US teen killed in Juárez puts spotlight on Mexico's unsolved murders

Unresolved recent killings of a US missionary and a vacationing jet-skier raise questions about the ability of Mexico's weak judiciary to investigate the weekend shooting of a US teen.

By , Correspondent

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    This undated photo released on Monday by the Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas, shows Juan Carlos Echeverri, a former student at Cathedral High School. Echeverri, a US citizen, was killed along with two other teenagers by unknown gunmen outside of a car dealership in Juarez, Mexico on Saturday.
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At least one US citizen was among three teenagers fatally shot this weekend in the violent border city of Juárez, Mexican authorities confirmed today, in the latest case of Americans caught up in Mexico's drug war.

But bringing the perpetrators to justice may prove difficult for the US citizens involved, just as it has for the tens of thousands of Mexicans seeking justice from a weak judicial system often incapable of incarcerating organized criminals.

Local radio reported that gunmen approached the teens Saturday at a car dealership, demanding the name of the dealership’s owner and opening fire when the boys did not respond. “They were looking at cars at an auto lot when men came and fired at them. We are investigating whether they were the initial targets or not,” Chihuahua state prosecutors' spokesman Carlos Gonzalez told the Monitor.

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Despite reports that two of the teenagers were Americans, Mr. Gonzalez says only 15-year-old Juan Carlos Echeverri was a US citizen. He and 16-year-old Carlos Mario Gonzalez Bermudez both lived in Juárez and at various times commuted to El Paso to attend the all-boys Catholic Cathedral High School. The third teenager was Cesar Yalin Miramontes Jimenez, 17.

The US embassy in Mexico City today said it had yet to identify the teens' citizenship.

Complications in cross-border prosecutions

Americans have repeatedly fallen victim to Mexico's drug war, which has claimed 34,612 lives over the past four years. The latest killings come less than two weeks after 59-year-old US missionary Nancy Shuman Davis was shot in the border state of Tamaulipas by gunmen who tried to stop her and her husband in their car. She died in a Texas hospital.

A spokesman for the Tamaulipas state prosecutor’s office told the Monitor that US and Mexican investigators are working together to find the killers of Mrs. Davis. But because the death occurred on the US side of the border, the gunmen were being investigated in Mexico for discharging their weapons and not for murder.

Murky cross-border laws may prove another hindrance to bringing Davis’s killers to justice, as has happened in similar cases, legal and security experts say.

“When it’s this complicated, and it’s the state of Tamaulipas, it doesn’t bode well for justice,” says Joan Safford, a former Justice Department attaché at the US embassy in Mexico City.

American murders remain unsolved

Ms. Safford says that, according to both US and Mexican criminal responsibility and extradition laws, the gunmen can be investigated for murder on either side of the border. Mexican authorities just need to be creative about their prosecutorial methods, which Safford says does not often happen.

US victims of crimes in Mexico have an added hurdle to overcome as many of them flee the country without filing police reports or sticking around to exert pressure on authorities – sometimes the only way investigations continue apace, Safford says.

For example, an investigation into the alleged September shooting of David Hartley, who was riding a jet ski with his wife at Falcon Lake – which straddles both Texas and Tamaulipas – has not registered any advances. Tiffany Hartley refused to enter Tamaulipas to file a report on her husband's death and instead did so from a consulate in Texas. The decapitation of the chief investigator in the case only seemed to decrease the likelihood that the murder would be resolved.

But at the same time, Mexico and the US have also used cross-border legal complications to their benefit, says Javier Oliva, security expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. In June and November, US Border Patrol agents allegedly shot and killed teens on the Mexican side of the border. Mexico has demanded the shootings be treated as excessive use of force, while the US said its agents were defending themselves.

The killings in Juárez are part of a growing number of youth caught in the cross fires of the drug war, which has now affected US children as well. The UN Committee on the Rights of Children released a report Friday expressing “great concern” at the deaths in Mexico of approximately 1,000 children in drug-related violence over the last four years.

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