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Report slams Mexican police on slayings
( 2003-08-12 11:05) (Agencies)

Mexican police used falsified evidence and torture in investigating a decade of sexually motivated killings in the rough border city of Ciudad Juarez, Amnesty International said in a report released Monday.

The report said police in the northern state of Chihuahua have been slow to investigate 137 killings of young women since 1993, mishandled evidence and failed to catch the real killers, the London-based human rights group said.

"The killers are still roaming free," Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan told a Mexico City news conference.

"The federal government has failed to live up to its responsibilities under Mexican and international law. We are seeing (killings of) young, poor women with no power, whose deaths have no political cost for the authorities."

Bodies have been misidentified, evidence has been contaminated through mishandling, and autopsies have been inadequate in some of the cases, said the report, which cited the group's own investigation, case records and the testimony of former investigators and activists.

"In many cases, police arrest people, torture them, get confessions, and then build a case around that instead of investigating," Khan said.

Prosecutors offer slightly different numbers on the slayings, saying there have been 108 unexplained homicides since 1993, 93 of them apparently involving a similar pattern of sexual abuse or mutilation.

Chihuahua state prosecutors have denied the torture allegations and promised to investigate other accusations of mistreatment or mishandling of evidence.

The Amnesty International report also accuses police of denigrating the victims and their families.

"From the first, prosecutors have focused on questioning families' background, and have treated (the victims') families with suspicion," the report said.

The report recommends that federal authorities take over the investigation. Most of the cases are in the hands of Chihuahua state prosecutors, who activists say have bungled them.

Khan also called for a judicial review of the cases of those arrested in the slayings, concerned "there might have been serious miscarriages of justice."

Some victims' families believe police are protecting or covering up for the real killers, something Khan said should be investigated.

Norma Ledesma, whose 16-year-old daughter was found dead in Chihuahua City last year, has no confidence in the state police.

"None of the culprits have been caught," Ledesma said. "The people they have in jail are innocent."

The report also called on state, federal and local police to publicly recognize the scope and seriousness of the problem; provide better treatment for victims' families and more funding for the probe; and punish officers who failed to investigate the crimes or mishandled the investigation.

Amnesty International also said that border manufacturing-for-export plants known as maquiladoras where some of the victims were employed should be required to provide adequate security for employees.

Some of the victims disappeared on their way to or from work at the maquiladoras; an equal number were students or retail employees. Most of the victims seem to have disappeared while waiting for or taking buses, and may have been snatched off the street in Ciudad Juarez, located across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Most of the victims were sexually assaulted, strangled and left in the desert on the outskirts of the city. Many of the victims' remains were mere skeletons by the time they were discovered, making the case harder to solve.

While there have been more than a dozen arrests, only one man has been convicted, for killing one of the first victims.

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