Warning: This case deals with topics that are especially grave and may cause trauma invoked by memories of past abuse. If you have experienced violence and need assistance, please refer to this list of country help lines provided by UN Women.
Non-intimate partner femicide
Inter-American Court of Human Rights
When you leave your home, do you avoid certain routes, ask to walk with a friend or choose to travel only during certain times of the day? What if women in your community were disappearing and being murdered when they leave their homes during the day – without any action from the state to stop it? In what ways would everyday decisions be affected?
In order for women to equally enjoy their human rights, states have a duty to take effective action to ensure acts of gender-based violence are investigated, prosecuted and, ultimately, eliminated. This includes providing transformative reparations aimed at restructuring the relationships of power to eliminate the gender-based discrimination driving violence against women. Without this action, a message is sent to society that these acts are tolerated and accepted as part of daily life – while women suffer and manage the consequences.
Claudia Ivette Gonzalez (age 20), Esmeralda Herrera Monreal (age 15) and Laura Berenice Ramos Monarrez (age 17) were living in Ciudad Juarez (Mexico) when they disappeared after leaving work. Laura and Esmeralda had finished their shifts but went missing on their way home. Claudia was not seen again after being turned away from her workplace for arriving two minutes late. Afraid for their safety, the young women’s families repeatedly contacted the police for help – to no avail. Law enforcement officials dismissed the families’ concerns, saying that they were “probably with their boyfriends.” Without any serious or effective investigation into the disappearances, their families were left without help from law enforcement officials.
Gonzalez, Monreal and Monarrez v. Mexico is also referred to as the “Cotton Field” or “Campo Algodonero” case. This is because on 6 November 2001, Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura’s bodies were discovered in the cotton fields of Ciudad Juarez. Five other women were also found murdered in the same field. Each of the young women’s bodies displayed evidence of intense physical and psychological torture, mutilation and sexual abuse. It was apparent that they had been abducted and imprisoned for days by their captors before they were finally killed.
In the investigations that followed, public officials continued to deny the young women justice. During collection of evidence in the cotton field, investigators left many objects behind and did not adequately record what they had collected. Two innocent men were detained by police, presumably tortured and forced into false confessions of the murders. The men’s lawyer was killed during this time. Autopsies of Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura’s bodies were inconsistent and did not document many of the violations they had suffered, including the sexual abuse. DNA results confirming the identities of the girls would not be handed over for two years. These results inconsistently identified the bodies’ genetic relationship to the families. In some cases, the DNA results contradicted earlier identification through other processes.
After receiving continual threats from Ciudad Juarez officials to withdraw their complaints, the mothers of Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura brought their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (which was eventually referred to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights). Through the mothers’ testimonies, work of advocates and data delivered by civil society organisations, a systematic pattern of violence againt women and widespread discrimination was presented to the Court. The Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes related to the Murders of Women in the Municipality of Juarez reports that 4,456 women are reported to have disappeared between 1993 and 2005, most of them between the ages of 15 and 25.
What was the decision?
“This judicial ineffectiveness when dealing with individual cases of violence against women encourages an environment of impunity that facilitates and promotes the repetition of acts of violence in general and sends a message that violence against women is tolerated and accepted as part of daily life.“ (para. 388)
Through its analysis, the Court decided that Mexico was responsible for violating Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura Bernice’s human rights, specifically:
- American Convention on Human Rights
- Article 1: Obligation not to discriminate
- Article 4: Right to life
- Article 5: Right to Humane Treatment
- Article 7: Right to Personal Liberty
- Article 8: Right to a Fair Trial
- Article 19: Rights of the Child
- Article 25: Right to Judicial Protection
- Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (“Belem do Para Convention”)
- Article 7: States’ obligation to prevent, punish and eradicate VAW
The Court recognised that the disappearances and murders of Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura were gender-based and perpetrated in the known context of violence against women in Ciudad Juarez. While not all violations committed against women constitute a violation of the Belem do Para Convention, these murders were influenced by a culture of discrimination against women, as evidenced by reports from the IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Women, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and Amnesty International – among others.
Accepting that the acts taken against this woman and two girls under 18 were, in fact, gender-based violence, Article 7 of the Belem do Para Convention required Mexico to exercise due diligence in preventing, investigating and punishing them. Before the discovery of Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura’s bodies, Mexican officials should have assumed they had been deprived of their liberty and undertaken all necessary action to prevent any further violation of the women’s rights. However it was obvious that the officials did not act urgently or without delay. Instead, their actions demonstrated mere conformity with formalities and statement taking, all without further action. For these reasons and more, the Court found Mexico had violated the rights to life, personal integrity and personal liberty guaranteed under Article 4(1), 5(1), 5(2) and 7(1), in relation to the general obligation to guarantee those rights under Article 1(1) and the obligation to adopt domestic legal provisions under Article 2 of the American Convention. And, given that the disappearance and subsequent murders of the women were acts of VAW, Mexico was also in violation of its obligations under Articles 7(b) and 7(c) of the Belem do Para Convention.
