of the very few activists -- if not the only one -- willing to speak out publicly against government corruption and/or ineptitude, particularly when it came to investigating the so-called serial murders of women in Ju?rez.

By the late '90s, her public persona and the various causes she defended became well known in local media circles, but not her personal story, which she hardly, if ever, was willing to talk about.

Once, while we were walking through Downtown Ju?rez toward the Paso del Norte bridge, on our way to a protest rally (I to cover it as a reporter; she to participate in it as a speaker), Judith and I began trading old ?war? stories amid easy laughter and fond remembrances. Sensing her guard was down, I asked her why she had decided to become a human rights activist. Her answer surprised me: ?Most people, including the media, don?t realize I?ve been doing this for a long, long time, since 1978 to be exact. I don?t really have a choice. I do this work to honor the memory of my sister, Leticia, who was forcibly disappeared by the Mexican government in the ?70s, during the so-called guerra sucia (dirty war)."

A draft of an unprecedented report by Mexico's government on the nation's "dirty war" of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, published on The National Security Archive Web site, shows that during the administrations of Presidents Diaz Ordaz (1964-1970), Echeverria (1970-1976) and Lopez Portillo (1976-1982) hundreds of Mexican citizens -- uncounted innocent civilians as well as armed militants -- were murdered or "disappeared" by military and security forces. Thousands more were tortured, or illegally detained, or subjected to government harassment and surveillance.

?In my family we were 13 siblings. Leticia was the second-born. I was the third. She was 26 years old when they took her. She worked at the RCA maquiladora plant in Ju?rez. She received her grade school education at the Escuela Primaria Pascual Ortiz Rubio, in the Sat?lite district of southeast Ju?rez. Then she studied in the Secundaria Para Trabajadores (Middle School for Workers) and the Preparatoria (High School) Francisco Villa. She went to live with David Jim?nez Sarmiento, with whom she had a female child that was later given to the Cartagena-L?pez family, and that family raised the child as their own.

?After Leticia disappeared, I started searching for answers. I was very na?ve back then. After all, I was just a young, working-class housewife and maquiladora worker myself. I had never felt the desire or need to become politically active in any way. After asking many questions -- and never getting any straight answers -- from the authorities, I decided to search for my sister on my own. That literally changed my life forever. I never did get to see her alive again, but I did find out, in detail, what happened to her -- and that made me very, very angry and sad. My sense of loss was all encompassing. My rage, frustration and impotence at her unjust fate consumed me and changed me forever. The fact that the authorities had only lied to me when I had asked for their help only served to solidify and forge in my soul, as if in steel, my sense of outrage. I decided right then and there that never again would I be victimized, or let anyone I knew become a victim.

?Ever since then, I?ve felt the need to help people that can?t defend themselves. To fight the good fight, to seek justice for those that don?t have a voice, or the monetary means or material wealth, or the spunk, to fend off the predators who want to rob them of their possessions, their land or their freedom, or the unscrupulous vultures and bullies who want to exploit them in some way. But like I said, this isn?t something I chose. It?s something that chose me after what happened to my sister.?

Nowadays, after many years of hard work, Judith Galarza-Campos is the Executive Secretary of FEDEFAM (Federation of Associations for Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared), in Caracas, Venezuela. She was first elected to the post six years ago, and to this day remains living and working in Venezuela on behalf of all the detained-disappeared in Latin America. FEDEFAM is a nongovernmental organization formed by associations of relatives of the disappeared in countries of Latin America and the Caribbean which have, or are currently, practicing forced disappearance. [fedefam]

During the last few years, Judith has also traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Americas participating in international congresses addressing the problem of human rights violations and forced disappearances in Latin America.

* * *

Newspaper Tree: What led you to become a human rights activist?

