Two activists who had campaigned for justice and searched for the victims of forced disappearances were brutally murdered in Mexico’s troubled south this month.
Last Friday, 26-year-old Norma Angélica Bruno Román was shot dead in front of her three children at a cemetery in Iguala, the same city where 43 students were abducted by corrupt police officers last September.
She was a member of a citizen-led organization combing mass graves in this troubled area of Guerrero state in search of missing relatives.
Nine days earlier, Gustavo Salgado Delgado, a 32-year-old leader of the left-wing Popular Revolutionary Front (FPR), was decapitated in the neighboring state of Morelos.
He had campaigned on behalf of migrant farmers from southern Mexico and played an active role in local demonstrations demanding the safe return of the 43 students from the rural teacher training college in Ayotzinapa.
As the disappearance of the students has spurred a huge protest movement, the Mexican government has repeatedly sought to bury the case, while police officers have infiltrated marches and even threatened to rape, murder and incinerate demonstrators.
The culprits were not apprehended in either of the recent killings and it is not yet clear whether either victim was targeted because of their work. Still, the murders are further evidence of the dangers that activists face across Mexico, especially in the country’s lawless south.
Murdered woman had searched for missing cousin
Bruno and her children had just attended the funeral of José Ramón Bernabé Armenta – a young man who was shot in the back at a football pitch in Iguala only two days earlier – when she herself was shot at close range by two men riding a scooter.
She was an occasional member of the Committee of Relatives of Forced Disappearance Victims, a group of citizens who have spent months scouring the countryside around Iguala for missing family members.
Bruno, who reportedly made a living selling flowers, cards and small gifts, had been searching for her cousin, Ivette Melissa Flores Román, who has not been seen since she was abducted from her home in October 2012.
Citizens and officials have located and exhumed 48 corpses from mass graves in the area since November 23, although none of them belong to the 43 missing students.
Federal police have maintained control of Iguala since dozens of municipal police officers were arrested for kidnapping the students and handing them over to the local Guerreros Unidos drug cartel.
Bruno’s murder was widely condemned, but the situation was muddied by a report indicating that she was the wife of Luis Alberto José Gaspar, one of the suspects being held over the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa.
According to state records, both Bruno and her husband had worked for Guerreros Unidos as “halcones,” or “hawks,” who kept a lookout for rival gangs in Iguala.
Yet, given the doubts over the credibility of the investigation into the disappearance of the students, the veracity of those state records is not indisputable.
Beheaded activist defended rights of migrant farmers
Bruno’s death came barely a week after Salgado’s headless corpse was found near the town of Ayala, Morelos. His hands had also been cut off and his body showed signs of torture.
Salgado was abducted by armed men the previous day just after leaving an assembly in the village of El Chivatero. He had been working to defend the rights of migrant peasant farmers from Guerrero and Morelos who worked in the region.
Salgado had also participated in several demonstrations demanding the safe return of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa and he had planned to attend another protest on the day his body was found.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) denounced the murder and urged the Mexican authorities to “investigate and punish those responsible.”
It is not yet clear why he was killed but the Washington-based IACHR emphasized the importance of determining whether this murder “was committed in retaliation for the work carried out by Salgado Delgado.”
The FPR political party issued a statement blaming local and state authorities and accusing them of “constant surveillance and harassment” against Salgado in the months prior to his death.