In examining Mexico’s actions to investigate Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura’s murders, the Court found several deficiencies. These included: irregularities in the handling of evidence; fabrication of perpetrators, delayed investigations; the absence of inquiries that accounted for the general environment of VAW in Ciudad Juarez; and the lack of investigation against public officials for serious negligence. Through its analysis, the Court concluded that Mexico had failed to conduct a conscientious and effective investigation into the murders. Mexico’s judicial ineffectiveness demonstrated the impunity that existed in each case. For these reasons, the Court decided Mexico had failed to meet its obligations under Articles 4(1), 5(1), 5(2), 7(1) of the American Convention and Article 7(b) and 7(c) of the Belem do Para Convention. Because the above acts had prevented Claudia, Esmeralda, Laura and their families access to justice and to judicial protection, Mexico had also failed to meet its obligations under Articles 8(1) and 25(1) of the American Convention.
The Court also noted the multiple reports documenting the culture of gender-based discrimination and VAW in Ciudad Juarez that were published and delivered to Mexican authorities, prior to the disappearance and murder of Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura. The knowledge of this widespread violation should have alerted police to the immediate dangers the three young women faced when they were reported missing. Yet, when the families had contacted public officials for help, some of the officials had mentioned the women were “flighty” or “they had run away with their boyfriends”. This obvious indifference not only delayed the investigation, but reproduced gender-based violence and discrimination by preventing access to justice. In addition, with the discriminatory statements made by public officials in mind, the Court stated (para. 401):
“…the subordination of women can be associated with practices based on persistent socially-dominant gender stereotypes, a situation that is exacerbated when the stereotypes are reflected, implicitly or explicitly, in policies and practices and, particularly, in the reasoning and language of the judicial police authorities, as in this case. The creation and use of stereotypes becomes one of the causes and consequences of gender-based violence against women.”
Due to the public authorities discriminatory behaviour, the Court concluded that Mexico had violated its obligation not to discriminate under Article 1(1), in combination with Articles 4(1), 5(1), 5(2) and 7(1) of the American Convention, as well as Articles 8(1) and 25(1) in relation to access to justice for the women and their families.
The young ages of Laura and Esmeralda also led the Court to examine Mexico’s compliance with Article 19 of the American Convention. Because of their age, both Laura and Esmeralda belonged to a vulnerable group of women. This fact demanded authorities take special measures to guarantee the rights of the girls. Here, it was apparent that public officials had not undertaken any such actions. Therefore, Mexico had also violated the rights of the girls under Article 19 of the American Convention, in relation to Articles 1(1) and 2.
Finally, because of the pain and suffering caused by the public authorities’ ineffective and discriminatory handling of Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura’s cases, as well as the threats made to withdraw their cases, the Court decided Mexico had violated their families’ rights under Article 5(1) and 5(2) of the American Convention.
For these reasons, the Court recommended that Mexico (see also page 147 of the case document):
- Identify, prosecute and punish those responsible for the gender-based disappearances, ill-treatment and murder of Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura (para. 452). This includes (para. 455):
- Removing all factual or juridical obstacles to due investigations of the facts and conduct of the respective judicial proceedings, and ensure these investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted promptly in order to avoid a repetition of the same or similar acts as those in this case.
- Include a gender perspective in all investigations, undertake specific lines of inquiry concerning sexual assault, which must involve lines of inquiry into the corresponding patterns in the area; be conducted in accordance with protocols and manuals that comply with the directives set out in this judgment provide the victims’ next of kin with information on progress in the investigation regularly, and give them full access to the case files, and the investigations shall be carried out by officials who are highly trained in similar cases and in dealing with victims of discrimination and gender-based violence.
- The different entities that take part in the investigation procedures and in the judicial proceedings shall have the necessary human and material resources to perform their tasks adequately, independently and impartially, and those who take part in the investigations shall be given due guarantees for their safety.
- The results of the proceedings shall be published so that Mexican society is aware of the facts that are the purpose of the instant case.
- Identification, prosecution and, if applicable, sanction of the officials who committed irregularities (para. 456). This includes investigating the officials accused of irregularities through the competent public institutions and, following a due procedure, apply the corresponding administrative, disciplinary or criminal sanctions to those found responsible (para. 460).
- Investigation of the complaints filed by the victims’ next of kin who have been harassed and persecuted (para. 462).
- Publish the judgment that the Court will deliver in newspapers, and on the radio and television, publicly acknowledge its international responsibility for the damage caused and for the serious violations that occurred, in the significant and dignified manner required by the purposes of reparation, in consultation with the mothers of the victims and their representatives, and name a place or build a monument to commemorate the victims, in consultation with their next of kin (para. 468).