Judith Galarza-Campos: My participation as a defender of human rights starts because of the forced disappearance of my sister Leticia Galarza-Campos. She was 26 when that happened, and this interview stirs up some painful memories for me, but it also gives me the opportunity to recall and experience again those very deep feelings my family and I felt when we received the news that ?Lety had fallen.? That was literally the message we were given. We didn?t know how, where, what or why. In time, I was to find out that these same feelings we were feeling were also being experienced by many other families in Mexico, as well as in many other Latin American countries and other parts of the world.

The difference between what I felt then and what I feel now is that back then I felt contradictory feelings, such as intense pain, rage, confusion, ignorance and impotence. But nowadays all those feelings have been properly channeled, properly directed, if you will, thanks to the help of thousands of friends. So now it?s an organized struggle we?re engaged in, consciously oriented toward finding the truth, seeking justice and the recovery of our historical memories, and the continuation of our relentless fight against impunity.

I can still remember, as if it was yesterday, when more than 10 heavily armed men came to my mother?s house in August of 1977. Her address was 1523 Mimas street, colonia Sat?lite, Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. They forced their way into the house. My brothers and sisters were inside, almost all of them still minors. They pulled them up by the hair and shouted at them, ?give up the weapons. Tell us where you?re hiding them.? They were looking for my sister Leticia. She had already moved to Mexico City. She had to leave Ju?rez because she knew they were already looking for her. Among the men that came that day to my mom?s house was Miguel Nazar Haro, one of the head honchos of the infamous Direcci?n Federal de Seguridad or DFS (Mexico?s brutal, and now defunct, Secret Police agency) and the creator of the so-called ?White Brigade.?

Nazar Haro was a very feared man, denounced many times as the leader of a group of Mexican federal police officials linked to organized crime, and responsible for hundreds of cases of torture, murders and forced disappearances. He?s being tried in court for the forced disappearance of Jes?s Piedra Ibarra, son of nationally renowned activist Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, but so far in his case the judicial branch has obstructed the proceedings and the application of justice, and on the other hand has given all the considerations possible to this torturer, an individual who owes a moral debt to Mexican society, to our families. That?s why it?s absolutely necessary that, in order to guarantee a just society, individuals such as Nazar Haro be brought to justice and pay for all the crimes they have committed.

My sister Lety was a very brave woman who confronted the enemy of the people, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI), which for over 50 years ruled Mexico with an iron hand, always favoring the rich and abandoning the poor. My sister?s struggle was a cause that fought for land for the peasants, food for the poor, housing for workers, fair distribution of the country?s wealth, and respect for our national sovereignty. My sister was a simple woman, hardworking, honest and joyful, with a big heart full of solidarity and love. I loved her, and when they took her, they took away my strength, mi fortitude, and I?ll never forgive them for that.

When the White Brigade came to our house, they took away my mother Josefina and my brother Francisco Javier, who at that time was 18 years old. That happened at 3 p.m. A day before in Downtown Ju?rez, they had detained my sister Patricia, who was 19, and that same night they also detained several other families in the Sat?lite district and many more throughout the city. The families detained with my mother were named Carillo and Arciniega, and they were all taken away blindfolded. They were subjected to physical and psychological torture, and their torturers demanded they tell them where my sister Leticia was. According to my mother, at the place they were being held they could hear the loud screaming of others who were being tortured. They were held prisoners for over 48 hours; then they were let go near the Ju?rez airport, still blindfolded. They were told to count to 100, and that after that they could start taking their blindfolds off. Before leaving, their torturers threatened to come back to their homes and kill them if they denounced them to the authorities or the media.

During their torturing, they kept asking about my sister Leticia and her activities. They kept telling my mother that if she really wanted to see her daughter alive again, she should tell them where she was, because if she didn?t, she would surely be killed on sight.

My little sisters told me that when ?the men with machineguns? came to the house, they had asked them for me, apparently because they knew my sister and I had a very close relationship (in fact, we still do, because I still love her and I?m sure she still loves me, wherever she may be. She knows everyone in our family keeps loving her, and that we?re very proud of her). The men with machineguns claimed that I was a courier or messenger for the Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre (September 23rd Communist League). This claim was truly stupid, since at the time I was young married woman, completely indifferent to politics and activism.

