Four months after his daughter disappeared, Roberto Mora watched as workers pulled what appeared to be a skull from the muddy banks of a polluted canal on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Mora had been at the canal for hours — standing, arms crossed, face stony — waiting for any hopeful word at a place where he has been searching for his daughter Valeria.
He declined for the most part to talk to a VICE News crew who was also present, and instead watched a team of firemen and forensics investigators plunge backhoes to dredge the riverbed in search of 19-year-old Valeria, who had disappeared here in the Chalco Valley on Christmas Eve 2014.
The trash-clogged canal along the Remedios River runs through the eastern working-class neighborhoods of the State of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City on three sides. The state, with 15.1 million inhabitants overall, contains an enormous industrial and suburban sprawl that doubles the size of the population of metropolitan Mexico City.
It is home to an undetermined number of extremely violent killings of women that usually involve rape or mutilation, and are usually never solved. These crimes are called femicides under Mexican law, and by and large, they have gone unchecked in this state for more than two decades.
"Everyday you hear that a girl's body was found nearby, that another was kidnapped," Mora told VICE News weeks later. "You hear it and you hear it, and it just passes as if nothing. … Today people talk about it and tomorrow everyone forgets."
Mora reached out to us after his exasperation with the pace of the investigation into his daughter's disappearance. He described a code of silence and intimidation from authorities who are supposed to solve cases in the municipality of Chalco.
VICE News saw that attitude in action. At the canal, police and state authorities attempted to prevent our crew from filming the scene.
Later, the public prosecutor in Chalco turned down all our requests for interviews about the Mora case, and other murders or disappearances, as did authorities up and down the chain of command of public safety in the State of Mexico — including President Enrique Peña Nieto, the most recent former governor of the state.
Over the span of a year, in fact, all officials turned down our requests for information to help understand this epidemic of women killings in the State of Mexico, a sign of the deep indifference of authorities toward crimes that affect unknown numbers of women and girls in the country's most populous state.
Available figures on these crimes are incomplete and basically useless. Prosecutors do not publish specific figures on women murders, neither at the state nor federal level.
The National System of Public Safety gathers statistics provided by states to tally the most common crimes in Mexico, including murder. The data does not differentiate between female and male victims.
Another database, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, collects data from state registries and differentiates murders of women, but doesn't specify if the deaths are femicides. The National Databank on Violence Against Women marks a total of 12,950 cases of aggression against women in the State of Mexico since its started collecting data in 2012, without specifying if acts of violence resulted in murder.
What is known is that the State of Mexico has a rate of women murders that consistently surpasses the national median for a period 20 years, between 1990 and 2010, according to figures collected by investigative journalist Humberto Padgett, co-author of the 2014 book "Las Muertas del Estado."
In the absence of reliable figures from government agencies, Padgett and co-author Eduardo Loza cross-referenced multiple indexes related to the deaths of women, to deduct an alarming scenario that arguably makes "Edomex," as the state is also known, a flashpoint of femicide in the country.
"In the State of Mexico, this has been happening for years without attention from anyone," Padgett said. "The murders of 1,997 women during the term of someone who wanted to be a president is not normal," he added, referring to the Peña Nieto's 2005-2011 term as governor of the state, just before his election to the presidency.
Padgett's figure of 1,997 is almost five hundred homicides more than the twenty-year overall tally of women killings in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, which has been known internationally as Mexico's epicenter of femicide.
In absolute terms, at least 1,530 women were murdered in the border city from 1993 to 2014, according to Julia Monarrez, a researcher at Colegio de la Frontera in Ciudad Juarez.
Monarrez is known as a leader in efforts to keep unsolved female murders in the public eye, but warned that "a reliable figure will always be elusive in Mexico."
Padgett and Loza acquired state-level health ministry figures on women killed by "aggression," and compared those numbers to the populations of each state. They found that the state of Chihuahua (population 3.4 million overall), where Ciudad Juarez is located, had a consistently lower rate of women killings than the State of Mexico between 1993 and 2006.
