By Rebekah F Ward
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Human rights activists in Mexico had already suffered a bad year by the time 58-year-old Cristina Vazquez was murdered in her apartment in an affluent Mexico City neighborhood at the end of June.
Vazquez was the 13th human rights defender in Mexico likely killed for her activism in 2019, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a tally almost surpassing its total for all 2018.
Over two months later, no suspects have been arrested. Vazquez’s murder adds to the heavy toll on Mexico’s record under President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December pledging to contain mounting lawlessness.
“We have to see this as just the tip of the iceberg, because there are many more other forms of aggression that affect human rights defenders,” Jan Jarab, the OHCHR representative in Mexico, told Reuters. “All serious crimes need to be investigated far better in Mexico than they are.”
More than 29,000 murders were registered in Mexico last year, and the total for 2019 is on track to go higher. Activists make up just a tiny fraction of the total, but their plight has heightened alarm over the surging violence.
Police found Vazquez’s body at her apartment in the city’s western neighborhood of Condesa on July 1, when neighbors reported a foul smell. Days earlier, passers-by had alerted police to screams in the vicinity.
A member of a local neighborhood watch committee, Vazquez took an active role in protesting to authorities against breaches in rules and regulations, friends and neighbors said.
Complaints she made about a building under construction next to her home, improper use of a local park and the activities of street vendors made her enemies, and she received threats, said Quetzal Castro, the committee’s leader.
No suspect has been named over the killing and nobody has been charged so far. Local police did not respond to repeated requests by Reuters for comment on the case.
Mexico City attorney general Ernestina Godoy said in July that Vazquez’s complaints about the building was one of the first lines of inquiry opened into her death. But her office has since given no further details on the investigations.
“ALONE WITHOUT YOU”
Human rights activists, like journalists, have faced increasing exposure to risk during a broader deterioration in security since the government sent in the armed forces to battle organized crime at the end of 2006.
Lopez Obrador says his administration must do more to quell the violence, which he has cast as the “rotten fruit” of corruption, state-sanctioned rights abuses and failed economic policies of previous governments.
According to the OHCHR, 14 rights activists were killed in 2018. Tallies vary, and Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) categorized Vazquez as the seventh such victim in 2019 after registering six last year.
The CNDH estimates more than 90% of activist murders go unsolved, making it hard to classify cases.
Rural rights advocates are often among those most exposed if they clash with economic interests competing for land or natural resources, experts say.
In February, indigenous activist Samir Flores was gunned down on his doorstep in the state of Morelos, after protesting a gas pipeline set to cut through his area.
Prosecutors in Morelos denied the killing was linked to his activism, a move that Jarab of the OHCHR said “seriously called into question the investigation.”
The case is still unresolved.
Violence against activists has a chilling effect, dissuading others from doing their work.
After Vazquez’s killing, Castro of the Condesa neighborhood watch group joined a government protection scheme for activists. Some members of her committee stopped going to meetings, afraid that “someone could be watching their every move,” she said.
Vazquez’s elderly mother, Cristina Chavarria, sobbed as she vented her frustration over the lack of progress on the murder.
“We want to know if they’re really working on it, or if they’ve just abandoned it,” she said as a pendant of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, dangled from her neck.
“I don’t know where you are,” she said, clutching two photographs to her chest of the daughter who had cared for her in old age. “I’m alone without you.”
(Reporting by Rebekah F Ward; Editing by Dave Graham and Marguerita Choy)