When they took my sister away, I felt, like I said before, a lot of contradictory emotions. I was very confused, full of hate, rage, pain and impotence, because I didn?t know what to do. You start asking yourself: Why? Who did it? Where did they take her, where do they have her? What are they doing to her? I eventually found the answers to all these questions, like many families that have suffered this type of loss and psychological anguish/torture.

The forced disappearance of a person is, of course, a crime, even catalogued as a crime against humanity. Currently, it's considered as an act of terrorism perpetrated by the State. This type of crime was applied by the military dictatorships and pseudo-democratic governments of Latin America; but it was committed under the auspices of the Pentagon and the CIA, agencies that trained thousands of torturers in the so-called School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers have called ?a school of murderers.? This school was responsible for the for the specialized training of torturers such as Augusto Pinochet, from Chile; Videla, from Argentina; Arturo Acosta and Miguel Nazar Haro, from Mexico; and thousands more like them in Latin America. Nowadays -- thanks to the hard work of our associations, in conjunction with many other akin NGOs and experts in this field -- we have established several preventive mechanisms such as the Declaration to Protect All People from Forced Disappearance, approved by the UN in 1992; and the Agreement to Protect All People Against Being Forcibly Disappeared, approved by the OAS in 1994. Currently we?re working on the International Agreement to Protect All People from Forced Disappearance, a pact that is opposed by several governments, including the U.S. government. In some countries their penal code has been modified to include forced disappearances, and in other nations the crime is mentioned in their Constitution, like it is in Venezuela, where the crime is addressed in the 45th article, as well as in article 166b, clause A, of the Venezuelan penal code.

So it is today that we, the relatives of the forcibly disappeared, have united, in all corners of the world, in one single voice, in one single struggle, in one single hope that the authorities will tell us where our loved ones are; who took them and why; and so that the individuals responsible for these crimes be brought to justice and duly tried, so as to guarantee that our children and grandchildren will not suffer this abomination in the future.

I became an activist and a member of the Ju?rez chapter of the Comit? Nacional Pro-defensa de Presos, Perseguidos, Desaparecidos y Exiliados Pol?ticos (National Defense Committee for the Politically Jailed, Persecuted, Disappeared and Exiled) in 1978, and remained one until 1982.

After that, a group of us formed the Comit? Independiente de Chihuahua Pro Defensa de Presos, Perseguidos, Exiliados y Desaparecidos Pol?ticos--CICH, (Chihuahua Independent Committee for the Defense of Politically Jailed, Persecuted, Exiled and Disappeared Persons) in 1983, but in 1985 we changed the name to Comit? Independiente de Chihuahua Pro Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, but kept the same initials: CICH.

NPT: After creating CICH, what came next for you?

Galarza: We kept working on defending the human rights of people in Ju?rez all the way up to the 90s. Even though there were political changes in the state of Chihuahua during this period, including the arrival of the PAN (Partido Acci?n Nacional) to the governor?s office, there still persisted many very serious, grievous violations to human rights, especially when it came to the thousands of complaints filed by maquiladora workers. There were hundreds of protest rallies in which CICH participated during the 90s. For me this period was one of personal growth. Being an active member of CICH allowed me to develop as a woman, as a mother, as a daughter, and in general as a more complete human being. Whenever it didn?t interfere with their school schedules, my children accompanied me at our protest rallies, marches and other activities related to our human rights work. My two eldest knew my sister Lety, but don?t remember her well since they were very young. My last child was born in 1985, and I remember how beautiful it was to have a new baby and be a part of this human rights work through CICH.