For instance, 1.9 women were killed violently per 100,000 women in Chihuahua in 1993, the authors say, compared to a rate of 8.5 killed per 100,000 women that same year in Edomex. In 1994, the rate was 2.9 in Chihuahua and 7.8 in Edomex, and so on — 3.1 against 5.1 in 1999, 4.0 against 4.8 in 2000, 3.6 against 5.1 in 2005, and 3.6 against 3.7 in 2006.
The differential remains more or less consistent until the outbreak of intense drug-related warfare in Ciudad Juarez beginning in 2008, when all homicides shot up dramatically in Chihuahua and in Ciudad Juarez in particular, during the border town's dark period as the most violent city in the world.
Yet the lack of comprehensive data on women killings in Mexico is chronic. For example, Chihuahua does not count women killings with extreme violence differently than other murders, as the state still lacks rules on the subject.
Other factors further cloud understanding the problem's reach. "The State of Mexico is identified as a runway for human trafficking," said Maria de la Luz Estrada, director of the National Citizens Observatory on Femicide.
The role of human-trafficking in the killings of women remains under-examined, de la Luz added, and may account for unknown figures of kidnappings in the state. Some women disappear and are never seen again, and the bodies of women sometimes appear without ever being properly identified.
Since 2012, the term femicide entered Mexican federal law to distinguish the murder of a woman by a man as a hate crime.
To be considered a femicide, the victim of a homicide must show signs of sexual assault or mutilation, or have experienced a history of abuse, discrimination, or assault at the hands of her suspected killer.
In the years since, 16 states adopted related laws, including the State of Mexico, which even has a special prosecutor's office to tackle the issue.
However, the National Citizens Observatory on Femicide, or OCNF in Spanish, as well as numerous organizations and civil groups targeting the unsolved murders of women, say these laws and agencies remain inadequate in acquiring justice for victims.
In the meantime, the very use of the term "femicide" remains in dispute.
Critics of its use point out the vast majority of victims of homicide in Mexico are male. But experts point out that a femicide stems from hate related to the gender of the victim — and evidenced by corpses that are mutilated, show signs of torture or rape, or are found dumped in fields or canals.
Although Mexico has the toughest prison sentences against a person charged with femicide in Latin America — with incarceration terms considered stricter than in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, and Costa Rica — the prospect of a long sentence is apparently not a deterrent to end the femicide wave.
After all, crimes are rarely if ever investigated and punished in the country. In 2013, 93.8 percent of crimes were not prosecuted in Mexico, according to the 2014 National Survey on Public Security Perception.
Against the virtual total indifference of officials, independent groups have struggled to make the issue more visible in the State of Mexico, one victim at a time.
For more than a year, these groups have gathered to protest outside the Edomex statehouse in the capital of Toluca, to urge authorities to establish a protocol called a "Gender Alert," meant to force officials to give the killings of women in the State of Mexico the utmost priority.
Protesters hold photographs of their murdered or missing loved ones, and carry the pink crosses that became the international symbol for femicide in Ciudad Juarez, to press Edomex governor Eruviel Avila to receive and activate the Gender Alert.
Representatives of the OCNF have documented at least 600 cases in recent years that carry some characteristic of femicide, but which authorities in the State of Mexico have failed to investigate. Every time they've gathered at Toluca, the protesters are met by a low-ranking official, and the Gender Alert request is ignored.
We attempted unsuccessfully to get exact figures on femicide from the local prosecutor's office in Chalco, who was overseeing the case of Valeria Mora, as well as the state prosecutor, the governor's office, and even Mexico's presidency. None of the offices responded to repeated requests.
The hostility toward attending the crisis is arguably endemic. In April, the second-in-command to governor Avila, Jose Manzur Quiroga, said: "Is the State of Mexico the place with more crimes against women? Yes, but it is also where more women exist."
'Any woman in Mexico could be in my daughter's place.'
