This petition was filed on behalf of the family members of three women, two of them minors, who disappeared in apparent abductions and murders, whose bodies were found in a cotton field, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in 2001. Central to the allegations that these constituted human rights violations for which the state was responsible was the context of increased femicide since 1993, endemic gender discrimination and violence, including murders and abductions, in the region of Ciudad Juarez, for which the State had failed to take adequate measures to address and ensure adequate investigation and punishment. In the three instances in this case, the State had initially ignored reports by family members of the victims’ disappearances, delayed in and failed to adequately conduct searches, and, upon discovery of the victims’ bodies, failed to conduct an adequate investigation because of the existence gender stereotyping in state practice. It was alleged that such comprehensive and egregious failures violated the victims’ and family members’ rights to respect for and legal protection of life, personal liberty, humane treatment, judicial protection and due process under the American Convention on Human Rights (“American Convention”) and, given the nature and context of the crimes, violated the states’ obligation to exercise due diligence and adopt adequate legal measures to prevent, investigate, and punish acts of violence against women, under the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, most known as “Convention of Belem do Para”.
The State partially acknowledged its failure to comply with the American Convention under Articles 8 (right to a fair trial), 25 (right to judicial protection) and 5 (right to humane treatment) due to acknowledged irregularities in its initial investigation of the disappearances, but claimed that it had not violated other treaty provisions, as it had taken adequate measures to prevent and address acts of gender-based violence. The State further noted that no state agents had participated in the violence and pointed to actions to promote the rights of women and children in the region (including, for example, measures to address domestic violence and alcoholism and to promote women in the workplace).
The Court determined that the claims should be divided into two time periods—regarding the State’s actions before the victims’ disappearances and its actions after it became aware of the disappearances. The Court found that, the state was responsible for a general failure to prevent acts of violence against women, but in the absence of evidence that the State had specific information regarding a risk to the victims, the State had not violated its obligations to prevent the specific acts in this case. With respect to after reports of disappearances from the victims’ family members, the Court found that the State had failed to exercise due diligence and provide a legal framework to ensure due diligence in investigating the disappearances, a failure which was clear in light of the context of gender violence in which the disappearances had occurred. The Court found that the State’s failure to promptly investigate the disappearances and its lack of an adequate response had violated its obligations to guarantee to the victims the rights provided under articles 4 (right to life), 5 (right to humane treatment), and 7 (right to liberty) of the American Convention and its duties under article 7 of the Convention of Belem do Para, which requires states to establish a legal framework for addressing and exercising due diligence in investigation violence against women.
The Court highlighted numerous irregularities and delays in the investigation by police and the coroner as well as the failure of the State to provide adequate investigative resources to local authorities, to escalate the investigation in light of the lack of such resources, and to punish public official implicated in the investigation’s irregularities. The Court further noted the State had violated its duty to guarantee the rights of children under article 19 of the American Convention, as two of the victims were minors. The State had also violated the rights of family members to humane treatment under article 5 of the American Convention and to honor and dignity under article 11 through local authorities’ callous response to their reports, inadequate investigation, denial of access to the case record, and incidents of harassment of family members following up on the investigation.
The Court ordered the State to:
• Conduct a criminal investigation and proceeding into the victims’ murders, taking into account evidence of sexual violence and the context of violence against women in which the events occurred; provide adequate resources to conduct the investigations; and publish the reports for public review.
• Investigate the irregularities that occurred in the investigation and investigate and punish alleged harassment of family members by local authorities.
• Publicly acknowledge its responsibility for the violations at issue in the judgment and erect a memorial in memory of victims of gender based violence.
• Continue standardizing its protocols and processes for responding to, investigating and punishing acts of gender violence; conduct a public investigation into pending cases of disappearances in the region and publish a report on such investigation within three years; and create a web page (within six months) and a database (within one year), to be updated regularly, providing information relating to disappearances of women in the region.
• Implement permanent education and training programs and courses for public officials on human rights and gender and on ensuring due diligence in inquiries and judicial proceedings regarding gender discrimination and violence and implement public education on gender discrimination and violence.
• Provide relevant medical and psychological treatment free of charge to victims’ family members; and pay reparations to victims’ families as set out in the judgment.
Concurrence of J. Diego Garcia-Sayan
Noting the scale and severity of gender discrimination and violence in Mexico and globally, J. Garcia-Sayan reiterated that States have a positive duty to guarantee the rights provided under the Convention and other international human rights instruments. Acknowledging the difficulty of protecting individuals from all human rights violations arising from purely private conduct, the judge nevertheless noted that the State must be held accountable when the criteria established in the Court’s case law had been met—namely, (1) the state had an “awareness of a situation of real and imminent danger” relating to (2) a specific individual or group of individuals, and (3) “reasonable possibilities of preventing or avoiding that danger.”
Concurrence of J. Cecilia Medina Quiroga
While concurring with the Court’s judgment that the case had involved a violation of Convention article 5(2) (regarding human treatment), the judge believed the Court should have held that the violence at issued constituted torture under the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture (“CIPST”) and the State therefore violated its duty under article 3 of the CIPST to prevent torture. The judge invoked specifically the definition of torture set out in the Court’s decision in Bueno Alves v. Argentina, according to which an act constitutes torture if it (a) is intentional, (b) causes severe physical or mental suffering, and (c) is committed with a specific goal or purpose. The judge argued that the nature of the violence at issue in the case, and its sources in gender discrimination and misogynistic attitudes towards women, may put the acts within such definition. The judge noted that it is important to distinguish an act as torture as it carries a greater stigma than other acts in violation of Convention Article 5.
This decision is especially notable because it is the first case in the Inter-American human rights system that outlines the specific protocol to follow when investigating a death caused by sexual violence. This decision also states that the presence of gender stereotypes jeopardizes women’s rights to access to justice. The decision is also crucial for the Inter-American System of Human Rights, and for the protection of the rights of women, because it established a precedent whereby the Inter-American Court stated that it is competent to analyze violations of the Convention of Belem do Para.