Photo Credit: Netflix
On December 16, activists will lay a wreath and light candles in front of the Chihuahua State Capitol in Mexico, as they have done every year for the past decade. It was there, on this date in 2010, that one of the most brazen crimes in recent Mexican history occurred: the murder of activist Marisela Escobedo as she held a sit-in demanding that her daughter’s killer be brought to justice. Escobedo had spent the two years prior to her death publicly denouncing and revealing the government’s negligence in her daughter’s case. Despite widespread outrage at her murder, after an initial investigation that was riddled with deficiencies and marked by scandal, there have been virtually no advances in Escobedo’s case in the past decade. This year, however, that may finally change.
In early November, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in his daily press conference that the Escobedo case “must stay open” and be examined by his administration—a major development after years in which local authorities maintained that the case was closed. These statements occurred days after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) told the Mexican state that it had three months to send the commission its observations on the cases of Escobedo and her daughter Rubí—a first step as the IACHR deliberates whether to admit the case. The Commission’s move came roughly two weeks after the premiere of the Netflix documentary “The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo,” which revisits in detail the cases of Rubí and Marisela Escobedo. The documentary, directed by Carlos Pérez Osorio and for which I served as a producer, has reignited widespread interest in the case.
The momentum to revisit the Escobedo case, which is emblematic of many of the most confounding crises facing the country, could not come at a more delicate moment for the Mexican government. In addition to the economic impact caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, homicide rates are at an all time high, according to the National Statistics Institute. The failures of the Mexican justice system, which was overhauled more than a decade ago with significant support from the U.S. government, have created a climate of pervasive impunity. In 2018, investigations were initiated for only 6.8 percent of all crimes, according to a survey by the National Statistics Institute.
Both of these problems are central to the most explosive social issue in Mexico this year, violence against women. An average of ten women are murdered each day in Mexico and 97 percent of those crimes go unpunished, according to a report by the NGO Mexicans Against Corruption (Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción). The problem of femicides—defined as the “intentional killing of women and girls because of their gender”—has existed for decades in Mexico. But, like the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States this year, the issue has dominated the Mexican public agenda in 2020 as never before, due to a series of horrific cases widely publicized on social media and the savvy mobilizing, online and off, of feminist groups. In early March, tens of thousands of women went on an unprecedented national strike and took to the streets in protest. In September, feminist groups—some of whom have embraced increasingly radical measures—seized control of a federal building and have occupied it ever since.
These issues represent not just a domestic crisis for the Mexican government, but also, come January, potentially an international one. Under the Biden administration, human rights support may return to the U.S. foreign policy agenda. If the Mexican government hopes to convince critics at home that it can forcefully confront these problems, and curry favor with an incoming Biden administration whose election victory President López Obrador has been slow to acknowledge, taking real action in the Escobedo case would be an important, symbolic first step.
For years, local human rights groups and members of the Escobedo family have spoken out against what they have characterized as a willfully negligent investigation on the part of the Chihuahua State authorities. The “The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo” documentary includes the first-ever interview with the man Marisela Escobedo’s family believes killed her. Despite allegedly threatening Escobedo before her death, he has never been questioned by authorities about the murder. In an on-camera interview from a prison in Texas, where he is currently imprisoned on unrelated charges, he denied any participation in the crime, saying he was in the United States at the time. Mexican authorities could easily request access to U.S. immigration records that should be able to corroborate, or impugn, this alibi. But, time is running out; the decade-old border crossing records will become increasingly more difficult to locate. In order to respond to the Inter-American Commission, and send a message to critics at home, and foreign policy circles in Washington, that would be a good place to start. The Escobedo family—and the Mexican public—have waited for justice for long enough.
Sara Rafsky is a writer and researcher who works at the intersection of journalism, press freedom, human rights and documentary film in the US and Latin America. She is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and a producer of the Netflix Original documentary, The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo. In the past, Rafsky has worked with organizations such as Doc Society, MIT’s Open Documentary Lab, Witness, Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, Cambridge, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. In 2008, she received a Fulbright Grant to research photojournalism and the Colombian armed conflict. She has a BA from Georgetown University and an MS in Comparative Media Studies from MIT.
Follow Sara on Twitter at @sararafsky