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Mexico's Military and the Murder at Zongolica (II)
Major discordances in the death of elderly woman
Erich Adolfo Moncada Cota (komodo)     Print Article 
Published 2007-04-10 08:14 (KST)   
In the first part of this article we reported the news of an alleged rape and killing of an indigenous 73-year-old poor woman, Ernestina Ascencio Rosario, in the town of Soledad Atzompa, state of Veracruz. Atzompa citizens accused Mexican army soldiers patrolling the area of committing the crime. President Felipe Calderon and the Defense Ministry stood up to defend the soldier's innocence, while opposition political parties, nongovernmental organizations and alternative media suggested otherwise. The implications of the case, despite the outcome, could become far-reaching.

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Mexico's Military and the Murder at Zongolica

During a newspaper interview, Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared, without being asked, that Ascencio's death was natural, due to a "neglected chronic gastritis," when investigations where inconclusive. Accordingly, five days later (1), Jose Luis Soberanes, ombudsman of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), agreed with this theory. Soberanes refused to acknowledge the possibility of rape, participation by military personnel, or facts to suggest an assassination. "It could be for natural causes," he assured based on a second autopsy made by the CNDH. Strangely, in a previous March 3 press release (2) the CNDH stated that Ascension "died due to the lesions she received."

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The CNDH later explained, "We have histopathologic data indicative of acute anemia caused by secondary digestive tube bleeding and to peptic gastric ulcers in a subject who suffered a malign hepatic neoplasia and a pneumonic process in recovery" (3).

The human rights institution issued preliminary results of a second autopsy made by its staff just five days after Calderon's "gastritis" statement. The document reads, "It is noticeable the inexistence of vaginal tearing on the victim presence of a rectal perforation was also discarded" and also denies any kind of "craneoencephalic trauma, fracture or cervical vertebrae luxation." The report totally contradicted the Veracruz state investigation. Rene Huerta, spokesman of an indigenous coalition in Zongolica, was cautious. He respected the inquiries and pleaded to wait for the report from the special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Fidel Herrera to compare results (4).

An independent human rights NGO supported by Amnesty International, Centro Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez, criticized the speedy recount made by the CNDH compared to other high profile crises undertaken with lateness, like state repression in Atenco in 2005 or in Oaxaca in 2006 (5).

The Veracruz attorney general office informed on March 29 that three forensic experts in charge of Ascencio's necropsy were suspended and being subjected to a "rigorous investigation." The Mayor of Soledad Atzompa, Javier Perez (Democratic Revolutionary Party; PRD), attacked Soberanes and said the CNDH is "allied with the army and now it's against the affected indigenous people we feel terrible knowing Mr. Soberanes is trying to leave unpunished this attack on our older sister." Mayor Perez requested an audience with President Felipe Calderon and with the head of CNDH. He also set a 15-day ultimatum for the Defense Ministry to bring the men responsible to justice and publish the last autopsy results, otherwise protests would erupt in Veracruz and Mexico City.

On March 30, the main opposition force in Congress, the leftist PRD, tried to bring Soberanes to testify before congressmen but the initiative was boycotted by Jorge Zermeno, head of Congress, a militant of the ruling conservative PAN party (6).

In an interview (7), Jose Luis Soberanes reaffirmed "there was no rape. No homicide" and that the first necropsy was "badly done. It was totally irregular, full of omissions and negligence." He promised to sue the forensic officers of Veracruz for these acts.

That same day (8), Fidel Herrera, governor of Veracruz, backed his experts at a press conference. He showed copies of the death certificate (number 172772) showing the violent acts and told the media, "It was a crime, not natural death."

Similarly, Noemi Quirazco Hernandez, president of Veracruz State Commission of Human Rights (CEDHV), said, "I don't know a single case were a women denounced a rape act against her without being true, and much less being a 73-year-old woman. I don't believe it at all [the natural death story]" (9).

A day later Maria del Rocio Garcia, president of the National Women's Institute (INMUJERES), defended the army: "She was dying, she was babbling, I'm not trusting on what she said."

But five of Ascencio's children broke their silence and assured the press their mother was not suffering from gastritis and was not complaining of any kind of chronic illness. Julio Ascencio, the older sibling, asserted that his mom had a good appetite and went sheep grazing, walking eight kilometers each day. "She was never ill; she had check-ups at the clinic" (10). Meanwhile, the Veracruz government informed that forensic experts were preparing a report about the case suggesting their initial opinion could be sustained and presented to Governor Herrera in the coming days (11).

Let's review some of the major discordances in Ascencio's death:

1. Ministry of Defense press release number 019 of March 6 stated that "forensic experts are comparing samples of seminal fluid taken from the body of the death women, with blood samples taken from military personnel" (12).

2. The following day, the ministry published press release number 020, assuring that "these samples, along with the semen sample taken from the perished will be sent to Mexico City to obtain a genetic footprint, compare it and bring conclusive results" (13).

