Veracruz: rape-murder case against soldiers dropped —as victims' children "disappear"

Veracruz state prosecutors have concluded that 73-year-old grandmother Ernestina Ascencio* wasn't raped or beaten by Mexican federal army soldiers but died of natural causes, spokesmen said at a news conference in the state capital, Xalapa. Juan Alatriste Gómez, a special prosecutor assigned to review the case, said there were no witnesses to the alleged crime and that an anal tear originally cited as evidence of an assault could have come from any number of "diverse reasons." State prosecutor Emetrio López, who filed the original charges against the soldiers, said he agreed with Alatriste's findings. The original investigators in the case have been suspended temporarily.

The office's initial findings in February backed a those of Mexico's independent National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), that Ascencio had died of internal bleeding. These conclusions were based on an autopsy and Ascencio's reported deathbed declaration that she was sodomized and beaten by four soldiers from a nearby army encampment.

The fidnings fueled weeks of news stories raising questions about President Felipe Calderón's commitment to human rights, and the army's presence in the Sierra Zongolica, where Ascencio's village of Soledad Atzompa is located. The outpost and two others were quickly dismantled, and the Defense Ministry pledged to track down her killers through semen samples. Subsequently, the CNDH exhumed Ascencio's body and reviewed their own investigation. Calderón stepped in to reveal the Commission's conclusion that Ascencio had died of natural causes days before the CNDH formally announced that the woman had succumbed to acute anemia caused by internal bleeding in her digestive tract.

Rights advocates accused CNDH president José Luis Soberanes of covering up for Calderón and the military. But Soberanes has remained firm, repeating before a congressional committee last week that his investigation had found that no evidence of rape, that semen samples didn't exist, and that the state's investigation was flawed. The CNDH even devoted a portion of its website to the case, posting Soberanes' statements, press releases and a 13-page document titled "Thirty Questions about the Case of Ernestina Ascencio." (Miami Herald, May 8)

While the Miami Herald implicitly accept that "the initial investigation into the case was botched," it fails to note the startling claim by reporter Blanche Petrich in the Mexican daily La Jornada one day earlier that the five grown children of Ernestina Ascensión—Marta, Carmen, Isabel, Francisco and Julio—have been "disappeared" for two weeks. Witnesses in their mountain community of Tetlaltzinga reported they were detained by a patrol of Veracruz state Auxiliary Police April 22. State authorities have released no information about their whereabouts.

Petrich also spoke to staff at the local clinic in the nearby community of Acultzingo, who said Ascensión had been healthy, denying that she had suffered from gastrointestinal problems. They also said federal health authorities had conficated her records from the clinic. (La Jornada, May 7)

*Note that the two accounts also give different spellings of the victim's last name, with La Jornada using the more common Ascensión.

See our last posts on Mexico, Veracruz and the Ernestina Ascensión case.