Ever since the mid-80s, the CICH had become affiliated with the Frente Nacional Democr?tico Popular--FNDP (Democratic Popular National Front), whose ranks included rural workers, urban workers, students and the human rights organization named CNI, which stands for Comit? Nacional Pro Defensa de Presos, Perseguidos, Detenidos y Desaparecidos Por Motivos Pol?ticos (National Defense Committee for the Politically Jailed, Persecuted, Detained and Disappeared), organization that CICH had been affiliated with since day one. The leader of CNI was doctor Felipe Mart?nez Soriano, a pediatrician and rural teacher who was much loved by the Mexican people, but hated by the PRI system/establishment. He was jailed in 1990 and freed in 1999. He had been sentenced to 9 ? years in prison.

I remember a particular occasion that we were staging a protest rally outside the Cibeles Convention Center in Ju?rez, against then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), who had been responsible for Dr. Mart?nez Soriano?s imprisonment, and who was giving a speech that day at the convention center. We were asking that the doctor be freed from jail. My youngest son was with me at the rally, chanting along with us for the doctor?s liberation. A member of President Salinas' personal guard (equivalent to the U.S. Secret Service agents assign to protect the American president) walked up to my son, who was 7 years old at the time, and menacingly shouted at him: ?Be careful, little boy, because something bad might happen to you!? He said this right in front of me, so I would hear, of course. Enraged, I in turn spoke aloud to my son so that Salinas? guard could hear me. I said to him: ?Don?t worry, son, I swear to you that if anything happens to you, if this guy touches you, even a single scratch ? I?ll chase him to the end of the world and I?ll make him pay for it! I swear it!? My aim was to strengthen my son?s emotional state, and at the same time erase this guy?s threat in my son?s conscience. Right then a bunch of press reporters arrived, and immediately asked what was going on. Upon seeing this, the individual hurriedly left.

Another time, during a 21-day hunger strike I was engaged in, asking for the doctor?s freedom, a couple of men we later learned were federal policemen in plainclothes came up to me and one of them said: ?Look after your son, because he might disappear, you know.? Immediately my whole body started trembling. But I controlled my fear enough to tell them that if they did anything to my son, I would raise a scandal that would be heard to the ends of the world. They thought they were going to scare me, and in fact I did get very scared, but I didn?t show it, since I didn?t want to appear weak before them. That much I had learned over the years I had spent doing human rights work.

I always tried to get a hold of my fear, so that it wouldn?t dominate me. I have seen how fear can harm a human rights activist very badly. Whenever individuals have personally threatened me with bodily harm or even death, I?ve always told them to go ahead and do whatever it is they have in mind, because no matter what happens to me, others will come and pick up the thread, learn from our experiences, and continue the fight for our peoples? dignity. It?s a struggle that will never end, that can never be completely suffocated or eliminated by the powers that be, until that day when we achieve victory and thereby justice and respect for all. I?m completely sure of it.

NPT: How did you start working with FEDEFAM, and what is your career trajectory within this international umbrella organization for human rights?

Galarza: In 1995, during one of FEDEFAM?s plenary meetings, I was elected to serve as an advocate for Indian rights. Then, in 1997, I got elected as president of the Independent National Committee for the Defense of the Politically Jailed, Persecuted or Disappeared of the CNI. I promoted some reforms and we changed the name of that committee to Asociaci?n de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos y V?ctimas de Violaciones a los Derechos Humanos ? AFADEM (Association of Relatives of the Detained/Disappeared and Victims of Human Rights Violations). Then, in 1999, I first moved from Ju?rez to live in Mexico City.

That same year, the fifteenth International Congress of FEDEFAM took place in Mexico City. We at CICH had been affiliated to FEDEFAM since 1988, and so I was in attendance. Currently FEDEFAM has within it 20 organizations of relatives of politically detained/disappeared persons working in 13 Latin American countries. It also has Consultative Status (Category II) with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). FEDEFAM has its world headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, and that?s why I now live and work there.

