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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Violent deaths in Mexico activist's family know no end

The Reyes family has become a case study of the unrelenting violence. Surviving kin angrily blame government officials for failing to protect a family 'so historically aggrieved.'

February 26, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Sara Salazar, at a news conference in Mexico City, is the mother of the slain Josefina Reyes, who became an activist after the 2008 kidnapping and killing of her son.
Sara Salazar, at a news conference in Mexico City, is the mother of the slain… (Miguel Tovar / Associated…)

Reporting from Mexico City — First they killed activist Josefina Reyes. Then her brother. Then they burned her mother's house. Two and a half weeks ago, gunmen dressed in black kidnapped Reyes' sister, sister-in-law and another brother.

On Friday, their bodies were discovered, shot and dumped on the side of a windswept road in Chihuahua state.

The Reyes family has become a case study of the unrelenting violence ravaging northern Mexico.

Surviving relatives Friday angrily blamed government authorities for failing to protect a family "so historically aggrieved."

"This is part of a growing wave of systematic harassment of the Reyes family by the state" and by criminal forces, the family said in a statement.

Carlos Gonzalez, spokesman for the Chihuahua state attorney general's office, said the bodies of Maria Magdalena Reyes, 45; Elias Reyes, 56; and his wife, Luisa Ornelas, 54; were discovered with handwritten signs suggesting that they had worked for drug traffickers — an allegation the family vehemently denied.

Other members of the Reyes family said they have been targeted because they are resisting a campaign by "outsiders" — presumably drug traffickers — to drive them and other families from their homes in the Juarez Valley around the town of Guadalupe, south of Ciudad Juarez. The region is coveted by organizations smuggling drugs into the United States, and Juarez has become Mexico's deadliest city as rival drug gangs battle for control despite a stepped-up presence of federal police and army forces.

"There are powerful interests that want to silence the Reyes family," Josefina's sister, Marisela, 39, said in an interview this week. She had come to Mexico City and erected a protest tent in front of the Senate to draw attention to her relatives' disappearance.

As is so often the case in Mexico, the story of the Reyes family's suffering is complex and not written in black and white.

Josefina Reyes became an activist after the 2008 kidnapping and slaying of her son. She openly blamed the army occupying parts of the Juarez Valley for her son's death. There were persistent reports at the time that he worked for one of the drug cartels disputing territory around Ciudad Juarez.

Reyes campaigned vociferously against alleged human rights abuse by the military. In January of 2010, an armed commando shot her in the head, making her one of an estimated seven human rights activists slain in Mexico in three years. There have been no arrests in the case, and Gonzalez, of the state attorney general's office, acknowledged again Friday that investigators had no leads.

Seven months after Josefina was killed, her brother, Ruben, was also shot to death.

On Feb. 7 of this year, about half a dozen gunmen pulled Elias and Maria Magdalena Reyes and Ornelas from their truck about 15 miles outside Ciudad Juarez in the early afternoon, according to witnesses.

Josefina Reyes' mother, Sara Salazar, was staging a protest outside government offices in Juarez on Feb. 15 when an armed group torched her house.

Under pressure from the family, authorities this week used dogs and search teams to look for the missing relatives. In the end, however, a passerby spotted the bodies and informed authorities.

Jorge Gonzalez Nicolas, a state prosecutor, said in a news conference that it appeared the victims had been dead for "several days" and that dirt on the bodies indicated they had probably been buried and then disinterred to be dumped by the road.

"It is important to make clear that they were apparently arranged there on the road moments before being spotted … possibly to lower the pressure" from a widening search, he said.

Gustavo de la Rosa, a veteran human rights activist who has been working as an intermediary between authorities and the family, echoed Amnesty International and other organizations in condemning the killings and demanding protection for the remaining Reyes family members.

"This is an aggression against defenders of human rights, because that is what this family was involved in," De la Rosa said.

He called on the army deployment in charge of the area to provide a full accounting of criminal activities in the Juarez Valley. "There are military forces that have been there six, seven months, and they must know something," he said.

wilkinson@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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