A version of this article originally appeared on VICE en Español.
Marisela Escobedo was 52 when she was shot dead on a sidewalk outside of the Government Palace of Chihuahua City, northern Mexico. She had set up camp in one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities – a place where people won’t leave their homes at night to protest day and night against corruption and impunity in her daughter’s murder case.
Instead, she was gunned down at the palace’s doorstep. Her story is told in the newly-released documentary The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo, co-produced by VICE Studios and Scopio and available on Netflix.
The story began in 2005, when 13-year-old Rubí Marisol Frayre Escobedo, Marisela’s daughter, fell in love with Sergio Barraza Bocanegra, who was 21 at the time. Despite the family’s initial opposition, the couple moved in together and had a daughter. Everything seemed fine. Then, in 2008, Rubí vanished. Sergio insisted Rubí had simply left him for another man, but the family didn’t believe she’d leave her child behind. They filed a missing person’s report, which was only made official by the police six weeks later. In the meantime, Sergio disappeared.
Led by Marisela, the family looked for Rubí all over their native city of Ciudad Juárez, on the border of El Paso, Texas, fearing she could have fallen prey to human traffickers. Without the help of police, Marisela found Sergio and plastered his neighbourhood with posters offering money for any information regarding her daughter’s disappearance. Finally, a witness came forward, saying he had overheard Sergio ask people for help concealing his girlfriend’s body. He was arrested and confessed in custody, telling the police where the body was. Months after her death, Rubí’s remains were finally found half-burnt in landfill. She was only 16 at the time of her death.
Rubí’s case is unfortunately far from uncommon in Ciudad de Juárez. The most populous city in the state of Chihuahua has a history of femicide, with over 370 women estimated to have been murdered in the city between 1993 and 2003 alone. As one of Mexico’s drug-trafficking epicentres, its high crime rate skyrocketed under President Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs between 2006 and 2012. According to the World Bank, the national homicide rate in Mexico was 22.5 murders for every 100,000 people in 2010. In Chihuahua, it was 188 per 100,000. The global average at the time was six deaths per 100,000.
It was amidst this climate of violence that Marisela staged a series of protests all over the country, demanding help from authorities that had previously barely lifted a finger. The months of mobilisation culminated in Sergio’s trial. When asked to address Marisela before sentencing, Sergio apologised to her for “the great pain that no one can repair”. After a recess, the judges unanimously absolved him of the crime.
The Escobedos couldn’t comprehend the decision. Despite his confession, his apology and knowledge of the location of Rubí’s body, the judges argued there was a lack of proof to convict him. Sergio was eventually convicted months later on appeal, but by then he had already disappeared.
Meanwhile, the family had caught wind that Sergio had joined Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most dangerous and brutal drug cartels. The Escobedos started receiving serious death threats, but Marisela refused to go into hiding. Instead, she staged a protest in the most public of places: the square in front of the Governor's Palace of Chihuahua, where weeks earlier a new conservative governor had been sworn in. Elected on a law and order platform, then-governor César Duarte granted her an audience with the attorney general, where Marisela detailed her knowledge about the case and the cartels. According to one of her lawyers, Gabino Gómez, that move signed her death sentence.
On the evening of the 16th of December, 2010, a car pulled up to her stand as she and her brother Ricardo were gathering their signs and petitions. Spotting the assassin, Marisela ran across the street and was executed right on the palace’s doorstep. A surveillance camera recorded the event.
The news of her death shocked the nation. Under mounting pressure, Duarte announced the police had made an arrest in April 2011. The suspect, José Enrique Jiménez Zavala, confessed to killing Marisela and to another shooting. But the only eyewitness in Marisela’s case, Ricardo, did not recognise Jiménez. The family had another suspect in mind, Andy Barraza Bocanegra, Sergio’s brother, who had threatened Marisela before her death and was picked by Ricardo out of a photo line-up. Despite this evidence, Barraza was never formally investigated. In December 2014, Jiménez was found dead in his maximum-security cell under suspicious circumstances.
The documentary The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo details further evidence of corruption and cover-ups at the highest levels of government in Chihuahua. It also describes the violence facing women in the country in all its forms. Instead of concentrating on a sole enemy – the patriarchy, the government or the cartels – the documentary reveals how danger pervades women’s experiences.
Despite all the inconsistencies, both Marisela’s and her daughter’s cases are officially closed. As the documentary reveals, most of the people involved in their murder are now dead or in jail. And yet, it still feels like there was no justice for the protagonists, nor for the 10 women killed in Mexico every day, as 97 percent of femicides in the country go unpunished. Over the past five years, Mexico’s murder rate has only gone up, and 2020 is set to be one of the bloodiest years on record.
Inspired by Marisela, the Escobedo family is still fighting. In 2019, they presented a case against Mexico to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Juan Manuel, Marisela’s son, is now leading the battle. “She fought until the last moment and died on the frontlines,” he said at her funeral. “Our mother was a heroine.”