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Mexican Police Blamed for Silencing Tactics - 2002-02-09

Controversy has flared up once again in the Mexican boder city of Juarez after police shot and killed an attorney representing two men accused of raping and murdering eight young women. Local women's groups and journalists are also complaining about what they describe as government attempts to silence them. State officials are denying the accusations.

The latest violent incident in Juarez happened late Tuesday when Chihuahua state police fired several shots into the vehicle of 29-year-old attorney Mario Escobedo, killing him instantly. Police say they mistook him for a wanted criminal and that he fired two shots at the officers who were pursuing him.

His father, Mario Escobedo, senior, accused the state police of murder.

He says state judicial police fired a shot into the back of his son's head to make sure he was dead. He says they targeted the young lawyer because he represented one of two men accused of murdering eight women whose bodies were found in November. The two accused men recanted confessions a few days after their arrest and claimed they had been tortured by police.

Chihuahua State Attorney General Jose Silva has denied these accusations and has said autopsy results support the police.

He says the autopsy shows bullet fragments from the shots fired into the vehicle caused the wound to the victim's head. He also expresses regret over the death of the young attorney who, he claims, failed to stop when police tried to pull him over.

Meantime, the attorney representing the other man accused in the murder case claims he has also received death threats. Also, a number of journalists in Juarez say they have been pressured by authorities because of their reporting on the case of the murdered women. The city government has threatened to withdraw funding for the only womens' shelter in the city of 1.5 million people after the shelter's director protested the continued killings of young women.

She and a number of other prominent women and human rights activists criticized the police for failing to properly investigate the more than 200 cases of young women who have been killed in Juarez since 1993. More than 70 of those cases show evidence of having been done by one or more serial killers, but womens' activists say the state police have not followed this evidence and have instead coerced confessions from suspects in order to close the cases.

Last week, agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, in El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande River from Juarez, said they were willing to provide investigative assistance in the cases. But, they said, Mexican authorities had not asked them for help.

El Paso FBI spokesman Al Cruz has said that may soon change.

"I understand that the Mexican government is working on an official request. The request would come from the Mexican federal government and then we'll see if we can lend a hand wherever we might be able to," he said.

The FBI has indicated an interest in the Juarez murders because of the possibility that the killer or killers might be operating from the U.S. side of the border, thereby representing a potential threat in El Paso. But Mr. Cruz said that is only one of the many possible scenarios under consideration.

"The possibility also exists that somebody could have come from another city and visited El Paso for some time and crossed the border and committed murders as well. So, the possibilities are endless. That is just one of the possibilities that was being voiced," he said.

So far there has been no word from the Mexican federal government requesting U.S. help in Juarez. State officials last week said they were not seeking such help at this time. Civic groups in Juarez, however, have called on the government of President Vicente Fox to take action. In a letter sent to the president a few weeks ago, they complained of what they called a state government campaign to discredit and silence them. They cited full-page anonymous newspaper ads attacking their credibility which, they say, were paid for by the state government. State officials have denied this charge, but the latest incidents in Juarez have focused national and international attention once again on the border city and its unexplained string of murders.