But recently the Public Relations Department in the Defense Ministry said there was no "seminal fluid supposedly founded in Mrs. Ascension's body because Veracruz government would be in possession of such samples" and that "to this date the Ministry has not received such samples to test them" (14).

3. An activist and public servant of Soledad Atzompa, Julio Atenco, told Proceso magazine that in the first days of March the local governing body (cabildo) had interviews with two members of the CNDH, Pedro Armendariz and Francisco Platas, "who told us all evidence gathered so far aimed at the military responsibility they accepted the raping of our sister." Atenco mentioned that on Feb. 26 just hours after the crime, Col. Jose Soberanes reported in front of 300 people that four soldiers were arrested and were the subject of an investigation, but the next day said, "we don't have soldiers under detention" (15).

4. Results from the death certificate made by Dr. Juan Pablo Mendizabal, from the first autopsy performed by three forensic experts (number 070276634), from reports from the Veracruz attorney general office, from investigations by the Special Agency on Sex Crimes Against Family and the Public Ministry Agency of Ciudad Mendoza revealed a gruesome death and sexual aggression against the elderly woman (16).

The Community General Assembly of the Nahua town of Zongolica requested an urgent meeting with President Calderon (17) and considered it "worrisome that those responsible of this absurd and unheard crime are being protected because they're sending a clear message to the Mexican society that this act could have military or political objectives."

According to Modesto Antonio Cruz, an Atzompa police officer, just three weeks before the Ascencio incident he sent an official "bad behavior" complaint (petty theft, abuse of authority and mistreatment of citizens) against some soldiers to their superior, Lt. Col. Alejandro Orozco, with copies to Galvan at the Defense Ministry and President Calderon. Officer Cruz assured, "I think this complaint is related to aggressions of our big sister Ernestina. It could be a retaliation act, a warning message" (18).

The CNDH is facing the most critical challenge to its credibility since its creation in 1990. Its recommendations are not binding to federal or local governments and its role denouncing massive human rights violations has been questionable at best according to activists and academic specialists. Isabel Uriarte, a lawyer from Centro Miguel Agustin Pro, accuses Soberanes of not following another five cases like this since 1999. Sergio Aguayo, head of Fundar, says the $63 million annual budget of the CNDH exceeds by far any other human rights agency in the world, but its results are more deficient than other local or foreign agencies. Also, the CNDH lacks transparency compared to other NGOs, since it refuses to make public the files of finished cases, and charges $9 per copy for a requested document. The most disconcerting aspect of this opacity is the strict confidentiality regarding Soberanes' reelection in 2005 (19).

If the CNDH is right and Ascencio died from natural causes, then the state of Veracruz and the citizens of Soledad Atzompa will have to clarify their reasons for attacking the integrity of the army, especially in light of the presence of alleged drug traffickers and guerrilla groups in the region. But if a violent death is demonstrated then Congress and society will have to pressure President Calderon to make a formal apology for his mistake and fire his secretary of defense, Galvan. Destitution will be inevitable to Soberanes for hiding the truth. And of course, those directly responsible will have to be punished for their abominable actions.

Let's hope justice will prevail in a country where impunity is almost a tradition.
References in Spanish:

1. "Pudo ser natural" la muerte de Ernestina Ascencion, afirma Soberanes

2. Comunicado de prensa CNDH, 03 de marzo de 2007

3. "Ernestina Ascencio no fue violada; murio de 'ulceras gastricas': CNDH"

4. "Investigan a peritos por el caso Ascencio Rosario"

5. "Prodh: Causa extraneza el apresuramiento de la CNDH en el caso Atzompa"

6. Truenan perredistas contra la CNDH Por: NTX, Viernes, 30 de Marzo de 2007

7. "Soberanes: no hubo violacion; si una autopsia mal hecha e informacion falsa"

8. "Fue un crimen, no deceso natural," el de Ernestina Ascencio: Fidel Herrera

9. "Una anciana de 73 anos no miente"

10. Descalifica Inmujeres acusacion de Ascencio Rosario contra militares; "fue en nahuatl"

11. "Defenderan medicos legistas reporte sobre muerte de anciana"

12. Comunicado de prensa 019 Secretaria de la Defensa Nacional

13. Comunicado de prensa 020

14. "Aclaracion de la Secretaria de la Defensa Nacional"

15. "징Tenemos coraje!"
Proceso magazine No.1587, April 1, 2007

16. "Quince personas vieron y asistieron a Ernestina en sus 12 ultimas horas"

17. "Indigenas piden cita a Calderon por caso Ascencio"

18. "El ataque a Ernestina Ascencion, posible "mensaje de escarmiento": autoridades

19. "Solapador"
Proceso magazine, No. 1587, April 1, 2007
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Erich Adolfo Moncada Cota

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