I was elected as Executive Secretary in that fifteenth international congress celebrated in Mexico City. I moved to Venezuela in February of 2000. From the start, I kept my distance from Venezuelan president Hugo Ch?vez, because even back then he was already talked about disparagingly in the international press. I also arrived in Venezuela feeling disillusioned that Vicente Fox had won the Mexican presidential election. I thought to myself, all that work we put in to build a just society, and then the people go and vote for fascism. But at that time I didn?t know or think about how good it was, in a way, that the PAN had reached Mexican presidency and with it, national power. I probably didn?t feel good about the PAN reaching power because it is, after all, a right-wing party; and in my opinion a party that will not win again in Mexico?s next presidential election, unless it?s by force, as it has always been done before by previous governments that have not been willing to respect the will of the people through voting. That?s why I also believe that the PRI will not return to power again either.

NPT: Going back to your sister?s case, what happened after she was arrested in 1978?

Galarza: When they took my sister in ?78, she left behind a 1-year-old daughter whose now 30 years old. Her name is Alejandra, and her last name is that of the family that took care of her when my sister was detained. My niece is now studying Law with a thousand sacrifices to make ends meet, because we don?t have the funds to pay for her studies. The objective is for her to file the complaint against Miguel Nazar Haro and others responsible for the forced disappearance of her mother, my sister Lety, and also for the disappearance her paternal grandfather. Her goal is to thereby recover her true name, her identity, and I?m sure we?re going to accomplish this.

My niece still cries for her mother and father (my sister and brother-in-law). He was executed by government forces when my sister was five months pregnant. Then, when my niece was one, they disappeared my sister. My brother-in-law?s family was brutally repressed by the government. They disappeared his dad, and his mom was detained for seven months in the so-called Military Camp Number 1, in Mexico City, together with her three other sons. They killed another of her sons, Carlos Jim?nez Sarmiento. You could do an entire documentary on government repression with the story of what happened to my brother-in-law?s family. Later, after she was freed, my niece?s paternal grandmother, Gloria Sarmiento, was the victim of an ?accident? -- orchestrated by government agents in Mexico City -- in which she lost the lower half of her right arm. When the ?accident? occurred, police officers surrounded the scene so that she wouldn?t receive medical attention. They wanted her to bleed to death. Fortunately, she still lived through it and is still alive today. I relate all this to give you an idea of what my niece has had to piece together all this, and in a sense relive it, in order to reconstruct her personal, family history.

All this is something very hard to take for anyone. Last year our whole family got together, we had a family meeting, and it was very emotional. Everyone was crying disconsolately, as if my sister had been taken that very same day.

Over the years, we?ve been able to put together, piece by piece, the jigsaw puzzle that is my sister?s story after she was taken from us. Nowadays, police officers continue to harass my niece. Last year, according to several eyewitnesses, they went to the address where she currently lives to ?look around? and ask several of her neighbors about her and her comings and goings. Many of the pieces of evidence about what happened to my sister that we now have in hand, we didn?t have before. Photographs and testimonies that we?ve been able to obtain from the Archivo General de la Naci?n (General Government Archive of the [Mexican] Nation), pertaining to the Military Camp Number 1, where the authorities now accept they had her in custody, are now, fortunately, in our possession, and constitute another proof, another set of pieces of evidence for us. [declaration page 1] [declaration page 2]

My sister left her daughter, who was then six months old, in the care of Mrs. Graciela L?pez de Cartagena. I finally found Mrs. L?pez when my niece was four years old. My niece didn?t meet her paternal grandmother, Gloria Sarmiento, until she was 7. Last year (2005) I was able to attend, in Mexico City, the reunion of sons and daughters of persons that had been detained and forcibly disappeared, or executed, jailed and tortured to death by the Mexican government during the so-called ?dirty war? of the ?60s and ?70s.

Twenty-nine years after her forced disappearance, I hereby ratify my intention: I will remain firm, steadfast and unyielding until I find her; until they bring to trial all those directly or indirectly responsible for her disappearance; until I accomplish the moral and political reparation of my family and of my sister, Leticia Galarza Campos.
Last Updated on Monday, 16 July 2012 19:11