Parallel to our inquires, VICE News also submitted a freedom of information request to obtain the official figures on female murders in the State of Mexico in the last decade. After six months of legal wrangling, authorities handed over a three-page file — containing information already made public with the National System of Public Safety — with a tally of murders that didn't distinguish between female and male victims.
"That tally isn't even correct," said a former investigator in the State of Mexico forensics service. "They are hiding the real figures."
The source declined to be identified due to fears that he — or worse, his family — could face retribution for revealing damaging insider information about how Edomex handles homicide investigations.
The former investigator showed us unpublished photographs of state morgue labs, which showed bodies rotting with flies, or piled haphazardly into open refrigerators. He told us these conditions were commonplace.
The canal in Chalco where the team was excavating in search of Valeria Mora is one of several that feed into the longer Remedios River. In recent years, the canal has also served as a clandestine grave for murdered women. Locals refer to it as "a river of death."
The site made national news late last year when 7,000 bone fragments were recovered during a general dredge of 10 miles of the canal. Authorities denied that the finding was evidence of an ongoing massacre, saying that most of the remains belonged to animals.
But the head of the Edomex legislature's public security committee, Octavio Vargas, told VICE News the attorney general's office privately admitted that at least 16 women cadavers were recognized among those remains.
Few relatives of victims ever come close to achieving justice in their cases. Some have fought their way through Mexico's bureaucracy for years before seeing a satisfactory advancement, as the parents of Mariana Lima Buendia have done since 2010.
Lauro Lima and Irinea Buendia are convinced that their daughter Mariana Lima Buendia was killed in June 2010 by her then-husband, a judicial police officer in the State of Mexico, after repeated assaults and death threats.
Her case is detailed in Padgett's book, and examined by the VICE News documentary "The Murdered Women of the State of Mexico."
On March 25, the Lima Buendia family sat in a chamber of Mexico's Supreme Court for a hearing to appeal the local ruling on the case of their daughter's death. Edomex officials had ruled it a suicide. The Supreme Court that day ruled to reopen the investigation into the death of Mariana Lima Buendia, and ordered State of Mexico authorities to reexamine her death as a possible femicide.
The case, attorneys said, marked a precedent that will require all murders of women to be investigated as possible femicides.
"This is a step forward, where the Supreme Court is recognizing all the failures that the investigation had from the beginning," a teary eyed Buendia told VICE News as she left the chamber.
Julio Cesar Hernandez Ballinas, the police officer who called Irinea Buendia in June 2010 to tell her Mariana Lima Buendia had "hanged herself," has been suspended from his job and is under investigation, the Edomex prosecutor's office told VICE News earlier this month.
But Rodolfo Dominguez, the attorney representing the Buendias before the Supreme Court, said on Sunday that he's received conflicting information on the status of Hernandez Ballinas.
"Actually we don't know what have they have done to [Hernandez Ballinas]. We received contradictory versions," Dominguez said. "First they said that he was detained, but then they said he was suspended, and now they say that he is under investigation by the disciplinary body of the attorney general's office."
Irinea Buendia is now attending a new round of hearings in the State of Mexico, Dominguez added, and a special investigation team has been created for her daughter's case. Justice is still not a guarantee.
Back in Chalco, Roberto Mora, a construction worker, is still searching for his daughter.
In a strange twist, a month after the search at the riverbed, authorities called Mora to inform him that the skull they found did not belong to Valeria. They said it wasn't even a human skull, but a synthetic prop — although given the history of the Remedios River, the claim seemed dubious at best.
VICE News could not independently verify the account.
Now, more than six months since Valeria disappeared, Roberto Mora is fed up and increasingly desperate to find her. And while Irinea Buendia and Lauro Lima have climbed to the highest court in the country in the search for justice for their daughter, the case of Valeria Mora remains open and unsolved.
"Justice is all we want," Irinea Buendia said on the steps of the Supreme Court in March. "Any woman in Mexico could be in my daughter's place."
Follow Rafael Castillo on Twitter @_RCQuintero.