- Continue standardising all its protocols, manuals, prosecutorial investigation criteria, expert services, and services to provide justice that are used to investigate all the crimes relating to the disappearance, sexual abuse and murders of women in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol, the United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extralegal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, and the international standards to search for disappeared persons, based on a gender perspective. In this regard, an annual report shall be presented for three years.
- Adapt the Alba Protocol or implement a similar new mechanism, pursuant to the following directives:
- Implement searches ex officio and without any delay, in cases of disappearance, as a measure designed to protect the life, personal liberty and personal integrity of the disappeared person
- Establish coordination among the different security agencies in order to find the person
- Eliminate any factual or legal obstacles that reduce the effectiveness of the search or that prevent it from starting, such as requiring preliminary inquiries or procedures
- Allocate the human, financial, logistic, scientific or any other type of resource required for the success of the search
- Verify the missing report against the database of disappeared persons
- Give priority to searching areas where reason dictates that it is most probable to find the disappeared person, without disregarding arbitrarily other possibilities or areas. All of the above must be even more urgent and rigorous when it is a girl who has disappeared
- Create a web page that is updated continually with the necessary personal information on all the women and girls who have disappeared in Chihuahua since 1993 and who remain missing. This web page must allow any individual to communicate with the authorities by any means, including anonymously, to provide relevant information on the whereabouts of the disappeared women or girls or, if applicable, of their remains
- Create or update a database within one year of the judgment that includes:
- The personal information available on disappeared women and girls at the national level.
- The necessary personal information, principally DNA and tissue samples, of the next of kin of the disappeared who consent to this – or that is ordered by a judge – so that the State can store this personal information solely in order to locate a disappeared person.
- The genetic information and tissue samples from the body of any unidentified woman or girl deprived of life in the state of Chihuahua.
- Continue implementing permanent education and training programs and courses in (para. 541):
- Human rights and gender.
- A gender perspective for due diligence in conducting preliminary investigations and judicial proceedings in relation to the discrimination, abuse and murder of women based on their gender.
- Elimination of stereotypes of women’s role in society.
- Provide appropriate and effective medical, psychological or psychiatric treatment, immediately and free of charge, through specialised state health institutions to all the next of kin (para. 549).
- Provide financial compensation to the families of Esmeralda, Claudia and Laura
Learning from other institutions
Throughout the text of the case document, Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura’s stories were supported by what other institutions and authorities had said about violence against women, gender-based discrimination and human rights. Some of the references to these institutions and authorities included (numbers correspond to paragraphs within the case document):
- European Court of Human Rights: 4-6, 190, 280, 292-3, 396
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: 113, 116, 118-9, 123, 125, 127, 129, 131-3, 149-50, 152-4, 158, 161-2, 206, 229, 262, 264-5, 273, 307, 332, 362, 398, 408, 435, 487-9, 505, 514, 518, 542
- General Recommendation No. 19 (CEDAW): 254, 395
- Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women: 254
- Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences: 254, 256
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: 5
- Convention against Torture and Other Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: 7, 9, 14
- Opuz v. Turkey: 5, 6, 396
- AT vs Hungary: 255
- Penha vs Brazil: 255
Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura’s case was one of the first applications of the Belém do Pará Convention by the Court and changed the way we understand reparations for acts of gender-based violence. The Court’s decision broke from traditional understandings of reparation to demand Mexico address the underlying causes of femicide in Ciudad Juarez.
The Court required that reparations:
(i) refer directly to the violations declared by the Tribunal; (ii) repair the pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage proportionately; (iii) do not make the beneficiaries richer or poorer; (iv) restore the victims to their situation prior to the violation insofar as possible, to the extent that this does not interfere with the obligation not to discriminate; (v) are designed to identify and eliminate the factors that cause discrimination; (vi) are adopted from a gender perspective, bearing in mind the different impact that violence has on men and on women, and (vii) take into account all the juridical acts and actions in the case file which, according to the State, tend to repair the damage caused. 451
Transformative reparations expand beyond financial compensation and basic protections to a profound examination of the causes and manifestations of discrimination against women and girls and a binding requirement to address these so that women and girls can enjoy their human rights in practice. Although the Court focused on the circumstances surrounding the murders of Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura, the decision resulted in the documentation of 300 incidences of femicide in Ciudad Juarez since 1993.
Despite this success, femicide and disappearances have continued throughout Mexico. These extreme forms of discrimination have also continued against the families and defenders fighting to end impunity for gender-based violence. Susana Chávez Castillo is one of those defenders who lost her life calling for justice for the disappeared and murdered women in Ciudad Juarez.
- Latin American Model Protocol for the investigation of gender-related killings of women (femicide/feminicide)
- Interview with the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Dubravka Šimonović, on the establishment a global ‘Femicide Watch’
- World Health Organization: “Understanding and addressing violence against women: Femicide”
- Women’s Access to Justice for Gender-Based Violence: ICJ Practitioners’ Guide (2016)