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NMSU symposium focuses on violence against women, killings in Juarez

The recent slaying of Sergio Dante Almaraz Mora, gunned down in Juarez, Mexico, emphasizes again the depths that the violence in the borderlands has reached.

Men and women joined in a march across the border between Juarez and El Paso to seek justice for the slain and disappeared women of the borderland. (Photo courtesy of Irene Simmons.)

Scheduled to speak at a New Mexico State University symposium in March, his voice is now silenced, as are the voices of many who have chosen to speak out against the continued killings of women in Juarez and Chihuahua City. A lawyer, Mora was preparing to discuss issues of torture and human rights along the border at a three-day conference at NMSU on Justice for Women.

His voice would have been one of dozens gathering for this year's J. Paul Taylor Symposium on Social Justice with its focus on the deaths in Juarez and Chihuahua and the lack of a solution and justice for the disappeared.

"We hope to have a video of one of his final interviews," said Cynthia Bejarano, NMSU criminal justice professor and co-founder of Amigos de las Mujeres de Juarez, an advocacy group supporting women's right to justice. She is organizing the symposium under the guidance of Waded Cruzado-Salas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at NMSU.

The NMSU symposium is perhaps one of the largest gatherings of individuals concerned about the issues of violence, gender and the border in recent years. Scheduled for March 29-31, the NMSU J. Paul Taylor Symposium on Social Justice will focus an investigative spotlight on the decade-long killing spree. It will highlight the need for an end to violence and a resolution of the grisly slayings of more than 400 women and girls in Juárez and Chihuahua City.

"It's important to keep attention on the topic. Whenever there is international attention, advances are made in the investigation," said Bejarano, who has worked as an advocate for solution to the crimes since 1997.

Gathering experts and researchers from across the country and Mexico, Bejarano said the symposium offers attendees a chance to hear from the relatives of the slain women and from victims of torture believed to be related to the slayings. Forensic experts such as Oscar Maynez, former forensic chief of the Chihuahua state police, and Mercedes Doretti, of the Argentinean Forensic Anthropology Team, are among the participants as well.

Cynthia Kiecker and Ulises Perzabal, who served 18 months in a Chihuahua prison, will describe their imprisonment and the torture they suffered after being accused of one of the killings. They confessed under duress, Bejarano said, each being forced to listen to the other scream in an adjoining room.

Journalists who have covered the deaths will discuss their experiences and why they believe it's important to keep this story before the public eye. Noted reporter Diana Washington Valdez, whom the national media credits with keeping the story alive, will join participants at a kick-off press conference and reception on Wednesday, March 29.

"We don't have a badge and a gun to go out and arrest anybody, but we can reveal, and then it's out there," Washington Valdez said in an interview with "On The Media."

Her book, "Cosecha de Mujeres" was released in Spanish last fall and Washington Valdez is working on an updated version in English.

Later, on Friday, March 31, a panel of journalists will convene to discuss the public's right to know. The panel will include Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News and Cecili Balli of Texas Monthly. Two journalists from Juarez also will be on the panel.

Photos, films and readings add to the depth of the symposium, said Cruzado-Salas. It's important, she added, to have a complete view of the complexity of the issue and to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

A photo exhibit featuring the works of well-known border photojournalists Julian Cardona and Leonel Monroy will take place on Thursday, March 30. Lourdes Portillo, Rafael Montero and Patti Ravelo will discuss their films, which will be presented during the symposium.

A panel of relatives of three NMSU students who were victims of violence also will meet to discuss how violence against women has impacted the U.S. side of the border. The families of Katie Sepich, Carly Martinez and Autumn Castilleja will join Gladys De Necochea, Associate Provost for Student Affairs and Community Colleges, for a discussion on how violence has affected their lives. Sepich's death has led to legislation titled "Katie's Law" that requires DNA samples from adults arrested for certain felonies. While Martinez' murderer is on death row, the other slayings remain unsolved.

A candlelight vigil and a display of 400 pink crosses will be part of the opening ceremonies of the conference on Wednesday, March 29. For more information, call Jacqueline Porter at (505) 646-5282, or go to the symposium Web site: http://www.nmsu.edu/~artsci/jpt_symp/index.html.

Sponsors for this symposium are: NMSU President Michael V. Martin, Lannan Foundation, New Mexico Humanities Council, National Endowment for the Humanities, NMSU College of Arts and Sciences, Amigos de las Mujeres de Juarez, Amnesty International, V-Day, Alma D'Arte, Frontera Focus Women's Foundation, Peace and Justice Center, Dona Ana Branch Culinary Program, NMSU WAVE and NMSU Center for Latin American and Border Studies.