Mexico's government this week was hit with another blow to its public image as officials sought to deny a claim that up to 46 unidentified bodies have been removed from a polluted canal a few miles outside of Mexico City.
Octavio Martinez Vargas, head of the state's Public Security Committee, claims state officials have found dozens of bodies since June, while dredging a water canal in Ecatepec — a sprawling suburb of Mexico City in the bordering state of Mexico.
According to Congressman Martinez, from the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the attorney general's office acknowledged the discovery of 21 corpses — 16 of which are allegedly women — during a closed-door meeting held on October 8 with a local victims' organization.
Since making his claims on Monday, state authorities have been quick to categorically deny Congressman Martinez's allegations, but his accusations have served to once again highlight the issue of femicide in the state of Mexico, which in recent years has become notorious for violence against women, topping national statistics with the highest index of female murder victims in the country.
Attorney General Alejandro Gómez Sánchez said during a press conference that the skeletal remains discovered during the "routine" draining of the canal were for the most part animal bones. Gómez did however confirm that human remains were found, but swiftly added that they are believed to belong to a single male victim. He acknowledged that investigators are working to identify a second set of remains, but have been unable to confirm the gender or origin of the remains as of yet.
Gómez said Congressman Martinez's declaration "can only be called irresponsible."
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"During the cleanup of the canal, which occurs regularly — especially during this time of year to avoid floods — there have been skeletal remains found, the origins of which have yet to be determined scientifically," a statement from the attorney general's office read. "We have been unable to determine whether they are of animal or human origin, and it is even more complicated to determine if they belong to just one body, or to determine the gender."
Martinez, however, claims the draining of the canal is neither necessary or routine. He believes state authorities are hiding the truth about femicide in the city of Ecatepec and throughout the state.
"It's absurd that the attorney general ask me for proof of the skeletal remains of these people — and specifically these women. That is the job of the attorney general of the state of Mexico," he said during a press conference.
"I don't believe the attorney general," Martinez said, adding that he has lost all faith in the governor, from the opposing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and his administration. "I will be demanding a third-party expert ruling."
Congressman Martinez's allegations stem from a five-hour meeting he organized in early October between state representatives, and members of the non-governmental organization Solidaridad con Las Familias. Martinez was not in attendance, but David Mancera — activist and head of the NGO — was present.
Mancera said that two state officials confirmed the discovery of at least 21 bodies — a version backed up by Isela Rodriguez, a woman who attended the meeting to press for information on her own daughter's disappearance.
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Residents in the Valle de Aragon neighborhood in the city of Ecatepec, told VICE News that the nearby canal, Rio de los Remedios, is a well-known dumping spot for bodies. They said police presence in the area is minimal and criminals roam freely after dark. According to residents, this lack of surveillance along the canal banks has been an ongoing problem.
Not only do the stagnant canal waters make an excellent breeding ground for mosquitos, but also an ideal watery grave.
Local and national media have reported on bodies surfacing in Rio de los Remedios throughout the year. In February, a young man's body was found floating, bound at the hands and feet. In March, another was discovered with several bullet wounds. In May a man was found floating dead in the section known as the Gran Canal, and in June two more were dragged out. Just last month, the corpses of a man, and later a woman, were discovered in the canal.
Ecatepec is not an isolated case. Generalized violence has been on the rise in the state of Mexico in recent years.
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According to official government figures, there were 1,324 murders committed in the state of Mexico in the first eight months of 2014. Kidnapping and rape are also devastatingly common. Official figures make no distinction between male and female victims, which further obfuscates the extent of the problem.
The current governor of the state, Eruviel Ávila Villegas, served two terms as mayor of Ecatepec before being elected to his current post. Although Ávila's administration has not publicly released figured on the extent of femicide in his state, the National Citizens' Femicide Observatory told VICE News that they received rather telling figures from the attorney general's office.
The report, made available under Mexico's freedom of information act, says that from January 2011 to June 2012, 955 women disappeared in the state — 60 percent of them were reportedly young girls between the age of 11 and 17.
David Mancera said that he believes more bodies have been found in Rio de los Remedios than officials care to admit.
"I've been told by paramedics, firemen, neighbors and local media that 46 bodies were found in the canal," Mancera said. "But the state attorney doesn't even want to acknowledge the 21 bodies."
It is essentially Martinez's word against that of the state government.
The coordinator for the National Citizen's Observatory on Femicide, Maria de La Luz Estrada, said the state government has lost all credibility in dealing with the issue.
"The state of Mexico has for a long time minimized the problem of violence towards women," Estrada said. "Even when we've gone to authorities with evidence, they've hidden the problem rather than dealing with it."
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A local construction worker, Jaime Amador Ambriz, said state authorities and investigators have done nothing to find his daughter, Fabiola Luquin Reyes, since she disappeared after leaving home for a job interview in January 2012.
"There's a lack of professionalism, a lack of willpower to do their job," Amador said. "We've had to conduct the investigations by ourselves with a private detective. We handed everything we found over to the state attorney's office but there still haven't been any advances made in the case, still no leads."
His story echoes that of many other parents of disappeared or murdered girls VICE News spoke to in the State of Mexico.
Maria de la Luz Estrada explained over the phone that increasing violence against women was first documented when the country's current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, was governor of the state.
According to Estrada, the endemic levels of femicide are a direct result of government negligence. "There is a lack of respect for women," she said. "There is corruption and impunity, and police are often the aggressors."
VICE News repeatedly requested an interview with a state government representative, but received no answer. What was found in Rio de los Remedios — which means the "river of remedies" — is likely to remain a contentious mystery, but it once again sheds light on the state's shortcomings in dealing with the violence afflicting its female population, and the lack of progress made in hundreds of investigations.
"The authorities have been denying the reality for so long that the situation has become too big for them to control," Estrada said. "They say the right things and spend money but nothing is resolved."
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Follow John Holman on Twitter: @Mexicorrespond